THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
THE SOCIETY FOR PSYCHICAL RESEARCH AND OTHER EARLY INVESTIGATORS
OF THE UNKNOWN
There is no doubt that the practice and faith of Spiritualism literally created the need for paranormal investigation. It would be because of the claims of the Spiritualists, about their contact with the spirits of the dead, that the need for scientific investigation of such claims would come about. Spiritualism not only created celebrities in the form of the mediums who profited from it, but it also made legends of the men who came along to question their claims. They were men like Houdini and Harry Price, who were hated by the Spiritualists for their debunking of the fraudulent mediums. These men did not investigate the Spiritualists because of their lack of belief in the possibility of ghosts, but because of the need to question the evidence that was being presented. Their scientific investigations would set the standard for ghost hunters to come and would establish the need to question the evidence of ghosts, ruling out all of the possible explanations for the activity before accepting the idea that the phenomena could be real.
Spiritualism was unfortunately riddled with cases of deliberate fraud. It was easy to fool the thousands of people who were looking for a miracle and many of the mediums and practitioners began lining their pockets with the money they had swindled from their victims. This is not to say that all of the Spiritualists were dishonest. Many of them were good and kind people who truly believed in the honesty of their faith --- and there do remain a handful of mediums and cases today for which no explanation has ever been found.
Regardless of the good intentions of some Spiritualists, the movement was soon under the scrutiny of investigators. Many of them were merely interested in exposing the cases of fraud, while others were intrigued enough to take a closer look at the reported phenomena associated with the séances. It would be from here that many of the early ghost hunters got their start. If not for Spiritualism, it is likely that paranormal investigation would not have advanced as far as it has today. But it was not an easy start....
Psychic investigation began just shortly after the birth of Spiritualism. By the 1850’s, science had managed to challenge the hold that religion maintained on society, offering a new version of the truth for people to examine. Mixed into this time period was Spiritualism, with its alleged proof of life after death, and the public became fascinated by it. Not long after though, many of the practitioners of this new faith were exposed as frauds and a division formed between those who believed in Spiritualism and those who did not. The scientific establishment, resentful over the fact that they had managed to break the hold that religion had on society only to lose their footing to Spiritualism, encouraged the debunking of mediums and had a blatant disregard for anything that even hinted at the supernatural. In spite of this, there was a small number of scientists who had taken the time to attend séances and who believed that there could be something to the strange phenomena that was being reported. They decided to try and apply the laws of science in investigating these reports.
By the late 1800’s, there were a number of scientists who investigated the claims of mediums. Perhaps the best known was Sir William Crookes, a eminent chemist. From 1869 to 1875, he investigated a number of mediums, including the famous Daniel Dunglas Home. After witnessing a number of Home’s séances, he became convinced that the phenomena he saw was genuine and proved the existence of a “psychic” force within the human body. Crookes wrote a paper on Home and tried to have it published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London but it was refused. He then used his considerable influence to have it appear in the Quarterly Journal of Science instead. Needless to say, it caused an uproar in the scientific community and both Crookes and his work were discredited.
Two scientists who watched Crookes’ plight with sympathy were Professor Henry Sidgwick and Frederick Myers. They firmly believed in the possibility of supernatural phenomena. Myers had attended an 1873 séance conducted by Charles Williams, where he had felt the hand of Williams’ spirit guide, John King, melt away to nothing while he was still holding it. It was experiences like this one, combined with the attacks on Crookes, that persuaded Myers, Sidgwick and a friend named Edmund Gurney, to form an association of people who were interested in investigating the paranormal. Among the group’s first members were future British prime minister Arthur Balfour, his sister Eleanor, Lord Rayleigh and Stanton Moses.
One of their first investigations was of a medium named Henry Slade in 1876. By that autumn, Slade and another medium were charged and found guilty of deception but this did not deter the group in their search for genuine phenomena. Over the course of the next six years, the group continued their inquiries and soon found themselves mixed in with a small number of Spiritualists and interested individuals who were also attempting to conduct investigations of the paranormal. Finally, in 1882, a committee was formed with Sidgwick as the president, which became the Society for Psychical Research. The initial membership was mostly made up of Spiritualists and friends of the Sidgwick group like Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain and William Gladstone. They formed six research committees to investigate hypnotism and clairvoyance; telepathy; sensitives; mediums; ghosts and hauntings; and records and archives. The members of the SPR could then devote their spare time to investigating whatever subjects interested them.
The idea behind using scientific research to document the paranormal was to make it as detailed and as painstaking as possible. This is evidenced by a 1886 produced by Frederick Myers, Edmund Gurney, and a postal worker named Frank Podmore. It was called Phantasms of the Living. The book was over 2,000 pages long and detailed the first-hand evidence of “ghosts” of living persons.
While such a meticulous approach did not appeal to many of the Spiritualist members, the SPR continued to grow, gaining new members from both the skeptical and supernatural camps, including Sir Oliver Lodge, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Sir William Crookes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1885, a sister society was founded in America, which like the SPR, is still in existence today.
