Book: "The Survival of Man"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- Section Four -

Automatism and Lucidity

Chapter 14

Professor William James's Testimony to Mrs. Piper


          ALTHOUGH Mrs. Piper was brought by the Society to England in the autumn of 1889, she was of course known to members of the Society in America before then and, so far as we were concerned, may be said have been "discovered" by Professor William James in 1885. His early experience of her sittings, and his testimony as to the way in which his initial scepticism was broken down, are very interesting; and I shall here make a few quotations from a short paper of his which was included in the Proceedings of the Society along with my first Report of the Piper Case.

Professor William James's Statement

"I made Mrs. Piper's acquaintance in the autumn of 1885. My wife's mother, Mrs. Gibbens, had been told of her by a friend, during the previous summer, and, never having seen a medium before, had paid her a visit out of curiosity. She returned with the statement that Mrs. P. had given her a long string of names of members of the family, mostly Christian names, together with facts about the persons mentioned and their relations to each other, the knowledge of which on her part was incomprehensible without supernormal powers. My sister-in-law went the next day, with still better results, as she related them. Amongst other things, the medium had accurately described the circumstances of the writer of a letter which she held against her forehead, after Miss G. had given it to her. The letter was in Italian, and its writer was known to but two persons in this country.

"I may add that on a later occasion my wife and I took another letter from this same person to Mrs. P., who went on to speak of him in a way which identified him unmistakably again. On a third occasion, two years later, my sister-in-law and I being again with Mrs. R, she reverted in her trance to these letters, and then gave us the writer's name, which she said she had not been able to get on the former occasion.

"But to revert to the beginning. I remember playing the esprit fort on that occasion before my feminine relatives, and seeking to explain by simple considerations the marvellous character of the facts which they brought back. This did not, however, prevent me from going myself a few days later, in company with my wife, to get a direct personal impression. The names of none of us up to this meeting had been announced to Mrs. P.; and Mrs. J. and I were, of course, careful to make no reference to our relatives who had proceeded. The medium, however, when entranced, repeated most of the names of 'spirits' whom she had announced on the two former occasions, and added others. The names came with difficulty, and were only gradually made perfect. My wife's father's name of Gibbens was announced first as Niblin, then as Giblin. A child Herman (whom we had lost the previous year) had his name spelt out as Herrin. I think that in no case were both Christian and surnames given on this visit. But the facts predicated of the persons named made it in many instances impossible not to recognise the particular individuals who were talked about. We took particular pains on this occasion to give the Phinuit control no help over his difficulties and to ask no leading questions. In the light of subsequent experience I believe this not to be the best policy. For it often happens, if you give this trance-personage a name or some small fact for the lack of which he is brought to a standstill, that he will then start off with a copious flow of additional talk, containing in itself an abundance of 'tests'.

"My impression after this first visit was, that Mrs. P. was either possessed of supernormal powers, or knew the members of my wife's family by sight and had by some lucky coincidence become acquainted with such a multitude of their domestic circumstances as to produce the startling impression which she did. My later knowledge of her sittings and personal acquaintance with her has led me absolutely to reject the latter explanation, and to believe that she has supernormal powers.

"I also made during this winter an attempt to see whether Mrs. Piper's medium-trance had any community of nature with ordinary hypnotic trance.

"My first two attempts to hypnotise her were unsuccessful. Between the second time and the third, I suggested to her 'control' in the medium-trance that he should make her a mesmeric subject for me. He agreed. (A suggestion of this sort made by the operator in one hypnotic trance would probably have some effect on the next.) She became partially hypnotised on the third trial; but the effect was so slight that I ascribe it rather to the effect of repetition than to the suggestion made. By the fifth trial she had become a pretty good hypnotic subject, as far as muscular phenomena and automatic imitations of speech and gesture go; but I could not affect her consciousness, or otherwise get her beyond this point. Her condition in this semi-hypnosis is very different from her medium-trance. The latter is characterised by great muscular unrest, even her ears moving vigorously in a way impossible to her in her waking state. But in hypnosis her muscular relaxation and weakness are extreme. She often makes several efforts to speak ere her voice becomes audible; and to get a strong contraction of the hand, for example, express manipulation and suggestion must be practised. The automatic imitations I spoke of are in the first instance very weak, and only become strong after repetition. Her pupils contract in the medium-trance. Suggestions to the 'control' that he should make her recollect after the medium-trance what she had been saying were accepted, but had no result. In the hypnotic-trance such a suggestion will often make the patient remember all that has happened.

