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  The Afterlife Explorers: Volume 1: The Pioneers of Psychical Research
Michael Tymn

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The Pioneers of Survival Research

The formation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England during 1882 is often cited as the birth of modern psychical research.  However, under other names, psychical research is much older.  If we include the investigations carried out by the Catholic Church when “miracles” were alleged, we can date the field back to at least the 12th Century.
In the broadest sense of the word, Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th Century Swedish scientist and inventor turned mystic and seer, was a “psychical researcher” in that he personally investigated the spirit world by means of an altered state of consciousness, and then reported on his findings. However, Swedenborg’s research did not involve investigating the experiences of others.

In 1826, Justinus Kerner, a German physician, began studying the altered states of consciousness and clairvoyance of his patient, Frederica Hauffe, who came to be known as “The Seeress of Prevorst,” but the seminal event usually cited as having given rise to the advent of “modern” psychical research occurred on March 31, 1848 just outside Rochester, New York, in the hamlet of Hydesville. Shortly after moving into a small house there on December 11, 1847, the family of John D. Fox, including daughters Margaret, 14, and Kate, 8, began hearing strange raps in the house, but it wasn’t until March 31 that the two daughters realized that they could communicate with the “raps” by snapping their fingers.  Upon learning of this, Mrs. Fox asked the “raps” to respond to questions by giving two raps for a “yes” and silence for “no.”  She asked if a human being was making the raps.  There was no response.  When she asked if it was a spirit, there were two raps.  Neighbors were called in and dozens of questions put to the “spirit.’  It was determined that the spirit had been murdered in the house about five years earlier, well before the Fox family moved in, and that he had been buried beneath the house.  Digging began and at a depth of five feet human remains were found.
It was soon realized that the Fox sisters were mediums and were able to bring through other spirits.  Some amazing phenomena produced by their spirit controls were witnessed by a number of eminent men and women, including Horace Greeley, J. Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant.

In spite of limited mass communications in those days, the story of what came to be called the “Rochester knockings” spread rapidly and turned into an epidemic of spirit communication.  Mediums began developing in all parts of the United States as well as in Europe.  The phenomena progressed from rappings and tappings to table tilting and turning and table levitations.  The table phenomena usually involved sitters placing their hands on the table and the table lifting off the floor, although there were many observations of the table tilting, turning, or lifting independently of any hands. The spirit communicator would then respond to the questions by tilts of the table.  In addition to the simple “yes” and “no” method employed in the Fox case, spirits would tap out letters of the alphabet (one tap for “A,” five taps for “E,” etc.) or would respond with a tap when the alphabet was recited by someone present, thereby slowly spelling out words and sentences.  The “madness,” as some referred to it, came to be called “Spiritualism.”

If the spirits who communicated in the years immediately following the Hydesville event are to be believed, there was a plan behind it all – a plan that resulted from a growing loss of faith and spiritual values in an increasingly materialistic world.  Certain advanced spirits were chosen, early investigators were informed, to communicate with humans and give them a better idea of man’s purpose and destiny.  A few years before the Rochester knockings, Andrew Jackson Davis, a young New York man, began clairvoyantly receiving profound messages purportedly coming from high spirits, but few paid any attention to him until the epidemic was underway.  Numerous books of wisdom flowed from the pen of this uneducated man, who came to be known as “the Poughkeepsie seer.”  Some years passed before an entry was discovered in Davis’s journal for March 31, 1848, stating that the good work had begun. 

According to spirit messages, the rapping method of communication was suggested by Benjamin Franklin with the help of Swedenborg, working together in the spirit world.  Rappings had been noticed well before the Fox sisters, but apparently no one thought to consider them as a means of spirit communication. As William Stainton Moses, whose mediumship is discussed in Chapter 12, was informed, in earlier times, spirits communicated with men in ways less material, but as men grew more corporeal it became necessary for a material system of telegraphy to be invented.  It also became increasingly clear that the communicating spirits have as many obstacles to overcome in communicating with us and we have in communicating with them.

