Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on October 25, 2020
Deborah Blum (born 1954) teaches Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; her book  The Monkey Wars  won a Pulitzer Prize. She has written other books such as  Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection , The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York , etc.

She wrote in the ‘Prelude’ to this 2006 book, “investigating the supernatural---using the techniques of science to explore the occult---was exactly what William James and his friends wanted to do, in fact, considered a necessary part of science and its mission to understand the world… William James had a reputation to lose. He was a heralded professor at Harvard University, the author of the most respected text on psychology yet published, a founder of the American Psychological Association. He’d developed an innovative approach to philosophy, ratline elitist traditions by linking everyday, real-life experience to intellectual exploration. He’d become famous even beyond academic circles, almost as well known as his novelist brother, Henry James Jr. …

“James and his companions in this scientific ghost hunt were famed for their intellectual brilliance---their intellectual courage gained them less admiration. Yet they possessed both qualities in abundance. James’s fellow ghost hunters included the codiscoverer of the theory of evolution, a physician from France who would win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, an Australian who became a founding member of the American Anthropological Society, a female mathematician who became principal of Cambridge University’s first college for women, a pioneer in British utilitarian philosophy, and a trio of respected physicists. All of them had reputations that would suffer as a consequence, and all of them, like William James, would refuse to abandon the search… All of them believed that they were working toward an understanding of life that could help bridge the chasms between science and faith…” (Pg. 5-6)

She observes, “As the medium trade grew, its flaws had become more obvious. The Davenport Brothers … had brought their cabinet show to England, only to be caught in some obvious chicanery with ropes… too many [magicians and mediums] shared their secrets. Professional magicians and actors took to the stage, performing to packed houses, showing that they too could conjure like the Davenports… One female medium was found to have an ingenious wire dummy… which could be inflated during a dark séance to resemble the ‘spirit’ form of a small child… Others hid thin packets of … cobweb-fine French muslin… The cloth was made bright in spots by luminous oil… In one medium’s abode, investigators found a trapdoor under a cabinet, opening into a passage that led into a backroom … Such exposés delighted the critics of the spiritualist movements. Scientists rejoiced in what they hoped would lead to a new skepticism. And religious leaders… renewed their efforts to discredit the movement.” (Pg. 28-29)

She explains, “Alfred Russel Wallace … traveled the country in support of Darwin and natural selection… Although he found organized Christianity’s way of explaining the world to be antiquated and unconvincing, Wallace began to reconsider the possibility of a moral force at work in the universe. He worried that if science denied even the possibility of such a higher power, the result could be a widespread amorality that would rip the social fabric… Uplifted by this new and growing sense of purpose, Wallace attended his first séance in 1986… he thought he might find the way to an integration of science with spirit… Wallace’s new idea what that natural selection had its limits, at least with regard to human beings… Perhaps our better nature was crafted by direction… It occurred to Wallace that evidence for such an artful planner could only be found by investigating the supernatural realms.” (Pg. 37-39) She continues, “Wallace undoubted felt driven to be combative. He complained that a scientist seeking to explore the supernatural found himself instantly demoted… His colleague’s righteous tone further alarmed Darwin… But Wallace wasn’t sorry. He had failed to win over Darwin or his illustrious group of allies, but he was moving on to better prospects.” (Pg. 44-45)

She recounts, “The British Society for Psychical Research formally convened … on February 20, 1882, representing a branch of science so new that the organizers had felt compelled to invent a name for it… Henry Sidgwick, the first president… declar[ed] that he and his colleagues had been left no choice but to invent a science, to create a support system for those who wanted to do the work.” (Pg. 72)

The SPR’s Richard Hodgson investigated Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (founder of the Theosophical Society): “‘The whole thing is a fraud,’ Hodgson wrote… His report… provided the incriminating details at length… The SPR’s report on Madame Blavatsky minced no words: ‘…she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished and interesting imposters in history.’” (Pg. 91)

She notes, “If one doubted the demand for physical proof, one needed only to watch the latest craze in spiritualism, the ‘talking board’ phenomenon… talking boards worked faster than spirit raps or table tiltings… they were soon being mass-marketed by companies including Sears-Roebuck… By the late 1880s, the boards would be rechristened Ouija boards (or ‘yes-yes’ boards, from the French ‘oui’ and the German ‘ja.’).” (Pg. 110-111)

