Piper, Leonora E(velina Simonds)
(1859–1950)
Trance medium of Boston, among the most renowned in
the history of psychical research. Her work is credited with convincing
Sir Oliver Lodge, Richard Hodgson, James H. Hyslop,
and many others to believe in survival and communication
with the dead.
Early Life
Piper was born Leonora Simmonds on June 27, 1859, in
Nashua, New Hampshire. There has been some discussion of
the correct spelling of her first name, though it is now largely
agreed to have been ‘‘Leonora,’’ rather than ‘‘Leonore,’’ as is
often found in the literature. This issue became the subject of
a paper in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.
When eight years old, playing in the garden, she suddenly
felt a sharp blow on her right ear, accompanied by a prolonged
sibilant sound. This gradually resolved itself into the letter s,
which was then followed by the words ‘‘Aunt Sara, not dead, but
with you still.’’ The child was terrified.
Her mother made a note of the day and the time. Several
days later it was found that Piper’s aunt Sara had died at that
very hour on that very day. A few weeks later the child cried out
that she could not sleep because of ‘‘the bright light in the room
and all the faces in it,’’ and because the bed ‘‘won’t stop rocking.’’
However, discounting occasional experiences of this kind,
her childhood was relatively normal.
At age 22 she married William Piper of Boston. Soon after
this she consulted Dr. J. R. Cocke, a blind professional clairvoyant
who was attracting considerable attention by his medical diagnoses
and cures. She fell into a short trance.
At the second visit to the clairvoyant’s circle, which was held
for effecting cures and developing latent mediumship, when
Cocke put his hand on her head, Piper again saw in front of her
‘‘a flood of light in which many strange faces appeared.’’ In a
trance, she rose from her chair, walked to a table in the center
of the room, picked up a pencil and paper, and wrote rapidly
for a few minutes before handing the written paper to a member
of the circle and returning to her seat. The member was
Judge Frost of Cambridge, a noted jurist; the message, the
most remarkable he ever received, came from his dead son.
The report of Frost’s experience spread and Piper was soon
besieged for sittings. She was not at all pleased by this sudden
notoriety, and apart from members of her family and intimate
friends she refused to see anyone. However, when the motherin-law
of William James applied for a sitting (after hearing
strange stories through servant gossip), for some inexplicable
reason her request was granted. Her own experience, the subsequent
experience of her daughter (i.e., James’s wife), and the
marvelous stories they told finally induced James to visit Piper
in order to explain away her reputed psychic talents. But his
impression of her supernormal powers was so strong that he
not only continued sittings, but for the next eighteen months
monitored Piper and controlled virtually all of her séance arrangements.
Referring mainly to this first period of his experiences, he
wrote in 1890 in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
(vol. 6, pt. 17) ‘‘And I repeat again what I said before,
that, taking everything that I know of Mrs. Piper into account,
the result is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any
personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances
which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state, and
that the definite philosophy of her trances is yet to be found.’’
James also made the famous statement ‘‘If you wish to upset
the law that all crows are black . . . it is enough if you prove that
one crow is white. My white crow is Mrs. Piper.’’
Piper’s Controls
When James began his experiments, a claimed French doctor,
‘‘Phinuit,’’ was in exclusive control of the sittings. He appeared
to have been inherited from Cocke. He was known
there as ‘‘Finne’’ or ‘‘Finnett.’’ His manifestation was not immediate.
The first of Piper’s controls was an Indian girl of the
strange name ‘‘Chlorine.’’ ‘‘Commodore Vanderbilt,’’ ‘‘Longfellow,’’
‘‘Lorette Penchini,’’ ‘‘J. Sebastian Bach’’ and ‘‘Mrs. Siddons,’’
the actress, were the next communicators encountered.
‘‘Phinuit’’ had a deep gruff voice, in striking contrast with
the voice of the medium. His exclusive regime lasted from 1884
to 1892 when ‘‘George Pelham,’’ who had died in an accident,
appeared and manifested in automatic writing. Still, the trance
speaking was left for ‘‘Phinuit’’ and the control, speaking and
writing, was often simultaneous.
