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Remembering Professor William Newbold and His Research with Leonora Piper

Posted on 22 April 2024, 8:06

As a member of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), William Romaine Newbold (1865 – 1926, lower left photo), a University of Pennsylvania professor of philosophy and psychology, carried out considerable research with trance medium Leonora Piper of Boston, Mass.  Between 1891 and 1895, he had 26 sittings with her and studied the details of seven others held on his behalf by Dr. Richard Hodgson (upper right photo).


The predominant theory among researchers in 1891, before the emergence of George Pellew (G.P.) as a spirit “control” of Mr. Piper’s, was that Dr. Phinuit, her primary control at the time, was a secondary personality buried in her subconscious and this secondary personality had the ability to tap into the minds of the sitters, even into minds elsewhere, for the information coming out of Mrs. Piper’s mouth, then to somehow dramatize it and personalize it. In Newbold’s first sitting with Mrs. Piper after the G.P. control manifested in early 1892, his Aunt Sally communicated, but G.P. struggled to understand whether she was his aunt or his grandmother. Newbold understood G.P.’s dilemma perfectly, explaining that his paternal grandfather’s second wife had a sister whom his (Newbold’s) father married many years after his father’s death, that woman being his mother. Thus, Aunt Sally was both his aunt and his step-grandmother.

“The demand made by ‘Aunt Sally’ that I should identify myself by expounding the significance of ‘two marriages in this case, mother and aunt grandma’…admits of no satisfactory telepathic explanation,” Newbold offered in his report, wondering why the dim memories of his spinster aunt, who died when he was just 10 years old, were so clearly reflected when so many vivid memories of others might have been more easily picked up.

“Evidence of this sort does not suggest telepathy,” he reasoned. “It suggests the actual presence of the alleged communicators, and if it stood alone I should have no hesitation in accepting that theory. Unfortunately, it does not stand alone. It is interwoven with obscurity, confusion, irrelevancy, and error in a most bewildering fashion. I agree with Dr. Hodgson that the description give by the (spirit) writers themselves of the conditions under which they are laboring would, if accepted, account for a very large part of this matter. But, even after the most generous allowances on this score, there remains much which the writers cannot explain.”

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Newbold received his Ph.D. in 1891 at the University of Pennsylvania and did further graduate study at the University of Berlin. He was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania for 37 years, serving as dean of the university’s graduate school from 1896 to 1904.

In one sitting with Piper, who was in a trance state, Newbold observed G.P. writing while using Mrs. Piper’s hand, as Phinuit, who was sharing control duties with G.P. at the time, was talking through her. Newbold heard Phinuit say that he shouldn’t be in such a hurry and thought Phinuit was talking to him, thus telling Phinuit that he was in no hurry. Phinuit said he wasn’t talking to Newbold but rather to a young man in spirit who was in a great hurry to begin communicating. Hodgson was also there, recording the session. When the young man referred to by Phinuit communicated, he seemed confused, as Mrs. Piper’s hand felt Hodgson’s head. The young man then said that he did not know Hodgson. Since Mrs. Piper/Dr. Phinuit certainly knew Hodgson, this was deemed not consistent with the secondary personality hypothesis, unless it is claimed that Piper was play-acting.

Writing vs. Talking

At a June 17, 1895 sitting, Newbold asked G.P. the difference between the writing and talking.  G.P. responded that the difference was not apparent to him. “I only know I am writing by having been told so by Hodgson,” G.P. wrote through Piper’s hand. When Newbold asked G.P. what Phinuit was doing while he was controlling Mrs. Piper, G.P. said that Phinuit was “talking to John H. and a little million others at the same time helping me hold them back and keep them from interrupting me.”
Two days later, Newbold asked G.P. if it was possible to have W. Stainton Moses, an Anglican priest and medium who had died several years earlier, communicate.  A short time later, Phinuit began talking to Newbold (through Piper’s vocal cords), calling him by his nickname, “Billie,” although recorded as “Billy.”  Phinuit said that G.P. sent him to find Moses.  “I found him in another part of our world,” Phinuit stated.  Newbold asked Phinuit if it was far away.  “It would be a long way to you, Billie, but not so far to me.” Phinuit said he identified Moses by his bright light, “more than anybody.”  When Newbold asked for clarification, Phinuit responded by saying that spirits are “all light” and that they vary in light.

