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Was Eusapia Palladino Fact or Fiction?

Posted on 12 January 2015, 9:26

As Michael Schmicker, the author of the recently-released The Witch of Napoli, states, his book is a work of fiction. However, its inspiration was the true-life story of Eusapia Palladino (1854 – 1918), an illiterate Italian peasant who awed many people with mediumistic phenomena, including levitations, materialized hands and arms, occasionally a full form materialization, mysterious lights, the playing of musical instruments by invisible hands, and apports (objects materialized in the room), as well as communicating raps and voices.


According to a number of Internet references, Palladino (also spelled “Paladino”) was nothing more than a charlatan, a fake, an impostor – someone pretending to have mediumistic abilities by using sleight of hand (and foot) trickery.  But most of the modern references are written by debunkers and other “know-nothings” whose minds are made up in opposition to any psychic phenomena.  They focus on the negative reports only while ignoring the positive reports and failing to consider explanations that have eluded mainstream science.   

As reported in the November 1909 Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, a series of 40 sittings were conducted by Dr. Julian Ochorowicz, a psychologist, in Warsaw, Poland, during 1893-1894.  In all, 23 experimenters participated.  In the end, 10, including Ochorowicz, 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. 

Schmicker, the author of Best Evidence and co-author of The Gift, has studied the many books and research reports on Eusapia (most researchers referred to her by her first name) and has concluded that she was a genuine medium who probably, when her powers failed her, as they often did, resorted to some trickery so as not to disappoint people in attendance.  Since the scientific research reports about Eusapia make for some pretty dry and monotonous reading, not telling much about her personal life, Schmicker has tried to fill in the gaps by adding some speculative glamour and glitter.  He combines fact with fiction but holds fairly tightly to the investigative and phenomenal aspects of Eusapia’s story. 

“I write with full consciousness of being in the right,” offered Professor Enrico Morselli, an Italian neurologist and director of the Clinic of Nervous and Mental Disease at the University of Genoa, “that the phenomena of physical mediumship attributed to Eusapia are in the great majority of cases real, authentic, genuine; that in the now innumerable series of her ‘spiritistic’ manifestations there may be an admixture of some spurious phenomena, sometimes also naive and puerile attempts at deception on her part, and illusions or errors of appreciation on the part of the sitters; but on the whole the phenomena produced by Eusapia have for a calm scientist, an impartial observer, a competent student of psychology, an objective existence and positive consistency equal to those attained by categories of facts judged by ordinary reasoning, and verified and accepted in accordance with the rules of the experimental method.”

Dr. Charles Richet, a professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Paris and the 1913 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, agreed.  “Even if there were no other medium than Eusapia in the world, her manifestations would suffice to establish scientifically the reality of telekinesis and ectoplasmic forms,” he wrote, noting that he observed her on some 200 occasions. 

The debunkers claimed that Morselli, Richet, and the many other scientific men who attested to the reality of Eusapia’s phenomena were simply duped by a clever magician.

But two researchers schooled in both science and magic, Hereward Carrington and W.W. Baggally, along with Everard Fielding, closely studied Eusapia in Naples during 1908, attending 11 séances with her.  “I have to record my absolute conviction of the reality of at least some of the phenomena,” Carrington concluded, “and the conviction amounting in my own mind to complete certainty, that the results witnessed by us were not due to fraud or trickery on the part of Eusapia.”  Baggally agreed, pointing out that they observed 470 phenomena during the 11 sittings and that it was impossible for Eusapia to have practiced trickery constantly during the many hours they observed her.”  Fielding supported the conclusions of his fellow researchers.
Dr. Cesare Lombroso (called “Camillo Lombardi” by Schmicker), a pioneer in abnormal psychology and criminology, initially scoffed at the whole idea that there was anything to mediumship.  Like the vast majority of naturalists, he believed that Eusapia, or Alessandra, as Schmicker names her, was suffering from something called female hysteria and that the various phenomena were produced by trickery.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a choice,” Schmicker quotes Lombardi, “we can remain in the darkness of primitive superstition, or we can embrace the light of Science.  I choose Science.”  The supposedly “intelligent” world applauded Lombardi’s words. 

