Historical Research

By: Tricia Robertson 

Historical psychical research covers many topics but it is a fact that the careful and prolonged studies by psychical researchers, sometimes over decades, of mediums such as Mrs Piper, Mrs Leonard, Mrs Willett, Mrs Garrett and Miss Cummins have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt to anyone of open mind that these psychics again and again could acquire knowledge in a paranormal manner. The majority of the psychical researchers who participated in such studies or who came later into psychical research and studied carefully the detailed, thoughtful, numerous and varied case reports in the literature, concluded that unless one accepted a variation of super-telepathy and clairvoyance, the possibility that some human beings survive death, retaining their essential personalities, memory, characteristics, skills, and concern for those they have left behind, had to be taken very seriously indeed.

There can really be no doubt that there has been collected, over more than a century, a wealth of hard evidence demanding attention by any person, be s/he philosopher, physiologist, psychologist, physicist or indeed anyone seriously interested in human personality, showing that the nineteenth century model of the human being as a biological machine with the mind simply the brain in action is embarrassingly and grossly inadequate. That model cannot encompass and explain the evidence gathered by psychical researchers and supporting the view that the mind is not simply the brain in action, that some form of dualism or interaction of mind and brain is necessary, that part of the human personality can under certain conditions transcend space and time and that the question whether a human being in some way survives the death of the body is one eminently worthy of the attention of any modern, educated person. It is not a question of faith; it follows from a careful consideration of the abundant evidence for the existence of paranormal events.

There is obviously a place for the open-minded and well -informed sceptic. In all sciences she is a necessary and helpful presence, refereeing and commenting on papers, suggesting ways in which the authors’ experimental methods could be tightened up to remove dubiety, suggesting more helpful modes of presentation, and so on. She plays a positive and co-operative part and we neglect what she says at our peril since invariably s/he has intelligence and a satisfactory track record in the subject.

Consider the case of Eusapia Paladino, the physical medium. After the four years of careful experiments and studies at the Sorbonne by scientists including the Curies, Professor Henri Bergson, the professor of psychology Jules Courtier, Professor Charles Richet, Jacques-Arsene d’Arsonval, director of the Laboratory of Biological Physics, and many others, most of them professed that after the strict conditions and controls they had had, they could no longer doubt that a wide variety of genuine physical paranormal phenomena had been witnessed and recorded on many occasions in the presence of Eusapia..

We turn now to a different kind of experiment; one which was hoped would provide evidence supporting more clearly one of the hypotheses put forward to account for the phenomena. It was called the proxy sitting. The sitter is in the medium’s presence in place of or on behalf of another person about whom the sitter knows nothing. If paranormally-acquired data is subsequently discovered to be veridical, the medium, in the super-ESP theory, cannot have got it by telepathy from the sitter’s mind. The proxy sitter knows nothing of relevance about the relations or lives of the two people involved – the deceased and the distant, unknown living person. If telepathy or clairvoyance is involved rather than survival, it is argued that the proxy sitting circumstances must surely make the super-ESP theory run very hard to keep up in plausibility with the relatively simpler survival theory. It may be thought that the very nature of a proxy sitting would make it impossible to set up. Nevertheless, the fact that the absent sitter is unknown to the proxy sitter does not seem to be an insuperable problem. The absent sitter, often a person in great grief because of the loss of a loved one, may directly get in touch with a well-known psychical researcher and ask him or her to try to obtain information from a medium trusted by the researcher as honest and gifted. Two people managed over the years of Mrs Leonard’s mediumship to actualise a large number of proxy sittings. One was Nea Walker, secretary to Sir Oliver Lodge. A well-educated woman of great intelligence, the daughter of Professor Hugh Walker of Lampeter, she wrote two books about her experiences. Her sister Damaris had psychic ability and through her, Mrs Leonard and other mediums, a group of communicators claiming to be dead friends of the Walker sisters manifested. Ostensibly they helped in proxy sittings, finding and aiding the person on the other side desired by the absent sitter. The other major investigator was the Rev. Charles Drayton Thomas, a careful researcher who published a number of important papers in the PSPR 41,139-185 on the proxy sittings in which he participated.

Proxy sittings certainly give food for thought and although much historical work has been done on them, they may prove to be a way forward in future research.