In 1897 the ‘‘Imperator’’ group took charge of the séance
proceedings. ‘‘Phinuit’’ disappeared and ‘‘Pelham’’ became relPinto
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1214
egated to the role of a minor communicator. While ‘‘Phinuit’’
had much difficulty in keeping back other would-be communicators,
the advent of the ‘‘Imperator’’ group of controls made
the communications freer from interruptions and from the admixture
of apparently foreign elements. They excluded ‘‘inferior’’
intelligences (whom they spoke of as ‘‘earth-bound’’ spirits)
from the use of the light.
Under the new regime, the communications assumed a dignity
and loftiness of expression, as well as a quasi-religious
character, which they had heretofore entirely lacked. Moreover,
the passing in and out of the trance state, which in the
earlier stages had been accomplished with a certain amount of
difficulty, now, under the new conditions, became quiet and
peaceful.
James called special attention to the fact that the ‘‘Imperator’’
group of controls not only exhibited characteristic personalities,
but they could also divine the most secret thoughts of
the sitters. As a lasting influence of this regime in later years,
Piper showed remarkable development as spiritual adviser in
her waking state. ‘‘It is almost,’’ wrote Alta L. Piper in 1929, ‘‘as
if, since the trance state has been less and less resorted to, the
cloak of ‘Rector’ has fallen upon Mrs. Piper herself, and the
good that she has been able to do along these lines, during the
past nine or ten years, is almost unbelievable.’’
Piper did not exhibit physical phenomena, except for one
single strange manifestation she could withdraw the scent
from flowers and make them wither in a short time. To establish
rapport with her spirit communicators, she utilized psychometric
influences (see psychometry), usually asking for an object
belonging to the departed. James succeeded in
hypnotizing her and found the conditions of the hypnotic and
medium trances entirely different. He found no signs of
thought transference either in the hypnotic condition or immediately
after it.
Of the earliest trances there is no contemporary record.
When, owing to other duties, James relinquished direct control
of the Piper séances he wrote to various members of the Society
for Psychical Research of the puzzling and remarkable facts
of the mediumship. It was as a result of these letters that Richard
Hodgson arrived in the United States for the express purpose
of continuing the investigation on behalf of the SPR.
With his arrival began the most famous period of Piper’s
mediumship. Hodgson was a keen fraud-hunter, having previously
caught Eusapia Palladino and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
in trickery. He took every precaution to bar the possibility
of deception including hiring a detective to follow Piper and
watch for possible attempts to obtain information by normal
means. On the first three days of the week, when sittings were
given, Hodgson forbade her to see a morning newspaper. He
arranged the sittings without communicating the name of the
sitters and the sitters were in most cases unknown to her. They
were introduced under the pseudonym ‘‘Smith.’’ The sittings
were often improvised for the benefit of chance callers.
She was usually weakest precisely where the pseudo-medium
is most successful. She was vague about dates, preferred to give
Christian names to surnames, and mostly concentrated on the
sitters diseases, personal idiosyncrasies, and characters. On the
other hand, she often failed to answer test questions. For example,
the spirit of ‘‘Hannah Wild’’ manifesting through her could
not describe the contents of the sealed letter she wrote before
her death.
The possibility of fraud was discussed at length by Hodgson,
James, William R. Newbold (of Pennsylvania University), Walter
Leaf, and Sir Oliver Lodge. In 1898 James wrote in the Psychological
Review
‘‘Dr. Hodgson considers that the hypothesis of fraud cannot
be seriously maintained. I agree with him absolutely. The medium
has been under observation, much of the time under
close observation, as to most of the conditions of her life, by a
large number of persons, eager, many of them to pounce upon
any suspicious circumstance for (nearly) fifteen years. During
that time not only has there not been one single suspicious circumstance
remarked, but not one suggestion has ever been
made from any quarter which might tend positively to explain
how the medium, living the apparent life she leads, could possibly
collect information about so many sitters by natural means.
