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The Balance Problem in Weighing the Afterlife Evidence

Posted on 01 August 2022, 6:24

Over the years, I have posted 20 biographies and articles about various psychic phenomena at the PSI Encyclopedia website, which is sponsored by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). They include bios of Sir Oliver Lodge, Leonora Piper, Professor James Hyslop, and William T. Stead, along with essays on the Glastonbury Scripts, the Buried Crosses, and the mysterious Patience Worth.  Nearly all of them have been edited to some extent to overcome my bias toward accepting the credibility of the person or the genuineness of the phenomenon.  In other words, I rarely give as much weight to the debunker’s side of the story, as I do to that of the dedicated researchers. After all, the researchers had already debunked the debunkers. Nevertheless, if the debunking side is not given equal attention, it is not seen as a “balanced” report and the editor finds it necessary to rework my submission by deleting some of the testimony in favor of the genuineness of the person or the phenomenon or to add some information (or misinformation) that supposedly counters the evidence in favor of the person or the phenomenon. 

My most recent submission, the most edited of all, is on the controversial direct-voice medium, Mina Crandon, (below) better remembered as “Margery,” whose mediumship was extensively studied by scholars and scientists during the 1920s. Historians and pseudo historians have not treated her well. The “know-nothings” are certain she was a fraud.  The debunking theories extend to the possibility that her husband, Dr. LeRoi Crandon, a prominent Boston surgeon and instructor of medicine at Harvard University, enlarged her “female storehouse” so that animal lungs could be hidden there and later exuded and passed off as ectoplasm.  This “anatomical concealment” included reabsorption at the end of the séance as well as the need for a refrigeration unit of some kind.

mina

Most of the phenomena were physical, including levitations of a table, apports (objects floating around the room), unusual lights and breezes, the materialization of hands and arms, 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.  However, the main attraction was the “master of ceremonies,” said to be Walter Stinson, Margery’s older brother, who had been killed in a railroad yard accident in 1911. Walter would speak through his entranced sister and also independently of her in a masculine voice.  He would carry on conversations with the sitters, joke with them, curse at them, whistle tunes, and do automatic writing through Margery. She is said to have produced writing in nine different languages, including Greek and Chinese. 

On the surface, the story seems trite, even laughable, involving no more than homespun vaudeville, but a verdict for Margery would have meant an indictment of mechanistic science and the philosophy of materialism.  The story made front-page news in the New York Times and other newspapers.  It included character assassinations, revenge, sexual innuendos, threatened lawsuits, the aforementioned anatomical storage, and bizarre phenomena, even a table chasing a guest around the Crandon house and down a staircase. 

My submission was melded with that of another writer and the editor’s own research and many revisions, so that I recognize very little of it being from my original paper. What bothers me most is that the key to understanding what some researchers considered “tricks” by Margery is explained in my paper, but none of that survived in the published piece.   

From earlier discussions, I gather that the editor is under pressure to provide a neutral account so as not to offend the members who prefer a materialistic explanation. Once an article becomes biased in either direction, it is no longer “scientific” and is considered “propaganda.” At that point, the materialists do not renew their memberships and the organization faces insolvency.  I understand this concern and appreciate the dilemma of the editor, but at the same time I struggle to understand how an organization or publication can have an unending quest to straddle the fence.  Shouldn’t it at some point be able to move off its perch?  If it does show some unbalance toward accepting a spiritualistic view, has it abandoned science?  It seems so stultifying and senseless for an organization to be perched on the fence for 140 years. In all fairness, I know that some of the editors at the SPR have permitted articles that lean in the direction of spiritual causes. Dr. Leo Ruickbie, whose essay earned him third place in last year’s Bigelow Institute Consciousness Studies contest, is one example.       

As I recall, William Stainton Moses, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Vice-Admiral W. Usborne Moore and Dennis Bradley all had the same concern and resigned from the organization.     

