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78 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Perfect 10!
If five stars were not the limit, I'd give this book a more perfect 10!

My first awareness of this fascinating book was an e-mail from a friend who knew of my interest in the paranormal, especially spirit communication. I replied that I had not heard of the book and was not particularly interested in "ghost hunting." By the title of the book and without...
Published on September 11, 2006 by Michael E. Tymn

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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars depends on what you're looking for
If you want a historical overview of the life of the first group of men (and one woman) who attempted to apply scientific method to supernatural or paranormal phenomena, this is your book. If you are interested in the life and times of these folks, their family background, their wives, their illnesses, their spats and squabbles, this is your book. If you want a snapshot...
Published on June 19, 2007 by Melanie White


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78 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Perfect 10!, September 11, 2006
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If five stars were not the limit, I'd give this book a more perfect 10!

My first awareness of this fascinating book was an e-mail from a friend who knew of my interest in the paranormal, especially spirit communication. I replied that I had not heard of the book and was not particularly interested in "ghost hunting." By the title of the book and without knowing the subtitle, I had assumed that this book was about modern parapsychologists visiting haunted houses with gadgets designed to detect "ghostly" cold spots and energy fields. I assumed wrong.

When, a few weeks later, I saw the subtitle - "William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death" - I immediately knew the book was about the pioneering psychical research of yesteryear. It is a subject very dear to me. In fact, I have written often on the subject and had recently completed my own book, "The Articulate Dead: Bringing the Spirit World Alive" (due for release by Galde Press later this year or early next year).

Noting that Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and journalism professor, I had more or less anticipated a contemptuous treatment of the subject matter. Since journalists generally tend to ape mainstream scientists in superciliously smirking, snickering, sneering, and scoffing at the paranormal, I assumed Blum would find much caustic humor in the pursuits of educated and reputable men (and one woman) who dared stray outside the bounds of scientific fundamentalism. I assumed wrong again.

As the subtitle suggests, Harvard professor William James, remembered more for his contributions to psychology and philosophy than psychical research, was one of the early leaders in scientific research aimed ultimately at determining whether consciousness survives bodily death. The research was prompted by advances in science - advances that seemed to relegate religious dogma and doctrine to mere superstition. "Could any God - Christian or otherwise - survive in an age where religion feared science and science denied faith?" Blum expresses the sentiments of Frederic W. H. Myers, another pioneering researcher. "It was into that divide that Myers saw psychical research bravely marching. The goal was to bridge research and religion, to show that they were not incompatible, that one could even explain the other."

Myers appears to have been motivated, Blum observes, by a feeling that science was reducing the universe to a large machine and people to small ones. Other scholars and scientists were similarly motivated. "He was an educated man; he understood and even appreciated the arguments for a purely mechanical universe," Blum describes Edmund Gurney, one of Myers' research associates. "Life lived as a cog in a cold, godless, indifferent machine, however, had come to seem to him unbearable."

The research was primarily with mediums. "Mediums were peculiar creatures; there was no denying it about even the best of them," Blum explains. "How could they not be? They spent hours of their time surrounded by people desperate to talk with the dead. They fell into trances reputedly inhabited by ghosts. They agreed to be hogtied by investigating scientists. Skeptics mocked them; journalists parodied them; former friends feared them. One had to wonder why anyone would choose to become a medium."

The most credible and intriguing of all mediums was Leonora Piper, a Boston housewife, who was discovered by James and studied for some 18 years by Richard Hodgson, an Australian who was recruited to head up the American Society for Psychical Research. Hodgson had a reputation as a debunker of fraudulent "mediums," but became convinced that Mrs. Piper was the real thing, what James called his "white crow," the one that proved all crows weren't black.

The researchers were often frustrated by charlatans as well as by their arrogant scientific colleagues who assumed the subject was too absurd for educated men. One such haughty professor was James Cattell of Columbia University. He sneered at his fellow professor, James H. Hyslop, when Hyslop became interested in psychical research, and when Hyslop published articles that strongly supported non-mechanistic theories, Cattell tried to have him fired. In his defense, Hyslop, noting scientific efforts to find a species of useless fish to support Darwin's theory, asked "why it is so noble and respectable to find whence man came, and so suspicious and dishonorable to ask and ascertain whither he goes?"

Other researchers, including Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution, William Crookes, a brilliant chemist and physicist whose invention led to the X-ray, Oliver Lodge, a pioneer in electricity and radio, and William Barrett, a Dublin physicist knighted for his scientific work, came under attack by their peers when they dared report on evidence that did not fit into the post-Darwin scientific paradigm. "Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name," James lashed out as the cynics, "and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow `scientific' bounds."

