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The “Third Hand” Eludes Catch 22 Science

Posted on 11 January 2016, 14:57

In the annals of psychical research, Eusapia Palladino, an illiterate Neapolitan woman, and Mina Crandon, the wife of a respected Boston, Mass. physician who was given the pseudonym “Margery” to protect her privacy and that of her husband, were perhaps the two most controversial mediums subjected to extensive investigation.  Anyone relying on Wikipedia or other popular sources for information will likely conclude that both Eusapia and Margery were clever tricksters.  But anyone taking the time to really dig into the subject of physical mediumship and study the detailed reports relative to these two ladies of yesteryear will not be so hasty in writing them off as charlatans.

Eusapia Palladino:above

Mina Crandon:above

The phenomena produced by the two women were somewhat similar.  Most of them were physical, including levitations of a table, (as with Eusapia in photo)  apports (objects mysteriously transported into the room), unusual lights and breezes, paraffin gloves purportedly produced by spirits, the ringing of a bell not within reach of the medium, a scale in which the weighted side went up as the unweighted side went down, and other strange happenings seemingly contrary to natural law.  Especially common to both of them was a mysterious “third hand” and arm that materialized and assisted in the production of some phenomena.  Because of the darkness required in such séances – light being harmful to the ectoplasm emitted by the medium to produce phenomena – many of the investigators concluded that the medium had somehow freed one of her hands from the restraint and thereby carried out the trick before placing the hand back into the restraint.  (Margery’s “Walter hand” is shown on the table in the photo above as her two hands are controlled.)

In one study of Eusapia, 23 researchers participated.  In the end, 10 were convinced of the supernormal character of the phenomena, while seven were uncertain but accepted that they could not have been due to ordinary mechanical agency. Thus, 17 of the 23 did not believe what they had witnessed was trickery.  Two were inclined, with certain reservations, to deny the supernormal character of the manifestations, and three concluded it had to be fraud of some kind, even though they couldn’t prove it.  One refused to express any opinion. And so it was with nearly every study of Palladino – some convinced she was a genuine medium, some convinced she was a fraud, and some not knowing what to believe. 

While I could find no such statistics with Margery, the various reports and books about her suggest somewhat similar numbers.  And like Eusapia, some believed that Margery was a “mixed medium,” producing genuine phenomena at times and at other times, when her powers failed her, faking it so as not to disappoint those observing.  There was also a question of whether the fraud was conscious or unconscious, the latter taking place during the trance state and the medium not being aware of what was going on. It was just too bizarre for many of the researchers to process.  To put it another way, it exceeded the boggle threshold of many researchers. 

One researcher who was very quick to call Margery a charlatan was Dr. Joseph B. Rhine, who went on to found the parapsychology lab at Duke University.  Rhine sat with Margery on January 1, 1926 and claimed that he saw the shadow of Margery’s foot kick a megaphone.  That observation plus some speculation as to how Margery “could have” or “might have” deceived him and others led to Rhine branding her a charlatan.  A little over a year earlier, the Great Houdini, the master magician, claimed that he detected Margery’s foot moving when a bell box supposedly out of reach of her feet rang.  Houdini also said that Margery must certainly have had confederates sneaking into the dark room to assist her.  “All fraud – every bit of it,” Houdini is quoted in David Jaher’s recent book, The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, which reports on the fascinating story of Margery and the scientific investigation surrounding her. 

Jaher devotes quite a few pages to Houdini and his quest to debunk all mediums.  He mentions earlier in the book that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous British author of “Sherlock Holmes” and an enthusiastic promoter of Spiritualism, had attempted to convince Houdini of the reality of mental mediumship by having him sit with his wife, Jean, an automatic writing medium.  Lady Doyle is said to have channeled 15 pages of automatic writing purporting to come from Houdini’s mother.  Houdini was apparently stunned, validating every word of it. However, since it came through in English and his mother did not speak English, Houdini concluded it had to be a trick, though he couldn’t explain how Lady Doyle came upon much of the information.  When Sir Arthur tried to explain to Houdini that languages often come through in thought transmissions rather than in languages or by means of a “control” (a spirit guide on the other side), Houdini ignored him.  Apparently, nothing was going to deter him from proving that he was the greatest magician in the world, and no medium – obviously a magician of some kind, he believed – was going to put one over on him. 

On one occasion an eraser was found in the bell-ringing mechanism and was believed to have been planted there by Houdini to prevent the bell from ringing, while on another occasion a fold-up six-inch ruler was found in a cabinet built by Houdini to restrain Margery, apparently a plant by Houdini to frame her by claiming she extended the ruler to reach out and effect certain phenomena.  Jim Collins, an assistant to Houdini, is said to have later confessed to putting the ruler inside the box. 

