Hodgson, Richard (1855–1905)
One of the leading members of the Society for Psychical
Research (SPR), London. Hodgson was born September 24,
1855, in West Melbourne, Australia. He studied at the University
of Melbourne (B.A., 1874; L.L.B., 1875; M.A., 1876;
L.L.D., 1878). His interest in psychical research began in Australia
during his college years. He moved to England in 1878
to continue his legal studies at Cambridge University, where he
took an active part in the undergraduate Ghost Society, which
investigated psychical phenomena. His name appears in the
first published list of the members of the SPR (1882–83), and
in 1885 he was a council member. His legal training and personal
attainments made him especially qualified for the detection
of fraud.
In November 1884, as a member of the SPR committee, he
was sent to India to investigate the paranormal phenomena
being reported from the heart of the theosophical movement,
especially that initiated by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. His
‘‘Report on Phenomena Connected with Theosophy,’’ published
in the Proceedings of the SPR in December 1885 charged
Blavatsky with widespread fraud. The report created a pubic
scandal for Theosophy and ensured Hodgson’s place in the
history of psychical research. (The report continues to embarrass
Theosophists, and there were unsuccessful attempts to discredit
it as recently as the mid-1980s.)
A short time later, in conjunction with S. T. Davey, Hodgson
undertook important experiments into the possibilities of
malobservation and lapse of memory in connection with séance
phenomena. While not well known, this paper is actually his
most original work in the field. He developed an extremely
skeptical attitude toward all physical phenomena. He remarked
that ‘‘nearly all professional mediums form a gang of
vulgar tricksters, who are more or less in league with one another.’’
All his early investigations ended with a negative opinion.
Hodgson was among the first to become convinced that Eusapia
Palladino, whose sittings he attended at Cambridge in
1895, was an impostor, although investigations by other psychical
researchers indicated that she produced genuine phenomena
when properly controlled, but cheated on other occasions.
He was sent to the United States in 1887 to act as secretary to
the American Society for Psychical Research in Boston. (He
would continue in this capacity until his sudden death of heart
failure while playing a game of handball at the Boat Club in
Boston on December 20, 1905.) A change in Hodgson’s general
attitude toward the phenomenal side of Spiritualism was
brought about—very slowly and after much resistance—by his
unparalleled opportunities to investigate the mediumship of
Leonora Piper for a period of 15 years. His systematic study of
the Piper mediumship cannot be overestimated in importance.
Piper was introduced to the SPR by William James, a lifelong
friend of Hodgson’s. Hodgson, being extremely skeptical,
had Piper watched by detectives to learn whether she attempted
to collect information by normal means. He took every precaution
to prevent such acquisition of knowledge and finally
became convinced not only of the genuineness of her mediumship,
but also of spirit return.
His first report on the Piper phenomena was published in
1892 in the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 8). In it no definite conclusions
were announced. Yet at this time Hodgson had already
obtained convincing evidence of Piper’s genuineness. It was of
a private character, however, and since he did not include the
incident in his report he did not consider it fair to point out its
import. As he later told Hereward Carrington (who later printed
the account in his The Story of Psychic Science), Hodgson,
when still a young man in Australia, had fallen in love with a
girl and wished to marry her. Her parents objected on religious
grounds. Hodgson left for England and never married. One
day, in a sitting with Piper, the girl suddenly communicated, informing
Hodgson that she had died shortly before. This incident,
the truth of which was verified, made a deep impression
on Hodgson.
In his second report, published in the Proceedings of the SPR
(vol. 13, 1897), his tone is definite in stating
‘‘At the present time I cannot profess to have any doubt that
the chief communicators to whom I have referred in the foregoing
pages are veritably the personages that they claim to be,
that they have survived the change we call death, and that they
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Hodgson, Richard
729
have directly communicated with us whom we call living,
through Mrs. Piper’s entranced organism.’’
After ten years spent in these investigations Hodgson returned
to England for one year and became editor of the SPR
Journal and Proceedings. Then he went back to the United States
and resumed his Piper studies. He intended to publish a third
report but he did not live to do so.