Newbold concluded his first report by saying he had no theory to offer relative to the origin of the information given. “I can frame none to which I cannot myself allege unanswerable objections.”  He noted that the alleged spirits of those who had died a violent death or had been bound to the sitter by emotional ties, would nearly always display great excitement and confusion. He went on to say that the scientific world, which had so tacitly rejected the idea of a supersensible world and the possibility of occasional communication between that world and this, should reconsider its position based on Mrs. Piper’s and kindred cases.

Not long after Hodgson died unexpectedly on December 20, 1905, he began communicating with Newbold and others through Mrs. Piper. Newbold, who had become a good friend of Hodgson’s, sat with Mrs. Piper on June 27, 1906 along with George Dorr, another ASPR member and also a good friend of Hodgson’s. After Mrs. Piper went into trance, Rector, who had replaced Phinuit and G.P. as Mrs. Piper’s control,  communicated briefly and turned it over to Hodgson, who told Newbold that it was much more difficult to communicate than he had anticipated when in the earth life.

Who’s Speaking?

Dorr asked whether Hodgson was communicating directly or Rector was relaying messages from him. “It is wholly done by Rector and it will continue to be,” Hodgson responded. “I shall take no part in that.”  When Dorr asked for clarification, Hodgson replied, “It is Rector who is speaking and he speaks for me.  I have no desire to take Rector’s place.  I trust him implicitly and absolutely.” Dorr asked if Rector speaks for all other spirits.  ‘Everyone,” Hodgson answered. “There is no question about that.  In the first place he is more competent to do it, he understands the conditions better than any individual spirit; he is fully capable and is under the constant direction of Imperator…” (Imperator was the name of the leader of the “group soul” communicating through Piper.)

The dialogue between Hodgson and Dorr and Hodgson and Newbold went on for some time, part of which is recorded in my book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper:  How Science Discovered the Afterlife.  On July 3, 1906, Newbold and Hodgson again dialogued.  After some initial greeting, the transcript reads: 

Hodgson:  “I am trying my level best to give you facts.”
Newbold:  “Very good.”
Hodgson:  “I said my pipe and my work would not be given up even for a wife.  Oh how you have helped me, Billy.  Yes, in clearing my mind wonderfully.  (Newbold noted that Hodgson made a very veridical remark at this point, but he had to omit it, as it was apparently too personal). You said you could not understand why so many mistakes were made, and I talked you blind trying to explain my idea of it.”
Newbold:  “Dick, this sounds like your own self.  Just the way you used to talk to me.”
Hodgson:  “Well if I am not Hodgson, he never lived.”

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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Next blog post: May 6

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What Easter is (or was) all about

Posted on 08 April 2024, 15:17

Easter 2024 is behind us. I hope all readers of this blog had a good Easter. However, it seems clear to me that the meaning of Easter has been completely lost in our hedonistic world.  USA Today kicked off its Easter coverage on “Holy Thursday” with a front-page article on the cost of eggs. There was not a single mention of what was being celebrated. There was nothing on Friday and the paper does not publish on weekends. My local paper had an article on page 4 about the pope being well enough to celebrate Easter by discussing peace in Israel and Ukraine.  I admit that I saw only a small fraction of the various media during the week, but I would bet that what I saw was representative of all of it.

Maybe if I were a church-going person, I would have sensed it on Easter Sunday, but my best guess is that the message would have been as imprecise, elusive, ambiguous, distorted and otherwise as vague as it was during my church-going years. It would have dealt with the resurrection of Christ’s physical body rather than his spirit body and not even mention spirit bodies we all have in common with him. And it would be a very humdrum heaven for which we are striving. Many say that they prefer total extinction to such an afterlife.   