But after Lombroso began studying Eusapia, his attitude also changed.  On two occasions he observed her being levitated above the table. Eusapia, who was seated near one end of the table, was lifted up in her chair bodily, amid groans and lamentations on her part, and placed (still seated) on the table, then returned to the same position as before,” he documented.  In one of those levitations, Lombroso was holding one of her hands, as Professor Richet held the other. 

While in trance, Eusapia complained of (invisible) hands grasping her under the arms. Then, her voice changed, apparently to that of John King, her spirit control, and said, “Now I lift my medium up on the table.”  Lombroso and Richet continued to hold her hands as Eusapia and the chair rose to the top of the table without hitting anything.”  They then observed her deposited back on the floor with the same security and precision.

Levitating table: Palladino centre

Some of the séances observed by Lombroso were given during daylight conditions, but because of the sensitivity of ectoplasm to light, the best phenomena were produced under dark conditions with a red lantern permitting the sitters to observe.

By 1903, Lombroso had observed Eusapia many more times, but at a sitting with her in Genoa in 1903, he experienced something new.  Before Eusapia entered the trance state, Lombroso asked her for some special manifestation that day and he got it as his deceased mother appeared, spoke to him, and kissed him.  Lombroso wrote that his mother reappeared at least 20 times in subsequent sittings, although less distinct than on that first occasion. “Her deepest grief is when she is accused of trickery during the séances – accused unjustly, too, sometimes, it must be confessed,” Lombroso wrote of Eusapia, “because we are now sure that phantasmal limbs are superimposed (or added to) her own and act as their substitutes, while all the time they were believed to be her own limbs detected in the act of cozening for their owner’s behoof.”

Richet described Eusapia as a simple-minded woman, yet intelligent. At his private retreat on Ribaud Island in the Mediterranean, Richet, along with Sir Oliver Lodge, a distinguished physicist and pioneer in electricity, Frederic Myers, an esteemed pioneering psychical researcher, and Dr. Ochorowicz, conducted experiments with Eusapia during 1894 and observed various phenomena.

One of the tests they put her to involved a spring dynamometer, which, when squeezed, measured hand grip strength.  It was Richet’s idea that all the energy used at a sitting had to come from the medium or some of the sitters.  Thus, he recorded the grip strength of Eusapia and each sitter before and after the two-hour sitting.  In the before reading, Lodge, who stood 6-4 with a muscular build, scored the highest, followed by Richet, Myers, and Ochorowicz, with Eusapia’s being much weaker than the four men.  But after the sitting, 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 recorded the experience, noting that “John King” occasionally showed his otherwise invisible hand, “a big, five-fingered, ill-formed thing it looked in the dusk.”

Though Eusapia was searched before she came into the room and was not allowed in the room beforehand, there were times when the three men thought they saw her cheating by using her hands or feet.  “She wanted us to understand that it was not conscious deception, but that [John King] took whatever means available, and if he found an easy way of doing things, thus would it be done,” Lodge explained.  In other words, Eusapia’s consciousness had vacated her body and the invisible John King was controlling her arms and legs to accomplish certain tasks, thus making it appear that Eusapia was doing them consciously. At other times, a third arm – one made of ectoplasm, that mysterious substance exuded by some mediums – appeared and seemed to be extending from Eusapia’s body as if it were her own arm. 

“Disbelievers!” Schmicker has Eusapia/Alessandra yelling at the observers at Ribaud Island, as a chilling hiss filled the room. “You demand signs and wonders, even as the Devil prepares your place in Hell.”   
Lodge added that Eusapia resented the charges of fraud and that he was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, so far as the morals of deception were concerned, referring to her as a kindly soul with many of the instincts of a peasant.  He recalled that on more than one occasion, she took a boat to a mainland village and came back without her coat.  When asked what happened to it, she explained that she gave it to a beggar who needed it more than she did. 

