THE most famous of recent thorough automatists, or trance speaking and trance writing mediums, is undoubtedly Mrs. Piper of Boston, U.S.A. With her an enormous amount of work has been done; and the Proceedings of the Society, both in the past and in future years, will bear witness to the richness and fertility of this case, as well as to the industry with which it has been pursued and its various stages studied. To give anything like a full account of even my own work in this direction - the merest fraction of the whole-would need much more space than it would be wise to expend on it in this book, so I shall select only such small portions as will give some idea of what happens, and refer students who wish to pursue the matter further to the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.
As a prelude to the Report on the 1890 English series of sittings, which were the first that the Society published, Mr. Myers at that time wrote an Introduction from which I will make a few extracts, because they illustrate the kind of view which that experienced investigator at that time took of these in some respects novel phenomena.
Frederick W. H. Myers's Early Testimony
"On certain external or preliminary points, all who have had adequate opportunity of judgment, are decisively agreed; but on the more delicate and interesting question as to the origin of the trance-utterances we cannot unite in any absolute view. We agree only in maintaining that the utterances show that knowledge has been acquired by some intelligence in some supernormal fashion;- and in urging on experimental psychologists the duty of watching for similar cases, and of analysing the results in some such way as we have endeavoured to do.
"The study of trance-utterances, indeed, is at first sight distasteful; since real and pretended trance-utterances have notoriously been the vehicle of much conscious and unconscious fraud. But we urge that, just as the physical and psychical phenomena of hysteria - long neglected as a mere jungle of trickeries - are now analysed with adequate security against deception, and with most fruitful results, so also these utterances are now capable of being rationally studied, - thanks to the advance in the comprehension of automatic phenomena which French and English effort during the last few years has achieved.
"These utterances, although they often occur in hysterical subjects, seem to have no necessary connection with hysteria. Nor again have we any real ground for calling them morbid per se, although their excessive repetition may lead to morbid states. All that we can safely say is that they are a form of automatism; that they constitute one of many classes of phenomena which occur in sane subjects without entering the normal waking consciousness or forming part of the habitual chain of memory.
"In previous discussions automatism has been divided into active and passive types; active automatism consisting of such phenomena as automatic writing and trance-utterance - passive, of hallucinations of sight, hearing, etc. 'The automatism may be called active if it finds a motor channel, passive if it finds a sensory channel, but the impulse whence it originates may be much the same in the one case as in the other.'
"The unsubstantial character of trance-utterances in general is fully admitted. 'Trance-addresses are eminently barren of fact; they generally show little more than a mere power of improvisation, which may either be fraudulently practised, or may be a characteristic faculty of the unconscious self.'
"When, therefore, we were informed by trusted witnesses, - by Professor William James, who is a physician as well as a psychologist and by Mr. Hodgson, whose acumen in the detection of imposture has been proved in more fields than one, - that the utterances of Mrs. Piper's trance did in their view unquestionably contain facts of which Mrs. Piper in her waking state was wholly ignorant, some inquiry into the character of this trance seemed to fall in the direct line of our work.
"However the specific trance-utterances may be interpreted, the case as a whole is a rare and remarkable one. It is an instance of automatism of that extreme kind where the upheaval of sub-conscious strata is not merely local, but affects, so to say, the whole psychical area;- where a secondary consciousness not only crops up here and there through the primary, but for a time displaces it;- where, in short, the whole personality appears to suffer intermittent change.
"These trances cannot always be induced at pleasure. A state of quiet expectancy or 'self-suggestion' will usually bring one on; but sometimes the attempt altogether fails. We never attempted to induce the trance by hypnotism. We understand, indeed, that Mrs. Piper has never been deeply hypnotised, although Professor Richet tried on her some experiments of suggestion in the waking state, and found her somewhat 'suggestible'. On the other hand, the trance has occasionally appeared when it was not desired. The first time that it occurred (as Mrs. Piper informs us) it came as an unwelcome surprise. An instance of this kind occurred at Cambridge Before going to bed she had, at my request, says Mr. Myers, and for the first time in her life, been looking into a crystal, with the desire to see therein some hallucinatory figure which might throw light on the nature of the mysterious secondary personality. She saw nothing; but next morning she looked exhausted, and said that she thought that she had been entranced during the night. The next time that she went into a trance Phinuit (which is the name she used to be known by when in the trance) said lie had come and called, and no one had answered him. It appeared as though the concentration of thought upon the crystal had acted as a kind of self-suggestion, and had induced the secondary state, when not desired.
