Carl Jung argued in 1905: "One can, with a few skillful suggestions, teach a remarkably high percentage of people, especially women, the simple spiritualistic manifestations." (CarI Jung, "On Spiritualistic Phenomena," in Psychology and the Occult, 1905, p.101)

Carl Jung’s teacher Theodore Flournoy had gained notoriety for publishing his case history of the medium Helene Smith in "From India to Planet Mars," theorizing  that she exhibited alternating subliminal personalities. Flournoy deferred to Mesmerist Janet, to Breuer and Freud, but "above all [to] the subliminal consciousness of M Myers," whose theory so much surpasses the level of ordinary scientific conceptions by flying high and at a pace which at times reaches the mysticism of true metaphysics."

Psychical research invented a new object of study through the exercise of social and class power. The marker laid down by the "objects" of the Society that 'The Council desires to conduct their investigations as far as possible through private channels was a class indicator. ("Objects of the Society," PSPR 1, 1882-3, p.4)

The paid Spiritualist performer-almost always working class-was to be excluded in favour of  "private" circles and written communications. These demands selected a certain constituency, one sharing the disgust of professionalized spirits. This was clear, even to Dawson Rogers, who had suggested a society to Barrett "for the sake of the many persons of culture and good social position who, while really interested in Spiritualism, held themselves aloof from all active association with the movement because of the odium which at that time was supposed to attach to the name." This sodality of intellectual elite and the middle class further deployed membership fees (one guinea a year for associates, two guineas for full members) to act as barriers, establishing tiers of access ,just as other scientific societies used the same tactics. Spiritualists were soon to complain that the Journal of the Society, circulated to members only, contained work antipathetic to beliefs in the new Church of Spiritualism.

This was further ensured by a series of early strategic disidentifications from the burgeoning of occultism. The 1885 investigation into Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy Society concluded that its whole belief system was built on fraud. Richard Hodgson's report used the diagnostic language of alienism to view Theosophy as the product of a "woman's monomania" and her "morbid yearning for notoriety." [Richard Hodgson, "Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with the Theosophical Society," PSPR 3 (188.5), 313-14.]

Spiritualists also began resigning in 1886, after Eleanor Sidgwick pronounced (in the Journal only) that the celebrated medium William Eglinton was only a conjuror. Light, as organ of the London Spiritualist Alliance, produced a huge dossier of evidential support for Eglinton, prefaced by an editorial which stated that Mrs Sidgwick maybe unconsciously beset by antecedent prejudice which renders her treatment ... eminently unsatisfactory to us Spiritualists, and ended with the view that unless her accusation of fraudulence was withdrawn, it "will have the effect of forcing a crisis, and causing a schism in the Society which would, not improbably, split it to the core." (Light, 24 July 1886, p., 329.)

Jung's doctoral essay, on the "pathology of so called occult phenomena," was legitimized by Flournoy's work in the area. Like Flournoy, Jung began by translating the experience of a number of girl mediums into the language of psychological abnormality. Miss E. was a hysteric, whose mediumistic beliefs were products of exhausted nerves; Miss S. W.'s hysterical mediumship was symptomatic of' pubertal disturbance, and related to the "premonition of sexual feeling." That S. W.'s three sisters developed mediumship showed contagious dysfunction of sympathy. Jung's conception of this sensitivity, though, whilst pathologizing spiritism, was in accord with psychical research. He conceived of subliminal mentation via the work of Myers, Richet, and Binet and concluded that "there is no choice but to assume for the present a receptivity of the unconscious, far exceeding that of the conscious mind." (Carl Jung, "On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena," 1902, in Psychology and the Occult, p.67.)

Jung also went from demystification of mediumship to a belief in occult means of communication. He wrote to one correspondent later that "the existence of telepathy in time and space is still denied only by positive ignoramuses" (Carl Jung, Letters, ed. G. Adler and A. Jaffe. 2 Vol., 1973, p. 117.) Jung, as with so many other psychologists, had been caught by the mobility and uncertain boundaries between self and other typical of trance-states.

