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Remembering Professor William Newbold and His Research with Leonora Piper

Posted on 22 April 2024, 8:06

As a member of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), William Romaine Newbold (1865 – 1926, lower left photo), a University of Pennsylvania professor of philosophy and psychology, carried out considerable research with trance medium Leonora Piper of Boston, Mass.  Between 1891 and 1895, he had 26 sittings with her and studied the details of seven others held on his behalf by Dr. Richard Hodgson (upper right photo).


The predominant theory among researchers in 1891, before the emergence of George Pellew (G.P.) as a spirit “control” of Mr. Piper’s, was that Dr. Phinuit, her primary control at the time, was a secondary personality buried in her subconscious and this secondary personality had the ability to tap into the minds of the sitters, even into minds elsewhere, for the information coming out of Mrs. Piper’s mouth, then to somehow dramatize it and personalize it. In Newbold’s first sitting with Mrs. Piper after the G.P. control manifested in early 1892, his Aunt Sally communicated, but G.P. struggled to understand whether she was his aunt or his grandmother. Newbold understood G.P.’s dilemma perfectly, explaining that his paternal grandfather’s second wife had a sister whom his (Newbold’s) father married many years after his father’s death, that woman being his mother. Thus, Aunt Sally was both his aunt and his step-grandmother.

“The demand made by ‘Aunt Sally’ that I should identify myself by expounding the significance of ‘two marriages in this case, mother and aunt grandma’…admits of no satisfactory telepathic explanation,” Newbold offered in his report, wondering why the dim memories of his spinster aunt, who died when he was just 10 years old, were so clearly reflected when so many vivid memories of others might have been more easily picked up.

“Evidence of this sort does not suggest telepathy,” he reasoned. “It suggests the actual presence of the alleged communicators, and if it stood alone I should have no hesitation in accepting that theory. Unfortunately, it does not stand alone. It is interwoven with obscurity, confusion, irrelevancy, and error in a most bewildering fashion. I agree with Dr. Hodgson that the description give by the (spirit) writers themselves of the conditions under which they are laboring would, if accepted, account for a very large part of this matter. But, even after the most generous allowances on this score, there remains much which the writers cannot explain.”

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Newbold received his Ph.D. in 1891 at the University of Pennsylvania and did further graduate study at the University of Berlin. He was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania for 37 years, serving as dean of the university’s graduate school from 1896 to 1904.

In one sitting with Piper, who was in a trance state, Newbold observed G.P. writing while using Mrs. Piper’s hand, as Phinuit, who was sharing control duties with G.P. at the time, was talking through her. Newbold heard Phinuit say that he shouldn’t be in such a hurry and thought Phinuit was talking to him, thus telling Phinuit that he was in no hurry. Phinuit said he wasn’t talking to Newbold but rather to a young man in spirit who was in a great hurry to begin communicating. Hodgson was also there, recording the session. When the young man referred to by Phinuit communicated, he seemed confused, as Mrs. Piper’s hand felt Hodgson’s head. The young man then said that he did not know Hodgson. Since Mrs. Piper/Dr. Phinuit certainly knew Hodgson, this was deemed not consistent with the secondary personality hypothesis, unless it is claimed that Piper was play-acting.

Writing vs. Talking

At a June 17, 1895 sitting, Newbold asked G.P. the difference between the writing and talking.  G.P. responded that the difference was not apparent to him. “I only know I am writing by having been told so by Hodgson,” G.P. wrote through Piper’s hand. When Newbold asked G.P. what Phinuit was doing while he was controlling Mrs. Piper, G.P. said that Phinuit was “talking to John H. and a little million others at the same time helping me hold them back and keep them from interrupting me.”
Two days later, Newbold asked G.P. if it was possible to have W. Stainton Moses, an Anglican priest and medium who had died several years earlier, communicate.  A short time later, Phinuit began talking to Newbold (through Piper’s vocal cords), calling him by his nickname, “Billie,” although recorded as “Billy.”  Phinuit said that G.P. sent him to find Moses.  “I found him in another part of our world,” Phinuit stated.  Newbold asked Phinuit if it was far away.  “It would be a long way to you, Billie, but not so far to me.” Phinuit said he identified Moses by his bright light, “more than anybody.”  When Newbold asked for clarification, Phinuit responded by saying that spirits are “all light” and that they vary in light.