The “master of ceremonies,” or “control” at the Eusapia séances was a “spirit” calling himself John King, while Margery’s control was said to be Walter Stinson, Margery’s older brother who had been killed in a train accident in 1911.  Walter would speak through his entranced sister and also independently of her through a trumpet, would carry on conversations with the sitters, joke with them, whistle tunes, and do automatic writing through Margery.  Whether by Walter or some other spirit, she even produced script in Greek and Chinese.  With both Eusapia and Margery, the voices were masculine and not totally in character with the medium.  Eusapia’s “third hand” was said to be John King’s hand, while Margery’s extra hand was referred to as her “Walter hand.”

The spiritistic explanation for both Eusapia and Margery was that medium vacated her body when she went into trance, while the spirit control took over management of the medium’s body.  This had been observed earlier by researchers studying the mediumship of Leonora Piper, also a Boston trance medium, although a mental medium rather than a physical medium.  Many of the characteristics of the purported communicating spirit were observed in Piper.  For example, on one occasion, Mrs. Piper appeared to be twirling an imaginary moustache, something the entity supposedly using her vocal cords frequently did when alive in the flesh. 

But the scientific explanation was that these so-called spirit controls were “secondary personalities” or “dream personalities” buried away in the subconscious of the medium and somehow manifesting in the trance state.  When evidential information came through the medium, the scientists theorized that it came by way of mind reading, or telepathically.  When information came through that even those present did not know but which was later confirmed as correct, the scientists theorized that telepathy was more cosmic in nature and the medium could therefore access information from minds not present in the séance room.  As far-fetched as that seemed, it was more “scientific” than spirits of the dead.  With mediums producing physical phenomena rather than mental phenomena, such as with Eusapia and Margery, the evidence was more in the defiance of natural law than in facts communicated. 

The most common debunking theory offered by the various investigators for both Eusapia and Margery was that they were able to somehow release themselves from the restraints and tippy-toe around the room in the dark, ringing bells, touching people and otherwise producing the strange phenomena while disguising their voices, or, in the case of Margery, having a servant or a friend assist her in the deception, somehow crawling into the room and under the table and stealthily exiting before the lights came back on. 
One skeptical theory advanced by Harvard investigators was that Margery’s husband, a gynecologist, surgically enlarged her “anatomical storehouse” so that she could smuggle her “bag of tricks” into the room.  This included the mysterious “third hand” hand that sometimes appeared. 

Dr. Charles Richet, a French physician, professor, and researcher who won the 1913 Nobel Prize in medicine, reported ectoplasmic arms and hands emerging from the body of Eusapia, adding that they appeared to act independently of Eusapia’s will.  At his private retreat on Ribaud Island in the Mediterranean, Richet, along with renowned physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, Frederic Myers, and Dr. Julian Ochorowicz, conducted experiments with Eusapia in 1894.  “I held one of Eusapia’s hands firmly in each of mine,” Richet recalled one experiment.  “I then felt a third hand touch my shoulder, my head, and my face.  This was not in darkness; there was a lighted candle in the room.”  The other three scientists could see what was going on and confirmed that Richet had control of Eusapia’s two hands at all times.

While convinced that Eusapia had supernatural abilities, Richet remained skeptical as to whether the evidence suggested spirits and survival.  “I oppose it (spirit hypothesis) half-heartedly, for I am quite unable to bring forward any wholly satisfactory counter-theory,” he wrote. 

Lodge, a pioneer in electricity and radio, reported on a test involving a spring dynamometer, which, when squeezed, measured hand grip strength.  Lodge recorded that in one test, Eusapia was giving a feeble clutch when she suddenly shouted, “Oh, John, you’re hurting me!” and the men observed the needle go far beyond what any of them could exert.  “She wrung her fingers afterwards, and said John (King) had put his great hand around hers, and squeezed the machine up to an abnormal figure,” Lodge explained, noting that “John King” occasionally showed his hand, “a big, five-fingered, ill-formed thing it looked in the dusk.”

Dr. Filippo Bottazzi, an Italian physiologist, observed a “synchrony” between Eusapia’s hands and feet and whatever displacement or movement was going on away from her.  That is, her fingers, hands, and feet seemed to be moving in harmony with activity producing a certain phenomenon out of her reach.  Like Richet, Bottazzi was convinced that Eusapia was not playing tricks, but he was reluctant to accept the spiritistic explanation, as it would not have been “scientific.”