On stage came also  Eusapia Palladino, associated with plebeian Spiritualism, Helene Smith, safely lower middle class, was much more valued by researchers of the SPR. The most important woman medium of this latter class was Mrs Leonora Piper because, as one commentator said, "educated people of independent social position when by chance they discover that they possess mediumistic gifts hide them carefully ... ; they do not wish to be supposed diseased; nobody likes to proclaim his defects in public." ( M. Sage, Mrs Piper and the Society for Psychical Research, trans. and abridged Noralie Robertson, 1904, p. 185.)

A Bostonian invalid, her powers emerged after treatment by hypnosis for neurological damage. Mrs. Piper's willingness to act as test-subject meant that she became the most investigated psychical medium in the first years of the SPR. Thousands of pages of the PSPR were devoted to her by researchers, particularly after her visit to England in 1889-90, when she was tested by Oliver Lodge and Frederic Myers.

Mrs. Piper's trance-seances used a control called Dr. Phinuit who spoke through her; later controls preferred automatic writing, although she was capable of speaking and writing different messages simultaneously. All of her methods appeared to glean astonishing private details of her sitters' families even if they had been inducted into the séance anonymously or pseudonymously. She had been "discovered" by the psychologist William James in 1885, "who," in Oliver Lodge's words, being pestered by the ladies of his family with strange accounts of supernormal knowledge possessed by a Mrs. Piper in Boston, decided to go, as an esprit fort, and explode the superstition. With the result that he was himself entangled, and perceived that he had unexpectedly encountered something unrecognised by orthodox psychology. (Oliver Lodge, "Foreword," in Alta L. Piper, The Life and Work of Mrs Piper, 1929, p.IX)

This account of entanglement is paradigmatic of Mrs Piper's effect on researchers. Richard Hodgson, the “sceptic” of the Society who had denounced Madame Blavatsky as a fraud, worked with Mrs Piper from 1887 until his death in 1905, hiring detectives to trace her movements to eliminate the  possibility that supernormal knowledge was being acquired mundanely. After initial sittings, Hodgson restricted her sensitivity to telepathic gleanings.

Years later, Hodgson removed any agency from his object, referring to Mrs. Piper as "a delicate protoplasmic machine," who must be protected from "injurious handling" after so much patient tuning just as "certain lenses are ground years before they are used in telescopes." ( Richard Hodgson, "A Further Record of Observations of Certain Phenomena of Trance," PSPR 13, 1897-8, p.357.)

Mrs. Piper found various means to confound this reduction. In 1901, she spoke to the New York Herald about her mediumship. Meekly claiming that "in the service of the Society [for Psychical Research] I have acted simply as an automaton," the remainder of her statement contradicted this by reasserting agency. ("Mrs. Piper's Plain Statement," New York Herald, 20 Oct. 1901, reprinted in Clark Bell (ed.), Spiritism, Hypnotism and Telepathy as Involved in the Case of Mrs Leonora E. Piper and the Society for Psychical Research, New York: Medico-legal journal, 1902, p.141.)

With at least two leading members of the SPR publicly affirming her contact with spirits, Mrs. Piper demurred: "The theory of telepathy strongly appeals to me as the most plausible and genuinely scientific solution of the problem ... I must truthfully say that I do not believe that spirits of the dead have spoken through me when I have been in the trance state." She concurred with Charles Peirce, leading intellectual critic of psychical research, that her "spirit controls" were "an unconscious expression of my subliminal self." (Ibid p.357 and p.407)

This view caused, in the words of the editor of fifteen papers given over to the issue by New York's Medico-legal Society, a "profound sensation." She was, after all, the most important "case study in psychical research." Ada Goodrich Freer had warned the SPR that, in focusing so much energy on Mrs Piper, they were contributing to the "the cult of hysteria." This contrariness from an apparent automaton seemed to prove it. Piper's "rebellion" was short-lived, her assertions muddled by claims of misquotation, yet she later withdrew the machine from service to investigators between 1911 and 1914, after new researchers used pins and blistered her tongue to test the limits of trance anaesthesia. (See Piper, The Life and Work of Mrs. Piper, 170 ff. on the "withdrawal" of her powers.)