"The trance when induced generally lasted about an hour. On one occasion in my house, and I believe once at least in America, it only lasted for about a minute. Phinuit only had time to say that he could not remain, and then the habitual moaning began, and Mrs. Piper came to herself.
"There was often a marked difference between the first few minutes of a trance and the remaining time. On such occasions almost all that was of value would be told in the first few minutes; and the remaining talk would consist of vague generalities or mere repetitions of what had already been given. Phinuit, as will be seen, always professed himself to be a spirit communicating with spirits; and he used to say that he remembered their messages for a few minutes after I entering into the medium, and then became confused. He was not, however, apparently able to depart when his budget of facts was empty. There seemed to be some irresponsible letting-off of energy which must continue until the original impulse was lost in incoherence."
Mrs. Piper's case has been more or less continuously observed by Professor William James and others almost from the date of the first sudden inception of the trance, some twenty-five years ago. Dr. Hodgson was in the habit of bringing acquaintances of his own to Mrs. Piper, without giving their names; and many of these have heard from the trance-utterance facts about their dead relations, etc., which they feel sure that Mrs. Piper could not have known. Dr. Hodgson also had Mr. and Mrs. Piper watched or "shadowed" by private detectives for some weeks, with the view of discovering whether Mr. Piper (at that time alive and employed in a large store in Boston, U.S.A.) went about inquiring into the affairs of possible "sitters," or whether Mrs.. Piper received letters from friends or agents conveying information. This inquiry was pushed pretty closely, but absolutely nothing was discovered which could throw suspicion on Mrs. Piper, - who is now aware of the procedure, but has the good sense to recognise the legitimacy - I may say the scientific necessity of this kind of probation.
It was thus shown that Mrs. Piper made no discoverable attempt to acquire knowledge even about persons whose coming she had reason to expect. Still less could she have been aware of the private concerns of persons brought anonymously to her house at Dr. Hodgson's choice.
"We took great pains," continues Mr. Myers, "to avoid giving information in talk; and a more complete security is to be found in the fact that we were ourselves ignorant of many of the facts given as to our friends' relations, etc. In the case of Mrs. Verrall, for instance, no one in Cambridge except Mrs. Verrall herself could have supplied the bulk of the information given; and some of the facts given Mrs. Verrall herself did not know. As regards my own affairs, says Mr. Myers, I have not thought it worth while to cite in extenso such statements as might possibly have been got up beforehand; since Mrs. Piper of course know that I should be one of her sitters. Such facts as that I once had an aunt, 'Cordelia Marshall, more commonly called Corrie,' might have been learnt, - though I do not think that they were learnt, - from printed or other sources. But I do not think that any larger proportion of such accessible facts was given to me than to an average sitter, previously unknown; nor were there any of those subtler points which could so easily have been made by dint of scrutiny of my books or papers. On the other band, in my case, as in the case of several other sitters, there were messages purporting to come from a friend who has been dead many years, and mentioning circumstances which I believe that it would have been quite impossible for Mrs. Piper to have discovered.
"I am also acquainted with some of the facts given to other sitters, and suppressed as too intimate, or as involving secrets not the property of the sitter alone. I may say that so far as my own personal conviction goes, the utterance of one or two of these facts is even more conclusive of supernormal knowledge than the correct statement of dozens of names of relations, etc., which the sitter had no personal motive for concealing.
"On the whole, I believe that all observers, both in America and in England, who have seen enough of Mrs. Piper in both states to be able to form a judgment, will agree in affirming (1) that many of the facts given could not have been learnt even by a skilled detective; (2) that to learn others of them, although possible, would have needed an expenditure of money as well as of time which it seems impossible to suppose that Mrs. Piper could have met; and (3) that her conduct has never given any ground whatever for supposing her capable of fraud or trickery. Few persons have, been so long and so carefully observed; and she has left on all observers the impression of thorough uprightness, candour, and honesty."