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Nobel Prize Winner Witnessed Materializations

Posted on 05 June 2017, 9:20

Winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Dr. Charles Richet (1850-1935) was a physiologist, chemist, bacteriologist, pathologist, psychologist, aviation pioneer, poet, novelist, editor, author, and psychical researcher.  After receiving his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1869 and his Doctor of Science in 1878, he (below) served as professor of physiology at the medical school of the University of Paris for 38 years.


Richet was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on anaphylaxis, the sensitivity of the body to alien protein substance.  He also contributed much to research on the nervous system, anesthesia, serum therapy, and neuro-muscular stimuli.  He served as editor of the Revue Scientifique for 24 years and contributed to many other scientific publications.
After attending experiments in Milan with medium Eusapia Palladino (below) in 1884, Richet began taking an active interest in psychical research.  In addition to Palladino, he studied Marthe Bèraud, William Eglinton, Stephan Ossowiecki, Elisabeth D’Esperance, and others.  He served as president of the Society for Psychical Research of London in 1905.


While clearly accepting the reality of mediumship and other psychic phenomena, Richet remained skeptical as to whether the evidence suggested spirits of the dead. “I oppose it (spirit hypothesis) half-heartedly, for I am quite unable to bring forward any wholly satisfactory counter-theory,” he wrote, no doubt concerned about sanctions by his peers.  Publicly, he leaned toward a physiological explanation, but privately, at least in his later years, he seems to have accepted the spirit hypothesis as the best explanation.   
This “interview” is based primarily on Richet’s 1923 book, Thirty Years of Psychical Research.  Except for word in brackets, inserted to provide a transition or flow, the words are his.  The questions have been tailored to fit the answers.  (For more about Richet and physical mediumship, see Keith Parson’s recently released documentary, Can Spirits Materialise?

Professor Richet, your book is dedicated to Sir William Crookes and Frederic W. H. Myers.  I gather, however, that when Sir William was reporting on his research with mediums D. D. Home and Florence Cook back during the early 1870s, you did not have a particularly high opinion of him.

“[True], the idolatry of current ideas was so dominant at that time that no pains were taken either to verify or to refute Crookes’s statements.  Men were content to ridicule them, and I avow with shame that I was among the willfully blind.  Instead of admiring the heroism of a recognized man of science who dare then in 1872 to say that there really are phantoms that can be photographed and whose heartbeats can be heard, I laughed.  This courage had, however, no immediate or considerable effect; it is only today that Crookes’s work is really understood.  It is still the foundation of objective metapsychics, a block of granite that no criticism has been able to touch.”

I would like to focus this interview more on the physical phenomena you observed. Who were the best among these objective or physical mediums?

“To mention Home, Florence Cook, Stainton Moses, Eusapia, Mme. D’Espérance, Eglinton, Linda Gazzera, Slade, Marthe Béraud, Miss Goligher, and Stanislawa Tomczyk is to name nearly all; it is obvious that they are but few.  The number of those who give raps is very much larger, but I have no statistics regarding them.”

With the possible exception of Home and Moses, all of those you just mentioned were accused of fraud at one time or another.
“Unfortunately physical mediums often misuse their powers; they think to enrich themselves and give public séances for profit.  The Fox sisters, the Davenport brothers, Eglinton, and Slade all did this, and from thence to fraud is but a step that has often been taken, so that professional mediums of this class are always to be looked upon with suspicion and the most rigid precautions must always be taken against trickery.  Indeed, this is always necessary, even when there is no possible suspicion of conscious fraud.”

Conscious as opposed to unconscious fraud?

“[Yes,] we have defined metapsychics as the science whose subject matter is phenomena which seem to arise from an intelligence other than the human intelligence.  Mediums are therefore those persons who, in partial or total unconsciousness, speak words perform actions, and make gestures that seem not to be under control of their will and to be independent of their intelligence.  Nevertheless, these unconscious phenomena show intelligence and system, and are sometimes most aptly coordinated.  Therefore, the first thing to be discovered is whether they are due to a human or to a super-human intelligence.”

Many of the materializations that have been photographed look like cardboard cutouts or mannequins.  One can understand why people are so skeptical.