"No sign of thought-transference - as tested by card and diagram guessing - has been found in her, either in the hypnotic condition just described, or immediately after it; although her 'control' in the medium-trance has said that he would bring them about. So far as tried (only twice), no right guessing of cards in the medium-trance. No clear signs of thought-transference as tested by the naming of cards during the waking state. Trials of the 'willing game' and attempts at automatic writing, gave similarly negative results. So far as the evidence goes, then, her medium-trance seems an isolated feature in her psychology. This would of itself be an important result if it could be established and generalised, but the record is obviously too imperfect for confident conclusions to be drawn from it in any direction.

"Here I dropped my inquiries into Mrs. Piper's mediumship for a period of about two years, having satisfied myself that there was a genuine mystery there, but being over-freighted with time-consuming duties, and feeling that any adequate circumnavigation of the phenomena would be too protracted a task for me to aspire just then to undertake. I saw her once, half accidentally, however, during that interval, and in the spring of 1889 saw her four times again. In the fall of 1889 she paid us a visit of a week at our country house in New Hampshire, and I then learned to know her personally better than ever before, and had confirmed in me the belief that she is an absolutely simple and genuine person. No one, when challenged, can give 'evidence' to others for such beliefs as this. Yet we all live by them from day to day, and practically I should be willing now to stake as much money, on Mrs. Piper's honesty as on that of anyone I know, and am quite satisfied to leave my reputation for wisdom or folly, so far as human nature is concerned, to stand or fall by this declaration.

"And I repeat again what I said before, that, taking everything that I know of Mrs. P. 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. The limitations of her trance-information, its discontinuity and fitfulness, and its apparent inability to develop beyond a certain point, although they end by rousing one's moral and human impatience with the phenomenon, yet are, from a scientific point of view, amongst its most interesting peculiarities, since where there are limits there are conditions, and the discovery of these is always the beginning of explanation."

The most recent utterance of Professor William James on the subject is published in the Proceedings of the S.P.R. for June 1909 (Part LVIII.), and it contains an account of conversations carried on through Mrs. Piper since Dr. Hodgson's death with what purported to be Dr. Hodgson's surviving personality - together with Professor James's critical comments thereupon.

I may here quote a very small initial portion of this voluminous Report. It is very likely a mistake to quote the early and therefore more difficult stages of a re-appearance, instead of a more finished and practised example such as comes at a later date; and yet there is an interest in the first effort and stumblings - if they are intelligently read - and in several respects they may be considered instructive.

Richard Hodgson died suddenly upon December 20th, 1905. On December 28th a message purporting to come from him was delivered in a trance of Mrs. Piper's, and she has hardly held a sitting since then without some manifestation of what professed to be Hodgson's spirit taking place. Hodgson had often during his lifetime laughingly said that if he ever passed over and Mrs. Piper was still officiating here below, he would control her better than she had ever yet been controlled in her trances, because he was so thoroughly familiar with the difficulties and conditions on this side. I had myself had no sitting with Mrs. Piper and had hardly seen her for some nine years, but for most of that time I had been kept informed of what was going on by reading the typed records, furnished me by my friend Hodgson, of all the trances of which report was taken, and for which the sitters had not asked secrecy to be observed. The "Control" most frequently in evidence in these years has been the personage calling himself "Rector." Dr. Hodgson was disposed to admit the claim to reality of Rector and of the whole Imperator-Band of which he is a member, while I have rather favoured the idea of their all being dream-creations of Mrs. Piper, probably having no existence except when she is in trance, but consolidated by repetition into personalities consistent enough to play their several roles. Such at least is the dramatic impression which my acquaintance with the sittings has left on my mind. I can see no contradiction between Rector's being on the one hand an improvised creature of this sort, and his being on the other hand the extraordinarily impressive personality which he unquestionably is. He has marvellous discernment of the inner states of the sitters whom he addresses, and speaks straight to their troubles as if he knew them all in advance. He addresses you as if he were the most devoted of your friends. He appears like an aged and, when he speaks instead of writing, like a somewhat hollow-voiced clergyman, a little weary of his experience of the world, endlessly patient and sympathetic, and desiring to put all his tenderness and wisdom at your service while you are there. Critical and fastidious sitters have recognised his wisdom, and confess their debt to him as a moral adviser. With all due respect to Mrs. Piper, I feel very sure that her own waking capacity for being a spiritual adviser, if it were compared with Rector's, would fall greatly behind.