The spiritualism epidemic gave rise to much fraud.  Even the Fox sisters, apparently under pressure to produce results on every occasion after coming under the management of showman P. T. Barnum, are said to have used tricks when the spirits were silent, and later in life, when destitute, one of them accepted money from a newspaper to admit to fraud.  However, it became clear to serious investigators that much of the phenomena could not have been faked.

Among the dedicated and distinguished psychical researchers before the formation of the SPR in 1882 were:

• John Edmonds, Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court
• Robert Hare, professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and renowned inventor
• Allan Kardec, French educator and author
• Alfred Russel Wallace, biologist and co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution
• William Crookes, chemist who discovered the element thallium and was a pioneer in x-ray technology, later knighted for his contributions to science
• William Barrett, professor of physics at the Royal College in Dublin and inventor, later knighted for his contributions to science.

Each of these men began as a skeptic but became a believer in the reality of mediumship and in spirit communication.  Barrett was instrumental in the formation of the SPR, which was intended as a scientific peer review organization.  Five years later, he would encourage the formation of the American branch of the SPR (ASPR).  Among the scholars and scientists who joined the SPR and ASPR and became dedicated researchers in those early years were: 

• William James, professor of philosophy, psychology, and medicine at the Harvard University, one of the pioneers of modern psychology
• Oliver Lodge, professor of physics and pioneer in electricity and radio, later knighted for his contributions to science
• Charles Richet, professor of physiology and winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology
• Camille Flammarion, pioneer in astronomy and founder of the French Astronomical Society
• Cesare Lombroso, Italian psychiatrist and founder of the science of criminology
• James H. Hyslop, professor of logic and ethics at Columbia University and pioneer in abnormal psychology

This volume, intended as the first of four volumes on the pioneers of psychical research, summarizes the experiences of the earliest pioneers both researchers and mediums – those before the SPR was organized.  As stated in the Preface, the phenomena investigated before 1882 was in many ways more interesting and dynamic than most of those following. In addition to the evidential aspects, the mediumship from the period 1850 to 1882 seems to have involved much more in the way of higher truths or teachings than that which followed, perhaps because by that time the advanced spirits were simply repeating themselves over and over.  Moreover, the later scientific investigators were interested only in evidential communication, not teachings that could not be confirmed.   

While many educated men and women observed the Fox sisters and other mediums during 1848 and 1849, the first person to conduct a serious and long-term investigation of mediumistic phenomena seems to have been Judge Edmonds. He was followed during the 1850s by Hare and Kardec. Although not researchers in the same sense that Edmonds, Hare, and Kardec were, famous French author Victor Hugo and American statesman Nathaniel P.

Tallmadge contributed to research of the 1850s.  Professor Augustus De Morgan, renowned in the history of logic and mathematics, may have been the first British researcher, but his research is not well documented beyond his anonymous Preface to an 1863 book, From Matter to Spirit, authored by his wife, Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan.  Some years after the publication of the book, it was revealed that Augustus De Morgan wrote the lengthy Preface, one in which he expressed his belief in spiritual manifestations.

The informal investigations by prominent scientists and scholars continued through the 1860s and 1870s, and were mostly documented in books for general readership rather than for scientific scrutiny.  The timeline of the key events leading up to the organization of the SPR is, as follows:   

1741 – Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg begins personal investigation of afterlife realms by means of clairvoyance and out-of-body travel, and writes numerous essays on his explorations.

1778 – Mesmerism is introduced by Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician.  While slow to catch on. it was an important precursor of psychical research and parapsychology.

1826 – Dr. Justinus Kerner begins studying the altered states of consciousness of his patient, Frederica Hauffe, who came to be known as “The Seeress of Prevorst.”

1844 – Andrew Jackson Davis, remembered as “The Poughkeepsie Seerer,” begins his clairvoyant visions of the spirit world.

March 31, 1848 – This day marks the beginning of paranormal phenomena at the home of the Fox family in Hydesville, New York.  This leads to a mediumship “epidemic” in the United States and Europe.

January 1851 – John W. Edmonds, Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, begins a two-year personal investigation of mediumship.  Intending to debunk the phenomena, he instead becomes a dedicated Spiritualist.  He authors, along with George T. Dexter, M.D., Spiritualism, first published in 1853.

