Crookes, Sir William (1832–1919)
One of the greatest physicists of the last century and an early
exponent of scientific investigation of psychic phenomena. William
Crookes was born June 17, 1832, in London, England,
and educated at Chippenhurst Grammar School and the Royal
College of Chemistry, London. Even without a graduate education,
he became one of the most decorated scientists of his era.
In 1855 he became superintendent of the Meterological Department,
Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford. In 1861 he made his
first great discovery, the element thallium. Two years later, he
became an Elected Fellow of the Royal Society.
Crookes seems to have been led into research on Spiritualism
because of the untimely death of his brother Philip in 1867.
He first came into contact with psychic phenomena in July
1869 in a sitting with Mary Marshall. He was further intrigued
by trance speaker J. J. Morse in December, and in July 1870,
after the arrival of Henry Slade in London, he announced his
intention to investigate the phenomena of Spiritualism. In an
early article (1870), he declares
‘‘Views or opinions I cannot be said to possess on a subject
I do not pretend to understand. . . . I prefer to enter upon the
inquiry with no preconceived notions whatever as to what can
or cannot be, but with all my senses alert and ready to convey
information to the brain; believing, as I do, that we have by no
means exhausted all human knowledge or fathomed the
depths of all the physical forces.’’
The investigation had been suggested to him ‘‘by eminent
men exercising great influence on the thought of the country.’’
Another sentence of the article throws light on his expectations
‘‘The increased employment of scientific methods promote
exact observation and greater love of truth among inquirers,
and will produce a race of observers who will drive the worthless
residuum of spiritualism hence into the unknown limbo of
magic and necromancy.’’
Newspaper reporters received the announcement with jubilation.
It was taken for granted that Spiritualism would be
shown as clear and simple humbug. They were disappointed.
The investigation began in May 1871, after the return of D. D.
Cromlech Temple Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
354
Home from Russia. It was witnessed by Crookes’s chemical assistant,
Williams; his brother Walter; Sir William Huggins, the
eminent physicist and astronomer, and ex-president of the
Royal Society; and Sergeant E. W. Cox, a prominent lawyer.
The secretaries of the Royal Society refused Crookes’s invitation
to participate. His report was submitted to the Royal Society
on June 15, 1871, but his communications were refused
because they did not demonstrate the fallacy of the alleged
marvels of Spiritualism. Even the inscription of the title of the
paper in the society’s publications was denied.
It was only from the July 1871 issue of the Quarterly Journal
of Science that the public became acquainted with the first account
of Crookes’s observations. This account contained the
description of a séance held at Crookes’s house in a well lit
room, in which the alteration of the weight of bodies and the
playing of an accordion without hands was attested by specially
designed apparatus. Said Crookes, ‘‘Of all the persons endowed
with a powerful development of this Psychic Force . . .
Mr. Daniel Dunglas Home is the most remarkable, and it is
mainly owing to the many opportunities I have had of carrying
on my investigation in his presence that I am enabled to affirm
so conclusively the existence of this force.’’
In a subsequent article, ‘‘Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena
Called Spiritual, during the years 1870–73,’’ (Quarterly
Journal of Science, January 1874), Crookes observes,
‘‘The phenomena I am prepared to attest are so extraordinary,
and so directly oppose the most firmly rooted articles of
scientific belief—amongst others, the ubiquity and invariable
action of the force of gravitation—that, even now, on recalling
the details of what I witnessed, there is an antagonism in my
mind between reason, which pronounces it to be scientifically
impossible, and the conciousness that my senses, both of touch
and sight—and these corroborated, as they were, by the senses
of all who were present—are not lying witnesses when they testify
against my preconceptions.’’
The description of these experiments and the summary produced
a furious anonymous attack, now known to have emanated
from Dr. W. B. Carpenter, in the October 1871 issue of the
Quarterly Review. The article described Crookes as a ‘‘specialist
of the specialists,’’ an investigator whose ability was ‘‘purely
technical,’’ and added, ‘‘We speak advisedly when we say that
the Fellowship of the Royal Society was conferred on him with
considerable hesitation.’’ (In a special resolution the council of
the Royal Society expressed its regret over this statement.)
