Book: "The Survival of Man"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- Section Four -

Automatism and Lucidity

Chapter 16

Extracts from Piper Sittings


          AND now might follow a detailed report of the sittings which at that date (1889-1890) I held with Mrs. Piper in my house at Liverpool, all of which were taken down very fully; some of them verbatim by a stenographer introduced on those occasions. For in those days communication was conducted entirely by the voice; writing being quite exceptional, and limited to a few words occasionally. Whereas in more recent years communication is for the most part conducted by writing only, and the need for stenography has practically ceased.

My detailed report appears in the Proceedings of the Society, vol. vi., but it occupies a great deal of space, and would be merely tiresome if reproduced in any quantity. Accordingly I propose to make only a few extracts, quoting those incidents which demonstrate one or other of the following powers , or which illustrate by way of example the general character of the sittings at that time, - regarded rather from the dramatic than from the evidential point of view.

The powers just referred to are the following:-

(1) The perception of trivial events simultaneously occurring at a distance.

(2) The reading of letters by other than normal means.

(3) The recognition of objects and assignment of them to their respective owners.

(4) Perception of small and intimate family details in the case of complete strangers.

The statement of facts unknown at the time to any person present;

With perhaps a supplement illustrating apparent ignorance of some facts within Mrs. Piper's normal knowledge, and likewise - what are frequent - instances of erroneous statement concerning facts which are well-known to, and in the mind of, the sitter.

Among sitters, I may mention Dr. Gerald Rendall, late of Trinity College, Cambridge, then Principal of University College, Liverpool. He was introduced as Mr. Roberts, and a sitting was immediately commenced. The names of his brothers were all given correctly at this or at the evening sitting of the same day, with many specific details which were correct.

He brought with him a locket, and received communications and reminiscences purporting to come from the deceased friend whom it commemorated, some of them at present incompletely verified by reason of absence of persons in America, some of them apparently incorrect, but those facts which he knew correctly stated in such a way as to satisfy him that chance guessing and all other commonplace surmises were absurdly out of the question.

Another sitter was Prof. E. C. K. Gonner, then Lecturer on Economics at University College, Liverpool, introduced as Mr. McCunn, another colleague with whom therefore he might on a fraudulent hypothesis be confused. He brought a book belonging to his mother, still living in London, and had many correct details concerning her family and surroundings related to him.

Many of his own family were also mentioned; but, whether because of the book or otherwise, his mother's influence seemed more powerful than his own; and, several times, relatives, though otherwise spoken of correctly, were mentioned in terms of their relationship to the elder generation. Phinuit, however, seemed conscious of these mistakes and several times corrected himself; as for instance: 'Your brother William - no I mean your uncle, her brother.'

This Uncle William was a good instance. He had died before Prof. Gonner was born, but he had been his mother's eldest brother, and his sudden death had been a great shock to her - one in fact from which she was along time recovering. Phinuit described him as having been killed with a hole in his head, like a shot hole, and yet not a shot, more like a blow:- the fact being that he met his death in a Yorkshire election riot, a stone striking him on the head.

Speaking of deaths, I may also mention the case of my wife's father, who died when she was a fortnight old in a dramatic and pathetic fashion. Phinuit described the circumstances of his death rather vividly. The cause of death of her stepfather also, which was perfectly definite, was also precisely grasped. The fall of her own father down the hold of his ship and his consequent leg-pain were clearly stated. My wife was present on these occasions, and of course had been told of all these family incidents, and remembered them.

As an instance of reading a letter, which had indeed just passed through my mind, but which was not read in any normal manner by the medium, I take the following case.

(A chain was handed to Phinuit by me, the package having been delivered by hand to me late the previous evening. I had just opened the package, glanced at the contents, and hastily read a letter inside, then wrapped all up again and stored them. The chain had been sent by Mrs. John Watson from Sefton Drive; it had belonged to "Ian Maclaren's" father.)

"This belongs to an old gentlemen that passed out of the body - a nice old man. I see something funny here, something the matter with heart, paralytic something. Give me the wrappers, all of them. - [i.e., The paper it came in; a letter among them. Medium held them to top of her head, gradually flicking away the blank ones. She did not inspect them. She was all the while holding with her other hand another stranger, a Mr. Lund, who knew nothing whatever about the letter or the chain.]

"Who's dear Lodge? Who's Poole, Toodle, Poodle? Whatever does that mean?"

O. J. L.: "I haven't the least idea."

"Is there J. N. W. here? Poole. Then there's Sefton. S-e-f-t-o-n, Pool, hair. Yours truly, J. N. W. That's it; I send hair. Poole J. N. W. Do you understand that?

O. J. L.: "No, only partially."

[Note by O. J. L - I found afterwards that the letter began "Dear Dr. Lodge," contained the words "Sefton Drive," and "Cook" so written as to look like Poole. It also said "I send you some hair." and finished - yours sincerely J. B. W."; the "B" being not unlike an "N." The name of the sender was not mentioned in the letter, but at a subsequent sitting it was correctly stated by Phinuit in connexion with the chain.]