I justify my bias by saying that I am only interested in writing about people or phenomena who have, or which have, been judged authentic by researchers.  If the research pointed to the person being a charlatan or the phenomenon being fraudulent, it doesn’t interest me enough to write about it. I guess that makes me a propagandist in the dictionary sense of the word, i.e., someone who promotes an idea with zeal, even if modern-day politics has given a negative slant to the word. 

In the introduction to my book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper, I explain that I am presenting the case for Piper as a lawyer might present a case for his client in a court of law.  I focused on her many “hits,” and mentioned only a few of her “misses.”  I assumed that the intelligent reader would see that her hits went far beyond chance guessing, coincidence, or advance research by Mrs. Piper and tried to point out that mediums are not infallible living saints.  If I were writing a book about Babe Ruth, I’d focus on his 714 home runs, not his 1,330 strikeouts. However, the problem there is that most people don’t know how difficult it is to hit a 90-100 mph fastball or a breaking ball.  It looks much easier than it is.   

It’s not just the SPR.  I recall being asked by a college professor putting together an encyclopedia on psychic matters to write 5,000 words on levitations.  I did so, but it was unacceptable to him because I didn’t have enough information in the essay on the debunker’s view of it all.  He asked me to revise the submission by adding more research opposed to levitations.  Since I was asked to keep it at 5,000 words, that meant deleting 2,000 or more words supporting levitation and adding the research opposed to it.  However, I was unable to find any research opposed to it, only comments by fundamentalists of science saying it defies the laws of gravity and is not possible, or they offer theories on how the “trick” could have been carried out.  It didn’t amount to much more than 100 words, and so I gave up on that project. I do wonder how a researcher goes about proving that levitation is not possible.

About 20 years ago, I interviewed Dr. Gary Schwartz, a research professor at the University of Arizona and author of the 2002 book, The Afterlife Experiments.  He mentioned that when he was asked to appear on television for interviews to discuss his research, the program producers would always call in a paid skeptic to present the other side, suggesting that Schwartz was on the side of the mediums he had studied because he validated them. Schwartz should have been interviewed as the judge in the case, not as an advocate for the medium.  He had already dealt with the arguments of the paid skeptic. And so it should have been with all the researchers cited in my essay on levitations. 

My essay on Margery included prior research with other mediums, namely Eusapia Palladino. Kathleen Goligher, and Rudi Schneider, which if understood and accepted, would have pulled the carpet out from under the naysayers in the Margery case.  However, that was all deleted from the final product. 

The research with Palladino was some two decades before Margery came on the scene and included reports on movements well away from her reach.  That is, her fingers, hands, and feet seemed to be moving in harmony with activity distant from her, something of a puppet effect resulting from invisible ectoplasmic “strings” between the medium and the object. “When [Professor Oscar] Scarpa held Palladino’s feet in his hands, he always felt her legs moving in synchrony with ongoing displacements of the table or chair,” reported Professor Filippo Bottazi, who referred to the action as “‘synchrony.”

Adding to that is research by Dr. Karl Gruber, as reported in my blog here of March 14.  Gruber, a German physician, biologist, and zoologist, explained that, in his research involving more than 100 experiments with Rudi Schneider, he observed “synchronous movements” between the medium and objects out of his reach.  “This fact has been repeatedly misunderstood by the skeptical, who have seen in it the unmasking of a frightened medium,” he wrote in the May 1926 issues of the Journal of The American Society for Psychical Research.

Gruber cited the reports 0f Dr. William Crawford, a mechanical engineer who carried out 87 experiments with Irish medium Kathleen Goligher and reported on objects out of Goligher’s reach being moved by “psychic rods,” which apparently were made of what others called “ectoplasm.”  They originated with what Crawford referred to as “operators,” which he took to be discarnate human beings. “These particular mechanical reactions cause her to make slight involuntary motions with her feet, motions which a careless observer would set down as imposture,” Crawford wrote.

