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Is Einstein Still Laughing? The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider                                  image.png.d398bd1f12d9a7a52ebfea07f4d0a15c.png

Posted on 26 April 2021, 9:07

“I could find no evidence of fraud or trickery, and, while retaining an alert and critical attitude of mind throughout, I had a strong feeling of some mysterious power working from within the cabinet, a power for which I could imagine no mechanical or pneumatic contrivance as a cause – at least such as would be possible under the conditions of the séance.” 

So wrote Dr. William Brown, F.R.C.P., Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy at Oxford University and founder of the Institute of Experimental Psychology, in a letter to The Times of London of May 7, 1932 in reference to the mediumship of a 23-year-old Austrian, Rudi Schneider, (below) who was known primarily for producing physical phenomena, including materialized hands, occasionally a full materialization, levitations of the medium, floating tables, and other telekinetic movements.  Brown was part of a group studying Schneider in England.  The group included astronomer Christopher Clive (better known as C. C. L.) Gregory, founder of the University of London observatory, and later, the husband of Anita Gregory, the author of The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider.

 

According to Anita Gregory, a British psychologist, Professor Brown was subjected to a good deal of ridicule at Oxford, notably by Professors Albert Einstein and Frederick Lindemann, both world-renowned physicists. They are said to have laughed at the phenomena reported by Brown and a number of other reputable scientists.  “No way!” they must have scoffed. 

Anita Gregory first heard about Schneider while attending a lecture given by Brown toward the end of the 1940s.  When Brown told of witnessing objects flying about the room and a hand materializing out of nothing while Schneider was in a trance state, she could not accept that a man of Brown’s standing in the academic world and in psychology would believe such things. “I recall vividly how I reacted to Dr. Brown’s lecture: by impatient contempt, a little tinged with pity,” she wrote in the Introduction of her book. “How could a learned man believe such nonsense? And how could he bring himself to admit such absurd notions in public? Why didn’t someone stop him from making such a fool of himself?  I never entertained even for a moment the possibility that there could have been some real experience underlying his assertions.”

Gregory did not believe Brown was insane or the victim of some magician; she simply considered it so absurd that she gave it no further consideration until after her marriage in 1954 to C. C. L. Gregory, when she found out that he was also present in many of the experiments with Schneider and fully supported Brown’s version. In fact, C. C. L. sat next to Schneider and controlled his arms and legs during a number of the experiments. Along with another scientist, he developed an infrared apparatus used in registering infrared “occultations” during the experiments.  Her husband’s testimony prompted Anita Gregory to begin a detailed search into all records of the experiments carried out with Schneider.

Although Gregory’s study of the research records takes 425 pages to explain, it is not Schneider’s mediumship that makes the book especially interesting and intriguing; it is the hubris involved among the many scientists who studied him.  Harry Price, an engineer who established the National Laboratory of Psychical Research in London, is quoted by Gregory from a 1929 article: “I wonder how many of my readers are aware of the number of squabbles, petty jealousies and open feuds that are taking place among those investigating psychic phenomena. In nearly every country where two or more societies or investigators are working there exists a state of affairs which is little less than a scandal. Quarrels, backbiting, lawsuits, sharp prejudice, scandal-mongering, the gratification of personal spite, these things are rampant to the detriment of the science of psychical research and a paralyzing drag on the wheel of progress. It would be bad enough if the psychic brawlers confined their activities to their own frontiers, but they do not – the internecine warfare is international…”

One might assume from that statement that Price was the victim of his peers in psychical research, but he emerges from Gregory’s research as the real “monger.”  “When he wished for widespread popular support he would court spiritualist opinion, conceding that belief in survival was accepted among the majority of those who occupied themselves with such matters, and hinting that he himself shared this belief; when, on the other hand, he wished to present himself as the champion of a new scientific discipline he would belabor spiritualism as a more of benighted superstition from which he personally had rescued the subject,” Gregory surmised. “This dual attitude, which is by no means confined to Price, must also be taken into consideration when assessing anyone’s claims in the field.” 

Perhaps the two most dedicated researchers studying Schneider were Dr. Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, a German physician who had 88 sittings with Schneider, and Dr. Eugene Osty, a French physician who carried out 77 experiments with him. Both men were convinced that he was the real deal.  “We are sure, absolutely sure, of the reality of the phenomena,” Osty reported, “but we cannot say the same for our interpretation.”  The issue there was whether “Olga,” the entity who took control of Schneider’s body when he became entranced, was the spirit of a deceased human, as she claimed to be, or a “secondary personality” surfacing from Schneider’s subconscious mind.  It was much more “scientific” to assume the latter and thereby dismiss any suggestion of spirits of the dead, something written off by the fundamentalists of science as pure superstition. 