Many other scientists questioned the experiments on every
conceivable ground. Balfour Stewart in Nature (July 3, 1871)
referred to the illusions produced by mesmerists and conjectured
that the observers had been fooled. E. B. Tyler quoted
Alfred Russel Wallace, who suggested, for a different purpose,
that the werewolf superstition might have been due to mesmeric
influence. Extending the suggestion to Spiritualistic
marvels, he conjectured that Home and Agnes Guppy might
have been werewolves, capable of influencing sensitive spectators.
But nothing could shake Crookes’ belief in the accuracy of
his scientific observations. He continued his experiments, and
in an article in the January 1874 issue of the Quarterly Journal
of Science, he gave a detailed account of all the phenomena he
had tested.
While Crookes’s report of 1874, based chiefly on experiments
with D. D. Home and Kate Fox, was met with skepticism,
accounts of his next adventure, attempting to establish the separate
existence of the medium (Florence Cook, 1856–1904)
and the materialized spirit (‘‘Katie King’’), would stretch their
credulity to the breaking point.
Crookes held a series of sittings with the young and beautiful
‘‘Florrie’’ between December 1873 and May 21, 1874. As
part of his observations of Cook and King, he measured the difference
in height, noted the absence of a blister on Katie’s neck,
the absence of perforation in Katie’s ears, and the difference in
complexion, bodily proportion, manner, and expression. He
had himself photographed with Katie King and Florence Cook
in the same position and while his picture was the same in the
two photographs, the discrepancy between the girls’ photos was
obvious. Later Crookes reported that he had been allowed to
enter the study with Katie and saw, by the light of a phosphorus
lamp, the medium in trance, while Katie was standing by her
side. Another time, in the full blaze of the electric light, Katie
and Cook were seen together by Crookes and eight other people.
Forty-four photographs showed differences between the
medium and the apparition. In a letter published in The Spiritualist
(June 5, 1874), Crookes describes the photographing of
Katie King
‘‘But photography is as inadequate to depict the perfect
beauty of Katie’s face, as words are powerless to describe her
charms of manner. Photography may, indeed, give a map of
her countenance, but how can it reproduce the brilliant purity
of her complexion, or the ever-varying expression of her most
mobile features, now overshadowed with sadness when relating
some of the bitter experiences of her past life, now smiling with
all the innocence of happy girlhood when she had collected my
children round her, and was amusing them by recounting anecdotes
of her adventures in India
Round her she made an atmosphere of life;
the very air seemed lighter from her eyes,
They were so soft and beautiful, and rife
With all we can imagine of the skies;
Her overpowering presence makes you feel
It would not be idolatory to kneel.’’
In the same letter, Crookes deals with accusations of fraud
on the part of Cook
‘‘Every test that I have proposed she has at once agreed to
submit to with the utmost willingness; she is open and straightforward
in speech, and I have never seen anything approaching
the slightest symptom of a wish to deceive. Indeed, I do not
believe she could carry on a deception if she were to try, and
if she did she would certainly be found out very quickly, for
such a line of action is altogether foreign to her nature.’’
After the Cook experiments, Crookes conducted another set
of experiments in his home with the American medium Annie
Eva Fay. She produced a variety of psychokinetic effects and
Crookes wrote a favorable report on her which was published
in the March 12, 1875, issue of The Medium. In 1876 Fay faced
the first of a series of exposures and ultimately finished her career
as a stage magician.
After the Fay examination, Crookes abandoned the attempt
to validate psychic phenomena by scientific method and concentrated
on his more conventional scientific research, although
from time to time affirming that he would not retract
his earlier endorsement of psychic phenomena. He served as
president of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) for the
years 1896–99. It was not generally known, however, that from
time to time he attended séances, and at one of these, around
1916, the spirit of his late wife apparently manifested.