As I conceive the matter, it is on this mass of secondary and automatic personality of which of late years Rector has been the centre, and which forms the steady background of Mrs. Piper's trances, that the supernormal knowledge which she unquestionably displays is flashed. Flashed, grafted, inserted - use what word you will - the trance-automatism is at any rate the intermediating condition, the supernormal knowledge comes as if from beyond, and the automatism uses its own forms in delivering it to the sitter. The most habitual form is to say that it comes from the spirit of a departed friend. The earliest messages from "Hodgson" have been communicated by "Rector," but he soon spoke in his own name, and the only question which I shall consider in this paper is this: Are there any unmistakable indications in the messages in question that something that we may call the "spirit" of Hodgson was probably really there? We need not refine yet upon what the word "spirit" means and on what spirits are and can do. We can leave the meaning of the word provisionally very indeterminate, - the vague popular notion of what a spirit is, is enough to begin with.

The spirit-Hodgson's first manifestation was, as I have said, eight days after his death. There was something dramatically so like him in the utterances of those earliest days, gradually gathering "strength" as they did, that those who had cogniance of them were much impressed. I will begin by a short account of these earliest appearances, of which the first was at Miss Theodate Pope's' sitting on Dec. 28th, 1905. At this sitting Rector had been writing, when the hand dropped the pencil and worked convulsively several seconds in a very excited manner.

MISS P. What is the matter?

(The hand, shaking with apparently great excitement, wrote the letter H. . . . bearing down so hard on the paper that the point of the pencil was broken. It then wrote "Hodgson.")

Miss P. God bless you!

(The hand writes, "I am " - followed by rapid scrawls, as if regulator of machine were out of order.)

Miss P. Is this my friend?

(Hand assents by knocking five times on paper-pad.)

(RECTOR.) Peace, friends, he is here, it was he, but he could not remain, he was so choked. He is doing all in his power to return . . . . Better wait for a few moments until he breathes freer again. 

Miss P: I will.

(R.) Presently he will be able to conduct all here. 

Miss P: That is good news.

(R.) Listen. Everything is for the best. He holds in his hand a ring. . . . He is showing it to you. Cannot you see it, friend?

Miss P: I cannot see it. Have him tell me about it.

(R.) Do you understand what it means 

Miss P: I know he had a very attractive ring.

(R.) Margaret.

"All" was then written, with a "B" after it, and Miss P. asked, "What is that?" "A," "B "and "L" followed, but no explanation. (The explanation was given later.)

(1) - Miss Pope was subsequently a passenger nearly drowned on the Lusitania.)

The above is the whole of the direct matter from Hodgson at this, the first of the sittings at which he has appeared.

(For the sequel to this ring-episode, see the report itself in Proceedings, S.P.R., vol. xxiii.)

At Miss Pope's next sitting (five days later), after some talk about him from Rector, R. H. appeared for the second time, and in the character, familiar to him, of being a well-spring of poetical lore. Mrs. Piper's hand cramped most awkwardly, first dropped and then broke the pencil. A new one being given, the hand wrote as follows:-

Richard Hodgson I am well happy.

Glad I came. God bless Pope.

Miss Pope. Many thanks. (Then the hand wrote:-)

It lies not in her form or face
Tho these are passing fair,
Nor in the woman's tone of grace,
Nor in her falling hair;
It lies not in those wondrous eyes
That swiftly light and shine,
Tho all the stars of all the skies
Than these are less divine.

I am only practicing.

Miss P: Who wrote it?

(RECTOR.) Richard only.

Miss P. When?


Miss P. Doesn't it exist on paper in our world?


Miss P. Did you really make that up?


Miss P. Well, you are clever.

If you ever find this in your world, never believe in this world!