If the scientists studying Margery some 20-30 years after the Eusapia research had given any consideration to the spiritistic explanation, they might have been able to explain Margery’s movements seen by Rhine and Houdini as evidence of fraud, as well as her “third hand,” without claiming trickery.  But it would not have been “scientific” to recognize the possibility of spirits being involved.  They would have had to hypothesize spirits to prove spirits.  It was a Catch 22 situation.  Is it any wonder that no progress had been made in the research involving physical mediums? 

Jaher recently announced that his book is being made into a movie.  While Jaher leaves the reader wondering if Margery was the real deal or not, I suspect that the movie will have a Hollywood ending with Houdini as the hero.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.

His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.

Next blog post:  January 25  




Mike you’re always giving us these wonderful old stories about mediums and them being tested.  Maybe I’ve missed you writing on any of the mediums that have been tested in the last few years like by Dr Gary Swartz?  I’d love to know what this recent studying of mediums has brought forth that would be different if anything from the “old days” - before l900s.  Thanks Karen

Karen Herrick PhD, Mon 4 Apr, 20:08

“Thank you for expressing your beliefs.”

Well, Amos, I totally failed to get my points across, didn’t I!!

Leslie Harris, Tue 26 Jan, 00:34

Thanks, Michael, for a great article.  And thanks, too, to the folks who make the comment thread here so fascinating!  Always love the discussions provoked here ...

Anthony G, Sun 24 Jan, 05:51

Well. you have covered a lot of discussion points there Leslie.  Thank you for expressing your beliefs.  It is too bad that we can’t sit before a fireplace on this snowy morning with a cup of tea and discuss these things at leisure.

Contrary to what you believe I suspect that there are those who think /believe that there is evidence to support their ‘belief in a god or gods.  Apparently you do not believe that their evidence is credible and frankly in general terms I suppose that I do not either especially those belief systems that devolve into religious dogma and cults.  If one requires evidence that can be observed, measured, weighed, and put in a box on a shelf somewhere then one will be disappointed when discussing the reasonableness of beliefs pertaining to other realities and gods.

Perhaps you really are more critical of religious dogma rather than experiences of those who say they have experienced something that supports their belief in God, gods or a spiritual world.  Maybe belief in God is an experiential thing and not observational and quantifiable so that hard evidence will never be obtained.

Sometimes discussions such as the one you and I are having come down to definitions or semantics.  Just how does one define ‘God’ anyway?  Certainly in my opinion God is not an emotional elderly human with a white beard and penis.  Perhaps your definition is different from my definition. but I think that God is an intangible force of consciousness that pervades the known universe and perhaps many others and I am a minuscule piece of that universal consciousness now experiencing a life in form and time.

Language may be a good tool of the materialist and is perfectly suited to describe physical things.  But perhaps it is not the best tool to describe the intangible. You have given your definition of ‘belief’ as “accepting something without evidence” but other people may have other definitions of belief to include accepting something as true because one has satisfying evidence; evidence which may include hard tangible information as perceived by sight, sound, touch, smell or taste; mathematical ‘evidence’ or evidence provided by an emotional experience.

I agree that “all religions are belief-based.” but here again a definition of ‘religion’ is required. I believe there are many ‘religions’ that are not belief-based on God or gods or even anything spiritual.  Any belief system in which adherents must behave in certain ways, dress in certain clothing, and adhere to specific understanding of the way things are could be thought of as a ‘religion’.  They—- e.g. medicine, politics/government, sports,  astrology, grapho-analysis, entertainment, academia to name a few—- all think they have evidence to sustain their belief systems.  All of them are systems based on debatable beliefs however,  some of which might be more supported by reason and logic than others.  I don’t think therefore that all religions “claim to represent ‘the one all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful true god’, to which they attribute all good things.  All bad things are attributed to an evil entity (the Devil, Satan, etc), over which the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful imaginary deity has no control whatsoever.”  Depending on one’s definition of religion, not all of them make the claim you suggest but I understand what you mean.

You may be alluding to the ancient Greek or Roman belief systems when you comment about natural phenomena being attributable to imaginary gods.  Few people today would express such a belief, picturing in their minds Titan beings hurling bolts of lightning and thunder at poor humankind.  Few of us have a Mt. Vesuvius or Mt. Olympus to explain away now. However, one could come up with a more modernized belief system in which there is a role for consciousness, whether a ‘god or gods of the universe’ consciousness or a combined consciousness of masses of human beings to affect the natural world.  Where two or more consciousnesses are gathered together in a belief system, then perhaps that belief system can effect reality, e.g., produce storms, droughts, hurricanes, global warming etc.