Over the course of the next couple of decades, the society managed to weather both scandal and embarrassment, as mediums they endorsed were found to be fraudulent; Frederick Myers got involved in a sex scandal with a female psychic investigator who turned out to be a fraud; Edmund Gurney was found dead under strange circumstances; and in 1888, the founders of the Spiritualist movement, the Fox Sisters themselves, publicly confessed to being fakes. Even though the credibility of this confession was in question, it was still used by other scientists to make the SPR members look like fools. By the early 1900’s, the reputation of the society was rather tarnished, but nevertheless, still intact.
In the years that followed, the SPR concentrated on the debunking of mediums, until interest in Spiritualism began to die down, and then turned more toward laboratory work, rather than field investigations, as the American branch of the group had already done.
The SPR is known today as the first large organization dedicated to the study of the paranormal, using scientific techniques to gather evidence. The early society was plagued with problems caused by the controversy of Spiritualism and by smear campaigns launched by scientists who were angry the group was started in the first place. The mainstream scientists considered the academic members of the SPR to be merely crack-pots, while the other members were simply pseudo-scientists who had no business using scientific techniques in any sort of investigation. Needless to say, this kind of close-minded thinking, along with paranormal investigations by academics and amateurs alike, continues today! To get into the good graces of the scientists (which didn’t really work), the SPR spent a lot of their time debunking mediums, which in turn got the Spiritualists angry at them too.
In the end, this was all for the best. A group dedicated to the research of the paranormal cannot be aligned with only the skeptics nor with the “true believers”, but must remain grounded in the middle, gathering evidence which is based on facts and not pre-conceived notions. In this, the SPR (and many groups who have appeared after them) have succeeded and are able to continue their work today.
But who were the men who began this quest for answers? And what forces drove them to search for reasons behind the strange phenomena which was being reported? Let’s take a closer look at a couple of the personalities who have created what we think of as “ghost hunting” today.
Sir William Crookes
As noted earlier, Sir William Crookes was really the first of the modern-age scientists to step up and admit that there were things present in this world that science could not easily explain.
Crookes was born in London in 1832 and was largely self-taught, with no regular schooling, until he enrolled in the Royal College of Chemistry at age 16. He graduated in 1854 and took a position as the Superintendent of the Meteorological Department at Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford. A year later, he took a teaching position as a professor of Chemistry at Chester Training College, but resigned after one year because he was not given a laboratory in which he could do research. Although he tried to find another teaching position, he was never successful and most of his later work was done in a laboratory at his home. In 1856, Crookes married Ellen Humphrey, with whom he had eight children, and from his home he began writing and editing for scientific journals like the Chemical News. He also helped to found the Quarterly Journal of Science in 1864. In 1861, Crookes achieved the first of his scientific discoveries. He discovered the element thallium and the correct measurement of its atomic weight. This got him elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at age 31.
Then, in 1867, came a turning point in Crookes’ life with the death of his youngest brother, Phillip. The two men had been very close and Crookes was very disturbed by his death and, like others of the time who suffered a great loss, Crookes turned to Spiritualism for answers. At the urging of his friend and fellow scientist, Cromwell Varney, Crookes and his wife attended some séances to try and make contact with Phillip. Although the details of these sessions are unknown, Crookes believed they were successful. One of his first séances was with the famous medium, D.D. Home, where Crookes was amazed to see phenomena that he never dreamed possible before. The scientist was not content to simply observe Home’s manifestations, he also attempted to re-create them in the laboratory, and this was also successful. He believed that Home possessed a “psychic force” which emanated from his body and he wrote a paper on the subject, believing it to be of scientific importance.
Not surprisingly, the paper was rejected and then met with scorn and derision when it was finally published. His critics, mainly other scientists, lashed out and stated that the phenomena Crookes reported could not have occurred, that it was simply impossible. “I never said that it was possible,” Crookes replied, “I only said that it was true.”
Although he was frequently criticized by the scientific community, Crookes continued his investigations into the spirit world, beginning his next set of experiments with medium Florence Cook. He began a four-month series of séances in his home laboratory in which he was determined to try and prove that Cook, and her spirit guide Katie King, were not the same person. He claimed to have done this and even photographed them twice together. Crookes also photographed Katie many times and was able to hold and speak with her, claiming that she was both taller and prettier than Florence Cook. He also stated that Cook always wore earrings and that Katie’s ears were not pierced. At a later date, Cook was caught in fraud and to this day, there is a question as to whether or not the phenomena Crookes reported was genuine, or if Florence somehow deceived him.
Crookes last series of sittings were experiments conducted with a medium of rather dubious reputation named Anna Eva Fay. After this, he turned away from psychic research for awhile and returned to his scientific pursuits. Although he supported the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, and even served as its president in 1886, he did not take an active part in the group’s investigations.
