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Was Prof. William James’s ‘White Crow’ a Scammer or a Marvel?

Posted on 21 June 2021, 8:35

Historical facts are often twisted, distorted, and misrepresented by historians and authors,  especially those who rely on hearsay or second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts of a person or event. This is clearly the case with mediumship, in which the debunkers’ biases and slanted versions of history are accepted by many as gospel. The first two references to come up in my recent internet search for Leonora Piper, (below) the Boston medium referred to by Professor William James of Harvard as his “White Crow” – the one who proved that not all crows are black – make her out to be a scammer of some kind.  Of the first 10 references to her, only three are somewhat positive, but even they lack in critical information and analyses. 


I admit that when I first read about Piper some 35 or so years ago I struggled to see a “white crow.” She was more a light shade of gray.  It took about 10 years of off-and-on reading about her and other mediums before I began to understand all the obstacles to inter-dimensional communication and finally see her as a “white” crow.  Inasmuch as I had not come upon one reference that explained all the complexities, anomalies, and incongruities of such trance mediumship well enough for the average reader to grasp, I was prompted to write my 2013 book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, in an attempt to help others better understand. 


But reporting historical fact does not easily lend itself to creative writing or entertainment for readers. Thus, I realized that I could never get the more-complete story of Mrs. Piper to even approach the awe and wonder of a Harry Potter novel or some other work of spiritual fiction. The research carried out with Mrs. Piper by a number of distinguished scientists and scholars, most of them representing the Society for Psychical Research in London (SPR) and its American branch in Boston (ASPR), over some two decades, was lacking in fantasy, and it was too convoluted for even science-fiction enthusiasts. No matter that it dealt with the most important issue facing humanity; it simply wasn’t entertaining.  The best-seller lists suggest that most readers are looking for escape and entertainment, not truth.

With all that in mind, I can understand why Casey Cep and Emily Harnett, two talented modern-day writers, can’t see a “white” crow. Moreover, I realize that there are word limitations for all publications and that there is no way to summarize the research with Piper in a few thousand words.  It was difficult enough trying to summarize it all in a 200-page book.  I was taught in journalism school to be “clear, concise, and accurate,” but mediumship is not a subject to which those standards are easily applied.  The waters are too murky and muddy, or, more accurately, the air is too ethereal. 

In an article (Why Did So Many Victorians Try To Speak With The Dead?) in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Cep makes Piper out to be part of the “Spiritualism craze” that swept over the country during the latter part of the nineteenth century. She says that Piper was not fully discredited, but many people doubted her abilities, noting her failed readings and prophecies. When she did “score” big, psychological reasons were offered to replace the spiritual ones. A reader of Cep’s article might easily infer that not being “fully” discredited means she was “mostly” discredited. The article provides only enough about Piper for the know-nothing reader to suspect or conclude that she was indeed a hustler, con-artist, huckster or scammer of some kind. 

A Dreadful Person

In the February 4, 2019 issue of Latham’s Quarterly, Harnett, in an article entitled William James and the Spiritualist’s Phone, writes that James “had been fooled by a Boston housewife who claimed to speak to dead people.”  Harnett relies heavily on the opinion of Alice James, William’s sister, who referred to her as “the dreadful Mrs. Piper.”  There is no mention of the “sweet, pure, refined and gentle countenance” of Mrs. Piper, as reported by Anne Manning Robbins, who sat with Piper on a number of occasions and wrote a book about her very meaningful and veridical experiences with her. 

Neither Cep nor Harnett mentions the extensive research carried out by Dr. Richard Hodgson of the ASPR for some 18 years, studying her on the average of three times a week for most of those years.  Nor is there any mention of the 83 experiments Sir Oliver Lodge, a renowned British physicist, conducted with her in England during the Winter of 1889-90. The all-encompassing research with Piper and other mediums reported by Professor James Hyslop, who had been teaching logic and philosophy at Columbia University before sitting with Piper and being so impressed that he decided to become a full-time researcher, is likewise ignored.  All three of those distinguished researchers and a number of others concluded that Piper was a true medium and, while initially giving some consideration to the theory that the information coming through her was the result of telepathy of a limited or expanded nature transmitted by some “secondary personality” buried in her subconscious mind, they all saw “spirits of the dead” as a much more reasonable explanation. 

The readers of The New Yorker and Latham’s Quarterly are given nothing to suggest that what was coming through Mrs. Piper was anything more than what pseudo-skeptics and debunkers of the time called humbug, bosh, hogwash, or twaddle.  No doubt the editors of the two publications saw entertainment value in the humor of past generations being so gullible as to buy into such woo-woo nonsense. 