The scientist who is confident of ‘fraud’ here must remember
that in science as much as in common life a hypothesis must receive
some positive specification and determination before it
can be profitably discussed, and a fraud which is no assigned
kind of fraud, but simply ‘fraud’ at large, fraud in abstracto, can
hardly be regarded as a specially scientific explanation of concrete
facts.’’
He added, at a later period
‘‘Practically I should be willing now to stake as much money
on Mrs. Piper’s honesty as on that of anyone I know, and I am
quite satisfied to leave my reputation for wisdom or folly, so far
as human nature is concerned, to stand or fall by this declaration.’’
In 1888–89, Hyslop joined the investigation. On the first
two or three occasions he took the extraordinary precaution of
putting on a mask before he got out of the cab, removing it only
after Piper was entranced, and resuming it before she awoke.
Twelve sittings were sufficient to convince him of the untenability
of the secondary personality hypothesis. He declared,
without hesitation, that ‘‘I prefer to believe that I have been
talking to my dead relatives in person; it is simpler.’’ His first
report was published in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical
Research (vol. 16, pt. 41) and concluded ‘‘I give my adhesion
to the theory that there is a future life and persistence of personal
identity.’’
Piper in England
With unabated zeal, Hodgson sought still more stringent
precautions and conceived the idea of removing Piper from her
normal surroundings and placing her in a foreign country
among strangers. As a result Piper made her first visit to England
in November 1889. She was met at the station by Lodge
and escorted the next day to Cambridge by F. W. H. Myers,
at whose house she stayed. Myers later stated,
‘‘I am convinced, that she brought with her a very slender
knowledge of English affairs and English people. The servant
who attended on her and on her two children was chosen by
myself, and was a young woman from a country village, whom
I had full reason to believe to be trustworthy and also quite ignorant
of my own or my friend’s affairs. For the most part I had
myself not determined upon the persons whom I would invite
to sit with her. I chose these sitters in great measure by chance;
several of them were not residents of Cambridge; and except
in one or two cases where anonymity would have been hard to
preserve, I brought them to her under false names—sometimes
introducing them only when the trance had already begun.’’
Piper gave, under the supervision of Myers, Lodge, and
Leaf, 88 sittings between November 1889 and February 1890.
Wherever she stayed in England, her movements were planned
for her, and even when shopping she was accompanied by a
member of the SPR Lodge, which even exceeded Myers in caution.
Prior to Piper’s stay in Liverpool, Lodge’s wife engaged
an entirely new staff of servants. Lodge safely locked away the
family Bible, and throughout the duration of her stay, all of
Piper’s correspondence passed through the hands of Lodge,
who had permission to read it.
In Lodge’s first sitting, his father, his Uncle William, his
Aunt Ann, and a child of his who died very young were described.
There were some flaws in the descriptions that were
later rectified. Many personal and intimate details of their lives
were given. In subsequent sittings the names of the dead relatives
were communicated in full, and supernormal knowledge
of the history of the whole family was exhibited. Sir Oliver
Lodge’s report, published in 1890, concluded
‘‘1. That many of the facts given could not have been learnt
even by a skilled detective.
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’’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.
‘‘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.’’
Lodge enumerated 38 cases in which information not within
the conscious knowledge of the sitter was given. In only five instances
did the sitter acknowledge that the facts were at one
time known to him. Considering the extraordinary familiarity
of ‘‘Phinuit’’ with the boyhood days of two of his uncles, Lodge
was curious how much of this knowledge might be obtained by
normal means. He sent a professional inquiry agent to the
scene for the purpose of making full and exhaustive inquiries.
‘‘Mrs. Piper,’’ reported the agent, ‘‘has certainly beat me. My
inquiries in modern Barking yield less information than she
gave. Yet the most skilful agent could have done no more than
secure the assistance of the local record keepers and the oldest
inhabitants living.’’
