Ghost hunters

Deborah Blum. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Century, 2007.

In a review of the newly published Phantasms of the Living in Science magazine in January 1887, Harvard psychologist William James wrote “ the next 25 years will then probably decide the question. Either a flood of confirmatory phenomena, caught in the act will pour in, in consequence of their work; or it will not pour in - and then we shall legitimately enough explain the stories here preserved as mixtures of odd coincidence with fiction”.

Here we are 120 years later, and the questions raised by the founders of the SPR are just as unsettled as ever, The SPR will be 125 years old this year yet its quest seems ever more tenuous.

This book explores the heroic early years of psychic research in Britain and the United States, against the background of the life of William James.
Psychical research began as an attempt to create some sort of middle ground between traditional religion and the rising tide of science, and perhaps that was its failing. Reading this book confirms what we already knew about psychical researchers, that most weren’t looking for answers, they were looking for The Answer, for proof of some transcendental aspect of the human personality which could survive bodily death. Some went about this task with an admirable critical faculty, others with breathless enthusiasm which went far beyond the borders of credulity, but they shared a common goal.

In those early years it looked as though they might just find it. Deborah Blum shows how amid the mountains of trivia, a mental medium like Leonora Piper could time and again produce stuff which made people think “how on earth did she know that”, and amid all the crude fakery from time to time physical mediums such as Eusapio Palladino would produce something which made them ask “how on earth did they do that.”

For some there were easy choices, for Alfred Russel Wallace it was that of total belief, for most mainstream scientists it was one of total disbelief. James was one of those who could never quite get off the fence. He was sure something very strange was going on, occasionally it looked as though it might be 'The Answer'. but then it would fade away again. Mrs Piper produced a control called 'George Pellew' who seemed to know all sorts of things about friends and acquaintances lives that only the real Pellew could know. Yet when it came to himself and its own interests and outlook, there was an emptiness. Much of what was revealed also happened to be 'of a private nature', presumably about their sexual or financial indiscretions, and never to be ever revealed.

Early on the self destructive nature of psychical research revealed itself: either the phenomena would self-destruct (just when after a number of really puzzling episodes you think that proof is at hand, there is crude cheating) or the investigators self-destruct. Several of the founders of psychical research died comparatively young. Two, Gurney and Podmore, in suspicious circumstances which nobody could be quite sure were accidents or suicide. Myers almost literally willed himself to death to join his lost great love. Sidgwick died of a sudden cancer and Hodgson dropped down dead with a heart attack. William James died well before 70. They had worn themselves out on this obssessional quest. Others just lost all sense of perspective.

As the 'Golden Age' closed within the first quarter century of the SPRs existence, its leaders would become obsessed with the Cross Correspondences in which the putative founders sent a whole string of cryptic classical messages to their earthly followers. On the Continent psychical researchers would scramble to endorse one dodgy physical medium after another.

There would be a post war revival from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, in which psychical research became respectable, in which almost everyone thought “there must be something in it”. Then came Uri Geller, the expos√© of Sam Soil's seminal experiment, the one that made most of the agnostics sit up and take notice, and the birth of CSICOP. Parapsychologists and psychical researchers responded by either retreating into a world of statistical abstraction where no-one without a degree could follow, or descended into ever deeper circles of the pit of credulity.

Of course there are those who proclaim that 'The Answer' is just round the corner, but after 125 years that must be a great leap of faith. We are still where we were in the days of William James, too many anecdotes to lay the whole thing to rest, story after story which if accurately reported remain very puzzling, yet nothing is ever pinned down or proven.

As to what happened with Leonora Piper and Eusapio Palladino, well that is truly lost in the mists of time. -- Peter Rogerson

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