“These materializations are usually gradual, beginning by a rudimentary shape, complete forms and human faces appearing later on.  At first these formations are often very imperfect.  Sometimes they show no relief, looking more like flat images than bodies, so that in spite of oneself one is inclined to imagine some fraud, since what appears seems to be the materialization of a semblance, and not of a being.  But in some cases, the materialization is perfect. At the Villa Carmen, I saw a fully organized form rise from the floor.  At first it was only a white, opaque spot like a handkerchief lying on the ground before the curtain, then this handkerchief quickly assumed the form of a human head level with the floor, and a few moments later it rose up in a straight line and became a small man enveloped in a kind of white burnous who took two or three halting steps in front of the curtain and then sank to the floor and disappeared as if through a trap-door. But there was no trap door.”

You are no doubt referring to the phantom known as Bien Boa who materialized thought Marthe Béraud at the Villa Carmen.  I gather that there is no doubt in your mind that he or it was real.

“I shall not waste time in stating the absurdities, almost the impossibilities, from a psycho-physiological point of view, of this phenomenon.  A living being, or living matter, formed under our eyes, which has its proper warmth, apparently a circulation of blood, and a physiological respiration (as I proved by causing the form of Bien Boa (below) to breathe into a flask containing baryta water), which also has a kind of psychic personality, having a will distinct from the will of the medium, in a word, a new human being!  This is surely the climax of marvels!  Nevertheless it is a fact.”


Of course, it is difficult to understand why a fraudulent medium would think she or he could dupe anyone with something that doesn’t even resemble a human form.

“[True], it is imagined, quite mistakenly, that a materialization must be analogous to a human body and must be three dimensional.  This is not so.  There is nothing to prove that the process of materialization is other than a development of a completed form after a first stage of coarse and rudimentary lineaments form from the cloudy substance.  The moist, gelatinous, and semi-luminous extensions that come from the mouth of Marthe are embryonic formations which tend towards organization without immediately attaining it.”

You actually saw Bien Boa sink into the floor?

“Several times, I saw him plunge himself straight into the ground.  He suddenly became shorter, and under our eyes disappeared into the ground; then raised himself again suddenly in a vertical line.  The head, with the turban and the black moustache, and as it were the indication of eyes, grew, rose, until it nearly reached even higher than the canopy.  At certain moments it was obliged to lean and bend because of the great height which it had assumed.  Then, suddenly, his head sank right down to the ground and disappeared.  He did this three times in succession. I can find nothing better than the figure in a Jack-in-the-box which comes out all of a sudden.  But I do not know of anything resembling that vanishing into the earth in a straight line, so that at one moment it seems as though only the head was above the ground and that there was no longer a body.”

Still, the skeptics say it was all a trick.

“I am very well aware that [the phenomena] are extraordinary, even so monstrously extraordinary that at first sight the hypothesis of immeasurable, repeated, and continual fraud seems the more probable explanation.  But is such fraud possible? I cannot think so.  When I recall the precautions that all of us [took], it is inconceivable that we should have been deceived on all these occasions.”

I recall reading that there was much “cheating that really wasn’t cheating” going on when you studied Eusapia at Ribaud Island. Is this reference to the unconscious acts of the medium?
“[Exactly.]  Trance turns them into automata that have but a very slight control over their muscular movements.  When a medium is nearly or quite insensible, his eyes shut, sweating and making convulsive movements, unable to answer any questions put to him, I do not think he ought to be reproached for anything he may do.  He is not himself; he has not that poised and quiet consciousness which can decided between right and wrong.  He has forgotten who he is and what he ought to do….  As for Eusapia, who has often been suspected of fraud, nothing was ever proved against her.  On the contrary, after some doubtful experiments at Cambridge, I asked [Frederic] Myers to come back to see her.  He came to my house and there was a memorable sitting at which the phenomena were so distinct that I solemnly adjured Myers to declare that there was no trickery, and that the movement of objects at a distance without contact was authentic and undeniable.” 

But, clearly there has been much conscious fraud?

“[No doubt.]  Completely criminal are such acts as preparing paraphernalia for deliberate fraud, hidden in a chair or upon their person; this is radically different from the suspicious movements of an entranced medium.”

Your reports talk about ectoplasmic arms extending from Eusapia and touching sitters or moving objects.