You say that,  “When assessing the validity of evidence, a fundamental requirement is that the credibility and veracity of the observer/recorder must be considered.”  Well that is the dilemma, isn’t it.  One must believe that whoever it is that presents evidence is in his or her right mind.  That problem eventually affects all people who report experiences that are spiritual in nature.  Many attempts are made by Skeptics to discredit people who up until the time of their belief in other realities were learned respected members of society often given recognition for their discoveries or academic knowledge.  Sir Oliver Lodge comes to mind as does Sir William Crookes, Dr. Carl Jung, Dr. Alfred Russell Wallace, and Dr. William James among many others.  Eventually believers in spiritual things all become doddering senile old men as perceived by their critics regardless of their prior accomplishments. I disagree with you when you say that, ” It is highly improbable that such a person will be highly critical and exact in one field but totally gullible in another.”  No one is immune to being taken in by charlatans and even Lodge, Crookes, Jung, Wallace and James can and probably were at times, taken in by others. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Wed 20 Jan, 16:47

No, Amos, there is belief and there is evidence and they are two very separate things!

n this context, ‘belief’ is accepting something without evidence as distinct from accepting something based only on evidence.

All religions are belief based.  All are structured on claims for which there is simply no evidence.  This is further complicated by the attribution of natural phenomena to imaginary deities and then claiming such attribution as proof of the existence of this, that or the other imaginary deity.

Religions come unhinged on a series of very basic matters.  All religions claim to represent ‘the one all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful true god’, to which they attribute all good things.  All bad things are attributed to an evil entity (the Devil, Satan, etc), over which the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful imaginary deity has no control whatsoever.  All-powerful?  Oops!!

From that point on, the whole concept descends into absolute farce.  It transpires that the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful deities have absolutely no power whatsoever and must rely on armies of weak, flawed, belligerent and fundamentally stupid humans for absolutely everything. 

Legions of followers build great edifices and wield immense power; they instil great terror into their mindless followers and even governments go completely weak-kneed – no organization claiming to speak for an imaginary deity ever pays tax, for example! 

Since none of these imaginary deities can defend themselves in any way, armies of followers take it upon themselves to slaughter each other by way of proving which is the one true deity, etc. 

The bottom line of the belief system is no evidence, accompanied by illogic and usually a lot of wishful thinking, all claiming to be the one true etc, etc, etc!!

Evidence is a different matter entirely.  Evidence is something that is observed and recorded.  When assessing the validity of evidence, a fundamental requirement is that the credibility and veracity of the observer/recorder must be considered. 

The drunk who reports pink elephants tangoing along a bar counter would not rate very highly.  The Nobel prize-winning physicist who has spent a lifetime investigating paranormal matters is of established high credibility in an exacting field.  It is highly improbable that such a person will be highly critical and exact in one field but totally gullible in another.

Evidence accumulated by highly credible people is widely distributed and comment is actively invited.  Such evidence can be compared with other evidence gathered by other people of a similar high credibility; levels of probability can be assigned, ranging from low, through high to beyond reasonable doubt.  This is the opposite to matters of belief, which are set in stone and not open to question – dogma, in other words. 

Lack of evidence is equally significant.  Rejection of accumulated evidence is widespread but is usually self-defeating because it is usually confined to that flat statement of ‘it’s impossible’.  When sceptics are called on to apply the same level of proof that they demand of everyone else, it all falls down.  By offering ‘super-psi’ and ‘mass telepathy’ to explain everything, they are shooting themselves in both feet.

Whether one believes in the credibility of anyone still comes down to a matter of evidence – evidence of such person’s credibility and veracity.

Leslie Harris, Tue 19 Jan, 22:45

No, its a matter of belief Leslie, One has to believe that the evidence is valid.- AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Thu 14 Jan, 17:27

It is so easy to label people from the past as frauds. The common phrase is ‘Oh they were found to be frauds’ no real explanation. Why would, for example, Vice-Admiral William Usborne Moore , Queen Victoria’s cartographer, endorse the work of the Bang sisters of it was not genuine? We really cannot win.

Tricia, Thu 14 Jan, 11:48


Yes, it has to be at least of that order and probably more.  In the responses of not a few sceptics, there are undertones of outrage.  In many, it appears that they are saying “I am right.  I can’t prove it but I know that I am right.”

From time to time, Victor Zammit raises a significant point.  Notwithstanding all the scorn, ridicule and outrage, no-one has managed to prove that there is no continuation of the consciousness after physical death.

