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Leonora Piper (1857–1950)
Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know. --Leonora Piper, 1901*
Mrs. Leonora Piper was the most renowned medium in America during the late 19th and early 20th century. At 22 years of age she married William Piper of Boston. Soon after this she went to consult Dr. J. R. Cocke, a blind professional clairvoyant who was attracting considerable attention by his medical diagnoses and cures.
At one of her first meetings with Cocke, Piper went into a trance and did some automatic writing. She handed her message to Judge Frost of Cambridge. He determined that the message was from his dead son. Piper's career as a medium was now in high gear. Her fame rose considerably when the mother-in-law of William James came in for a reading. This was shortly after James's son had died. He went to see Mrs. Piper himself and became convinced of her powers to connect with the dead. For eighteen months, James controlled all séance arrangements with Mrs. Piper. In 1890 he wrote:
...taking everything that I know of Mrs. Piper into account, the result is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state, and that the definite philosophy of her trances is yet to be found.
When James came on board, Piper was channeling the spirit of "Finny" (Phinuit), a French doctor who died in 1860. No evidence of his actual existence has ever been established. Piper channeled numerous spirits, including an Indian girl named Chlorine, Commodore Vanderbilt, Longfellow, Lorette Penchini, J. Sebastian Bach, Mrs. Siddons, the actress, and George Pellew (George Pelham). In 1897 the Imperator group took charge of the séance proceedings. Phinuit disappeared and Pelham became relegated to the role of a minor communicator.
For more than twenty-five years Mrs. Piper was investigated by many of the "keenest men of science in England" and the U.S. She was famous for her séances, which typically involved her going into a trance and channeling a spirit through her writing hand or her voice. She found supporters not only in William James (1842-1910), but in Richard Hodgson (1855-1905), Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), and Dr. James Hyslop (1854-1920).
The scientists who studied Mrs. Piper were rather simpleminded in their approach. They limited themselves to trying to detect her in fraud. When they could not find any fraud, they declared her authentic, i.e., actually channeling spirits. The investigators had no knowledge of subjective validation, the process by which we strive to give meaning and find personal significance in meaningless and impersonal information.
It is worth noting that the six sessions attended by G. Stanley Hall and Amy Tanner are generally ignored by those who look to Mrs. Piper as conclusive proof of the existence of spirits. Hall and Tanner offered a naturalistic explanation of Piper's "powers." Their explanation was in terms of the subconscious mind harboring various personalities that were being passed on as spirits or controls. While it may be true that Piper subconsciously absorbed much information that she later regurgitated as messages from spirits, it is also the case that much of what she produced was gibberish or false. Hall fed her much misinformation, which she fed back as if coming from Hodgson or other spirits. Clearly, something other than spirit communication was going on. Believers in spirits, however, would not budge. Piper was their "white crow," i.e., the true medium who proved false the claim that all mediums are frauds.
Hall and Tanner argued, to little avail, that the desire for immortality blinded most psychic researchers to the folly of their methods and conclusions. They would let contradictions slide and accept the flimsiest of ad hoc explanations, e.g., Phinuit's contradictions were allowed to pass because he claimed deafness and misunderstood something. Even William James allowed the alleged Frenchman's inability to speak or write French to pass without noting the obvious flaw in this picture. The historical evidence is on the side of Tanner and Hall regarding the incompetence of accomplished scientists to detect fraud among the psychics, even among children claiming to be psychic or telekinetic. Tanner and Hall also attributed the sloppy methodology of psychic researchers to the fact that most of them were trying to prove spirits exist after death, rather than let the evidence take them wherever it might. Thus, most researchers, even if aware of psychological explanations for what they observed (such as the secondary personality hypothesis) were too quick to dismiss alternatives to their beloved disembodied spirit hypothesis.
In actual fact, Piper was not a fraud, at least not most of the time. But she was most likely not in touch with spirits, either. She produced a number of claims that others validated as meaningful to them and as coming from the spirit world. Had psychologists at that time an understanding of subjective validation and the power of irrational subconscious desires, it is unlikely Piper would hold such a high place in the history of psychic phenomena.
See also A Short History of Psi Research, my review of Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, my review of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Proof of Psychic Phenomena, my review of Dean Radin's Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality, and my review of Charles Tart's The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.
books and articles
Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries by Martin Gardner, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003, Chapter 30, How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James, pages 252-262.
The Night Is Large by Martin Gardner, St. Martin's Press, 1996, Chapter 20, William James and Mrs. Piper, pages 213-243
SurvivalAfterDeath.org biography of Mrs. Piper.
Last updated 24-Sep-2011