This reading of letters in an abnormal way is very curious, and is a very old type of phenomenon. Kant and Hegel were both familiar with it: only it was then called "reading with the pit of the stomach." Now it seems usually done with the top of the head.

I had a few other cases-less distinct than the above - and I again refer here to the little experiment made by Mrs. Verrall as reported on page 98, as well as to Page 104.


One of the best sitters was a friend who for several years was my next-door neighbour at Liverpool, Isaac C. Thompson, F.L.S., to whose name indeed, before he bad been in any way introduced, Phinuit sent a message purporting to come from his father. Three generations of his and of his wife's family, living and dead (small and compact Quaker families), were, in the course of two or three sittings, conspicuously mentioned, with identifying detail; the main informant representing himself as his deceased brother, a young Edinburgh doctor, whose loss had been mourned some twenty years ago. The familiarity and touchingness of the messages communicated in this particular instance were very remarkable, and can by no means be reproduced in any printed report of the sitting. Their case is one in which very few mistakes were made, the detail standing out vividly correct, so that in fact they found it impossible not to believe that their relatives were actually speaking to them. This notable belief correctly represents the impression produced by a favourable series of sittings, and it is for that reason I mention it now. Simple events occurring elsewhere during the sitting were also detected by Dr. Phinuit in their case, better than in any other I know of. A full report of this rather excellent case has had to be omitted for lack of space.

There was a remarkable little incident towards the end of my series of sittings, when this friend of mine was present. A message interpolated itself to a gentleman living in Liverpool, known, but not at all intimately known, to both of us, and certainly outside of our thoughts - the head of the Liverpool Post-office, Mr. Rich. The message purported to he from a son of his who had died suddenly a few months ago, and whom I had never seen; though Isaac Thompson had, it seems, once or twice spoken to him.

"This son addressed I.C.T. by name, and besought him to convey a message to his father, who, he said, was much stricken by the blow, and who was suffering from a recent occasional dizziness in his head, so that he felt afraid he should have to retire from business. Other little things were mentioned of an identifying character and the message was, a few days later, duly conveyed, The facts stated were admitted to be accurate; and, the father, though naturally inclined to be sceptical, confessed that he had indeed been more than ordinarily troubled at the sudden death of his eldest son, because of a recent unfortunate estrangement between them which would otherwise have been only temporary.

"The only thought-transference explanation I can reasonably offer him is that it was the distant activity of his own mind, operating on the sensitive brain of the medium, of whose existence he knew absolutely nothing, and contriving to send a delusive message to itself!

"One thing about which the son seemed anxious was a black case which he asked us to speak to his father about, and to say he did not want lost. The father did not know what case was meant: but I have heard since, indirectly, that on his death-bed the son was calling out about a black case, though I cannot learn that the particular case has been securely identified."

Contemplating these and such-like communications, could not help feeling that if it be really a case of thought-transference at all, it is thought-transference of a surprisingly vivid kind, the proof of which would be very valuable, supposing it were the correct explanation of the phenomenon.

But I felt doubtful if it were the correct explanation. One must not shut one's eyes to the possibility that in pursuing a favourite hypothesis one may after all be on the wrong tack altogether.

Every known agency must be worked to the utmost before one is willing to admit an unknown one: and indeed to abandon this last known link of causation as inadequate to sustain the growing weight of facts was an operation not to be lightly undertaken. And yet I felt grave doubts whether it would really suffice to explain the facts; whether indeed it went any distance toward their explanation.

So I set to work to try and obtain, by the regular process of communication which suits this particular medium, facts which were not only out of my knowledge but which never could have been in it.

In giving an account of these experiments, fully reported at the time though now some twenty years old, I must enter on a few trivial details concerning my own relations. The occasion is the excuse.

It happened that an uncle of mine in London, then quite an old man, the eldest of a surviving three out of a very large family, of which my own father was one of the youngest, had a twin brother who died some twenty or more years ago. I interested him generally in the subject, and wrote to ask if he would lend me some relic of this brother. By morning post on a certain day I received a curious old gold watch, which the deceased brother had worn and been fond of; and that same morning - no one in the house having seen it or knowing anything about it - I handed it to Mrs. Piper when in a state of trance.

I was told almost immediately that it had belonged to one of my uncles - one that had been mentioned before as having died from the effects of a fall-one that had been very fond of Uncle Robert, the name of the survivor - that the watch was now in possession of this same Uncle Robert, with whom its late owner was anxious to communicate. After some difficulty and many wrong attempts Dr. Phinuit caught the name, Jerry, short for Jeremiah, and said emphatically, as if impersonating him, "This is my watch, and Robert is my brother, and I am here. Uncle Jerry, my watch, "All this at the first sitting on the very morning the watch had arrived by post, no one but myself and a shorthand clerk who happened to have been introduced for the first time at this sitting by me, and whose antecedents are well known to me, being present.

