A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review



Ghost Hunters - William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death

by Deborah Blum


Blum should have called this book Gullible Travels: Ghost Stories for the Faith-based Inquirer.

Written like a historical novel, complete with descriptions of citrine skies and references to various items of historical interest, Blum's book is a herky-jerky ride from one unbelievable tale to another, many of them involving alleged mediums Leonora Piper (1857-1950) or Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918). The ghost stories are woven around the life of William James (1842-1910), a sympathetic ghost chaser, and a bevy of other scientists who took time off from their important work in physics, chemistry, and other useful fields to dabble in the study of spirit communication via mediums in séances. While Blum does mention a few skeptics and often refers to frauds, she makes it clear that she sides with the believers who maintain that even though most of the stories are bunk, there is a core (5% is a number thrown out from the misty halls of this nebulous science) that are convincing to a core of investigators. James knew that many mediums used trickery and were not genuine, but he called Mrs. Piper his "white crow," the single instance that disproves the universal generalization that all mediums are fake, which thereby supports the hypothesis that the supernatural is real. James recognized that, as Richard Hodgson put it, "nearly all professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters who are more or less in league with one another" (p. 117). James rationalized the fraud as due to human nature: all human enterprises contain some fraud (p. 312).

Blum is an accomplished writer, but even though her sentences and paragraphs flow with ease and intelligence, the overall structure of her work doesn't flow so easily and is disjointed as she flits from séance room to letters to discussions among the spirit scientists. One thing lacking throughout the book is any attempt to understand why almost all the mediums were women. (I think we know why the scientists were men.) Mediumship provided an outlet for the creative energy and intelligence of many women that was not available to them in the various professions open to men. It also provided some women with incomes and fame, while providing others with opportunities to interact with and control men of distinction like William James, Richard Hodgson, Sir William Fletcher Barrett, Charles Richet, Alfred Russel Wallace, and other renowned gentlemen.

The other side of this tale involves the ease with which these distinguished gentlemen allowed themselves to be duped by so many female conjurers. Perhaps it is dangerous for a female writer to accuse many members of her gender of being deceivers and manipulators, but it is not risky to note that men love to be deceived by women...and by other men...and by children. But men especially love to be deceived by women. In the course of doing their psychical research, these distinguished men got to spend a lot of time in dark rooms with women who were not their wives, all in the name of science. Blum is frank in her discussions of chemist Sir William Crookes (1832-1919) and his sexual involvement with Florence Cook and the romantic intoxication of Frederick Myers with the ghost of Annie Marshall. Pallidora's sexually charged exhibitions and encounters are also described by Blum (p. 238), including Richet's repeated testing of the Italian's abilities. No mention, however, is made of Richet's testing of Eva C, who sometimes performed in the nude and required gynecological examinations by sitters to demonstrate her purity of heart. The sexuality of the séances is treated as an aberration, however, rather than as a symptom. It's obvious that there is something sexual about holding hands and playing footsie with ladies in dark rooms, especially ladies who have often been tied up and examined by their male sitters. One medium allegedly painted her breast to resemble a baby's face "and pushed it out between cabinet curtains to be kissed" (p. 176). Others "materialized" lips and kissed male participants (pp. 56-57). Many were known to conceal apports or ectoplasm in their underwear (p. 61) or in other unspeakable places. The women allowed themselves to be "hogtied by investigating scientists" (p. 240). As Dean Radin might say: even the skeptic must admit that something interesting was going on!

In any case, I bought the book soon after it was published, hoping to read about how a great mind like that of William James was duped by the likes of Leonora Piper. I hoped for some sort of explanation of the gullibility of James and other eminent men regarding stories of spirits or telepathic communication. What was it about James that led him to accept such rubbish as that spirits might be communicating to the unconscious mind, expressed via automatic writing? How did he and so many other eminent scientists allow themselves to be duped?  Why do most scientists reject spiritualism as superstition? My hope for answers to these questions was dashed because these were not questions Blum would ask. My hope was based on having read many of Blum's science articles when she wrote for The Sacramento Bee. She was an excellent science writer and seemed to approach her subjects with a critical and skeptical eye. After reading the opening ghost story in the book, however, I realized that this was not going to be the kind of book I'd hoped for. I then read the acknowledgements section in the back of the book. Blum is now a journalism instructor in Wisconsin. She claims that working on this book changed her. Instead of being skeptical of ghost stories, she says she is now less smug and less positive of her rightness about these stories being, well, stories.  Anyway, I read the first couple of chapters and then set the book aside for about six months before finishing it. I will say that she knows how to pick good stories to tell. The reader with little knowledge of the history of psychical research may find the sum of her stories convincing that there is some sort of ghostly survival after death.

Of course, the obvious driving force behind psychical research is to find some proof of life after death. Why, however, do men like William James find immortality not just appealing but necessary to give their lives meaning, while others, like Thomas Edison, "cannot see any use of a future life"? Still others seem to think the afterlife is a matter for faith, not science.

Why do some think it valuable to collect ghost stories, while others like Charles Peirce recognize that to do so is to confirm one's bias because "people are more likely to forget dreams or hallucinations that don't coincide with death" (p. 129).

