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Ghost Hunters of Yesterday and To-day
Psychical research, of which so much mention has been made in the preceding pages, may be roughly yet sufficiently described as an effort to determine by strictly scientific methods the nature and significance of apparitions, hauntings, spiritistic phenomena, and those other weird occurrences that would seem to confirm the idea that the spirits of the dead can and do communicate with the living. It is something comparatively new—and like all scientific endeavor is the outgrowth of many minds. But so far as its origin may be attributed to any one man, credit must chiefly be given to a Cambridge University professor named Henry Sidgwick.
At the time, Sidgwick was merely a lecturer in the university, a post given him as a reward for his brilliant career as an undergraduate. He was a born student and investigator, a restless seeker after knowledge. Philosophy, sociology, ethics, economics, mathematics, the classics,—he made almost the whole wide field of thought his sphere of inquiry. And after awhile, as is so often the case, his learning became too profound for his peace of mind. He had been born and brought up in the faith of the English Church, and had unhesitatingly made the religious declaration required of all members of the university faculty. But little by little he felt himself drifting from the moorings of his youth, and doubting the truth of the ancient doctrines and traditions. Honestly skeptical, but still unwilling to lose his hold on religion, he turned feverishly to the study of oriental languages, of ancient philosophies, of history, of science, in the hope of finding evidence that would remove his doubts. But the more he read the greater grew his uncertainty, especially with respect to the vital question of the existence of a spiritual world and its relation to mankind.
While he was still laboring in this valley of indecision, Sidgwick was visited by a young man, Frederic W. H. Myers, who had studied under him a few years earlier and for whom he had formed a warm friendship. Myers, it seemed, was tormented by the same scruples that were harassing him. It was his belief, he told Sidgwick, that if the teachings of the Bible were true—if there existed a spiritual world which in days of old had been manifest to mankind—then such a world should be manifest now. And one beautiful, starlit evening, when they were strolling together through the university grounds, he put to his old master the pointed question:
"Do you think that, although tradition, intuition, metaphysics, have failed to solve the riddle of the universe, there is still a chance of solving it by drawing from actual observable phenomena—ghosts, spirits, whatsoever it may be—valid knowledge as to a world unseen?"
Gazing gravely into the eager face of his companion, and weighing his words with the caution that was characteristic of him, Sidgwick replied that he had indeed entertained this thought; that, although not over hopeful of the result, he believed such an inquiry should be undertaken, notwithstanding the unpleasant notoriety it would entail on those embarking in it. Would he, then, make the quest, and would he permit Myers to pursue it by his side? Long and earnestly the two friends talked together, and when their walk ended, that December night in 1869, psychical research had at last come definitely into being.
In the beginning, however, progress was painfully slow and uncertain. "Our methods," as Myers afterward explained, "were all to make. In those early days we were more devoid of precedents, of guidance, even of criticism that went beyond mere expressions of contempt, than is now readily conceived."
It was realized that no mere analysis of alleged experiences in the past would do; that what was needed was a rigid scrutiny of present-day manifestations of a seemingly supernormal character, and the collection of a mass of well authenticated evidence sufficient to justify inferences and conclusions. Earnestly and bravely the friends went to work, and before long had the satisfaction of finding an invaluable assistant in the person of Edmund Gurney, another Cambridge man and an enthusiast in all matters metaphysical.
At first, to be sure, Gurney entered into psychical research in a half-hearted, quizzical way, expecting to be amused rather than instructed. And he derived little encouragement from the investigations carried on by Sidgwick, Myers, and himself in the field of spiritistic mediumship. Fraud seemed always to be at the bottom of the phenomena produced in the séance room. But his interest was suddenly and permanently awakened by the discovery, following several years spent in patiently collecting evidence, of facts pointing to the possibility of thought being communicated from mind to mind by some agency other than the recognized organs of sense. At once he made it his special business to accumulate data bearing on this point, his labors ultimately leading him into an exhaustive examination of hypnotism, as he found that the hypnotic trance seemed peculiarly favorable to "thought transference," or "telepathy."