Crookes went on to become one of England’s most celebrated
and decorated scientists. He was awarded the Royal Gold
Medal (1875), the Davy Medal (1888), and the Sir Joseph Copley
Medal (1904). He was knighted in 1897 (while president of
the SPR) and received the Order of Merit in 1910. At different
times he served as president of the Royal Society, the Chemical
Society, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and the British
Association. The honors were acknowledgment of his numerous
scientific accomplishments, including invention of the radiometer,
the spinthariscope, and the Crookes tube, the precursor
to modern television. He was the founder of the Chemical
News, and editor of Quarterly Journal of Science.
In the mid-1870s, Crookes abandoned his attempt to convince
his scientific peers of the truth of his observations, but he
never withdrew or modified his opinions. He responded to the
fury of the controversy and became cautious. For example, he
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Crookes, Sir William
355
never allowed the circulation of a photograph in which he
stood arm-in-arm with Katie King. In a letter to Angelo Brofferio
in 1894 he said, ‘‘All that I am concerned in is that invisible
and intelligent beings exist who say that they are the spirits
of dead persons. But proof that they really are the individuals
they assume to be I have never received’’ (Für den Spiritismus,
Leipzig, 1894).
Before the British Association at Bristol in his presidential
address in 1898, Crookes declared
‘‘Upon one other interest I have not yet touched—to me the
weightiest and farthest-reaching of all. No incident in my scientific
career is more widely known than the part I took many
years ago in certain psychic researches. Thirty years have
passed since I published an account of experiments tending to
show that outside our scientific knowledge there exists a Force
exercised by intelligence differing from the ordinary intelligence
common to mortals. I have nothing to retract. I adhere
to my already published statements. Indeed, I might add much
thereto.’’
As late as 1917, in an interview published in The International
Psychic Gazette, he reiterated ‘‘I have never had any occasion to
change my mind on the subject. I am perfectly satisfied with
what I have said in earlier days. It is quite true that a connection
has been set up between this world and the next.’’
The Continuing Controversy
While much of the controversy surrounding Crookes died as
he withdrew from further psychical research, it never entirely
disappeared. On occasion throughout his later life Crookes was
questioned about his opinions on psychic phenomena.
No matter what extensive precautions Crookes employed,
his results, in the eyes of the skeptics, were always unevidential.
Charles Richet in his Thirty Years of Psychical Research (1923),
published several years after Crookes’s death, defended his colleague
‘‘Until I had seen [Eusapia Palladino] at Milan I was
absolutely sure that Crookes must have fallen into some terrible
error. And so was [Julien] Ochorowicz; but he repented, and
said, as I do, smiting my breast ‘‘Pater, peccavi.’’
The accusations against Crookes were fed by the fact that
Mary Showers—who occasionally had performed joint séances
(including one for Crookes, with Cook)—was later caught in a
fraudulent materialization attempt and that Cook herself was
caught cheating on two occasions in 1880 and 1889.
Cook continued to operate as a medium through the rest of
the century and her sister Katie Cook succeeded her.
The most damaging allegations were made in June 1922,
long after the death of Florence Cook. Francis G. H. Anderson,
called at the offices of the Society for Psychical Research
(SPR), London, and made a statement to E. J. Dingwall, then
the research officer of the society, that he had had an affair with
Cook many years ago, and that one night she told him that her
mediumship was fraudulent. Further more, he testified that she
had confided in him that she had had an affair with William
Crookes, and the famous séances were staged as a cover. In
1949 Anderson repeated and expanded his story to Mrs. K. M.
Goldney of the Society for Psychical Research.
Assuming his recollection of what Florence Cook said was
reasonably accurate, the claim that the mediumship was fraudulent
carried more weight than charges that William Crookes
had been an accomplice in order to carry on a love affair.
Crookes’s defenders argued that, if the materialization of Katie
King was fraudulent, it is more likely that Crookes was deceived.
He became convinced of the reality of the phenomena
of Home. Also, some of the Cook séances were conducted at
Crookes’ own home, near his wife and children. Crookes wrote
enthusiastic letters to the press about the séances, openly admitting
that he embraced the phantom Katie King, which appeared
as flesh and blood. He took photographs of himself and
the phantom. None of these actions seem consistent with organizing
the séances as a cover for a love affair.