While Harnett has Piper making a claim to talking with the dead, Cep has her making claim to “channeling” some famous people.  I was left with a picture of Piper in a Muhammad Ali-type rant about how great she is.  However, the Leonora Piper I studied for many years never made any claim other than that she remembered nothing of what took place while she was in a trance state. She left it up to the researchers to interpret what was actually going on with her.  She was much too dignified to make such claims. 

One might infer from what both writers had to say that Piper was a “Spiritualist,” but I came across nothing in my years of studying the research on her to suggest that she belonged to any Spiritualist organization.  She was baptized in the Congregational Church and is said to have read the Bible to her daughters nightly as she put them to bed. She may have had some associations with Spiritualist organizations in her later years, but I recall no evidence of this. 

In writing that Piper went “on tour” in England, Cep leads readers to infer that that she was giving readings to the public, in general. The records I read had her fully occupied with Lodge, Frederic W. H. Myers, and other researchers as they carried out experiments with her during her 1889-90 visit to England. Much the same seems to have been the case with her 1906-07 trip to England.  I recall nothing to suggest that her income increased “twenty-fold” over the years, as reported by Cep, although the way second-, third-, and fourth-hand reports written by debunkers a hundred years later exaggerate and distort facts, I would not be surprised to learn that someone surmised that without any evidence to support it.  But, so what, if she did?  Many people increase their incomes twenty-fold with experience, results, and reputation.

Candor & Honesty

Myers, one of the founders of the SPR, concluded his study of Mrs. Piper with these words: “On the whole, I believe that all observers, both in America and in England, who have seen enough of Mrs. Piper in both states [of consciousness] to be able to form a judgment, will agree in affirming (1) that many of the facts given could not have been learned even by skilled detectives; (2) that to learn others of them, although possible, would have needed an expenditure of money as well as of time which it seems impossible to suppose that Mrs. Piper could have met; and (3) that her conduct has never given any ground whatever for supposing her capable of fraud or trickery.  Few persons have been so long and so carefully observed; and she has left on all observers the impression of thorough uprightness, candor, and honesty.”

Professor William James, always very cautious in his proclamations, said: “I am persuaded by [Mrs. Piper’s] honesty, and of the genuineness of her trance…I now believe her to be in possession of a power as yet unexplained.”

Professor Herbert Nichols, a Harvard psychologist, had this to say in a note to Professor James:  “I had a wonderful sitting with Mrs. Piper.  As you know, I have been a Laodicean toward her heretofore.  But that she is no fraud, and that she is the greatest marvel I have ever met I am now wholly convinced.” 

Said Hodgson: “I had but one object, to discover fraud and trickery…of unmasking her… I entered the house profoundly materialistic, not believing in the continuance of life after death; today I say I believe. The truth has been given to me in such a way as to remove from me the possibility of a doubt.”

This from Lodge, who served as president of the prestigious British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1913:  “Then came the revelation, through the mediumship of Mrs. Piper, in the winter of 1889, not only that the personality of certain people could survive, but that they could communicate under certain conditions with us. The proof that they retained their individuality, their memory, and their affection, forced itself upon me, as it had done upon many others. So my eyes began to open to the fact that there really was a spiritual world, as well as a material world which hitherto had seemed all sufficient, that the things which appealed to the senses were by no means the whole of existence.”

And from Professor Hyslop: “Personally I regard the fact of survival after death as scientifically proved.  I agree that this opinion is not upheld in scientific quarters.  But this is neither our fault nor the fault of the facts.  Evolution was not believed until long after it was proved.  The fault lay with those who were too ignorant or too stubborn to accept the facts.  History shows that every intelligent man who has gone into this investigation, if he gave it adequate examination at all, has come out believing in spirits; this circumstance places the burden of proof on the shoulders of the skeptic.”

Strangely, even for intelligent people, it seems easier to believe that those esteemed researchers were all duped by a clever scammer. If nothing else, that version is more sensational and makes for more creative writing and perhaps more humor and suspense. So sad that even talented modern-day writers and internet historians don’t dig deeply enough to report the complete picture.  If James, Hodgson, Myers, Lodge, Hyslop and others are still in touch with what is going on here in the material world, they are no doubt shaking their heads in dismay and disgust. 

Next blog post: July 5

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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Spectacular Voices of the Dead Shock British Playwright

Posted on 07 June 2021, 9:10

Nearly every renowned medium of the past was called a cheat or a fraud at one time or another, thereby raising doubts as to his or her credibility and otherwise significantly detracting from the weight of the evidence supporting communication with the spirit world. In many cases, indications are that those alleging fraud were applying terrestrial standards to celestial matters that were beyond human understanding. Nevertheless, the fraud claims have been carried down over the years and often seem to outweigh the strong evidence in support of the medium.