Miss P. I shall look for it, you may be sure.

Good! Think I'm asleep? Not much! My head. I must leave you now.

(RECTOR.) It is impossible for us to hold him - that is all.

Miss P: Rector, did he dictate that poem to you? . . . Do you think he made it up?

(RECTOR.) I do positively know he did . . . Farewell!

At the second sitting after this (Jan. 8th, 1906), Miss Pope again being the sitter, R. H. appeared again, writing as follows:

I am Hodgson . . . I heard your call - I know you - you are Miss Pope. Piper instrument. I am happy exceedingly difficult to come very. I understand why Myers came seldom. I must leave. I cannot stay. I cannot remain today . . .

On Jan. 23rd, 1906 Mrs. Wm. James, and W. James, Jr., had a sitting at which R. H. used the medium's voice and gave a very life-like impression of his presence. The record runs as follows:

Why, there's Billy! Is that Mrs. James and Billy? God bless you! Well, well, well, this is good I [Laughs.] I am in the witness-box [Laughs.] I have found my way, I am here, have patience with me? All is well with me. Don't miss me. Where's William? Give him my love and tell him I shall certainly live to prove all I know. Do you hear me? see me? I am not strong, but have patience with me. I will tell you all. I think I can reach you.

Something on my mind. I want Lodge to know everything. I have seen Myers. I must rest.

(After an interval he comes in again :-)

Billy, where is Billy? What are you writing Billy? Are you having any sports? Would you like to take a swim? [R. H.'s chief association with W. J. Jr., had been when fishing or swimming in Chocorua Lake.] Well, come on I Get a good deal of exercise, but don't overdo it! Perhaps I swam too much. [He undoubtedly had done so.] - I learned my lesson, but I'm just where I wanted to be.

Do you play ball? - tennis? Men will theorize - let them do so! I have found out the truth. I said that if I could get over there I would not make a botch of it. If ever R. H. lived in the body, he is talking now. . . . William [James] is too dogmatic.

I want George (Dorr) to extricate all those papers and set those marked "private" aside. This has been on my mind George is to be trusted absolutely with all sincerity and faith. There are some rivate records which I should not wish to have handled. Let George (Dorr) and Piddington go through them and return them to the sitters. The cipher! I made that cipher, and no one living can read it. [Correct.] I shall explain it later. Let Harry [James] and George keep them till then. [They had been appointed administrators of his estate, a fact probably known to Mrs. Piper.] This is the best I have been able to do yet. I spoke with Miss Pope, but this is the best. Remember, every communication must have the human element. I understand better now why I had so little from Myers. [To W. J., Jr.] What discourages you about your art? [W. J., Jr., was studying painting.] Oh what good times we had, fishing! Believe, Billy, wherever you go, whatever you do, there is a God.

So much for Hodgson's first appearances, which were characteristic enough in manner, however incomplete.

Mr. G. B. Dorr of Boston had later sittings with Mrs. Piper, at which he encouraged Hodgson to give all sorts of reminiscences, as evidence of survival of memory, and as tending towards proof of identity. I only quote a small portion from the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. xxiii., page 44, selecting a portion which contains true reminiscences; and adding Mr. Dorr's annotations, without which to us in England they would be useless. The remarks at the end are quoted from the Report by William James in Proceedings S.P.R., vol. xxiii.

I recall the pansies your mother used to place over the table. I remember that well-delightful to see them! I can see them now.

(My mother used to have pansies spread loosely over the tablecloth, when she had people to dine or sup with us at Bar Harbor, where we had a large bed of them planted near the house so that we could get them freely for this purpose. The custom is not common enough to let H.'s statement pass for a happy guess, nor do I think it likely he would have spoken of it to Mrs. Piper, either awake or in trance. It came out quite suddenly also, and with a positive-ness which made me feel that it was a true recollection, something seen at the moment in a mental picture. - D.)

I remember a beautiful road, a bicycle-road you made, going through the woods.

(A dozen years ago I made a bicycle-road on my own backland, which ran through the woods beneath a mountain over which we often used to walk. It was a pleasant and familiar feature in our summer life there, and it would naturally be one of the pictures that would come back to R. H. in thinking of the place, - like the view from my mother's balcony of which he spoke at the former sitting. But it is not a thing of which either he or I would have spoken to Mrs. Piper, whether in trance or awake. - D.)