While some of the researchers, including Wallace, Crookes, Barrett, Lodge, Hodgson, and Hyslop were able to satisfy themselves that a spirit world exists, and, concomitantly, that consciousness does survive bodily death, James was more guarded and would remain warily perched on the "fence" separating believers from non-believers, seeing that position as the only way to reconcile the differences between science and religion. Moreover, James recognized the difference between the subjectivity of proof and the objectivity of evidence. "The concrete evidence for most of the `psychic' phenomena under discussion is good enough to hang a man 20 times over," James once admonished the scientific fundamentalists.

The closing chapters of the book deal with the famous cross-correspondences - messages coming through different mediums in different parts of the world, which in themselves meant nothing but when collected by the researchers formed coherent messages. The best of these messages were said to have come from Frederic Myers after his death in 1901. Hodgson also began offering convincing messages through Mrs. Piper after his death in 1905.

In the end, it is a matter of what James called the "will to believe" versus the "will to disbelieve."

Blum examines the work of the psychical researchers with respect, objectivity, and understanding. She apparently spent three years researching the subject. I thought I knew the subject pretty well from over 10 years of study, but I learned a lot from this book. As I consumed the book over mochas at Starbucks, I delighted in my initial false assumptions and continually marveled at the accuracy and detail of the stories as well as at Blum's prolific writing.
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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars depends on what you're looking for, June 19, 2007
By 
Melanie White (Seattle, WA United States) - See all my reviews
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If you want a historical overview of the life of the first group of men (and one woman) who attempted to apply scientific method to supernatural or paranormal phenomena, this is your book. If you are interested in the life and times of these folks, their family background, their wives, their illnesses, their spats and squabbles, this is your book. If you want a snapshot of Victorian life, especially the low-tech contraptions and Oscar-worthy performances from the shysters who made a good living in this business, this is your book.

But if you want succint factual description of their methods or the results they obtained, you'll be frustrated, cuz that info is distributed all over the book in bits and pieces. This book is more about the men themselves than about the phenomena they investigated.

But here's the bottom line: 95% of the reports they investigated were fraud, and the majority of that tantalizing other 5% were apt to cheat too, when they could get away with it. They really only came across one person whose "gifts" continued to stand up to their scrutiny year after year.

And so, the conclusion seems to be that true paranormal or supernatural phenomena are exceedingly rare, but do indeed exist.
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59 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Story of Heroes, August 3, 2006
By 
C L (Illinois) - See all my reviews
Ms Blum has written a wonderful story of a heroic group of people, scientests who believed that science should explore and, if possible, test the supernatural. They endured ridicule and scorn from other scientests who believed that science should deal only with what could be seen and heard and from religious leaders who believed that scientests should leave the supernatural to them. Year after year, this group of people worked brutally hard, exposing so many fraudulent claims of supernatural occurences that you could understand if they just gave up. But, they found a few examples of the unexplainable that could not be disproven by scientific methods, and these examples are fascinating. If you are unsure about life after death and the supernatural, you will still be unsure after you read this book, but you will have a lot to think about and, also, you will be aware of some brilliant, determined people who formed a scientific organization that survived its critics and still exists today.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The History of a Quest, September 25, 2006
By 
Mark Newbold (Pittsburg, KS United States) - See all my reviews
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An excellent, insightful and poetic book that provides historical insights into the founding and early years of both the Psychical Research Society in the UK and its American counter-part. Moreover it's a biographical study focusing on William James as the personal lens by which to view the lives and dedication of the initial founders of these organizations and the pioneering work they began. The historical/biographical efforts along these lines has been sorely needed for sometime. Nothing in contemporary parapsychological literature quite compares to Ms. Blum's work.
This is a complex and admirable psychological study of these remarkably brilliant men and women that questioned those existential questions of the survival of death in a rigorous scientific manner for the first time. Driven, passionate and personally tragic for many of the original founders, this offers a glimpse into the social forces that sent these men on their search for that "otherness" beyond the mundane world.
This work also offers a brief but excellent overview of the "cross correspondences" one of the strongest, on-going and too little known experiments that offers what some including myself believe to be one of the best cases for personal survival of death we have available.
This is one volume that should be on the bookshelf of anyone intrested in Parapsychology and it's history.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes this book is worthwhile!, January 7, 2007
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I borrowed this book from my local library. I had no real investment in it. I was really blown away. Basically you have the best scientific minds of the time looking for proof of the supernatural, specificaly ghosts. What they find will suprise and engage you. Even though they were top level scientists they were also very human and this book makes that clear.

Like the other reviewers noted, basicaly what the scientists found was so compelling to them they literaly risked their entire careers to pursue it. Like today the scientific community during the Victorian era was no more flexible or open-minded. As the reader will discover, many of key scientists got involved for the sole purpose of disproving the existance of ghosts and putting the whole sorid subject to bed. Once they used their scientific criterion to explore the subject they had to explore further.

Give this book a try. It might not change your current views but it will overwhelm you.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A good journalistic history, November 14, 2007
By 
Magyar (The Universe) - See all my reviews
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While it is evident that Blum did a lot of research, the result is only a good popular journalistic history of a group of interesting people trying to accomplish something grand. The whole narrative structure of the book is so episodic that you can choose almost any point in the book to start and stop reading. In reading this I was continually frustrated, hoping to run across some kind of larger statement of themes and significance.