In his summary, Lodge added,
‘‘By introducing anonymous strangers and by catechising
her myself in various ways, I have satisfied myself that much of
the information she possesses in the trance state is not acquired
by ordinary common-place methods, but that she has some unusual
means of acquiring information. The facts on which she
discourses are usually within the knowledge of some person
present, though they are often entirely out of his conscious
thought at the time. Occasionally facts have been narrated
which have only been verified afterwards, and which are in
good faith asserted never to have been known; meaning thereby
that they have left no trace on the conscious memory of any
person present or in the neighborhood and that it is highly improbable
that they were ever known to such persons. She is also
in the trance state able to diagnose diseases and to specify the
owners or late owners of portable property, under circumstances
which preclude the application of ordinary methods.’’
Further he stated
‘‘That there is more than can be explained by any amount
of either conscious or unconscious fraud—that the phenomenon
is a genuine one, however it is to be explained—I now regard
as absolutely certain; and I make the following two statements
with the utmost confidence
‘‘1.That Mrs. Piper’s attitude is not one of deception.
‘‘2. No conceivable deception on the part of Mrs. Piper can
explain the facts.’’
Further Work with Hodgson
After Piper’s return to the United States, Hodgson took
charge again. His first report was published in 1892 in the Proceedings
of the Society Psychical Research. He refused to consider
spirit hypothesis acceptable. In 1892 the Piper phenomena
underwent a notable evolution in the quality of trance communications.
Automatic writing developed and ‘‘Pelham’’ a became
the primary control.
Hodgson’s second report, which appeared in the Proceedings
of the SPR in 1897, ended with the adoption of the spirit hypothesis.
His statement was quite firm
‘‘I cannot profess to have any doubt but that the ‘chief communicators
. . . are veritably the personalities that they claim
to be; that they have survived the change we call death, and that
they have directly communicated with us whom we call living
through Mrs. Piper’s entranced organism. Having tried the hypothesis
of telepathy from the living for several years, and the
‘‘spirit’’ hypothesis also for several years, I have no hesitation
in affirming with the most absolute assurance that the ‘‘spirit’’
hypothesis is justified by its fruits and the other hypothesis is
not.’’
It is interesting to quote here the following note from Alta
L. Piper’s biography of her mother ‘‘During the latter years of
his investigation I more than once heard Dr. Hodgson say, ruefully,
that his amour propre had never quite recovered from the
shock it received when he found himself forced to accept unreservedly
the genuineness of the so-called Piper phenomena.’’
Hodgson’s intended third report was cut short by his unexpected
death in 1905. J. G. Piddington came over from England
to go through his papers and a committee was formed
to dispose of the material on hand. The reports were filled with
intimate and personal data concerning the sitters, who trusted
Hodgson but would not trust anybody else. Finally, despite Hyslop’s
efforts, all these reports were returned to the original sitters
and the valuable material was lost. Piper remained under
the jurisdiction of the SPR, and the sittings were continued
under Hyslop’s charge.
The Hyslop Era
In 1906, Piper made a second visit to England. It was mainly
devoted to elucidating the mystery of cross-correspondences.
Several famous investigators (such as Myers, Edmund Gurney,
and Hodgson) had died and communications of an intricate
nature were purported to emanate from their surviving spirits.
Piper held 74 sittings. Many others were held with Margaret
Verrall and Alice K. Fleming (usually cited as Mrs. Holland in
the literature to protect her privacy). The results were summed
up and analyzed by Piddington and others. According to their
findings, the coincidences of thought and expression in the
various messages were too numerous and too detailed to be accounted
for by chance.
In 1909, James published his report on the Hodgson communications
jointly in the Proceedings of the SPR and the ASPR.
He judged the findings to be inconclusive. Writing on the
Myers, Gurney, and Isaac Thompson communications in the
same number of the Proceedings, Lodge showed none of James’s
reserve,
‘‘On the whole they [the messages] tend to render certain
the existence of some outside intelligence or control, distinct
from the consciousness, and, so far as I can judge, from the subconsciousness
also, of Mrs. Piper or other mediums. And they
tend to render probable the working hypothesis, on which I
choose to proceed, that the version of the nature of the intelligences
which they themselves present and favour is something
like the truth. In other words, I feel that we are in the secondary
or tertiary touch—at least occasionally—with some stratum of
the surviving personality of the individuals who are represented
as sending messages.’’