If I were a roving television reporter and stopped a number of people on the street, asking them what Easter is all about, I suspect that not one in 50 would agree with my understanding of what is celebrated on Easter. I imagined myself as a pastor of some church and made an attempt to write a sermon for Easter Sunday. This is what I came up with, minus the salutations and gestures that go with a speech. Pardon me for using some of the same quotes as in recent blogs, but I feel that they need to be heard and stressed over and over again. 


The Easter Message

“If man believes in nothing but the material world, he becomes a victim of the narrowness of his own consciousness.  He is trapped in triviality.”  So said Emanuel Swedenborg, the renowned Swedish scientist and polymath. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the famous Russian author (Crime & Punishment, etc.) put it: “Neither a person nor a nation can exist without some higher idea. And there is only one higher idea on earth, and it is the idea of the immortality of the human soul, for all other ‘higher’ ideas of life by which humans might live derive from that idea alone.” 

If I am properly remembering what I was taught in my Catholic school religious studies, Jesus came at a time when the world had lost sight of that “higher idea.” I’ve wondered who did a survey to determine the worldview at the time, but, if such was the case, Jesus’s primary mission was to reestablish a conviction that consciousness survives death in a larger life. As I still understand it, that’s what Easter is supposed to be about.  It’s not about eggs and bunnies, nor is it about God, original sin, atonement, peace or worship. They all follow the acceptance of consciousness surviving death.
During the mid-1800s, Science began impeaching Religion, reaching its peak around 1870, a decade after “Darwinism” was introduced to the world by scientists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. ”We were all in the first flush of triumphant Darwinism, when terrene evolution had explained so much that men hardly cared to look beyond,” wrote Frederic W.H. Myers, one of the pioneers of psychical research, in explaining why he began searching for evidence of the soul. As Myers saw it, the old-world sustenance was too unsubstantial for the modern cravings, the result being that advances in science and technology were leading to the unprecedented prosperity, but at the same time, this prosperity brought a decline in the dignity of life.  It was suddenly life without meaning. In effect, the advances in science and technology outpaced man’s ability to mentally and morally adjust to them, thereby creating an emotional void, one referred to as “soul sickness.”

The ”death of God,” as decreed by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882, the same year that Myers helped co-found the Society for Psychical Research, resulted in despair and hopelessness for many, especially the intelligentsia of the civilized world.  There were some who repressed the idea of Nietzsche’s “nothingness” by escaping into mundane earthly activities but there were others who could not completely repress it or relieve their minds of this soul sickness.  A melancholy mood prevailed among them, one that often turned to anxious trembling and fear as life’s end approached. 


In addition to Myers, a number of other scholars and scientists searched for the “larger life” in order to restore the meaning that had been lost. They included psychologist William James, astronomer Camille Flammarion, chemist William Crookes, and physicists William Barrett and Oliver Lodge.  They attempted to reconcile the teachings of science with those of religion by studying various psychic phenomena which suggested a spirit world. As Professor James put it: “Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.”

Wallace, who it is said persuaded Darwin to accept the “survival of the fittest” concept, was among those more open-minded scientists who became convinced that a spirit world exists and that consciousness survives in that larger world.  As he saw it, the evidence for survival from the phenomena studied and validated as genuine was as good, if not better, than the evidence for evolution. Moreover, the two did not conflict with each other, as many believed.  Others, such as famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, joined in.  “A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it, even if he must confess his failure,” Jung offered. “Not to have done so is a vital loss.” As Jung put it, “critical rationalism” had eliminated the idea of life after death.

Apparently, some progress was made in restoring belief in a hereafter by 1914. In reviewing a book about life after death for the April 1914 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Professor James Hyslop wrote: “The primary importance of the book is the simple fact that the subject can be discussed, when twenty-five years ago a book either affirming or denying immortality would not have received publication, most probably. Skepticism and agnosticism have been so confident of their positions ever since Immanuel Kant and Herbert Spencer, that no man has dared venture to show himself on the affirmative side for fear of being accused of being religious or of being a fool.”