The view that Crookes was simply duped by (rather than an
accomplice with) the mediums he tested was given weight by
Houdini, who in his book claimed that Fay described to him the
way she had gotten around all of Crookes’s gadgets and tricked
him.
The controversy was continued in 1962 when Trevor H.
Hall, in his book The Spiritualists, presented persuasive evidence
that Cook was fraudulent, and also repeated Anderson’s
claims that Crookes connived at fraud to hide a love affair with
her.
Crookes did not hide his attraction to Cook’s beauty. Hall
built his case more upon Cook’s association with Showers, who,
he suggests, was possibly an accomplice in fraud. Showers also
claimed to materialize spirit forms, in particular the phantom
‘‘Florence Maple,’’ which reportedly had the same substantiality
as Florence Cook’s ‘‘Katie King.’’
Showers and Cook gave a joint demonstration at the house
of William Crookes in March 1874, when the spirit forms Florence
Maple and Katie King walked around the room outside
the cabinet, linked arm in arm, laughing and talking like real
human beings. E. W. Cox, who was present at this astonishing
séance, expressed his extreme skepticism in a letter published
in The Spiritualist (May 15, 1874). In a letter to Home in November
1875, Crookes stated Showers had confessed to Fay
that she was a fraud, and he had later obtained a written confession
from Showers. Fraud on the part of Showers provided
valid doubts on the genuineness of the phenomena of Cook.
Whether Crookes can be regarded as an accomplice in such
fraud in order to carry on an illicit love affair with Cook is a separate
issue.
Many find it is hard to believe that Crookes, with his reputation
as a scientist at stake, would make such imprudent statements
as he made if he was indeed an accomplice in fraud for
the sake of sexual favors. Others find it just as hard to believe
that Crookes was deceived by the ‘‘innocent schoolgirl,’’ who
would have to have been a remarkable actress, capable of outwitting
Crookes’s tests and sustaining a phantom role with a variety
of anecdotes of a past life in foreign countries.
Crookes was certainly fascinated by Katie King andor Florence
Cook. It may be that his fascination overrode his scientific
and personal judgment. Cook may have mesmerized him much
as Madame Blavatsky dazzled Henry Steel Olcott with her apparently
miraculous powers. If Anderson’s recollection is correct,
Cook’s claim of an illicit love affair may have been no
more than a boastful recollection of the glamour cast over
Crookes by Katie King, especially Crookes’s public embracing
of the phantom.
It is likely that Crookes’s career in psychical research and his
relation to Cook will remain a topic of discussion in parapsychological
circles. In the last generation the discussion has
shifted as the defenders of physical phenomena, especially materialization,
have retreated from the scene.
Crookes died on April 4, 1919, in London.
Sources
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Crookes, William. ‘‘Address by the President.’’ Proceedings of
the Society for Psychical Research 12 (1896) 338.
———. ‘‘Notes of an Enquiry into the Phenomena called
Spiritual.’’ Quarterly Journal of Science (January 1874).
———. Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism. London,
1874.
———. Researches in Spiritualism. London J. Burnes, 1875.
———. ‘‘Spiritualism Viewed by the Light of Modern Science.’’
Quarterly Journal of Science 7 (July 1870).
Dingwall, E. J. The Critics’ Dilemma Further Comments on Some
Nineteenth Century Investigations. Dewsbury, England The Author,
1966.
Crookes, Sir William Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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Fournier d’Albe, E. E. The Life of Sir William Crookes, O.M.,
F.R.S. London T. F. Unwin, 1923.
Hall, Trevor. Florence Cook & William Crookes A Footnote to
an Enquiry. London Tomorrow Publications, 1963.
———. The Spiritualists The Story of Florence Cook and William
Crookes. New York Helix Press, 1963. Reprinted as The Medium
and the Scientist. Buffalo, N.Y Prometheus Press, 1984.
Medhurst, R. G. Crookes and the Spirit World. London Taplinger,
1972.
Medhurst, R. G., and K. M. Godney. ‘‘William Crookes and
the Physical Phenomena of Mediumship.’’ Proceedings of the
Society for Psychical Research 54, 195 (March 1964).
Thouless, R. H. ‘‘Crookes and Cook.’’ J

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