Having thus ostensibly got into communication through some means or other with what purported to be Uncle Jerry, whom I had indeed known slightly in his later years of blindness, but of whose early life I knew nothing, I pointed out to him that to make Uncle Robert aware of his presence it would be well to recall trivial details of their boyhood, all of which I would faithfully report.

He quite caught the idea, and proceeded during several successive sittings ostensibly to instruct Dr Phinuit to mention a number of little things such as would enable his brother to recognise him.

References to his blindness, illness, and main facts of his life were comparatively useless from my point of view; but these details of boyhood, two-thirds of a century ago, were utterly and entirely out of my ken. My father himself had only known these brothers as men.

"Uncle Jerry" recalled episodes such as swimming the creek when they were boys together, and running some risk of getting drowned; killing a cat in Smith's field; the possession of a small rifle, and of a long peculiar skin, like a snake-skin, which he thought was now in the possession of Uncle Robert.

All these facts have been more or less completely verified. But the interesting thing is that his twin brother, from whom I got the watch, and with whom I was thus in correspondence, could not remember them all. He recollected something about swimming the creek, though he himself had merely looked on. He had a distinct recollection of having had the snakeskin, and of the box in which it was kept, though he did not know where it was then. But he altogether denied killing the cat, and could not recall Smith's field.

His memory, however, was decidedly failing him, and he was good enough to write to another brother, Frank, living in Cornwall, an old sea captain, and ask if he had any better remembrance of certain facts - of course not giving any inexplicable reasons for asking, The result is this inquiry was triumphantly to vindicate the existence of Smith's field as a place near their home, where they used to play, in Barking, Essex; and the killing of a cat by another brother was also recollected; while of the swimming of the creek, near a mill-race, full details were given, Frank and Jerry being the heroes of that foolhardy episode.

I may say here that Dr. Phinuit has a keen "scent" - shallI call it? - for trinkets or personal valuables of all kinds. He recognised a ring which my wife wears as having been given "to me for her" by a specified aunt just before her death; of which he at another time indicated the cause fairly well. He called for a locket which my wife sometimes wears, but bad not then on, which had belonged to her father 40 years ago. He recognised my father's watch, asked for the chain belonging to it, and was still unsatisfied for want of some appendage which I could not think of at the time, but which my wife later on reminded me of , and Phinuit at another sitting seized, - a seal which had been usually worn with it, and which had belonged to my grandfather.

He pulled my sister's watch out of her pocket and said it had been her mother's, but disconnected the chain and said that didn't belong, which was quite right. Even little pocket things, such as fruit-knives and corkscrews, he also assigned to their late owners; and once he quite unexpectedly gripped the arm of the chair Mrs. Piper was sitting in, which had never been mentioned to him in any way, and said that it had belonged to my Aunt Anne. It was quite true: it was an old-fashioned ordinary type of armchair which she valued and had had re-upholstered for us as a wedding present 12 years ago. Phinuit, by the way, did not seem to realise that it was a chair: he asked what it was, and said he took it for part of an organ.

But perhaps the best instance of a recognised object was one entrusted to me by the Rev. John Watson, at that time quite a recent friend of mine, with whom I had been staying recently in Italy, - a chain which had belonged to his father. It is the chain referred to in connexion with the episode of reading a letter related on page 177 above.

The package was delivered by hand one evening at my house, and, by good luck, I happened to meet the messenger and receive it direct. Next morning I handed it to Dr. Phinuit, saying only, in response to his feeling some difficulty about it, that it did not belong to a relative. He said it belonged to an old man and had his son's influence on it. He also partially read a letter accompanying it-as described at page 178. Next sitting I tried the chain again, and he very soon reported the late owner as present, and recognising the chain but not recognising me. I explained that his son had entrusted me with it; on which Phinuit said the chain belonged now to John Watson, away for health, a preacher, and a lot of other details all known to me, and all correct. The old gentleman was then represented as willing to write his name. A name was written in the backward manner Phinuit sometimes affects. It was legible afterwards in a mirror as James Watson. Now, the name of his father I was completely ignorant of.

The father's name turned out to be not James but John - the same as that of the son: and although the facts stated concerning the son, my friend, were practically all correct, I learned three weeks later, when I got a reply from Egypt where he was travelling, that the statements about the father were all wrong. But Dr. Watson told me later that James was the name of his grandfather, and that the statements would have a truer ring if they had purported to come from the grandfather instead of from the father. And I understood that the chain - which was the ostensible link of connexion - had belonged to both. The episode cannot, however, be claimed as a success beyond the identification of John Watson and the incidents connected with him.



Contents / Preface / Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Chapter 11 / Chapter 12 / Chapter 13 / Chapter 14 / Chapter 15 / Chapter 16 / Chapter 1 7 / Chapter 18 / Chapter 19 / Chapter 20 / Chapter 21 / Chapter 22 / Chapter 23 / Chapter 24 / Chapter 25

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