Exhibits in the Haunted
Museum are based on the work of Troy Taylor from his
book, Ghosts by Gaslight!
Click on the Cover for More About the Book!
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.
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.
conservative medium Leonora Piper may have been the most authentic
psychic to emerge from the Spiritualist movement
Piper soon began to give
private sťances 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 sťance 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
sťance 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
William James - Avowed Pragmatist who became convinced of Piper's
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 sťance 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 sťances. 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
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
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:
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."
© Copyright 2003
- 2008 by Troy
Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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