While Schmicker adds glamour, gleam, and glitter to an already colorful, sometimes gaudy, tale – one that likely will exceed the boggle threshold of those mired in the debunking camp – he creatively captures the crux of the story as documented by various researchers and historians, offering the reader not totally familiar with story of Eusapia Palladino much to ponder on.   

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.

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I’m pretty pleased to find this site. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further post. Thanks!

kosmetyki fryzjerskie Elbl¹g, Mon 5 Dec, 13:17

david, I think you can read about mrs Emily French, who had not taken a single penny for her mediumship, and for present times, you can visit the spiritualist churches who have free sunday services of mediumship. Also, there are some closed and open facebook groups of mediums who reads for free( most of them not so good as evidences as you only upload a picture and expect them to reply in comments in their free time).

You can also read in about other evidences and some mediums. Btw, a lot of research has been done on mediumship like by Gary Schwartz and Windbridge institute with double and quadruple blinded studies with statistically significant results. Thus it is scientific to accept mediumship as genuine, in light of the present research. And anyway, there are many more fields of evidences, like Reincarnation and NDEs.

indianninja, Tue 27 Jan, 08:27

Thanks, Mike.  As I read your articles I keep trying to fit them into a larger plan and meaning as coming from a divine source. Are these countless stories somehow indications of God’s will to have us become open to the on-going life? We do know that anything of value (and Mystery) does not come easily nor full blown. Many will continue to deny these phenomena just as many have denied a God or Creator of some sort.
Since the beginning of human history persons have sought to understand the relationship between life and death. Recent and contemporary information on the subject becomes more urgent and relative in light of the ubiquity of death,and dying. In the midst of the manifold horrors of war, terrorism,murders, corruption, etc. we cannot avoid the questions of the on-going life.
In one sense, I can see the work that you and some relatively few others of us are doing is offering to humanity a “new theology” - maybe even a “new cosmology” and a new hope .
These are a few thoughts. I appreciate your efforts and commitment.

Dick Batzler, Wed 14 Jan, 04:54

I am studying very hard to find the truth in all this afterlife/medium activity and sometimes I get the idea that this is all about money in the disguised form selling books.
I want to meet a real genuine medium(is exists) and test it for myself.I have so far spent a great deal of money purchasing the many selected books on the subject,but will eventually decide if it is true or not regarding the afterlife

david hall, Tue 13 Jan, 01:07

It is generally acknowledged by mediums themselves that if they are tired, growing older or infirm, or simply having a bad day, and they are not getting any clear guidance from the spirit realm, that they will “fill in the gaps” so to speak by faking or contriving information in order to complete a session. This is predictably seized upon by debunkers as proof of the fraudulent nature of mediumship, employing predictably selective logic that if some of the information or phenomena produced by mediums is contrived, then ALL of it must be thus.

This logic is akin to arguing that if Tiger Woods does not win, or come close to winning, every tournament he plays, then he must be a fake golfer. It is remarkable how the debunkers seem to assume that mediumship is “supernatural” and therefore seem to expect mediums to be 100% accurate all of the time, applying a standard of perfection to them which does not apply to fallible human beings in any other occupation or endeavour.

Greetings from Sydney, Rex.

rex fleming, Mon 12 Jan, 23:26

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World Madness and Nihilism go Hand-in-Hand – The madness, craziness, and turmoil we see in the world today seems to have slowly developed in line with the growth of mass communication during the twentieth century, reaching an unimagined deep crater in recent years. As Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding (Sir Hugh Dowding, 1882 – 1970), put it in his 1960 book, "God’s Magic," “The problem of world chaos is linked very closely with the chaos in the mind of humanity.” Dowding is considered by many as the man most responsible for Great Britain’s victory in the 1940 Battle of Britain during World War II. “Man insists on looking outward for causes instead of looking inward. As with the individual, so with a nation. An individual who has an unquiet spirit will have an unquiet environment.” Read here
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