For those with an open-mind the evidence for survival was overwhelming and was embraced by many during the Great War. But the conviction melted away during the “Roaring Twenties,’ when materialism renewed itself in times of prosperity.  An economic depression and then another world war stemmed the tide of materialism and its close companions, hedonism and epicureanism.  But with the aid of the new technology called television, the entertainment and advertising industries regained the upper hand for the materialists. “An unfortunate awareness has overtaken our species,” opined humanistic philosopher Alan Harrington, in his 1969 book, The Immortalist. “Masses of men and women everywhere no longer believe that they have even the slightest chance of living beyond the grave. The unbeliever pronounces a death sentence on himself. For millions, this can be not merely disconcerting but a disastrous perception.” 

As Harrington viewed it, when people are deprived of rebirth vision, they “suffer recurring spells of detachment, with either violence or apathy to follow.” Harrington saw mass atheism, to which he subscribed, as responsible to most, if not all, society’s ills, including misplaced sexual energy.  Erich Fromm, another humanistic philosopher, agreed. “The state of anxiety, the feeling of powerlessness and insignificance, and especially the doubt concerning one’s future after death, represent a state of mind which is practically unbearable for anybody,” Fromm stated. 

As science progressed, its leaders became concerned as to how to replace the soul it had succeeded in eradicating.  Their solution was humanism – materialism, secularism, and rationalism bundled together with ethical and moral concerns and constraints. Also referred to as a moralist, the humanist was someone able to live a life of dignity and morality without subscribing to religious beliefs.  In effect, it was seen as a very noble and honorable way of living, one governed by discipline, moderation and courage rather than fear of punishment in an afterlife.  It was a more heroic approach than that of the religionist. Yet, the humanists struggled in their idealism.  While sound in principle, it was not so easy to put into practice, especially for those past their prime years and approaching what they saw as the abyss of nothingness.

One with our Toys

Research in the areas of past-life memories and near-death experiences supplemented earlier psychical research in countering the materialistic mindset, but the researchers in those fields, especially that of the NDE, were overly cautious in linking their findings to consciousness surviving death. It was all about enjoying this life, even if it meant self-deception, i.e., tricking oneself into enjoying it with a possible false assumption. Not until very recently have some leading NDE researchers dared make the link between the experience and a larger life. Meanwhile, religion has continued to stress the need to worship God while avoiding the evidence for survival, since some of it seemingly conflicts with established dogma and doctrine. This has made it quite easy for the fundamentalists of science to continue repudiating survival.  That is, the evidence for a Higher Power is much more subjective and elusive than the evidence for survival. No God, no afterlife is the mistaken inference.       

In spite of the overwhelming evidence for survival developed by scientists and scholars to this day, as well as the support provided by quantum physics, those subscribing to scientism, the other extreme from religious fundamentalism, have not yielded in their resistance. Moreover, the mainstream media has fully supported the fundamentalists of science.  The distinction between the findings of psychical researchers and the superstitions and follies associated with religion is too much and too inconvenient for science and the media to grasp.  And they ask why, if your God is so powerful, “he” can’t provide evidence that goes to absolute certainty. Victor Hugo, the famous French author and poet, asked this very question of a spirit claiming to have been Martin Luther in the physical body. The reply was that “doubt is the instrument which forges the human spirit.”  To put it another way, some doubt is vital to learning lessons that give life a purpose. 

Further bolstered by the entertainment and advertising industries, materialism, the core of nihilism, is simply too attractive to the vast majority of people. In recent years, the entertainment industry has bombarded the public with uncensored lewdness and vulgarity. 
Nevertheless, there is no indication that the Easter message of some 2,000 years ago is going away. The need for meaning in life beyond being “one with our toys” will always be there, even if mostly a subconscious need. “The decisive question for man is whether he is related to something infinite or not,” Jung asserted.  “That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance.”

Although Sigmund Freud is remembered as an atheist, he is said to have sent a 1921 letter to researcher Hereward Carrington, saying: “If I had my life to live over again, I should devote myself to psychical research rather than psychoanalysis.”

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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Next blog post: April 22

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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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