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Leonora Piper

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Leonora Piper

Post by Candlelight.kk on Fri 28 Apr 2017, 15:44

(originally posted on 18 Mar 2012)

Leonora Piper
by Graham Jennings
(Two Worlds Issue 4419)

PROBABLY the most renowned and tested medium in the history of psychical research was born in Nashua, New Hampshire, USA, on June 27, 1859. Leonora Evelina Simonds had psychic experiences as a child. Aged eight, Leonora had a communication from an aunt while playing in the garden when she clairaudiently heard the words, “Aunt Sara, not dead, but with you still.”  Days later, Leonora heard that Aunt Sara had passed at that very hour. Then one night she was unable to sleep because of a rocking bed and a flood of light with many strange faces.

In 1881, she married William R. Piper, a Boston shopkeeper. Leonora gave birth to two daughters, Alta in 1884 and Minerva in 1885. Around the time of Alta’s birth, Leonora’s father-in-law James took her for a group consultation with Dr J. R. Cocke, a blind medium who gave medical diagnoses. At his touch, she saw again the flood of light and strange faces from childhood. Subsequently, Leonora went into trance and wrote a note which she handed to Judge Frost, a prominent jurist who was also a Spiritualist. He was convinced it was from his “dead” son.

Word spread and a reluctant Leonora was inundated with requests for sittings.  As a rule she declined, except for family and acquaintances. The exception was a Mrs Gibbins. So impressed was she that she told William James, her son-in-law.  James (1842-1910), a Harvard professor, psychologist and philosopher, laughed and said she had been duped.  She persisted, sat with Leonora again – this time with his sister-in-law – and finally persuaded James to see her himself.

By now William Piper was working in a Boston department store. Their home was comfortable yet modest and devoid of any psychic props, which impressed James, as did her honesty.  Leonora promised him nothing but what might occur in trance, over which she had no control and no recollection.
“My impression after this first visit,” James wrote, “was that Mrs Piper 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 to absolutely reject the latter explanation and to believe that she has supernormal powers.”

James was then involved with setting up the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). Knowing that there were plenty of fraudulent mediums, he saw Leonora as the exception.
He famously declared: “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black . . . it is enough if you prove that one crow is white. My white crow is Mrs Piper.”
James secured the rights to manage Leonora’s sittings for two years, for which she received a fee, before turning over the investigation to Richard Hodgson from England.  Hodgson (1855-1905), who was originally from Australia, had studied law at the University of Melbourne and later Cambridge, England. A leading member of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research (SPR), he was now the research officer for the ASPR.

Leonora’s guide in those early years was a Dr Phinuit. Many doubted his claims to have been a French doctor because he spoke little French, which he claimed to have forgotten, though Leonora knew none.
One of the early communicators through Leonora was an Australian girl whose marriage with Hodgson her parents had prevented. It was evidential and made a deep impression on him.

Over the years, Hodgson spent long periods investigating Leonora. Eventually, in 1897 Hodgson declared in the “Proceedings” of the SPR: “At the present time, I cannot profess to have any doubt that the chief communicators . . . are veritably the personages that they claim to be, that they have survived the change we call death and that they have directly communicated with us whom we call living through Mrs Piper’s entranced organism.”

Hodgson and James satisfied themselves that Leonora’s trance state was different from a hypnotic one by methods that seem outrageous.  The medium’s arm was severely pricked, ammonia applied to her nostrils and a lighted match to her arm, and an incision made in the wrist that scarred her for life. They also ruled out telepathy when they were able to verify information unknown to sitters at the time.

In 1888-89, James Hervey Hyslop (1854-1920), a professor of logic and ethics, joined the investigation. After only twelve sittings, he declared: “I have been talking with my father, my brother, my uncles.
“Whatever supernormal powers we may be pleased to attribute to Mrs Piper’s secondary personalities, it would be difficult to make me believe that these secondary personalities could have thus completely reconstituted the mental personality of my dead relatives.  “To admit this would involve me in too many improbabilities. I prefer to believe that I have been talking to my dead relatives in person; it is simpler.”

Hyslop eventually produced a table of all his sittings recorded by incidents. He defined an incident as being composed of several factors.  For example, in the statement “My aunt Susan visited my brother” there are four factors – my aunt, the name Susan, the visit and my brother.  Out of 205 incidents, Hyslop classed 152 as true, 37 as indeterminate and 16 as false. Of the 927 factors comprising these incidents, he classed 717 as true, 167 as indeterminate and 43 as false.  Incredibly, no definitive work was published by the SPR itself, leaving the “Proceedings,” spanning 40 years, as the only official record of its finest ever experimental medium.

Hodgson and James decided to send Leonora to England to see how she would fare in an alien environment where she knew no one. The medium arrived in November 1889 with her children, from whom she refused to be parted.  Leonora stayed with Frederic W. H. Myers (1843-1901), a co-founder of the SPR, and Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), an eminent physicist and psychical researcher. Both owned country mansions and were able to isolate her in a way that would be impossible today.  Myers engaged a country girl who knew nothing of him or the family as Leonora’s personal servant. Meanwhile, the Lodges replaced their entire retinue of servants. Everything that might give a clue to family affairs, such as photographs and the family Bible, was hidden.  The usual precautions were observed, such as introducing sitters under false names or when Leonora was already entranced. Both men intercepted her mail and ensured that she went nowhere unaccompanied.  Myers and Lodge were impressed with the medium’s accuracy and the amount of verifiable detail given. Lodge even hired a private investigator to satisfy himself that the information given could not have been obtained by normal means.  Subsequently, Lodge wrote a full account of the sittings in the SPR’s “Proceedings” and an abbreviated version in his book “The Survival of Man” (1909).  Most remarkable was the communication from Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), an old friend of Myers and the first honorary secretary of the SPR.  “The speaker,” wrote Lodge, “now called me ‘Lodge’ in his natural manner (a name which Phinuit never once used) and we had a long conversation, mainly non-evidential, but with a reference to some private matters which were said to be referred to as proof of identity and which are well adapted to the purpose.  “They were absolutely unknown to me, but have been verified through a common friend.” The friend was Myers.  Other investigators who had passed on also made verifiable spirit returns through Leonora, namely Myers and Hodgson.

Leonora made two further visits to England to see Lodge in 1906 and 1909.  There were three distinct periods of different spirit controls in her career.  While there was difficulty in establishing the identity of Dr Phinuit, there was none with the second control.  In March 1892, thirty-two-year-old George Pelham passed on after falling from a horse. A graduate at law, he had studied literature and philosophy, and knew Richard Hodgson.  A few weeks later, Pelham joined Phinuit as a control and communicated mainly by automatic writing. Hodgson recorded 150 sittings in which Pelham identified 30 former friends.  “He not only addressed them all by name,” wrote Hodgson, “but took with each of them the tone he had been accustomed to take.” Pelham was fond of quoting Latin (which again Leonora did not know) and never mistook a stranger for a friend.

In 1915, Leonora gave the famous “Faunus” message, a classical allusion from Myers that predicted the death of Sir Oliver Lodge’s son Raymond in the first world war.  Leonora then ceased working for the ASPR to care for her sick mother, but sat again in 1924 for the psychologist Dr Gardner Murphy (1895-1979) and again in 1926-27 for the newly-formed Boston Society for Psychical Research.  After that, Leonora retired from mediumship and passed on in 1950 having provided psychical researchers with some of the best ever survival evidence on record.

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