His personal experiences changed his whole outlook on life.
He lived in one room in Boston, dependent on an inadequate
salary. Nevertheless, in order to devote all his time to psychical
research, he refused remunerative offers from colleges and universities.
In his latter years he lived an austere life and eagerly
anticipated his own death.
It appears from the revelations of Carrington that, like so
many other famous psychic investigators, Hodgson developed
mediumship at the end. In the last years of his life he allowed
no one to enter his room at 15 Charles Street. In the evenings
when alone there, he received direct communications from
‘‘Imperator,’’ ‘‘Rector,’’ and Piper’s other controls. These communications
were convincing, but he told few people about
them. The room was closed to everyone so as not to disturb the
‘‘magnetic atmosphere.’’
The Hodgson Memorial Fund was created at Harvard University
in 1912 and was used to fund research by such investigators
as Gardner Murphy.
Hodgson in the Afterlife
After Hodgson’s death, alleged communications from him
were received in England by Alice Kipling Fleming (then
known under her pseudonym, ‘‘Mrs. Holland’’). They contained
a cipher similar to entries found in Hodgson’s notebook,
but it could not be solved. Not even by the dramatic and very
lifelike ‘‘Hodgson’’ control of Mrs. Piper was the key ever given.
Through Piper he first communicated eight days after his
death and delivered many messages claimed to be from his surviving
self.
However, many test questions were left unanswered. ‘‘If we
could suppose,’’ writes Frank Podmore, ‘‘that sometimes the
real Hodgson communicated through the medium’s hand, and
that sometimes, more often, when he was inaccessible, the medium’s
secondary personality played the part as best it could,
these difficulties would, no doubt, be lessened.’’
Many evidential messages bearing on the continued identity
of Hodgson were received by James Hyslop. One of the first
came through a friend who asked Hodgson, the communicator,
if he would get in touch with him through another ‘‘light.’’ The
reply was, ‘‘No, I will not, except through the young light. She
is all right.’’ Later in the sitting, one of the other controls remarked
that Hyslop would know what the statement meant. It
referred to a young, nonprofessional medium whose powers
were a subject of discussion between the living Hodgson and
Hyslop. It appears that the surviving Hodgson investigated her
case from ‘‘the other side,’’ since the young lady’s control about
the time of the incident remarked that he had seen Hodgson.
The news of his death was carefully kept from the medium at
the time.
The detailed records of these séances, held from the time of
Hodgson’s death until January 1, 1908, were handed over to
William James for examination. In his paper ‘‘Report on Mrs.
Piper’s Hodgson Control,’’ he says,
‘‘I myself feel as if an external will to communicate were
probably there, that is, I find myself doubting . . . that Mrs.
Piper’s dreamlife, even equipped with ‘telepathic’ powers, accounts
for all the results found. But if asked whether the will to
communicate be Hodgson’s or be some mere spirit-counterfeit
of Hodgson, I remain uncertain and await more facts, facts
which may not point clearly to a conclusion for fifty or a hundred
years.’’
In England the Hodgson messages were studied by Eleanor
Sidgwick, J. G. Piddington, and Sir Oliver Lodge during
Piper’s visit to England. They did not find them authentic.
Sources
Baird, A. T. Richard Hodgson The Story of a Psychical Researcher
and His Times. London Psychic Press, 1949.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Harrison, Vernon. ‘‘J’Accuse. An Examination of the Hodgson
Report.’’ Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 53
(1986).
Hodgson, Richard. ‘‘An Account of Personal Investigations
in India, and Discussion of the Authorship of the ‘Koot Hoomi’
Letters.’’ Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 3
(1885).
Hodgson, Richard, and S. J. Davey. ‘‘The Possibilities of
Malobservation and Lapse of Memory from a Practical Point of
View.’’ Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 4
(1887).
James, William. ‘‘Report on Mrs. Piper’s Hodgson Control.’’
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 23 (1909).
Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology.
New York Helix Press, 1964.

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