Newbold concluded his first report by saying he had no theory to offer relative to the origin of the information given. “I can frame none to which I cannot myself allege unanswerable objections.”  He noted that the alleged spirits of those who had died a violent death or had been bound to the sitter by emotional ties, would nearly always display great excitement and confusion. He went on to say that the scientific world, which had so tacitly rejected the idea of a supersensible world and the possibility of occasional communication between that world and this, should reconsider its position based on Mrs. Piper’s and kindred cases.

Not long after Hodgson died unexpectedly on December 20, 1905, he began communicating with Newbold and others through Mrs. Piper. Newbold, who had become a good friend of Hodgson’s, sat with Mrs. Piper on June 27, 1906 along with George Dorr, another ASPR member and also a good friend of Hodgson’s. After Mrs. Piper went into trance, Rector, who had replaced Phinuit and G.P. as Mrs. Piper’s control,  communicated briefly and turned it over to Hodgson, who told Newbold that it was much more difficult to communicate than he had anticipated when in the earth life.

Who’s Speaking?

Dorr asked whether Hodgson was communicating directly or Rector was relaying messages from him. “It is wholly done by Rector and it will continue to be,” Hodgson responded. “I shall take no part in that.”  When Dorr asked for clarification, Hodgson replied, “It is Rector who is speaking and he speaks for me.  I have no desire to take Rector’s place.  I trust him implicitly and absolutely.” Dorr asked if Rector speaks for all other spirits.  ‘Everyone,” Hodgson answered. “There is no question about that.  In the first place he is more competent to do it, he understands the conditions better than any individual spirit; he is fully capable and is under the constant direction of Imperator…” (Imperator was the name of the leader of the “group soul” communicating through Piper.)

The dialogue between Hodgson and Dorr and Hodgson and Newbold went on for some time, part of which is recorded in my book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper:  How Science Discovered the Afterlife.  On July 3, 1906, Newbold and Hodgson again dialogued.  After some initial greeting, the transcript reads: 

Hodgson:  “I am trying my level best to give you facts.”
Newbold:  “Very good.”
Hodgson:  “I said my pipe and my work would not be given up even for a wife.  Oh how you have helped me, Billy.  Yes, in clearing my mind wonderfully.  (Newbold noted that Hodgson made a very veridical remark at this point, but he had to omit it, as it was apparently too personal). You said you could not understand why so many mistakes were made, and I talked you blind trying to explain my idea of it.”
Newbold:  “Dick, this sounds like your own self.  Just the way you used to talk to me.”
Hodgson:  “Well if I am not Hodgson, he never lived.”

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

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Next blog post: May 6



Thanks for the additional post. Yes, it appears that the SPR must forever “mind the gap” between believing and not believing, or at least between believing too much or too little. For so many people, there is no gap.  It is all black or all white. In not recognizing the gap, many people trip and fall flat on their faces.

Michael Tymn, Sun 5 May, 06:37

I find it interesting that you have read that Braude is moving toward the spirit/survival hypothesis. For years and years he has promoted the Super-psi hypothesis ad nauseum. Was what you read in reference to the Patience Worth case or just generally? Braude’s article in PSI Encyclopedia is just a cut and paste from his book “Immortal Remains.”  I am so thankful that they printed your article about Patience Worth.  -AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 4 May, 20:53

I liked your comments of May 4th.  The imagery of the battlefield is one that Patience Worth used several if not many times.  And you used the word “champions” at the end of your post to continue the metaphor and one of my chapters is titled “Champions” which includes information about Herman Behr, one of the Champions of Patience Worth and Pearl Curran.  Behr provided substantial financial support for Pearl Curran and her two girls after Pearl’s husband John Curran died. He also financed a couple of her books and a book of poems dictated by Patience Worth.  One of Curran’s most loving poems was dedicated to Herman Behr and it is one of my favorites.  Here is the last stanza of that poem depicting her return from a battlefield:

“What magic is thine, beloved?
It is as though I had come fresh
From the conflict with bloody head,
With bruised hands and heavy feet,
With mine armour oppressing me—-
It is a though I had come to thy side,
And felt thy gentle touch upon my brow,
Watched thy slender hands unthong
My coat of mail, and weary,
Dropped my head upon thy breast,
Secure in the serenity of thy voice.”

Behr continued his financial support of Pearl Curran until he died after which his son Max Behr assisted Pearl Curran when she moved to California.  Max married her adopted daughter Patience “Wee” Worth Curran and cared for Pearl’s teenage daughter Eileen for several years. There is more to be said about the possible relationship between Herman Behr and Pearl Curran but I will save that for my book.

You quoted Myers with a wonderful quote that, “…a ‘will to believe’ in post-mortem survival, telepathy and other scientifically unpopular notions, does not necessarily exclude a “will to know…”  Yes indeed!