“The phenomena were personal in the sense that there was every appearance of someone, an invisible or barely invisible ‘person’ acting upon the everyday world, moving objects, knotting handkerchiefs, patting sitters on the head or boxing their ears, as the case might be,” Anita Gregory explained, describing Olga as a “phantom person” who at times was “capable of producing tangible effects on the physical world, and of somehow or another partially clothing herself in visible and tangible substance.” 

Dr. Alois Gatterer, a Jesuit priest and professor of physics at Innsbruck University, reported observing a full phantom on April 12, 1926, which he described as “light, misty, and indistinct and which seemed to increase and decrease in size and luminosity.” He also observed materialized hands at two different sittings with Schneider and was absolutely certain they were not Schneider’s hands. “I do not hesitate to express my personal conviction on the subject of paraphysical phenomena…,” he wrote.

Many other scientists and intelligent people observed Schneider under strictly controlled conditions and attested to the genuineness of the phenomena, but some, no doubt concerned with the criticism of men like Einstein and Lindemann, hesitated in their reports, theorizing that one of the scientists in attendance “could have been” an accomplice.  Dr. Karl Foltz theorized that the phenomena “could be” explained on the supposition that Schneider made use of the mechanical vibrations of the different objects in the room and that the floor “must have been” shaky.  Some, like Dr. Eric Dingwall of the Society for Psychical Research, flip-flopped, first vouching for the authenticity of the phenomena but then retreating and saying there “could have been” an accomplice. “The pressure on the scientist to recant is unrelenting, and if the errant researcher succumbs and returns to the straight and narrow path of denial, the scientific community breathes a sigh of relief, and allows him or her to forget the lapse and the reasons for that lapse with the blandest discretion,” Anita Gregory opined.

After studying him in Austria on a number of occasions, Price arranged to have Schneider brought to London for 27 séances between February 9 to May 3, 1932.  Although eight of those 27 sittings were totally negative, and it had become clear earlier that his mediumship was in decline, enough phenomena were produced to convince Price, Brown, C. C. L. Gregory, Lord Charles Hope, Professor D. F. Fraser-Harris, an eminent biologist, Professor A. F. C. Pollard, an authority on engineering, and others that paranormal phenomena were being produced and that trickery was not a factor.  “If Rudi were ‘exposed’ a hundred times in the future, it would not invalidate or affect to the slightest degree our considered judgment that the boy has produced genuine abnormal phenomena while he has been at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research,” Price reported. “We have no fault to find with Rudi; he has cheerfully consented to our holding any test or any séance with any sitter or controller. He is the most tractable medium who has ever come under my notice.”

Although Anita Gregory never met Rudi Schneider and looked upon him as some kind of huckster when Dr. Brown told of him in a lecture, she did a complete about-face after her detailed study of the research records.  “If one insists upon regarding the phenomena as fraudulent, then one is forced to attribute the majority of instances as being due to an accomplice, an outsider, who was somehow or another smuggled into the séance room,” she concludes, wondering how Rudi, who spoke no English and had no money of his own, could have arranged for an accomplice in London and how that accomplice could have gone undetected. She adds that all who knew Rudi considered him an exemplary person.

But the story doesn’t end there.  Almost a year after Rudi left London, and after other researchers had added to earlier research in further validating him, Price claimed that a double-exposure photograph from the 1932 series that he had previously overlooked revealed that Rudi’s arm was free of control at the same time the displacement of a handkerchief was taking place. Price, himself, was holding Rudi’s hand at the time, but he claimed that because of a toothache he was not attentive to the matter and did not realize Rudi had freed his arm. The double exposure is very fuzzy and inconclusive, and it was argued by others that even if he had momentarily freed his arm, possibly a shock reaction to the photographic flash, he was too far distant from the phenomenon to have affected it.  But Price’s denouncement provided the sensationalism that the press and the skeptics desired, and Schneider was labeled a cheat by many. “Indeed, [Price’s] motives were only too obvious to all those involved: to discredit his ‘enemies,’ that is those researchers who had ‘taken Rudi away from him’ and who had declined to accept him as the ultimate and final authority on the phenomena of Rudi Schneider,” Anita Gregory concludes.  In effect, if I am interpreting all this correctly, Price didn’t intend to totally discredit Schneider. He just wanted to “muddy the waters” and create the need for additional testing in his laboratory.

Is it any wonder that psychical research gave way during the 1930s to parapsychology, in which spirits of the dead and the subject of life after death were ignored as the focus turned to extra-sensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK)?  The famous “Margery” case of the 1920s, in which Dr. Dingwall also seems to have flip-flopped from acceptance to doubt, and that of medium George Valiantine, during the late 1920s and early ‘30s, involved so much conflict and friction among researchers that it became clear that there would never be a meeting of the minds when it came to physical phenomena or any phenomena in which “spirits” were supposedly involved. The Rudi Schneider case seems to have put the final nail in the coffin of survival research.

Nevertheless, the cumulative evidence seems to have been overwhelming and one can only wonder if Professor Einstein is still laughing.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow Books.

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