Meantime, the example of this little Cambridge group had been followed by other investigators; and in 1876, before no less dignified and conservative a body than the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the proposal was made that a special committee be appointed for the systematic examination of spiritistic and kindred phenomena. The idea was broached by Dr. W. F. Barrett, professor of physics at the Royal College of Science, Dublin, and was warmly seconded by Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir William Crookes, two distinguished scientists who had already made adventures in psychical research and were destined to wide renown as ghost hunters.
For some reason nothing was done at the time; but five years later Professor Barrett renewed his suggestion, asking Myers and Gurney if they would join him in the formation of such a society. That, they replied, they would gladly do, provided Sidgwick could be induced to accept its presidency. Having long before realized that the field was too extensive for thorough exploration by any individual, however gifted, Sidgwick willingly gave his consent. And accordingly, in January, 1882, the now celebrated Society for Psychical Research was formally organized, its first council including, besides Sidgwick, Myers, Gurney, and Barrett, such men as Arthur J. Balfour, afterward Prime Minister of Great Britain; the brilliant Richard Hutton; Prof. Balfour Stewart; and Frank Podmore, than whom no more merciless executioner of bogus ghosts is wielding the ax to-day.
Unfortunately, the first council also numbered several avowed spiritists, notably the medium Stainton Moses; and the society's birthplace was in the rooms of the British National Association of Spiritualists. These two facts created a wide-spread suspicion that the society was actually nothing more than an adjunct to the spiritistic movement. Nor was confidence wholly restored by the hasty withdrawal of the spiritistic representatives as soon as they learned that strictly scientific methods of inquiry were to prevail; or by the accession, as honorary members, of national figures like W. E. Gladstone, John Ruskin, Lord Tennyson, A. R. Wallace, Sir William Crookes, and G. F. Watts.
To the scientific as well as the popular consciousness, the society was little better than an assemblage of cranks, with strangely fantastic notions, and only too likely to lose its mental balance and help ignorant and superstitious people to lose theirs. Conscious, however, of the really serious and important nature of their enterprise, and cheered by Gladstone's comforting assurance that no investigation of greater moment to mankind could be made,[R] the members of the society applied themselves zealously to the business that had brought them together.
Sensibly enough, they adopted the principle of specialization and division of labor. While one group carried on experiments designed to prove or disprove the telepathic hypothesis, another engaged in a systematic examination of the alleged facts of clairvoyance. A third, in its turn, under the skilful guidance of Gurney, investigated the phenomena of the hypnotic trance, with results unexpectedly beneficial to medical science. A special committee was also appointed to collect and sift evidence as to the reality of apparitions and hauntings, making whenever possible personal examinations of the seers of the visions and the places of their occurrence. Finally, there were various subcommittees of inquiry into the physical phenomena of spiritism,—the knockings, table turnings, production of spirit forms, and similar marvels of the Dunglas Home type of "medium." From the outset, these subcommittees demonstrated the value of psychical research, as a protection to the interests of society, by exposing, one after another, the fraudulent character of the pretended intermediaries between the seen and the unseen world.
In this region of inquiry no one was more successful than a recruit from distant Australia, by name Richard Hodgson. Hodgson, unlike Sidgwick and Myers and many others of his associates, had not engaged in psychical research from the hope that the truths of the Bible might thereby be demonstrated. His motive was that of the detective eager to unravel mysteries. From his boyhood he had had a singular fondness for solving tricks and puzzles of all sorts; and when, in 1878, he came to England to complete his education at Cambridge, he naturally gravitated into the company of Sidgwick, Myers, and Gurney, as men busied in an undertaking that appealed to his detective instinct. He was radically different from them in temperament and point of view—not at all mystical, full of animal spirits, fond of all manner of sports, and interested in occult subjects only so far as they furnished working material for his nimble and inquiring mind. The Cambridge trio, however, took kindly to him, invited him to join the Society for Psychical Research, and two years after its formation were instrumental in sending him to India to investigate the methods of Madam Blavatsky, the high priestess of the theosophic movement which was then winning adherents throughout the civilized world.