On occasion, I have asked such people to replicate all of the Scole experiments – not just a selected few events but all of them and in the same timeframe.  The few who actually respond quote the usual invisible wires, hidden trapdoors and more paraphernalia than the world’s biggest rock band on tour. When the improbability of their explanations becomes overwhelming, even to them, they resort to generalized responses. 

To return to your explanation, I have difficulty with intellectually accepting the ever accumulating evidence for a continuing life but, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I must accept it at least until such time as someone can prove that all of the positive evidence is wrong.

If science was bound by the parameters of most sceptics, as in “no, it’s impossible”, then all of science would have stagnated a long time ago.  In the matter under discussion, the bottom line has to be ontological!

Leslie Harris, Thu 14 Jan, 01:19

It isn’t a matter of belief; it is a matter of evidence.


If your explanation is right, then some of the most respected intellects that the world has ever known are all deluded.  If so, there is a curious anomaly.  In their various fields of science, in which they made fundamental discoveries for which they variously received Nobel prizes and knighthoods, no-one ever found fault in their reasoning. 

So we have a case of polar opposites.  On the one hand, they have made spectacular advances in science.  On the other hand and by using the same intellectual processes, they are totally deluded.

Leslie Harris, Thu 14 Jan, 01:18

One explanation I have read regarding why skeptics cannot accept evidence supporting the spirit hypothesis is the matter of ‘ontological shock’. People grow up with their own understanding of what reality is, and may get their sense of security from the way they interpret the world around them. Suddenly startling new evidence that completely undermines their worldview is presented, and hey presto! - it is easier and preferable to reject it, perhaps vehemently, than suffer the ‘ontological shock’ that would require them to completely rethink the way the world is and what reality is. I don’t know if others see this view as possibly legitimate.

Keith P in England, Wed 13 Jan, 00:27

Leslie you ask, ” What is the motivation for these negative responses? ” Well, I know in my case it is something more basic than protecting my reputation (actually I have no reputation).  For me at the core of my disbelief in levitation, ectoplasm, apports, self-playing accordions, materializations, floating trumpets and electronic voices among other things is my basic distrust of human beings and fear.  I know that people often lie or fabricate information to further their own needs or desires,  In the area of psychic phenomena those desires could be for money or notoriety but more likely it is a need to reduce fear—their fear of dying.

I think this fear is especially virulent in highly education people who can’t fathom that their prized intellect and years of collecting knowledge will disappear into nothingness in an instant—-that their life will be meaningless. They may think that a stoic attitude or belief system is what they must cultivate and promote to others to make their fear of death tolerable. Rather than ‘to expect the best’  they have learned to ‘prepare for the worst’ and can not allow themselves to weaken in their stoicism.

It may be that Houdini came to understand otherwise when reportedly he transmitted after his death, to his wife Bess, “Believe, Rosebelle believe!” - AOD

P.S.  After a return from hospital for some serious age-related problem, my mother, who at 102 still liked to think she was somewhat sensitive to things, reported to me that while sitting in a chair in her living room she saw a hand and arm reaching out to her.  That’s all, end of discussion. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 12 Jan, 16:15

Time and again, I find myself wondering what produces the negative vehemence that frequently accompanies investigation such as this.  One can even feel a bit sorry for the likes of Houdini.  When presented with solid evidence (15 pages via Lady Doyle), he resorts to explanations of the highest improbability and steadfastly ignores what it right in front of his nose.

What is the motivation for these negative responses?  In the case of Houdini, protecting his reputation could well have been one of them but many others have resorted to near hysterical responses without such motivation.  Probably the most ridiculous is the claim that everything can be explained by telepathy.  The fact that telepathy involving large volumes of minute detail has NEVER been demonstrated does not impede the argument. 

Certainly, many such people fall into the trap of regarding ‘science’ as being set in concrete and cannot entertain any concept of new evidence that demolishes the concrete.  In astronomy, a core tenet is estimating distances of objects in the Uinverse based on red shift.  Recently, the validity of red shift has been called into question because of the emergence of hitherto unknown factors.  This would get short shrift from the screaming sceptics because it questions ‘established’ science. 

What puzzles me is that many negative responses appear to be based on pure fright, so much so that any response or explanation, no matter how ridiculous, is preferable to making logical examination of the phenomena.

Leslie Harris, Tue 12 Jan, 00:53

When people (no matter how intellectual or educated the person) don’t want to believe in something, no matter how much evidence is supplied right before them, they tend to find another reason (excuse) to debunk what they
have experienced…generally providing no reasonable or satisfactory explanation themselves.

Yvonne Limoges, Mon 11 Jan, 20:42

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