It was just such movement that contributed significantly to some researchers, as well as Houdini, the magician, condemning Margery, but there is no mention of any of this research in the PSI Encyclopedia on Margery.  Also cut from my submission were most of my comments about Dr. Mark W. Richardson, a professor of medicine at Harvard who is credited with developing a vaccine for typhus.  Although I was unable to determine how many of Margery’s sittings Richardson attended, indications are that he attended nearly all of them, probably well over one-hundred, maybe as many as two-hundred. He also carried out various tests with her to confirm that the “voice” of her deceased brother, Walter, was not coming from Margery’s body.  Even though Richardson was said to be a good friend of Dr. Crandon’s, it is difficult to believe that he could have been fooled so many times or would have collaborated with Crandon in a hoax of this magnitude for years.  If he knew that Margery was a trickster, didn’t he have better things to do?  In concluding his report on the series of sittings in which Margery produced Chinese script, Richardson wrote:

“… there comes a point at which this hypothesis of universal confederacy must stop; or if not this, that the entire present report may be dismissed off-hand as a deliberate fabrication in the interests of false mediumship. I respectfully submit that no critic who hesitates at this logical climax may by any means escape the hypothesis of validity. If the present paper is worthy of and if it receives the slightest degree of respectful attention, the facts which it chronicles must constitute proof of the existence of Margery’s supernormal faculties, and the strongest sort of evidence that these work through the agency of her deceased brother Walter.”

mark

Dr. Mark Richardson testing Margery’s voice

Margery emerges as an attractive blue-eyed blonde, charming, giddy, outgoing to the extent of being flirtatious, and otherwise fitting the “flapper”’ stereotype of the era. She was definitely not the saintly type. When called a charlatan, she reacted with indignation at times, but laughed it off at other times. Although debatable, as so much of the story is, Margery’s flippant attitude may have extended to suggesting that if Walter, her deceased brother, was unable to produce phenomena on a particular night, which was sometimes the case, that one of her friends should go ahead and produce something fraudulent to please those in attendance.  Even if that story is true, it suggests that Margery produced genuine phenomena some, or most, of the time. 

The encyclopedic entry ends with a comment about a “negative” verdict by a committee of five.  To me, a negative verdict is one that judged Margery a fraud.  The verdict was “inconclusive,” not negative.  One of the five committee members voted in favor of Margery and one (Houdini) against her.  The other three said further investigation was necessary.  In effect, it was a “hung jury.”

The words of the renowned Italian researcher Ernesto Bozzano were not included in my submission, as I came upon them later.  He wrote, “It is true that amongst private mediums one occasionally finds persons so imbued with the spirit of sacrifice in the cause of science that they will undergo any kind of humiliation which may be inflicted on them. Such people deserve an honoured place among the saints and martyrs of a future metapsychic calendar, and in saying this, I have in mind that American lady – ‘Margery’ (Mrs. Crandon) – and her worthy husband Dr. L. Crandon.  They submitted themselves to all kinds of tests and endured untold dignity in order to convince the men of science who attended their seances. Such a spirit of sacrifice is indeed worthy of admiration, but one cannot reasonably demand that private mediums should be aspirants to the crown of martyrdom.” 

The bottom line here is that to find spirits, one has to recognize the possible existence of spirits.  Since science does not recognize that possibility, anything involving spirits of the dead must be considered fraud.  It is a Catch 22 situation and so the researcher is forever glued to the fence. 

All that said, I very much appreciate the efforts of the editor of the PSI Encyclopedia, who is faced with producing something that those stuck in the muck and mire of materialism will understand and deem “scientific.”

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.

Next blog post: August 15
 

 


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The Orpheus Motif in North America: The Comanche tradition – To give the reader a general idea of the form taken by the Orpheus tradition in North America, I reproduce the version of the Comanche Indians, here published for the first time. It was communicated to me orally by the late Dr Ralph Linton, who noted it down in the course of his field-studies among the Comanche (1933). Particular interest attaches to the Comanche narrative, for it is the first recorded Orpheus tradition from the more easterly Shoshonean groups. No account is given of it in Wallace and Hoebel’s Comanche monograph, which is otherwise a valuable source for the religion and folklore of this tribe. Read here
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