From this inquiry he returned to England with an international reputation as a detective of the supernatural. With the aid of two disgruntled confederates of the theosophist leader, he had demonstrated the falsity of the foundations on which her claims rested, and had shown that downright swindling constituted a large part of her stock in trade. With redoubled ardor he now plunged into the task of exposing the spiritistic mediums plying their vocation in England, and for this purpose enlisted the assistance of a professional conjurer, S. J. Davey, who was also a member of the Society for Psychical Research.
Davey, after a little practice, succeeded in duplicating by mere sleight of hand many of the most impressive feats of the mediums; doing this, indeed, so well that some spiritists alleged that he was in reality a medium himself. Hodgson, for his part, by clever analysis of the Davey performances and of the feats of Davey's mediumistic competitors, brought home to his colleagues in the Society for Psychical Research a lively sense of the folly of depending on the human eye as a detector of fraudulent spiritistic phenomena. His crowning triumph came with his exposure of Eusapia Paladino, the Italian medium who is still enjoying an undeserved popularity on the European continent.
But in time even Hodgson met his Waterloo. Sent to the United States to investigate the trance phenomena of Mrs. Leonora Piper, he was forced to confess that in her case the theory of fraud fell to the ground, and as is well known he ended by developing into an out and out spiritist. A few days before Christmas, 1905, he suddenly died in Boston; and, if reports from the spirit world may be accepted, the once-renowned ghost hunter has himself become a ghost, visiting in especial two of his American colleagues, Prof. William James and Prof. James H. Hyslop.[S]
To return, however, to the early days of the Society for Psychical Research. Valuable as were the results obtained by Hodgson and his associates on what may be called the anti-swindle committees, they had a distinctly negative bearing on the supreme object of inquiry—proof of the existence of a spiritual world in which human personality exists after the death of the body. Some enthusiasts did not hesitate to proclaim at an early date that such proof had actually been secured, basing this assertion on the seemingly supernatural facts brought to light by the committees on telepathy, clairvoyance, and apparitions. But the society, under the leadership of the cautious Sidgwick, who was its president for many years, steadily refused to countenance this view, and insisted that before any definite conclusions could be reached far more evidence would have to be assembled. Thus the first ten years of the society's existence were marked by few positive results,—the most important being the statement of the case for telepathy and of its possible relationships to apparitions and hauntings, as well as to the purely psychical phenomena of spiritualism.
Indeed, the society formally expressed its acquiescence in the telepathic hypothesis as early as 1884, in the words, "Our society claims to have proved the reality of thought transference—of the transmission of thoughts, feelings, and images from one mind to another by no recognized channel of sense." But to no other dictum did it commit itself until ten years more had passed when, following the so-called census of hallucinations, it gave voice to its belief that between deaths and apparitions of the dying person a connection existed that was not due to chance. And since then the society has contented itself with steadily accumulating evidence designed to throw light on the causal connection between deaths and ghosts, and to illumine the central problem of demonstrating scientifically the existence of an unseen world and the immortality of the soul.
Individuals, of course, have been free to express their views, and from the pens of several have come striking and suggestive analyses of the evidence assembled in the course of the society's twenty-five years. In this respect, beyond any question, primacy must be given the writings of Myers. Even before the organization of the society, his personal researches had led him to suspect that, whatever the truth about the life beyond the grave, there was reason for radical changes of belief regarding the nature of human personality itself. In the light of the phenomena of the hypnotic trance, clairvoyance, hallucinations, and even of natural sleep, it seemed to him that, instead of being a stable, indivisible unity, human personality was essentially unstable and divisible.
And as the years passed and he was enabled to coördinate the results of the investigations carried on by the different committees, he gradually became convinced that over and beyond the self of which man is normally conscious there existed in every man a secondary self endowed with faculties transcending those of the normal wake-a-day self. To this he gave the name of the "subliminal self," and, in the words of Professor James, "endowed psychology with a new problem,—the exploration of the subliminal region being destined to figure thereafter in that branch of learning as Myers's problem."