“[Yes,] the ectoplasmic arms and hands that emerge from the body of Eusapia do only what they wish, and though Eusapia knows what they do, they are not directed by Eusapia’s will; or rather there is for the moment no Eusapia.  It is also quite easy to understand that when exhausted by a long and fruitless séance, and surrounded by a number of sitters eager to see something, a medium whose consciousness is still partly in abeyance may give the push that he hopes will start the phenomena….There is a quasi-identity between the medium and the ectoplasm, so that when an attempt is made to seize the latter, a limb of the medium may be grasped; though I make a definite and formal protest against this frequent defense of doubtful phenomena by spiritualists.  More frequently, the ectoplasm is independent of the medium, indeed perhaps it is always so; though I do not mean to imply that the severance or capture of the ectoplasm can be effected without danger to the medium.  The case of Mme. D’Espérance is on record to show that a medium may incur a long illness by reason of such an attempt.”

What exactly is ectoplasm?  The skeptics would say that it nothing but cheesecloth stuffed into some cavity of the medium and then exuded at an opportune time.

“The word ‘ectoplasm,’ which I invented for the experiments with Eusapia, seems entirely justified….  [It] is a kind of gelatinous protoplasm, formless at first, that exudes from the body of the medium, and takes form later.  This embryo-genesis of materialization shows clearly on nearly all the photographs.  In the early stages there are always white veils and milky patches and the faces, fingers, and drawings are formed little by little in the midst of this kind of gelatinous paste that resembles moist and sticky muslin…[I observed] gelatinous projections come from the mouth or shoulders of Marthe.  I saw the arm of Bien Boa formed in this way.  At first it resembled a thin, rigid rod covered with drapery and became a stretched-out arm.  The same phenomenon was very clearly observable with Eusapia.  A kind of supplementary arm seemed to come from her body.  Once I saw a long, stiff rod proceed from her side, which after great extension had a hand at its extremity – a living hand warm and jointed, absolutely like a human hand.”

I’m confused on something here.  Is ectoplasm always visible?

“In their first stage these ectoplasms are invisible, but can move objects and can give raps on a table.  Later on they become visible though nebulous and sketchy.  Still later, they take human form, for they have the extraordinary property that they change their forms and their consistence and evolve under our eyes.  In a few seconds, the nebulous embryo that exudes from the body of the medium becomes an actual being; though the human ovum requires thirty years to evolve into the adult form. Sometimes the phantom appears suddenly, without passing through the phase of luminous cloud; but this phenomenon is probably of the same order as the slower development.  This ectoplasmic formation at the expense of the physiological organism of the medium is now beyond all dispute.  It is prodigiously strange, prodigiously unusual, and it would seem so unlikely as to be incredible; but we must give in to the facts.”

History has not been particularly kind to Eusapia and others you mentioned earlier, treating them as either charlatans or as a mixed mediums (producing both genuine phenomena and fraudulent phenomena).

“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….  A powerful medium is a very delicate instrument of whose secret springs we know nothing, and clumsy handling may easily disorganize its working.  It is best to allow the phenomena to develop in their own way without any attempt at guidance…. Mediums have not hitherto been treated with justice; they have been slandered, ridiculed, and vilified.  They have been treated as animæ viles for experiment.  When their faculties faded away they have been left to die in obscurity and want; when rewarded it has been with a niggardly hand, giving them to understand that they are only instruments.  It is time that this inhuman treatment should cease.”

In spite of your standing in the scientific community, mainstream science doesn’t seem to accept the research on ectoplasm and materialization.

“Assuredly, it is possible that I may be mistaken, even grossly mistaken, along with Crookes, De Rochas, Aksakoff, Myers, William James, Schiaparelli, Zöllner, Fechner, and Oliver Lodge.  It is possible that all of us have been deceived.  It is possible that some day an unexpected experiment may explain our prolonged deception quite simply.  So be it! But till it has been explained how we have all been duped by an illusion, I claim that the reality of these materializations must be conceded…. What man of science worthy of the name could affirm that science has classified, analyzed, and penetrated all the energies of immeasurable nature, or could make the strange and pretentious claim that we know all the dynamic manifestations in the world?  To admit telekinesis and ectoplasms is not to destroy even the smallest fragment of science; it is but to admit new data, and that there are unknown energies.  Then why be indignant, when, on the basis of thousands of observations and experiments, we affirm one of those unknown energies?”   

You’ve often used the word “absurd” when referring to the materialization phenomenon. 
“Yes, it is absurd; but no matter – it is true.” 

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.


Next blog post:  June 19


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