Such may have been the case with George Valiantine, the direct-voice medium through whom Professor Neville Whymant, an Oxford-educated linguist who heard 14 languages, including an ancient Chinese dialect, come through Valiantine’s mediumship. This was discussed in the last blog post involving communication supposedly coming from the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius.  As mentioned in that blog, it is extremely difficult to come up with a debunking theory that makes sense, or at least would carry any weight in a court of law.  Add in the testimony of H. Dennis Bradley, a British playwright and author who also studied Valiantine, as set forth in his book, Toward the Stars.   

“It was fortunate that our expressions could not be seen, for my nose was tilted in scorn and my lip curled in unrestrained contempt,” Bradley (below) wrote of his initial reaction to an invitation to attend a séance with Valiantine at the country home of Joseph De Wyckoff, a retired lawyer, in Ramsey, New Jersey, not far from New York City.  Bradley, who lived in London, was a guest at the De Wyckoff home at the time.  Although extremely skeptical, Bradley thought it might provide some amusement and agreed to it.


Also present for Bradley’s first séance with Valiantine on June 16, 1923 was De Wyckoff’s 20-year-old nephew, Joseph Dasher.  The four men sat in a circle about five feet from each other with two aluminum trumpets in the center of the room to amplify the voices of the spirits. “The lights were turned off, when the whole affair struck me as being rather idiotic,” Bradley related. “I wondered at intelligent people submitting to such infantile forms of amusement.  I wondered how a shrewd mind like that of my host could be induced to waste his time on such silly exploits.”  It was explained to Bradley that they had to sing some hymns in order to achieve a certain passivity and harmony.  Bradley’s expression of “unrestrained contempt” came on after about 20 minutes into the singing, as nothing was happening.  Bradley saw it as an “exceptionally dull show.”

A Soft, Gentle Voice

But, without warning, things started to happen.  A soft and gentle woman’s voice was heard. “I was called by my name, and the voice, which sounded about three feet away on my right, was full of emotion,” Bradley explained.  Though he then went by his middle name, his first name, Herbert, was repeated twice, and then his deceased sister, Annie, identified herself.
“Her voice on earth was soft and beautifully modulated, and her elocution in public was distinguished. In conversation she was a purist in her choice of words,” Bradley recalled. “I have never met any woman who spoke in the same odd way.  When she addressed me, after ten years of silence, she said sayings in her own characteristic manner. Every syllable was perfectly enunciated and every little peculiarity of intonation was reproduced…

“Then we talked, not in whispers, but in clear, audible tones, and the notes of our voices were pitched as if we might have been speaking on earth. And that which we said to each other were things of wondrous joy.”

They talked for 15 minutes. “She told me that for several years she had been trying to get into communication with me, that she was always with me, and that she watched over me and accompanied me on my journeys.  She knew of the books that I had written and other things that I have done since she died….

“Throughout our talk the note of gladness was uppermost – the grateful gladness of eternity, the magnificent laughter of survival, the surety of supernatural progress, the knowledge of the inconceivable.”

The cynical sceptic was suddenly a believer in spirit communication.  He was certain that the information coming from his sister could not have been known by anyone else in the room.  “Any suggestion of ventriloquism is ridiculous,” he added, while also ruling out the possibility it was somehow coming from his subconscious mind.  “No man living could imitate the clear and gentle voice which spoke, and, beyond this, no man living could talk in Annie’s characteristic way, with her individual enunciation, her own choice of words, and her knowledge of the many things which she and I alone could have known.”

After his sister’s departure, five other spirits came though over the next two hours. “Each spirit was distinct and each spoke with an accent unlike the other,” Bradley recorded. One of those spirits was unknown to anyone present and identified himself as Reverend Doctor Joseph Krauskopf of 4715 Pulaski Ave., Philadelphia.  He said that he had died six days earlier. He communicated that his associates at the Hebrew Seminary were concerned that cremation would affect the life of the spirit.  He asked that they be told that the spirit survives cremation.  Bradley and Dasher confirmed the prior existence of Krauskopf, although it is not stated whether they passed on the message about cremation.

On the following night, they again sat for a séance. De Wyckoff’s cook and butler were invited to join with the four men. After a Dr. Barnett, one of Valiantine’s “controls,”  spoke to the group in a loud Scottish accent, Bradley’s sister again spoke.  She talked for some 20 minutes about Bradley’s young son, Dennis, his schooling and sensitive temperament, facts Bradley was certain Valiantine knew nothing about.  “Her tones were clear and bell-like, her notes were sympathetic and understanding, and were radiant,” Bradley recorded. “How can I describe the indescribable?”