G. B. D. then tries again to get the name of the man who occupied the farmhouse, describing him to R. H. without mentioning his name.

Oh yes, I remember him well - I remember going off with him once fishing-going down the shore in a boat. . . . I remember one evening, and it impressed me so vividly because your mother did not like it, and I felt we had done wrong and hurt her - M. and I were smoking together and we talked too late, and she felt it was time to retire

[This would be remarkably good if the incident should prove not to have come up already in R. H.'s own sittings after M. died. She used to smoke cigarettes occasionally, and was the only person of the feminine sex whom I now recall as having done so at our house. Unless in possibly referring to this incident to her 'spirit' at trances, after M. died, Hodgson would have been most unlikely to speak of it to others,certainly not to Mrs. Piper, either in trance or awake. - D.]

G.B.D: Do you remember where you went with John Rich when you went fishing with him - Oh I forgot! I did not mean to give you his name!

John Rich, John, that is his name] But I am sorry you gave it to me too-it might have come to me. We got a boat and went over to an island. Coming back we had some difficulty in getting our fish in. We had poor luck in catching them, and then we lost them. Ask him, he will remember it, I think.

[R. H.'s recollection of going off with Rich seems to be good, as I think it over. That he should go off with Rich only and neither alone nor with me or other guests, is exactly what happened, - and yet not what might have been expected to happen. His going to an island is descriptive also. - D.)

Do you remember what you used to put over your back that had a cup in it? And there was a little brook where we used to stop and drink. And then I used to stop and light my pipe-the whole scene is as vivid to me! If I could only express it to you!

[I used to carry a little canvas bag slung over my shoulder and a cup in it, when we went on Iong tramps. This may be what R. H. refers to, though I think that he was rather apt to carry a folding leather cup of his own in his pocket. The whole recollection is rather vague in my memory, going back a number of years. The picture is a good one of just what used to happen when we were off on our tramps together, though of course what he describes would be always apt to happen on walks through woods and over mountains. The picture of the little brook we used to stop and drink at is good - I can see it now. - D.]

After some talk about the Tavern Club, about Australia, and about the state of things in the other world, R. H. goes on as follows:-

Do you remember one summer there was a gentleman at your house who had a violin. I had some interesting talks with him about these things, and I liked to hear him play his violin. A little gentleman - I remember him very well.

[This describes a man named von G., who was an excellent violinist and who also talked interestingly on psychical research matters, in which he professed to have some faculty. As R. H. himself was also fond of the violin, it seems natural that some memory of von G. should stand out now. That Mrs. Piper should have any knowledge of this gentleman seems most improbable. - D.]

My earthly memories come only in fragments. I remember quite well this little gentleman -and how interested I was in talking with him about psychics, and in his instrument as well. I remember a man Royce visiting you.

[Prof. Royce says that he has been at Oldfarm along with Hodgson, but adds that that might be a natural association in Mrs. Piper's mind, since he thinks that the only time he ever saw her was at the Dorrs' in Boston. - W. J.]

This is, I think, the whole of the matter relative to Oldfarm which the R. H. - Control has given. The number of items mentioned is not great, and some inability to answer questions appears. But there are almost no mistakes of fact, and it is hardly possible that all the veridical points should have been known to Mrs. Piper normally. Some of them indeed were likely a priori; others may have been chance-hits; but for the mass, it seems to me that either reading of Mr. Dorr's mind, or spirit-return, is the least improbable explanation.

The fewness of the items may seem strange to some critics. But if we assume a spirit to be actually there, trying to reach us, and if at the same time we imagine that his situation with regard to the transaction is similar to our own, the surprise vanishes. I have been struck over and over again, both when at sittings myself and when reading the records, at the paralyzing effect on one's ready wit and conversational flow, which the strangeness of the conditions brings with it. Constraint and numbness take the place of genial expansiveness. We "don't know what to say," and it may also be so "on the other side." Few persons, I fancy, if suddenly challenged to prove their identity through the telephone, would quickly produce a large number of facts appropriate to the purpose. They would be more perplexed, and waste more time than they imagine.



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