Zöllner, Johann C. F. (1834–1882)
Professor of physics and astronomy at the University of
Leipzig, remembered most for his speculative work, The Nature
of the Comets, which attracted the attention of the intellectual
world in view of the many original ideas he advanced. He also
engaged in psychical research beginning with an investigation
of the phenomena of the medium Henry Slade. His subsequent
book, Transcendental Physics (1880), rendered his name
famous in the annals of psychical research and subjected him
to persecution, contempt, and ridicule from the scientific fraternity.
He is considered a somewhat naive investigator unable
to detect the fraud perpetuated on him by a series of physical
mediums.
His experiments began in December 1877. He was assisted
by William Edward Weber, a professor of physics; W. Scheibner,
a professor of mathematics; and Gustave Theodore Fechner,
a professor of physics who, to quote Zöllner’s words, became
‘‘perfectly convinced of the reality of the observed facts,
altogether excluding imposture or prestidigation.’’ Professor
Fichte, of Stuttgart, and Professor Ulrici, of Halle, also endorsed
the experiments that were further supported by an affidavit
of Bellachine, the conjurer at the court of Berlin.
The evidential value of the investigation was somewhat
weakened by Zöllner’s insistence on the theory of fourth dimension
as an explanation. Of the theory itself, the astronomer
G. V. Schiaparelli wrote in a letter to Camille Flammarion
‘‘It is the most ingenious and probable that can be imagined.
According to this theory, mediumistic phenomena would lose
their mystic or mystifying character and would pass into the domain
of ordinary physics and physiology. They would lead to
a very considerable extension of the sciences, an extension such
that their author would deserve to be placed side by side with
Galileo and Newton. Unfortunately, these experiments of Zöllner
were made with a medium of poor reputation.’’
Zöllner, after his sittings with Slade, had further interesting
experiences with Elizabeth d’Esperance. In March 1880,
Baron von Hoffmann engaged the medium William Eglinton
to give twenty-five sittings to Zöllner. He was very satisfied with
the result and intended to write another book on his experiences.
He died before he could do it.
The report of the skeptical Seybert Commission quoted testimonies
from Scheibner, Fechner, and some others that Zöll
ner, at the time of his experiments, was of unsound mind. As
he filled his chair up to the moment of his sudden death, this
charge cannot be seriously supported. In his book Birth and
Death as a Change of Form of Perception (1886), Baron Lazar De
Baczolay Hellenbach wrote that Zöllner ‘‘was in his last days
deeply wounded and embittered by the treatment of his colleagues,
whose assaults he took too much to heart. Zöllner,
however, was in perfect possession of his intellect till his last
breath.’’
When the report of the Seybert Commission was made public,
anti-Spiritualists, like popular atheist writer Joseph McCabe,
seized upon the remarks about Zöllner and wrote of him
as ‘‘elderly and purblind.’’ Dr. Isaac Kauffmann Funk, the
New York publisher and psychical investigator, wrote to Leipzig
and received from Dr. Karl Bücher, the Rector Magnificus
of the University of Leipzig, a letter, dated November 7, 1903,
that ‘‘information received from Zöllner’s colleagues states that
during his entire studies at the university here, until his death,
he was of sound mind; moreover, in the best of health. The
cause of his death was a hemorrhage of the brain on the morning
of April 26, 1882, while he was at breakfast with his mother,
and from which he died shortly after.’’
Sources:
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon
House, 1991.
Inglis, Brian. The Paranormal: An Encyclopedia of Psychic Phenomena.
London: Granada, 1985.
Zöllner, Johann C. F. Transcendental Physics. Trans. C. C.
Massey. London: W. H. Harrison, 1882.

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