In 1875, Crookes earned the Royal Medal for his work and one year later invented the radiometer, a device which demonstrated the effects of radiation on objects in a vacuum, and a special tube called the “Crookes Tube” that went along with it. This invention would lead to the discovery of cathode rays, x-rays and the electron.
Crookes went on to serve on scientific committees, earned prestigious awards for his discoveries and invented an instrument which would be used to study subatomic particles, and yet he never wavered in his belief in Spiritualism. In 1916, after the death of his wife, Crookes attempted to communicate with her and was unsuccessful, but after a visit to a spirit photographer, he was able to obtain what he believed to be photographic proof that her presence was still with him. Sadly, this plate, under modern study, appears to have been double-exposed.
Crookes died in April 1919, never questioning that fact that the spirit world was genuine and that there were things his beloved science would never truly be able to explain.
Sir Oliver Lodge
Perhaps one of the most influential of the early researchers and SPR members was Sir Oliver Lodge, a British physicist and educator. Along with his contributions to psychic research, Lodge was also responsible for advances in physics; early research into electricity; worked on a radio before Marconi; and even invented the spark plug. He was also credited by Albert Einstein, who used some of Lodge’s research when he created his theory of relativity.
Lodge was born in 1851 in Penkhull, Staffordshire, England, the son of a successful businessman. As a boy, Lodge was sent away to boarding school, but unhappy there, he was brought home at 14 to help with his father’s business. For the next seven years, he traveled as an agent for his father. When he was 16, Lodge visited an aunt in London, where he attended some university classes in physics. This sparked his interest in the subject and in 1872, he entered a full course at the Royal College of Sciences. In 1874, he enrolled in University College, London, where he received his degree in 1875 and a doctorate in 1877. After that, he was appointed assistant professor of physics at University College. He married Mary Marshall that same year and together they had 12 children, six sons and six daughters.
A short time later, he had his first brush with psychic research, although claimed to have no interest in it. He later became acquainted with Edmund Gurney and Frederick Myers, but dismissed their massive tome, Phantasms of the Living as merely a “meaningless collection of ghost stories”.
In 1881, Lodge was named as first professor of physics at the new University College in Liverpool. Coincidentally, Lodge was contacted by Malcolm Guthrie, who lived in Liverpool, about two of his drapery establishment employees, who he believed would make successful ESP test subjects. Lodge was intrigued by the idea of conducting the experiments and to his surprise, obtained good results. He soon joined the SPR and became involved in their meetings and investigations.
In 1889, Lodge became involved in sittings with an American medium named Leonora Piper, who had been invited to England to perform. He was impressed with messages the medium delivered from his aunt, who had recently died, and Lodge invited her to Liverpool, where he could study her further. During these séances, Piper told Lodge of long-dead relatives about whom he knew nothing -- information which was later verified.
After his sessions with Piper, Lodge already considered telepathy between living persons to be possible but now he was considering that idea that it might also take place between the living and the dead as well. He was now aware of the possibility that some mediums possessed the ability to read the minds of the supposedly deceased communicators, along with the minds of the séance participants. Because of this, he felt that messages given through mediums must be verified for them to be able to have any authenticity at all. This was a key problem in Lodge’s research. Because of the possibility of telepathy, messages given by different mediums to the same person meant nothing if the mediums were reading the sitter’s mind.
To combat this problem, Lodge enacted a major development in psychic research. Several mediums on different continents were used to gather fragments of messages (attributed to the same spirit communicators) which only made sense when the fragments were all put together. These communications, which became known as “cross correspondences”, could be then be verified as not having come from independent living sources, but from a single spiritual one instead.
Lodge was by now convinced of life after death, but was not a practitioner of the Spiritualistic faith. This, however, was about to change. In August 1915, medium Leonora Piper delivered a message to Lodge which was said to have come from his friend Frederick Myers, who had died in 1901. In the message, which was mysterious at the time, Myers told Lodge that he would be near his friend “to ease the blow which was coming”. A few days later, the message became clear, as Lodge learned that his son, Raymond, had been killed in a battle in France.
Lodge and his wife began to regularly attend séances and at one of them Lady Mary was told (allegedly by her dead son) that he appeared in a photograph with his walking stick. Through another medium came a more detailed description of the photo, including that someone was leaning on Raymond’s shoulder in the picture. The Lodge’s had no such photograph and dismissed the messages as meaningless. Shortly after, a friend (who knew nothing of the séances) mailed them a photograph -- which matched the photo from Raymond’s communications exactly. Lodge would go on to describe these events and the séances which followed in his book Raymond: A Life, which was published in 1916. The book created a sensation, earning praise from the Spiritualist community and predictably, scorn from the scientific establishment. He would follow this with a number of other books on Spiritualism and psychic research.
Lodge died in August 1940, leaving behind a sealed envelope, the contents of which he was to try and communicate to SPR members after his death. To this date, no satisfactory messages regarding its contents have ever been received.