You also said that, “I was recently told that the SPR and the Spiritualists are two sides of the one coin. I would interpret this as both have a will to believe but different paths to get to this belief. It can also mean that one side of the coin is blind to the other side.”  Another great thought!

In reference to the SPR, I recall that Eleanor Sidgwick, who became President of the SPR at one time had a difficult time believing that Leonora Piper was controlled by spirits and that they were talking and writing through her body.  Mrs. Sidgwick concluded after studying the case of Leonora Piper, with which she was quite intimate, wrote an article for the SPR Journal about Piper that Piper must have been using telepathy between the living and the dead.  That is, she acknowledged that the dead could communicate, but through telepathy with the living not by taking over the body of a medium.

Thanks for the response, Bruce.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 4 May, 20:41

Michael and Amos,
My aim was not to rattle the chain but I did love reading both the passion and eloquence from Amos.  I would say Pearl’s champion knight (Amos) is still active on the battlefield. My impression is Amos is one the champions that are clashing on the field of psychical research with their chainmail (nice turn of visual imagery) mounted atop their eager horses ready to defend. This battlefield has a long history with Spiritualists and SPR.
I also looked up Michael’s reference to the PSI Encyclopedia on our old trusted friend Wiki. From and saw their version of the battlefield.
The Society has been criticized by both spiritualists and skeptics.
Criticism from spiritualists
Prominent spiritualists at first welcomed the SPR and cooperated fully, but relations soured when spiritualists discovered that the SPR would not accept outside testimony as proof, and the society accused some prominent mediums of fraud. Spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle resigned from the SPR in 1930, to protest what he regarded as the SPR’s overly restrictive standards of proof. Psychic investigator and believer in spiritualism Nandor Fodor criticised the SPR for its “strong bias” against physical manifestations of spiritualism.
Criticism from skeptics
Skeptics have criticised members of the SPR for having motives liable to impair scientific objectivity. According to SPR critics John Grant and Eric Dingwall (a member of the SPR), early SPR members such as Henry Sidgwick, Frederic W. H. Myers, and William Barrett hoped to cling to something spiritual through psychical research.
Myers stated that “The Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the establishment of thought-transference—already rising within measurable distance of proof—as its primary aim.” Defenders of the SPR have stated in reply that “a ‘will to believe’ in post-mortem survival, telepathy and other scientifically unpopular notions, does not necessarily exclude a “will to know” and thus the capacity for thorough self-criticism, methodological rigour and relentless suspicion of errors.”
These critics said both Lodge and Barrett were not able to detect frauds, blinded by their desire for a spirit based belief system.
I would suggest that the battlefields of these differences of opinions still exist in the after life. My point is that this field of debate is characterised by polarising arguments. I was recently told that the SPR and the Spiritualists are two sides of the one coin. I would interpret this as both have a will to believe but different paths to get to this belief. It can also mean that one side of the coin is blind to the other side. Messages are often open to different interpretations.
I was also told that Sir Oliver Lodge had lots of opposition at the SPR. So back to the battlefield of believers and skeptics. We each have our champions. The battlefield is not black and white(I am not sure if this phrase will be allowed soon) but shades of grey.

Bruce, Sat 4 May, 11:25

Bruce and Amos,

If Pearl Curran had been born about 1955 or later, it might be argued that her playpen was in hearing distance of a television set and therefore she absorbed everything she heard on the TV, including many programs with 500-year-old English.  That said, I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Braude has moved somewhat from Super-Psi or Living-Agent Psi toward the spirit/survival hypothesis.  Incidentally, the PSI Encyclopedia, published by the SPR, has two entries on Patience/Pearl—one by Braude and one by me. However, he has a Ph.D. and I don’t, so his must be more authoritative.

Michael Tymn, Fri 3 May, 06:44

You really have pulled my chain when you are referencing Stephen Braude PhD. and his comments about Patience Worth in his book “Immortal Remains.”  I have several pages about Braude’s opinions about Patience Worth in my forthcoming book “Reluctant Medium” about Pearl Curran and Patience Worth

This is not the place to go into the depth of my responses to Braude’s opinion but here are my salient points:

Braude says that the “Patience Worth case suggests something about latent human creative capacities.” And then he compared Pearl Curran to Hellene Smith, Rosemary Brown, Luis Gasparreto, Frederic L. Thompson, Fernando Pessoa, all of which are not precisely relevant to the Patience Worth case (surely he knows that) and he brings up these cases in the middle of a chapter about Patience Worth, making Pearl Curran guilty by association with cases that in some ways are ludicrous and not really very good comparisons; all to discredit a spirit source of the Patience Worth writings.

