Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Science writer goes hunting for ghosts


The real center of Ghost Hunters is not, as its subtitle suggests, William James, the American pioneer in psychology and researcher in the paranormal, but Leonora Piper, a Boston housewife and paranormal phenomenon.

Her astounding capacities as a medium captured the attention, and often the approbation, of not only James but a crowd of 19th-century scientists.

James, brother of the novelist (and ghost-story writer) Henry James, is, of course, central to the tale - he was a leading name among several scientists who risked their reputations to search for scientific proof of life after death.

But they might not have been able to endure the ridicule and persevere if, among the dozens of frauds working the spiritualist con, they had not come across a handful of remarkable people like Piper, nearly all of them women, whose apparently supernatural powers - to engage in mental telepathy and/or to summon the "spirits" of the deceased - staggered the imagination.

Indeed, they stagger Deborah Blum's imagination today, if I read her right. Not that Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former science journalist and now an author and professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, comes down on either side of the issue.

Rather, her book, skillfully organized and felicitously written, lays out the facts like a good piece of newspaper writing and lets the reader decide. Yet she cannot suppress a sense of wonderment that makes her say that writing this book "changed the way I thought. I'm just less smug than I was when I started, less positive of my rightness."

By the mid-19th century interest in extrasensory powers and other expressions of the supernatural was widespread. The Fox sisters, the notorious "spirit rappers" of upstate New York, were a sensation, as were early forms of what later became known as Ouija boards.

Mediums (spiritualists) were also popular. Most proved to be charlatans, notably the founder of "Theosophy," Madame Blavatsky. But a few whose knowledge of things they could not know, knowledge seemingly from beyond the grave, withstood minute scrutiny.

The topic attracted great names. When the British branch of the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882, Mark Twain - anguished for a quarter-century by a recurring dream about his brother's death - joined. James was a founder of the American branch of the SPR in 1885.

Alfred Russel Wallace, recognized as the co-author with Charles Darwin of the theory of natural selection, got interested in spiritualism as an outgrowth of his speculation about the existence of or at least need for a moral force in the universe and his worries about mankind stripped of faith.

A convincing seance with the medium Daniel Dunglas Home (mocked by Robert Browning in his poem "Mr. Sludge") left him quite unsettled.

The SPR's most indefatigable exposer of frauds was the Australian-born Richard Hodgson, but on Leonora Piper he broke his lance.

When Oliver Lodge, a British physicist, sat in on one of Piper's sessions, he was bowled over by what Blum calls the "transcendental eeriness" of what Piper knew and revealed.

Hodgson, so obsessive in his attempt to expose Piper that he spied on her in the depths of the 1888 blizzard, was finally won over when he was visited by a deceased friend through Piper in a session that, in Blum's account of what Piper did and revealed, is truly mind-boggling. "After sittings with 130 different visitors, he'd been persuaded of the impossible - that the personality in the room was indeed a spirit, proof that his friend lived on."

As we know, James and his colleagues never "proved" anything to science's total satisfaction, and psychic research has scarcely been pursued in as concentrated a manner since. But they did come across some corking good ghost stories.

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