1851 – The “New York Circle,” an association of prominent men and women, including Judge Edmonds, is formed to observe and report on spiritualistic phenomena.  The group’s first official meeting takes place on November 14, 1851.

1851 – The Ghost Society is formed at Cambridge in England. One of the founders is Edward White Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury.  In 1853, Henry Sidgwick, Benson’s cousin and later the first president of the Society for Psychical Research, joins the group.  Seven years later, Professor Sidgwick becomes a tutor at Cambridge to Frederic W. H. Myers, a co-founder of the SPR.

1852 – A Harvard University delegation, including poet William Cullen Bryant and Messrs. B.K. Bliss, William Edwards, and David Wells studies the physical mediumship of Daniel Dunglas Home, concluding that he is “a modern wonder.”

1853 – Dr. Robert Hare, a retired University of Pennsylvania chemistry professor and renowned inventor, begins investigating mediumship, intent on showing that it is all fraud.  He comes to accept it as real and then becomes a medium himself. In 1855, his book, Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations, is published.

1853 – French author Victor Hugo is exiled to the isle of Jersey and begins an informal investigation of mediumship.

1854 – French educator Hippolyte Leon Denizarth Rivail (Allan Kardec) begins an investigation of mediumship. In 1857, he publishes The Spirits’ Book, which sets forth profound messages from the spirit world.

1860 – American editor and statesman Robert Dale Owen writes Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, discussing various psychic phenomena.  Psychical researchers in the decades following would say that this book significantly influenced them in their decisions to investigate similar phenomena.

1863 – From Matter to Spirit, authored by Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan, the wife of famed mathematician Augustus De Morgan, is published, setting forth the De Morgans’ 10 years of experience in studying spirit manifestations.

1866 – Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Charles Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution, issues his first writing on Spiritualism, The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural. 

1869 – The Dialectical Society of London appoints a committee, including biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, to investigate mediumship.  The committee returns a report that the phenomena exist.

1870 – William Crookes (later, Sir William), a renowned chemist, decides to investigate mediums.  On April 21, 1870, he has the first of many sittings with medium Daniel Dunglas Home.  In 1872, he begins an investigation of medium Florence Cook.  He reports that both Home and Cook are genuine mediums.

April 2, 1872 – Rev. William Stainton Moses, an Anglican minister and English Master at University College, begins investigating mediumship, assuming it to be all trickery and fraud.  He soon becomes a medium himself, receiving profound messages from a high spirit calling himself Imperator.

May 9, 1874 – Two Cambridge scholars, Frederic W. H. Myers and Edmund Gurney, visit Rev. William Stainton Moses to observe his mediumship.  They are fascinated and are encouraged to continue their investigations.
1875 – Serjeant Cox, a lawyer who often sat with W. Stainton Moses, organizes the Psychological Society of Great Britain.  It is dissolved upon his death in 1879.

1876 – William Barrett (later Sir William), professor of physics in the Royal College of Science at Dublin, submits a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the subject of mental telepathy, then called thought-transference. The Association rejects it.  When Alfred Russel Wallace protests the rejection, Barrett is allowed to deliver his paper but not publish it.

1879 – The Cambridge Society for Psychical Research is formed to conduct investigations of mediums.  It is a forerunner of the Society for Psychical Research.

1882 – The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) is organized in London by eminent scholars and scientists, including William Barrett, William Stainton Moses, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic W. H. Myers, and Edmund Gurney.  Sidgwick becomes its first president.

Volume II of this series will begin with Sir William Barrett and the investigations of the SPR,  especially the lengthy study of the mediumship of Leonora Piper, referred to by Professor William James as the “white crow” – the one who proved that all crows are not black.

Publisher: White Crow Books
Published April 2012
172 pages
Size: 229 x 152 mm
ISBN 978-1-908733-00-9
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Excerpt from A Course in Miracles. IX. The “Hero” of the Dream – 74 The body is the central figure in the dreaming of the world. There is no dream without it, nor does it exist without the dream in which it acts as if it were a person, to be seen and be believed. Read here
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