Again, Bradley pointed out that his sister mentioned things that nobody else knew about or could have known about.  Moreover, Bradley observed De Wyckoff talking with Valiantine at the same time Bradley’s sister was communicating with him.  After his sister left, the trumpet floated in front of De Wyckoff’s cook.  “Anita! Anita!” the “voice’ said.  “Si! Si!” Anita Ripoll excitedly responded.  “It is Jose! Jose!” the “voice” said.  It was the cook’s deceased husband.  They carried on a conversation in Spanish which Bradley could not understand.  However, De Wyckoff understood and described it as a mixture of Basque and corrupt Spanish, which he often heard them speak when Jose was alive and in his employment.  When De Wyckoff spoke directly to Jose, Jose spoke more perfect Spanish.  Jose requested De Wyckoff’s assistance in bringing their children from Spain. Bradley estimated that the conversation lasted ten to twelve minutes. “To produce the scene which took place, Anita would have to be a great actress and Valiantine a magnificent actor,” Bradley opined, “ and having produced many plays myself, I can say with confidence that they would have had to rehearse the scene for at least three weeks.”

Bradley further recorded that the butler, Percy Wheatley, then heard from his niece, who had died at age of five several years earlier. “She talked in a sweet, childish voice and her sentences were interjected with happy, childish laughter,” Bradley noted. “She said that life was splendid where she was, and that she was growing up and learning, that she was so glad she was no longer a cripple.”  Bradley thought he saw the young girl’s spirit form sitting on Wheatley’s knee, referring to it as “silvery, misty, and delicate in outline,” but the others did not see it. 

A Canadian Indian named “Kokum,” said to be one of Valiantine’s spirit guides, communicated in French and broken English. De Wyckoff had communicated with him on previous occasions and asked him to sing. He then started to sing “La Paloma.”  “Never in my life have I heard such a colossal voice,” Bradley wrote. “In all seriousness I assert that his voice could have been heard a quarter of a mile away….” Bradley thanked Kokum and asked him if he could touch him. He then felt fingers of a hand pat him gently on the head. 

Bradley called the two séances the “most staggering event of my life,” causing him to change his whole philosophy of life. “Doubt took flight when faced by an unchallengeable fact and the mind understood in a flash that what had hitherto appeared to be impossible was possible.”

Fraud Charges

Shortly after returning to London, Bradley received a shocking cable from De Wyckoff advising him that Valiantine had been discovered “in undeniable instance of conscious fraud.”  Thinking back to that weekend, Bradley could conceive of no possible way that a charlatan could duplicate the phenomena he had experienced – his sister’s voice, the personal knowledge, the intimate dialogue he had with his sister. He was bewildered.

On November 27, 1923, Bradley and his wife visited the renowned English medium Gladys Osborne Leonard.  The appointment had been made by a friend and their identities not given.  After Leonard went into a trance, Feda, her spirit control, announced that Bradley’s sister and W.A. were present. (The full name of “W.A.” was given but his family objected to his name being used in the book.) As W.A. was doing most of the communicating, Bradley requested that he ask his sister if she had been present at De Wyckoff’s home several months earlier. W.A. said that she had and that he (W.A.) also had been there, although he could not muster enough power to speak.  Annie then spoke and further confirmed some of the things they had talked about at De Wyckoff’s home, including Bradley’s son, Dennis.  Bradley then mentioned the fraud charges made by De Wyckoff.  His sister said that she does not know much about Valiantine, but he was genuine at the time.  W.A. was also unaware of any fraud by Valiantine, but he explained that a medium may sometimes be impelled or impressed by his unconscious knowledge of what the spirit communicators want to do or want to say and thus carry it into action.  His unconscious actions are then interpreted by the sitters as a conscious attempt to deceive them.

As Bradley would later determine, the “fraud” claimed by De Wyckoff had to do with automatic writing coming through Valiantine. Although the messages themselves were evidential, the handwriting was Valiantine’s.  De Wyckoff saw this as evidence of fraud, even though research in this area had revealed that some automatic writing came through in the handwriting of the communicating spirit, while some came through in the script of the medium. 

However, as mentioned in the last post here, it was Valiantine’s toe print, which was supposed to match up with the thumb print left by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that cast the most suspicion on Valiantine and doomed his reputation several years later. Though said to be semi-illiterate, Valiantine appeared intelligent enough to realize that his toe print would not match Doyle’s thumb print. As mysterious as the toe print was, it had nothing to do with voices coming through in different languages and inflections, while providing facts that Valiantine had no way of knowing.  “Nobody,” said Bradley, “could shake my knowledge that for thirty-five minutes I had talked on personal matters – matters unknown to anyone but ourselves – with the discarnate but living spirit of my sister: her voice, her personality, her spirit, her soul.”

In 1901, pioneering psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers, who had passed to the spirit world earlier in the year, was communicating with Sir Oliver Lodge, the renowned British physicist, through the mediumship of Rosalie Thompson.  He told Lodge that he was trying to understand “how the cheating things that are not cheats are done,”  There is no indication that he ever figured it out. If he did, it may have been explained by W.A. 

Next blog post:  June 21
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

Read comments or post one of your own
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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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