Why do most scientists think that psychical research is rubbish? Is it the case, as James and his ilk think, that the researchers are open-minded, while the rest of the scientific community is closed-minded? Are the researchers gullible folks, driven more by wishful thinking than by objective, rational thinking? Are most scientists simply ignorant of the great work being done by the psi scientists? To the last question, we can say that most scientists and critics of the paranormal are ignorant of the specific research projects of the spirit scientists, but they are aware of the fact that if anything of value had ever been discovered by any psi researcher, the world would know of it by now. James may have found his white crow but that bird won't fly in most neighborhoods. Mrs. Piper may not have been exposed as a fraud, but that shouldn't prohibit some speculation as to how she might have duped herself and William James into thinking she was getting messages from a Frenchman who had been dead since 1860. Was she getting information from her husband, her servant, friends or servants of the Jameses and their friends? Was she taking advantage of the human tendency to find meaning in utterances that have no specific intention, except to serve as bait? Subjective validation is a fascinating human ability. I recently read an article about a psychic that included the psychic telling the interviewer: "I see a picture of your womb. I don’t mean to be cheeky, but are you trying for another baby? I see activity with the ovaries. Are there fertility issues?" There is no limit to the number of connections a person might make with such utterances. Remember, you can find the connection in the past, the present, or the future. The connection can be literal or symbolic. You can even extend the picture to someone else's womb or someone else who is trying to have a baby. Ovarian cancer would count as a hit, yours or that of someone close to you. "Fertility issues" covers a wide range of issues that might be connected. Desires or fears, as well as actual events could count as hits. The stomach might count or any body part connected with intercourse or reproduction. In this case, the interviewer found a connection to the fact that her nine-month-old twins were the result of in vitro fertilization.* When such stories get collected by zealous advocates of the spirit world, they often get twisted around. The report might note that the psychic knew things that she couldn't possibly have known. The story then finds its way to a book where the psychic has visions of twins produced by in vitro fertilization and the reader is awed by the improbability of such a vision being mere coincidence.

The reader will not get the impression that Blum devoted much of her research time to subjects like deception, self-deception, confirmation bias, cold reading, or subjective validation. There is one oblique reference to subjective validation. She notes that G. Stanley Hall, "president of Clark University, an ASPR [American Society for Psychical Research] dropout, and for many years an outspoken critic of psychical research" concluded that people found meaning in Mrs. Piper's utterances "because they wanted to find it" (pp. 303-305). Blum doesn't ignore the fakes or the skeptical scientists. She notes that James recognized that "the potential for fraud appeared infinite" (p. 311). The skeptics and the exposed fakes (such as Madame Blavatsky) are given coverage in her book, but she offers very little skeptical criticism of the stories she repeats, preferring to let the reader assume there is no good rational explanation for at least some of the stories. She doesn't ignore the fact that most scientists rejected the work of the Society for Psychical Research and its American counterpart (as they still do), but she gives the impression that the scientific community is closed-minded for not giving more support to psychical research. The implication of this notion is that we should be encouraging people like Gary Schwartz to continue his ridiculous research. For that reason, I can't recommend Blum's book.

[new] Another reason I can't recommend Blum's book is her dismissive tone with regard to Dr. Amy Tanner's account of the six Piper sittings attended by Tanner and her mentor G. Stanley Hall. Both Tanner and Hall offer multiple possibilities to explain what was observed. It is obvious from Hall's tone that several of the possibilities he notes are intended facetiously. He had thrown out a lot of false information to Mrs. Piper who then fed the false information back as if it were true and coming from the ghost of Hodgson. Perhaps Hodgson was really there, opines Hall, but his ghost was getting senile and was full of false memories. Hall and Tanner concluded that despite the kind nature of Mrs. Piper, she was probably deluded and occasionally stooped to fraud. Blum dismisses their accounts, saying that Tanner "in her way" was raising the possibility of the decline effect. I would agree as long as Blum would agree that "in her way" means "offered as a logical possibility not to be taken seriously."

Blum dismisses G. Stanley Hall as "one of the more disgruntled former members of the ASPR [American Society for Psychical Research]." Hall was the first president of the American Psychological Association and the first president of Clark University (Worcester, Massachusetts). He was "disgruntled" because the investigations were sloppy and incompetent, aimed at proving survival of death rather than serious investigation into what might really be going on in séances, trance states, automatic writing, etc., where there might be some valuable psychological data to be mined. [/new]

April 6, 2007

See also Anthony Gottlieb's review (New York Times), and Paul Collin's review (San Francisco Chronicle).

further (skeptical) reading

Christopher, Milbourne. (1975). Mediums, Mystics & the Occult. Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Gardner, Martin. (1992). Communicating with the dead: William James and Mrs. Piper. Free Inquiry, part 1 (spring), 20-27; part 2 (summer), 34-48.

The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein, Ph.D. (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1996). See also my review of this work.

Tanner, Amy. 1910. Studies in Spiritism. reprinted by Prometheus Books, Inc., 1994.

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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