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Was Prof. William James’s ‘White Crow’ a Scammer or a Marvel?

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Was Prof. William James’s ‘White Crow’ a Scammer or a Marvel?

Posted on 21 June 2021, 8:35

Historical facts are often twisted, distorted, and misrepresented by historians and authors,  especially those who rely on hearsay or second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts of a person or event. This is clearly the case with mediumship, in which the debunkers’ biases and slanted versions of history are accepted by many as gospel. The first two references to come up in my recent internet search for Leonora Piper, (below) the Boston medium referred to by Professor William James of Harvard as his “White Crow” – the one who proved that not all crows are black – make her out to be a scammer of some kind.  Of the first 10 references to her, only three are somewhat positive, but even they lack in critical information and analyses. 


I admit that when I first read about Piper some 35 or so years ago I struggled to see a “white crow.” She was more a light shade of gray.  It took about 10 years of off-and-on reading about her and other mediums before I began to understand all the obstacles to inter-dimensional communication and finally see her as a “white” crow.  Inasmuch as I had not come upon one reference that explained all the complexities, anomalies, and incongruities of such trance mediumship well enough for the average reader to grasp, I was prompted to write my 2013 book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, in an attempt to help others better understand. 


But reporting historical fact does not easily lend itself to creative writing or entertainment for readers. Thus, I realized that I could never get the more-complete story of Mrs. Piper to even approach the awe and wonder of a Harry Potter novel or some other work of spiritual fiction. The research carried out with Mrs. Piper by a number of distinguished scientists and scholars, most of them representing the Society for Psychical Research in London (SPR) and its American branch in Boston (ASPR), over some two decades, was lacking in fantasy, and it was too convoluted for even science-fiction enthusiasts. No matter that it dealt with the most important issue facing humanity; it simply wasn’t entertaining.  The best-seller lists suggest that most readers are looking for escape and entertainment, not truth.

With all that in mind, I can understand why Casey Cep and Emily Harnett, two talented modern-day writers, can’t see a “white” crow. Moreover, I realize that there are word limitations for all publications and that there is no way to summarize the research with Piper in a few thousand words.  It was difficult enough trying to summarize it all in a 200-page book.  I was taught in journalism school to be “clear, concise, and accurate,” but mediumship is not a subject to which those standards are easily applied.  The waters are too murky and muddy, or, more accurately, the air is too ethereal. 

In an article (Why Did So Many Victorians Try To Speak With The Dead?) in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Cep makes Piper out to be part of the “Spiritualism craze” that swept over the country during the latter part of the nineteenth century. She says that Piper was not fully discredited, but many people doubted her abilities, noting her failed readings and prophecies. When she did “score” big, psychological reasons were offered to replace the spiritual ones. A reader of Cep’s article might easily infer that not being “fully” discredited means she was “mostly” discredited. The article provides only enough about Piper for the know-nothing reader to suspect or conclude that she was indeed a hustler, con-artist, huckster or scammer of some kind. 

A Dreadful Person

In the February 4, 2019 issue of Latham’s Quarterly, Harnett, in an article entitled William James and the Spiritualist’s Phone, writes that James “had been fooled by a Boston housewife who claimed to speak to dead people.”  Harnett relies heavily on the opinion of Alice James, William’s sister, who referred to her as “the dreadful Mrs. Piper.”  There is no mention of the “sweet, pure, refined and gentle countenance” of Mrs. Piper, as reported by Anne Manning Robbins, who sat with Piper on a number of occasions and wrote a book about her very meaningful and veridical experiences with her. 

Neither Cep nor Harnett mentions the extensive research carried out by Dr. Richard Hodgson of the ASPR for some 18 years, studying her on the average of three times a week for most of those years.  Nor is there any mention of the 83 experiments Sir Oliver Lodge, a renowned British physicist, conducted with her in England during the Winter of 1889-90. The all-encompassing research with Piper and other mediums reported by Professor James Hyslop, who had been teaching logic and philosophy at Columbia University before sitting with Piper and being so impressed that he decided to become a full-time researcher, is likewise ignored.  All three of those distinguished researchers and a number of others concluded that Piper was a true medium and, while initially giving some consideration to the theory that the information coming through her was the result of telepathy of a limited or expanded nature transmitted by some “secondary personality” buried in her subconscious mind, they all saw “spirits of the dead” as a much more reasonable explanation. 