However, Braude notes that the Patience Worth case is “one of the most puzzling and interesting cases in the history of psychical research but it provides no verifiable evidence for anyone’s former existence.  What makes it remarkable is the mind-bogglingly creative, and apparently unprecedented literary, linguistic and improvisational fluency demonstrated by the medium.  So, this case is important for what it suggests about latent human creative capacities.” (I am surprised that Braude didn’t start talking about his favorite topic, “Super-Psi” here.)

Braude concludes his chapter on Patience Worth by agreeing with Professor F.C.S. Schiller, who apparently stated that, “It is . . . safer to credit Patience Worth to the unconscious and to classify her, officially, as Mrs. Curran’s secondary self.”  So, there you have it from Professor Braude.  He really has no explanation for the case so he just takes an easy way out! i.e. It is SAFER to credit it to the unconscious of Pearl.

Professor Braude writes that:

“We can’t forget that the Patience Worth case. . . is non-evidential.  Despite diligent research, no one has discovered a previously existing individual even roughly corresponding to the Patience persona. . . . So how do we explain why, if a corresponding Patience Worth actually existed, no one remarked on her improvisational prowess and no body or works survived?  It seems extremely unlikely that Patience would have exhibited those abilities without someone documenting them and without Patience leaving a legacy of compositions for posterity.” [I can’t believe that Braude actually wrote this!]

Does Braude really expect that this isolated rural Puritan teenage or twenty-something girl in 17th century England, engaged from dawn to dusk in household tasks would have left a library of her other writings documenting “her improvisational prowess” and that they would have achieved notoriety among the higher classes warranting their preservation for posterity and conveniently accessible for us to peruse—-preserved in pristine condition, I presume!

Being a poor rural girl, just how would she have been able to afford the pen, ink and paper—-and time—-to record her musings in the dark of her hut?  And, who would care?  We are not considering the leisure-life higher class elite aristocrats of 17th century England here!

Professor Braude was deficient in his research about Patience Worth as I have identified documentation of two Patience Worths living in England as well as the William Worth family living in New Jersey in the 1600s, a time when Curran’s Patience Worth reportedly lived.  William Worth married Faith Patterson.  Among other children, they had a daughter whom they named Patience Worth.  No additional documentation is available as to what happened to this Patience Worth but one of William’s sons married and had a daughter which he also named Patience Worth. She married Benjamin Lawrence in the 1700s.  Now I don’t think either of these girls was the Patience Worth of Pearl Curran, but it may be that they were related to Pearl’s Patience Worth who may have been William’s sister or aunt, and who was killed by the Indians. Her relatives may have named their children in her memory.  Apparently it was a family name.

All-in-all I would recommend Braude’s book “Immortal Remains,” but in my opinion, he is way off-base with Patience Worth and Pearl Curran.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 1 May, 18:56

Michael,  do have your book Resurrecting Leonora Piper(excellent book) and I remember George Dorr, a Vice-President of the SPR was also featured in an after death communication by Edmund Gurney explaining to Sir Oliver Lodge that names were often hard to convey
That word [i.e. Dorr] had to be given in that way,after efforts had been made to convey it telepathically without success. It was a great strain on both sides. We don’t want to move any atoms in the brain directly.
[0. J. L). Am I to understand that when you do it telergically you do move atoms in the brain?
No, we bring to bear certain currents. He says Thunder and Lightning.
Amos, I keep coming across Patience Worth Chapter 5 Immortal remains : the evidence for life after death by Stephen Braude, (available at and new at Thriftbooks). All the stuff you already know but nice to see as one of their key research findings.

I listen to various podcasts, interviews etc with other mediums and I am amazed at the diversity of their techniques. I can only imagine the various SPR researchers trying to understand why their mediums were not consistent.  My advice was that these researchers treated their mediums as labs rats but had little respect for them.

Bruce, Wed 1 May, 13:46


Very interesting. That a medium could pull off such a hoax either consciously or unconsciously is hard to imagine. Thanks for sharing the details of what went on in these sittings.


Stafford Betty, Wed 24 Apr, 02:15

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Fallen Soldier Convinces His Famous Father of Life After Death – On September 14, 1915, Second Lieutenant Raymond Lodge, the youngest of six sons of Sir Oliver Lodge, a distinguished British physicist and pioneer in electricity and radio, as well as the former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was killed in WWI action in Flanders. Read here
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