Far more alarming was Piper's strategy of incorporating the Society's researchers into her panoply of posthumous contacts, transforming her operators into intermittent ghosts in her machine. When Myers passed over in 1901, the sittings in the months following his death at which he spoke through her to Hodgson and Eveleen Myers anticipate the central role the dead Myers played in the SPWs researches into cross-correspondence. When Hodgson died in 1905, it took eight days before he contacted sitters through Mrs. Piper. It fell to William James to pursue this "Hodgson" spirit through sittings. James had privately criticized Hodgson for a "sort of an obsession about Mrs. Piper," but his own report on Mrs. Piper evidenced Jantes's own fascination. "Hodgson had often during his lifetime." James recalled, said that if he ever passed over and Mrs. Piper was still officiating here below, he would "control" her better than she had ever yet been controlled in her trances. (Letter, William James to Theodore Flournoy, 9 Feb. 1906, in The Letters of William James and Theodore Flournoy, ed. Robert C. LeClair, University of Wisconsin Press, 1966, p.174.)

Early on in these sittings, the automatic pen flashed: "I Am HODGSON ... Piper instrument. I am happy exceedingly difficult to come very. I understand why Myers come seldom: James remained uncertain as to whether this was the 'will to personate' combined with 'supernormal sources of information', or 'an external will to communicate,' perhaps 'the spirit of R. H. talking to me through inconceivable barriers of obstruction'." (William James, "Report on Mrs. Piper's Hodgson-Controlling), in The Works of William James: Essays in Psychical Research, ed. F. Burkhardt, Harvard University Press, 1986, p.253.)

James's irresolution was a rigorous stance, oscillating around the figure of the woman medium.

The inventive mutations of Mrs. Piper's trance-state resulted in entanglements of researchers to such an extent that relations of instrument and operator, active subject and passive object, were disarranged, or even wholly inverted. To term this a strategy of feminine resistance to masculine control, however, would be to rely on oppositions disturbed by trance-states. Whose strategy could this be, exactly, when in trance "I" am spoken by the other, I come into the place of the other-who, by the same token is no longer an other but rather "myself?" (Borch-Jacobsen, The Emotional Tie, p.49.)

The "feminine" term is rendered unstable when, in such seances, "women became men and men became women. There was no limit to who one could be or to how many?"

As Judith Walkowitz observes, the woman medium's access to "male authority was accomplished through the fragmentation of [her] own personality," where transgressions of the norm could be effected only through simultaneous erasures of agency and restricting conformity to notions of the nervous incontinence of women. (Judith Walkowitz, -Science and the Seance: Transgressions of Gender and Genre, in City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London, 1992, p.177.)

It was, I think, the confusion of the trance-state, its uncanny demoralization of medical authority, its possible means of intensifying narratives of the intrinsic superiority of female nervous sensitivity, or its utopian potentials of transcendent, telepathic (hetero- and homo-sexual) affinity, that offered potential value to the female nervous "Invalid," the New Woman, and the woman medium-sensitive alike.

William James's puzzled report on Mrs. Piper in igog returned him to one of his earliest essays on psychical research, "A Record of Observations of Certain Phenomena of Trance" in 1890. At that time James was being courted by Myers to commit himself fully to psychical research after the publication of The Principles of Psychology, and Myers arranged for this paper to be read at a London meeting of the SPR by his brother Henry James. Henry agreed, despite declaring "my complete detachment from my brother's labour and pursuits, my outsideness, as it were, to the S. P. R., my total ignorance of Mrs. Piper and my general aversion to her species." (Letter, Henry James to Myers, 7 Oct. 1890, in Henry James Letters., ed. Leon Edel, Harvard University Press, 1974-84, iii. 302.)

Henry's willingness amused William, who promised that "I will think of you on the 31st at about 11a.m. to make up for difference of longitude." This promise of telepathic connection might, William hoped, induce "a new career on your part of psychic apostolicism."
 

See also:

The Secret History of Psychology, P.2

The Secret History of Psychology, P.3

The Secret History of Psychology, P.4

For updates click homepage here