The readers of The New Yorker and Latham’s Quarterly are given nothing to suggest that what was coming through Mrs. Piper was anything more than what pseudo-skeptics and debunkers of the time called humbug, bosh, hogwash, or twaddle.  No doubt the editors of the two publications saw entertainment value in the humor of past generations being so gullible as to buy into such woo-woo nonsense. 

While Harnett has Piper making a claim to talking with the dead, Cep has her making claim to “channeling” some famous people.  I was left with a picture of Piper in a Muhammad Ali-type rant about how great she is.  However, the Leonora Piper I studied for many years never made any claim other than that she remembered nothing of what took place while she was in a trance state. She left it up to the researchers to interpret what was actually going on with her.  She was much too dignified to make such claims. 

One might infer from what both writers had to say that Piper was a “Spiritualist,” but I came across nothing in my years of studying the research on her to suggest that she belonged to any Spiritualist organization.  She was baptized in the Congregational Church and is said to have read the Bible to her daughters nightly as she put them to bed. She may have had some associations with Spiritualist organizations in her later years, but I recall no evidence of this. 

In writing that Piper went “on tour” in England, Cep leads readers to infer that that she was giving readings to the public, in general. The records I read had her fully occupied with Lodge, Frederic W. H. Myers, and other researchers as they carried out experiments with her during her 1889-90 visit to England. Much the same seems to have been the case with her 1906-07 trip to England.  I recall nothing to suggest that her income increased “twenty-fold” over the years, as reported by Cep, although the way second-, third-, and fourth-hand reports written by debunkers a hundred years later exaggerate and distort facts, I would not be surprised to learn that someone surmised that without any evidence to support it.  But, so what, if she did?  Many people increase their incomes twenty-fold with experience, results, and reputation.

Candor & Honesty

Myers, one of the founders of the SPR, concluded his study of Mrs. Piper with these words: “On the whole, I believe that all observers, both in America and in England, who have seen enough of Mrs. Piper in both states [of consciousness] to be able to form a judgment, will agree in affirming (1) that many of the facts given could not have been learned even by skilled detectives; (2) that to learn others of them, although possible, would have needed an expenditure of money as well as of time which it seems impossible to suppose that Mrs. Piper could have met; and (3) that her conduct has never given any ground whatever for supposing her capable of fraud or trickery.  Few persons have been so long and so carefully observed; and she has left on all observers the impression of thorough uprightness, candor, and honesty.”

Professor William James, always very cautious in his proclamations, said: “I am persuaded by [Mrs. Piper’s] honesty, and of the genuineness of her trance…I now believe her to be in possession of a power as yet unexplained.”

Professor Herbert Nichols, a Harvard psychologist, had this to say in a note to Professor James:  “I had a wonderful sitting with Mrs. Piper.  As you know, I have been a Laodicean toward her heretofore.  But that she is no fraud, and that she is the greatest marvel I have ever met I am now wholly convinced.” 

Said Hodgson: “I had but one object, to discover fraud and trickery…of unmasking her… I entered the house profoundly materialistic, not believing in the continuance of life after death; today I say I believe. The truth has been given to me in such a way as to remove from me the possibility of a doubt.”

This from Lodge, who served as president of the prestigious British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1913:  “Then came the revelation, through the mediumship of Mrs. Piper, in the winter of 1889, not only that the personality of certain people could survive, but that they could communicate under certain conditions with us. The proof that they retained their individuality, their memory, and their affection, forced itself upon me, as it had done upon many others. So my eyes began to open to the fact that there really was a spiritual world, as well as a material world which hitherto had seemed all sufficient, that the things which appealed to the senses were by no means the whole of existence.”

And from Professor Hyslop: “Personally I regard the fact of survival after death as scientifically proved.  I agree that this opinion is not upheld in scientific quarters.  But this is neither our fault nor the fault of the facts.  Evolution was not believed until long after it was proved.  The fault lay with those who were too ignorant or too stubborn to accept the facts.  History shows that every intelligent man who has gone into this investigation, if he gave it adequate examination at all, has come out believing in spirits; this circumstance places the burden of proof on the shoulders of the skeptic.”

Strangely, even for intelligent people, it seems easier to believe that those esteemed researchers were all duped by a clever scammer. If nothing else, that version is more sensational and makes for more creative writing and perhaps more humor and suspense. So sad that even talented modern-day writers and internet historians don’t dig deeply enough to report the complete picture.  If James, Hodgson, Myers, Lodge, Hyslop and others are still in touch with what is going on here in the material world, they are no doubt shaking their heads in dismay and disgust. 




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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