She reports, “The two fat volumes of ‘Phantasms of the Living’ [by Gurney, Myers, and Podmore] were at the printer. Its publication date was set for October 1886. Not soon enough. Too soon. Everyone concerned suffered nervous jitters. Sidgwick worried that no one would read it. Then he worried that people would … ‘select the weak stories to make fun of.’… Gurney worried over the volume’s imperfections… Myers worried that they would fail to make people THINK…” (Pg. 120)

She recounts, “Funded by Philadelphia industrialist Henry Seybert, the commission’s stated purpose was to investigate the most credible supernatural claims and try to discover what lay behind them… Privately, the scientists on the commission saw a good opportunity to further discredit the continued appeal of the supernatural… With its first report, released in … 1887, the Seybert Commission predisposition became apparent to all. The commissioners had chosen exactly the kind of mediums that the SPR thought untrustworthy… The report… produced a rare united reaction from the dedicated spiritualist community and the dedicated psychical researchers.” (Pg. 137)

She observes, “Kate and Maggie Fox were long past their heyday as darlings of the spiritualist movement… Both women now struggled to hold an audience. Their spirit-rapping technique had become an antiquated relic… Bitter, ignored, and impoverished, the sisters comforted themselves with alcohol… The few sitters who attended Kate’s slate writing evenings reported that she was so drunk that she kept dropping the slates.” (Pg. 136)

She points out, “None of [the psychic researchers] was armed… with all the cold, bare facts reported in a new insider exposé of spiritualism, published in 1890 ay an author known only as ‘A. Medium.’… Hodgson would spend years trying to find the anonymous author of ‘Revelations of a Spirit Medium, but to no avail. ‘A. Medium’ never surfaced to face the hundreds of spiritualists enraged by this perceived betrayal. ‘Revelations’ was a manual---albeit a very funny one---on how to gull the public… In the end, ‘A. Medium’ made the same recommendation that the SPR had been making for years: Investigate the spirit world, but avoid paid mediums. Remember that any street conjurer possesses the tricks to make lights dance in the dark, tables walk in the air.” (Pg. 176-177)

She explains ,”Cesare Lombroso … launched… a series of scientific investigations of Eusapia Palladino. The first was something of a shambles… Lombroso was … so enthralled, the other scientists so unnerved by confronting a medium, and Eusapia s prone to scream … when she didn’t get her way that they lost control of the experiments almost immediately…. Most of the time, it was impossible to be sure that she wasn’t sneaking a hand away to produce a phantom touch, or nudging furniture with her feet or knees… He tested her again… Those experiments yielded the same frustrating mix of deliberate fraud and inexplicable event.” (Pg. 192-193) Hodgson attended a séance with her, and concluded, “she was an obvious cheat. She was so easy to catch that she wasn’t worth any more of his time.” (Pg. 202-203)

She notes, “Psychical research was clearly costing William James academic prestige and political capital among his fellow scientists. Privately, he confessed some regrets over it. Publicly, James responded as if he didn’t care… It bothered him, though, that he could not persuade his peers to see the value in psychical research. Further, both Hodgson’s report and the SPR response conformed to scientific principles.” (Pg. 221-222)

She states, “In 1898, William Crookes was elected president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, another milestone in his return to mainstream science. Yet, he chose to give his presidential address … on a note of blazing defiance… ‘I have nothing to retract, I adhere to my already published statements,’ he said, and he found the more recent psychical research done by others equally convincing.” (Pg. 229-230)

She writes, “William James had hoped that Fred Myers’ book on subliminal consciousness would be ‘epoch making.’ But ‘Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death,’ published… after Myers’ death, roved more complicated than that---and less successful… In his review of the book… James ‘At best… Myers had just managed to demonstrate that possible supernatural events ought ‘just like other events to be followed up with scientific curiosity.’” (Pg. 263-264)

She concludes, “After twenty-five years working with some outstandingly good psychical researchers, conducting experiments, studying the literature, sitting with mediums both gifted and fraudulent, James found himself stymied. He could accept some of the phenomena as real, but he could not explain them… James deplored the apparently incurable dishonesty associated with spiritual endeavors and the way that it continually obstructed progress… James believed he and his colleagues had been ‘too precipitate in their hopes,’ had trusted too much in the ability of science to solve all mysteries. The answers would not come in his lifetime, he suspected, and perhaps not in his children’s lifetimes either.” (Pg. 311, 313)

This is an excellent, well-balanced and fair treatment, that will be “must reading” for anyone studying the history of the spiritualist/psychic research movement.
One person found this helpful
Report abuse Permalink

Product Details

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5
112 global ratings