Quiet and conservative medium Leonora Piper may have been the most authentic psychic to emerge from the Spiritualist movement

Quiet and conservative medium Leonora Piper may have been the most authentic psychic to emerge from the Spiritualist movement

Professor William James of Harvard was one of America's greatest psychologist - philosophers and was one of the founders of the Pragmatic school of thought -- that only those principles that can be demonstrated not only theoretically, by deduction, but practically, by use, deserve intelligent consideration. And yet this unbending pragmatist was converted to a belief in psychic phenomena to such a degree that he became one of the founding members of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). The medium who accomplished this seemingly impossible conversion was a woman named Leonora Piper, who was the reason that professor James coined the adage about "the one white crow that proves that not all crows are black." She became to him the one honest Spiritualist medium whose mere existence refuted the charge that all mediums are fakes. 

Leonora Simonds Piper was born in Nashua, New Hampshire in June 1859 and her first inkling toward her future career occurred when she was only eight years-old and was playing in the garden one day. She felt a sharp pain in her right ear and then a whispered voice that said: "Aunt Sara, not dead, but with you still". Terrified, she ran into the house and told her mother. It later turned out that Aunt Sara had died at that very moment. 

In 1881, Leonora married William Piper of Boston, with whom she had two daughters, Alta and Minerva. According to Alta, who later wrote an extensive biography about her mother in 1929, Leonora's mediumship began in earnest in 1884 after Piper's father-in-law took her for a medical consultation with J.R. Cook, a blind clairvoyant who was making a reputation for psychic cures. Piper lost consciousness at Cook's touch and entered a trance of her own. Later, she attended a home circle sitting with him and again entered a trance. This time, she produced a message for one of the other persons present -- who considered it to be the most accurate message he had ever received during his 30 year interest in Spiritualism.

Piper soon began to give private séances in her home and this is how she became acquainted with Professor James. Their initial meeting came about quite casually. James' mother-in-law, a Mrs. Gibbens, heard about Piper through friends and since she had never met with a medium before, decided to schedule an appointment out of curiosity. After her meeting with Piper, she returned to the James' home very excited and told the Professor that while in a trace, Piper had told her facts about relatives, living and dead, that she could not have possibly have known about in any normal way. James laughed at her credulity and called her a "victim" of a medium's trickery. He gave her an explanation as to how mediums accomplished their fraud but Mrs. Gibbens refused to consider this and returned for another séance the following week. This time, she convinced James' sister-in-law to accompany her.

Both women were not impressed with the medium and returned to Cambridge to tell James all about her. Again the professor tried to discourage them but they would have nothing to do with it. Instead, the insisted that James visit the medium himself and, irritated that they would not accept his logical explanations for the alleged spirit messages, he agreed.

When James arrived at the Piper's home, he was surprised to note the complete absence of Spiritualist props -- no cabinet, no red lights, circles of chairs, trumpets or bells. The sitters, of which there were two of three others present, merely sat wherever they liked in the Piper's modest but comfortable living room. Mrs. Piper also surprised the professor. She was quiet and shy and there was nothing flamboyant about her, as he had observed in so many other mediums. She politely warned her guests that there would be nothing sensational about the séance and that she did manifest spirits or cause things to fly about. She would simply go into a trance and one of her "spirit controls" would then take over. There might or might not be messages given -- she had no control over that.

James was impressed with what he saw. Piper was able to summon up the names of his wife's father and even that of a child that he and his wife had lost the previous year. He gave Piper no information to work with and in fact, was purposely quiet throughout the séance so that she would have nothing with which to guess facts from. He later wrote: "My impression after this first visit 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 stumped and made appointments for 25 of his friends to visit her as well, thus starting research that would continue for the remainder of Piper's career. At that same time, the professor was involved in the starting of the ASPR and was searching for worthwhile subjects to study. He secured the right from Piper to manage her sittings and he continued sending test subjects to her for the next two years, then turned over the investigation to Richard Hodgson from London, who had been sent to America to take over as the Research Officer for the ASPR. 

Like James, Hodgson began his work with Piper assuming her to be a fraud. His research in England had unmasked a number of fraudulent mediums and had given him a working knowledge of conjuring. He knew what to look for in a hoax and expected to find the similar qualities in Leonora Piper. He made appointments for 50 sitters with her, keeping their identities secret from the medium, and kept detailed records of the séances. He even hired private detectives to follow her about and to make sure that she was not compiling information about possible sitters. Although she never behaved in any suspicious manner, Piper continued to produce eerily accurate information about people she had never met and about whom she knew nothing. 

During this time, Piper's spirit control was a "Dr. Phinuit" (pronounced "Finney") who was supposedly a French doctor but who knew nothing about medicine and could not speak French. He was never able to give an account of his earthly life either and this led many researcher to theorize that Phinuit was really a secondary personality of Piper -- but who had a tremendous psychic ability. Phinuit was not who he claimed to be but through him, Piper was able to come up with information that she had no logical way of knowing.

Piper's talent was considered to be so extraordinary that she was taken to England for 83 sittings men considered to be the premiere psychical researchers of the day, including Henry Sidgwick, Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir William Barrett, F.W.H. Meyers and Dr. Walter Leaf. Although she was in a place where she had never been before, was closely watched, and even consented to having her mail opened, Piper did extremely well and continued to amaze even the most hardened investigators. Hodgson published a cautious report of his work with Piper in 1892 but in 1898, he revised slightly this and accepted her as genuine.

Piper returned to the United States and began a rocky period in her mediumistic career. In 1901, the New York Herald carried a story about her that was headlined "Mrs. Piper's Plain Statement". Some would claim that she confessed to fraud in this statement but she did not. In fact, she wrote only that she could not be sure that she was being controlled by spirits but that she thought perhaps her information came from extrasensory perception (ESP) instead. This was always a question about her mediumship (and perhaps about all mediumship) so the newspaper report came as no surprise to those who had been studying her work for years. 

Piper returned to England in 1906 and took part in the complex network of medium communications known as cross correspondences. Her contributions were again outstanding but unfortunately, after Piper returned to America in 1908, her sittings were badly managed. The psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Amy Tanner were allowed to experiment with her until 1909 and while Tanner later wrote a book about the research called Studies in Spiritualism (1910), the sittings were unorganized and often questionable. Sittings were largely devoted to personal matters, sitters were left unsupervised and records were only sporadically taken. Piper was also subjected to very harsh treatment, evidently in order to test the depths of her trance. This was a period in psychical study when mediums were often painfully and badly treated, including intimate searches and near-torture to see if they were actually unconscious. Her daughter Alta later stated that she suffered from a "badly blistered and swollen tongue which caused Piper considerable pain and inconvenience for several days."

Because of the terrible treatment that she received at this time, Piper saw her abilities temporarily suspended until about 1911. It was probably caused by her unconscious  fear to submerge into a trance, afraid of what might happen to her while she was not conscious. When her powers did return, it was in the form of automatic writing rather than as a trance. Her trance state never did return. Piper was back in form for a short time but after she returned to American in 1912, she ceased working for almost 10 years. She worked with a few other investigators for a short time and then retired for good in 1927.

Leonora Piper died on July 3, 1950 and has since come to be regarded as a medium of the first rank. She gave much of her life in the service of science and as a result, many who had previously doubted the possibility of survival after death became convinced of its reality. One of those, of course, was Professor William James, whose words about Leonora Piper have long survived his own passage from this world:

"To upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek demonstration that no crows are black; it is sufficient to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient."