Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900)
First president of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR),
London, a professor at Cambridge University who filled the
chair of moral philosophy, and who once was described as ‘‘the
most incorrigibly and exasperatingly critical and sceptical
mind in England.’’ F. W. H. Myers (who pursued investigations
with Sidgwick) and Edmund Gurney made their cooperation
with the fledgling SPR contingent upon his acceptance of the
presidential post.
Sidgwick was born May 31, 1838, at Skipton, Yorkshire, England.
He attended Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge
(fellow, 1859–69). In 1876, he married Eleanor Mildred Balfour,
the sister of Arthur James Balfour, later British Prime
Minister.
In his first presidential address to the SPR, on July 17, 1882,
Sidgwick used plain words
‘‘We are all agreed that the present state of things is a scandal
to the enlightened age in which we live, that the dispute as
to the reality of these marvelous phenomena of which it is quite
impossible to exaggerate the scientific importance, if only a
tenth part of what has been alleged by generally credible witnesses
could be shown to be true—I say it is a scandal that the
dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be
going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared
their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly
interested in having the question determined, and yet
the educated world, as a body, should still be simply in an attitude
of incredulity.’’
He declared that he did not expect to produce evidence of
a better quality than that of Sir William Crookes, Alfred Russel
Wallace, and Augustus de Morgan, but wanted a great deal
more of it. Speaking on scientific incredulity he concluded
‘‘We have done all that we can when the critic has nothing
left to allege except that the investigator is in the trick. But
when he has nothing else left he will allege that. . . . We must
drive the objector into the position of being forced either to
admit the phenomena as inexplicable, at least by him, or to accuse
the investigators either of lying or cheating or of a blindness
or forgetfulness incompatible with any intellectual condition
except absolute idiocy.’’
For 18 years Sidgwick claimed an active share in the work
of the SPR, contributed many important studies to the Proceedings,
and helped the investigations by his personal means. He
edited the society’s Journal in 1885.
He died without admitting any reality to either telekinesis
or ectoplasm. But as early as 1864 he wrote to a Mr. Dakyns,
a friend ‘‘I (fancy I) have actually heard the raps . . .’’ and
added ‘‘However, I have no kind of evidence to come before
a jury. So keep it still till I blaze forth.’’ He never blazed forth.
He had sittings with mediums Frank Herne and Henry
Slade and materialization séances with C. E. Wood and Annie
Fairlamb in his own home at Cambridge under the most stringent
test conditions, as testified by Myers’s notes. Eleanor Sidgwick
published an account of those she attended in the SPR
Proceedings (vol. 4) and admitted that it was exceedingly difficult
‘‘but not perhaps impossible’’ to impute the results to imposture.
In justice, however, it should be added that the most
astounding and conclusive phenomena, according to Myers,
occurred in the absence of both Sidgwicks.
It is more widely known that Sidgwick was impressed by the
phenomena of Eusapia Palladino, which he witnessed with his
wife on the Ile. Roubaud in 1894, as the guest of Charles Richet.
During the latter part of Palladino’s stay there, her phenomena
were less spectacular, and he then took a leading part
in the sittings held at Cambridge in 1895 that resulted in her
exposure. He had a number of sittings with Leonora Piper in
1889–90 and retained the keenest interest in her trance phenomena.
He died August 28, 1900. The first communications purporting
to come from Sidgwick after his death were obtained
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Sidgwick, Henry
1407
through Rosina Thompson on January 11, 1901. According to
J. G. Piddington, who was present, the diction, manner, and
voice were astonishingly lifelike, and he felt that he was indeed
speaking with and hearing the voice of the man he had known.
The written communications that followed the oral one bear
out a striking resemblance to Sidgwick’s handwriting. The first
such script was received through Thompson in Piddington’s
presence. Other messages, of varying evidential value, were received
through the hand of Margaret Verrall.
Sources
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. New York
Schrocken Books, 1968.
Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology.
New York Helix Press, 1964.
Sidgwick, Henry. ‘‘Canons of Evidence in Psychical Research.’’
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
(1888–90).
———. ‘‘Disinterested Deception.’’ Journal 6 (1894).
Sidgwick, Henry, A. Johnson, F. W. H. Myers, Frank Podmore,
and Eleanor Sidgwick. ‘‘Report on the Census of Hallucinations.’’
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 10
(1894).

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