In only one instance were aspersions cast, in public, on
Piper’s character and phenomena, and this happened simply
as an advertising stunt. On October 20, 1901, the New York Herald
published a statement by Piper, advertised as a ‘‘confession,’’
in which she was quoted to say that she intended to give
up the work she had been doing for the SPR, as fourteen years’
work was not enough to clear up the subject and summed up
her own views as follows ‘‘The theory of telepathy strongly appeals
to me as the most plausible and genuinely scientific solution
of the problem . . . I do not believe that spirits of the dead
have spoken through me when I have been in the trance
state. . . . It may be that they have, but I do not affirm it.’’
According to the inquiries made by the editor of Light, Piper
forbade the publication of the article as soon as she learned
that they had advertised it with the word ‘‘confession’’ above it.
She received a telegram from the New York Herald assuring her
that the word was used for advertising only and would not appear
in the article. On October 25, 1901, Mrs. Piper stated in
The Boston Advertiser
‘‘I did not make any such statement as that published in the
New York Herald to the effect that spirits of the departed do not
control me. . . . My opinion is today as it was eighteen years
ago. Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they
may not. I confess that I do not know. I have not changed. . . .
I make no change in my relations.’’
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As Lodge pointed out, her honesty was not in question and
the New York Herald spoke of her throughout in laudatory
terms, ‘‘since little value would be attached to her opinion in
favour of the spiritistic hypothesis, it cannot fairly be urged that
her opinion on the other side would weigh with us. Mrs. Piper
in fact . . . is not in a more favourable, but even in a less favourable
position for forming an opinion than those who sit with
her, since she does not afterwards remember what passes while
she is in trance.’’
The Closing of a Career
In October 1909, Piper made her third visit to England.
Prostrated by a heavy cold, she was not able to give her first sittings
until the late spring and early summer of 1910. Lodge supervised
these sittings, during which Piper’s return from the
trance state was very difficult. Both the sitters and the controls
were disturbed by these conditions and at a sitting on May 24,
1911, a coming suspension of Piper’s mediumship was announced.
The last sitting was held on July 3. After the appearance
of a new control, ‘‘Mme. Guyon,’’ the sitting was closed by
‘‘Imperator.’’ In the years that followed, communications by
automatic writing remained intermittent but the trance state
did not make its appearance until 1915 when the famous ‘‘Faunus’’
message, relating to the forthcoming death of Sir Oliver
Lodge’s son Raymond, was given.
Between 1914 and 1924 Piper did no regular work. Her
mother’s failing health made increasing demands upon her
time and strength. Further, no suitable supervisor for her work
was found. In October 1924, Dr. Gardner Murphy conducted
a series of sittings, at the end of which the SPR agreed that
Piper should sit with the newly formed Boston Society for Psychical
Research during the season of 1926–27. She complied.
Piper’s work in the cause of psychical research was of tremendous
importance. For several decades her powers were
tested to a degree that no other medium had approximated.
Psychical research owes an enormous debt to her generous and
sustained cooperation, often under difficult circumstances. The
literature covering her work is vast and is spread out over several
decades of the publication of both the SPR and the ASPR.
Piper died in 1950.
Sources
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Bull, K. T. ‘‘Mrs. Piper—A Study.’’ Harper’s Bazaar 33
(1900).
Matlock, James G. ‘‘Leonora or Leonore A Note on Mrs.
Piper’s First Name.’’ Journal of the American Society for Psychical
Research 82, no. 3 (July 1988).
Piper, Alta L. The Life and Work of Mrs. Piper. London Kegan
Paul, 1929.
Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology.
New York Helix Press, 1964.
Robbins, Anne Manning. Both Sides of the Veil A Personal Experience.
Boston Sherman & French, 1909.
Sage, M. Mrs. Piper and the Society for Psychical Research. London,
1903.
Salter, W. H. Trance Mediumship An Introductory Study of Mrs.
Piper and Mrs. Leonard. London Society for Psychical Research,
1950