Frankly, if you want to know about this, I suggest you read a real historian's account such as Robert Richardson's biography of William James.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book About Ghosts and "Ghost Hunters", January 25, 2007
By 
Charles J. Rector (Woodstock, IL United States) - See all my reviews
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Deborah Blum has produced one of the best books about ghosts and "ghost hunters" to come along in quite a while. As its subtitle suggests, it centered on 19th Century thinker William James and his quest to investigate allegations of ghostly activity and alleged clairvoyants and spiritual mediums who claimed to be in contact with such ghosts.

Many of these ghost hunters, such as James, were quite skeptical of ghosts. Most of their cases involved palpable frauds. However, there were a few cases such as that of Boston medium Leonora Piper that they were unable to explain away.

This is an excellent and fascinating book about a subject that has received too little attention from serious writers.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonder in the history of science, February 10, 2011
For some time I have been peripherally interested in research on the "paranormal," and while I had heard of the Society for Psychical Research, I never realized how rich the work of this society was. Nor how distinguished its members were. The information in this book is simply amazing. And highly relevant. The "high priesthood" of scientific materialism is still a noisy bunch, although I do not believe they are any closer now than they were 100 years ago to convincing the world that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is absolutely nothing. What is nice about the SPR's work is that it does not promote any easy or obviously comforting alternative. The world still looks strange, as it should.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Proving immortality, July 19, 2009
Journalist Deborah Blum has given us a picture of a fascinating period in history. Nineteenth-century science produced the telegraph, the telephone, vaccinations, anesthesia, electricity in homes and offices and many other marvels. God, invisible and unproven, could not compete with the visible wonders of science. Religion was in trouble, and without religion, how could a moral universe be sustained?

Concerned thinkers like William James sought to reconcile science and religion by finding irrefutable evidence of life after death. In England and then in America a controversial Society for Psychical Research was formed.

Blum's book recounts the experiences of trained scientists with spirit communication, apparitions, telepathy and other supernatural phenomena. Most mediums were frauds, but some seemed to have powers difficult to discount.

Blum brings alive the personalities of the investigators, who were only human after all. One scientist pursued a spiritual love affair with a dead woman as a side benefit of his investigations! But more typically the researchers were scrupulously objective.

It scarcely matters that James and his associates failed to replace faith with certainty in the eyes of their fellow scientists. Twenty-first-century readers can admire the courage of the psychic researchers, enjoy their adventures and misadventures - and perhaps even share in their vision.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Mystery of the Unknown, May 26, 2009
In 1859, Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species crowning a belief fomenting in the growing field of science that God was unnecessary and that religion and spiritualism were a continuation of primitive ignorance. While scientists embraced agnosticism, the popular culture became enthralled with the occult. The Ouija board was invented and seances became popular.

Most scientists believed that the idea of spirits and religion were too ridiculous to merit anything other than contempt, but those few who didn't were some of the greatest luminaries of the turn of the century. The Society for Psychical Research was founded by the Cambridge (England) philosopher Henry Sidgwick and his wife Nora Balfour, principal of Newnham College and sister to future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Other members included Edmund Gurney, Richard Hodgeson, and Frederic Myers. In America, the American Society for Psychical Research would be founded in Boston by William James, the father of American psychology.

As the SPR and ASPR, began investigating stories of the supernatural many years were filled with the debunking of charlatans and con-artists. This enraged the believers in spiritualism and the occult. It also cost these investigators much of their academic capital making them jokes to their collegues for even entertaining the thought of proving the supernatural.

But then the SPRs Census of Phantasms showed that 5% of "crisis apparitions," or visions of the recent departed, ring true and the investigators find a few mediums that defy all explanation. The investigators don't accept this blindly as proof of their research, but press all the harder, knowing that being able to answer all objections is their only defense against their critics. What are they to make of the curious case of Mr. Pellew? The erotic and impish Ms. Palladino? Is it telepathy or a real spirit? Skeptics in the SPR become convinced believers in the paranormal at the cost of their careers or academic status, but what can they really prove?

Deborah Blum introduces the reader to this world with all the energy and thrills of a crime novel. She adopts a journalistic approach of breaking each chapter into several vignettes, almost every section ending with a cliff-hanger propelling the reader forward hungry for the resolution. Throughout the book Blum keeps her journalistic objectivity, reporting the diaries, studies, criticisms, and in-fighting of the SPR and ASPR with little opinion to color the reader's viewpoint.

The report is peppered with great characters of the turn of the century including:
Samuel Clemens, the novelist known as Mark Twain;
Alfred Russel Wallace, coauthor of the theory of evolution;
William Crookes, the discoverer of thallium and inventor of the cathode ray;
and Oliver Lodge, inventor of the wireless telegraph, the discoverer of argon, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
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Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death
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