Not content with this, he gave himself, with all the earnestness that had originally drawn him into activity with Sidgwick, to the formulation of a cosmic philosophy based on the hypothesis of the subliminal self and its operations in that unseen world of whose existence he no longer doubted. Here he laid himself open to the charge of extravagance and transcendentalism, and undoubtedly exceeded the logical limit. But for all of that his labors—cut short by death six years ago, and only a few months after the death of his beloved master, Sidgwick—have been little short of epoch marking, and amply suffice to vindicate the existence of the once despised, and still by no means venerated, Society for Psychical Research.
Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Mr. Frank Podmore are other members of the society who have granted the outside world informative glimpses of its workings and discoveries. Sir William Crookes, of course, is best known as a great chemist, discoverer of the element thallium, and inventor of numerous scientific instruments; while Sir Oliver Lodge's most striking work has been in electricity, and more particularly in the direction of improving wireless telegraphy. But both have long been actively interested in psychical research, and perhaps most of all in those phases of it bearing on the telepathic hypothesis, their great aim being to discover just what the technique of telepathic communication from mind to mind may be.
Mr. Podmore, on the other hand, like Richard Hodgson, has chiefly concerned himself with psychical research from the detective, or critical, standpoint. He began his labors late in the '70's, associating himself with the Cambridge group, and has consistently maintained the attitude of a skeptical, though open minded, investigator. To-day, to a certain extent, he may be said to occupy the place so long filled by Henry Sidgwick as a sane, restraining influence on the less judicial members of the society, who would unhesitatingly brush aside all objections and embrace the spiritistic hypothesis with all its supernatural implications.[T]
Of course, psychical research has by no means been confined to the English organization. All over the world investigators are now probing into the mysteries of the seemingly supernormal. But, as a general thing, their methods scarcely reach the strict standards set by the organized inquirers of England, and as a natural consequence they are more easily deceived by tricksters.
This is particularly true of the European ghost hunters, whose laxity of procedure, not to say gullibility, was clearly shown by the ease with which Hodgson exposed the pretensions of Eusapia Paladino after Continental savants had pronounced her feats genuine. And it is even more strikingly exhibited by the pathetic fidelity with which they still trust in her, notwithstanding the Hodgson exposure, and the fact that they themselves have on more than one occasion caught her committing fraud. In the United States, however, psychical research worthy of the name took root early, owing to the establishment of an American branch of the English society under the capable direction of Dr. Hodgson. A year or so ago, after his death, this branch was abandoned. But in its place, and organized along similar lines, there has arisen the American Institute for Scientific Research, the creation of Prof. James H. Hyslop.
Until a few years ago occupant of the chair of logic at Columbia University, Professor Hyslop is unquestionably one of the most conspicuous figures in psychical research in this or any other country. Like Professor Sidgwick, he first became interested in the subject through religious doubt, and forthwith attacked its problems with the zeal of a man whose principal characteristics are intense enthusiasm, resourcefulness of wit, and intellectual fearlessness. As everybody knows, his experiences with Mrs. Piper led him to unite with Hodgson and Myers in regarding the spiritistic hypothesis as the only one capable of explaining all the phenomena encountered. But he is none the less able and eager to expose fraud wherever found, and if only from the police view-point his society will undoubtedly do good work. Associated with him are many of the American investigators formerly identified with the English society; some of whom, notably Prof. William James of Harvard, the dean of psychical research in the United States, also keep up their connection with the parent organization.
Summing up the results of the really scientific ghost hunting of the last twenty-five years, it may be safely said that if the hunters have not accomplished their main object of definitely proving the existence of a spiritual world, their labors have nevertheless been of high value in several important directions. They have exposed the fraudulent pretensions of innumerable charlatans, and have thus acted as a protection for the credulous. They have shown that, making all possible allowance for error of whatever kind, there still remains in the phenomena of apparitions, clairvoyance, etc., a residuum not explainable on the hypothesis of fraud or chance coincidence. They have aided in giving validity to the idea of the influence of suggestion as a factor both in the cause and the cure of disease. They have given a needed stimulus to the study of abnormal mental conditions. And, finally, by the discovery of the impressive facts that led Myers to formulate his hypothesis of the subliminal self, they have opened the door to far-reaching reforms in the whole sociological domain,—in education, in the treatment of vice and crime, in all else that makes for the uplifting of the human race.