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William James, the Minister, and the Medium

Posted on 06 November 2023, 9:37

After Professor William James carried out a dozen experiments with Leonora Piper and became convinced that she had supernormal powers, he arranged for 27 of his friends, relatives, and associates to sit with her and report back to him on their experiences.  Twelve of them got nothing, except unknown names or trivial talk, but 15 of them received meaningful information. 

One of them was Dr. Minot J. Savage, a Unitarian minister (top left photo). In his 1902 book, Can Telepathy Explain?, Savage told of his investigations as a member of the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research (ASPR).  “I doubted neither his intelligence nor his honesty, but I did not believe a word of the things he told me,” Savage wrote of his introduction to psychic phenomena. Early in his investigations with other mediums, Savage encountered some physical phenomena, including levitations. “I have seen tables and chairs lifted in a way not to be explained by any ordinary methods, and this a good many times,” he wrote. “On one occasion, when seated in a heavy arm chair, I was myself gently and quietly lifted into the air while a skeptical friend looked on and carefully studied what was taking place.”


Savage felt it was his duty to accept the invitation by Professor James to observe and study Mrs. Piper.  “If there is a great truth here which abolishes death, which wipes away all tears, which heals the broken-hearted, which puts meaning into life, which makes all the long and toilsome process through which we are passing worthwhile, then surely that is something which ought to be known,” he explained.

In his first sitting with Mrs. Piper, Savage’s father was the first to communicate. He had died in Maine at age 90.  “He had never lived in Boston, nor, indeed, had he visited there for a great many years, so that there was no possibility that Mrs. Piper should ever have seen him and no likelihood of her having known anything about him,” Savage related.  “She (or Phinuit, her spirit control, speaking through her vocal cords, artist conception bottom left) described him at once with accuracy, pointing out certain peculiarities which the ordinary observer, ever if he had seen him, would not have been likely to notice.”

Mrs. Piper then said that “He calls you Judson.”  Savage considered this quite evidential as his father had called him Judson, his middle name, when he was a boy. “In all my boyhood all the members of the family except my father and my half-brother had always called me Minot,” he explained, going on to point out that after he had become an adult his father began calling him Minot.
“Here is somebody else besides your father,” Savage further recalled Mrs. Piper (or Phinuit) saying.  “It is your brother, no your half-brother, and he says his name is John.”  Mrs. Piper (or Phinuit) then went on to accurately describe John and tell the method of his death. Savage pointed out that this brother was not consciously on his mind and he was not expecting to hear from him.  Moreover, he was certain that Mrs.  Piper knew nothing about him.

On one occasion, Savage’s daughter, Gertrude, visited Mrs. Piper anonymously.  A friend made the appointment for her under an assumed name.  As a test, the friend gave her three locks of hair.  “[My daughter] knew nothing about them, not even as to whether they had been cut from heads of people living or dead,” Savage related. After Mrs. Piper had gone into the trance state, the locks of hair were placed in her hand one at a time.  Mrs. Piper (or Phinuit) gave the name of the friend, the names of the three people whose hair she held, and told whether they were living or dead.  The daughter took notes and then after the sitting verified that Mrs. Piper (or Phinuit) had been correct in every case.

On a much later visit to Mrs. Piper, Savage was told that his son, who had died at age 31 three years earlier, was present.  “Papa, I want you go at once to my room,” Savage recalled his son communicating with a great deal of earnestness.  “Look in my drawer and you will find a lot of loose papers.  Among them are some which I would like you to take and destroy at once.”  The son had lived with a personal friend in Boston and his personal effects remained there.  Savage went to his son’s room and searched the drawer, gathering up all the loose papers.  “There were things there which he had jotted down and trusted to the privacy of his drawer which he would not have made public for the world,” Savage ended the story.

Savage told Admiral W. Usborne Moore, a retired British naval officer turned psychical researcher (bottom right photo), of the sitting with Mrs. Piper and pointed to a picture of his son hanging in his office.  He also gave Moore a letter of introduction to Mrs. Piper. Before visiting Piper, however, Moore sat with Maggie Gaule Reidinger, a New York medium.  She mentioned Moore’s visit with Savage and said that Savage’s son was there at the time.  “He is beside me now,” Reidinger continued, “and he wishes me to tell his father that he was with him in his study this morning when you called upon him.  He says: ‘My father pointed to a picture, and said, “That is my son.” He afterwards showed you another portrait of him.  He gave you a letter, or authorized you to use his name, to assist you to obtain an interview with Mrs. Piper.”  Moore was very much impressed and certain that Mrs. Reidinger did not know his name.  He recontacted Savage to confirm that he had not spoken to Mrs. Reidinger to inform her of his visit that night.

As reported by Savage and further recorded in the records of the ASPR, the Rev. W. H. Savage, Minot’s brother, and a friend of Professor William James’, sat with Mrs. Piper on December 28, 1888.  Phinuit told him that somebody named Robert West was there and wanted to send a message to Minot.  The message was in the form of an apology for something West had written about Minot “in advance.”  W. H. Savage did not understand the message but passed it on to Minot, who understood it and explained that West was editor of a publication called The Advance and had criticized his work in an editorial.  During the sitting, W. H. Savage asked for a description of West.  An accurate description was given along with the information that West had died of hemorrhage of the kidneys, a fact unknown to Savage but later verified.

In a sitting by W. H. Savage two weeks later, West again communicated, stating that his body was buried at Alton, Illinois.  He gave the wording on his tombstone, “Fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.”  Savage was unaware of either of these facts, but later confirmed them.
“Now the striking thing about this lies in the fact that my brother was not thinking of this matter and cared nothing about it,” Minot Savage ended the story, feeling that this ruled out mental telepathy on the part of the medium.  “There was no reason for the [apology] unless it be found in simply human feeling on his [West’s] part that he had discovered that he had been guilty of an injustice, and wished, as far as possible, to make reparation, and this for peace of his own mind,” Minot Savage recorded.

Dr. Savage had sittings with a number of other mediums, although for privacy reasons he was reluctant to name them.  One day he was visited at his Boston church by a clerk in a business house some 20 miles from Boston.  The man explained to Savage that he had found himself under the influence of some power that wished to write through his hand.  He was confused and wanted Savage’s advice. “We sat down at the table, and immediately his hand was seized and began to write with a good deal of power,” Savage reported.  The communicating spirit identified himself as George Canning, a name unknown to Savage.  “He stated quite a number of facts concerning himself, some of which I was able to look up and [later] verify.” 

Savage then decided to give George Canning a little test.  He asked him to go to his house and find out what Mrs. Savage was doing at the time.  In fact, Mrs. Savage was not supposed to be home that morning. “We sat in perfect quiet and silence for four or five minutes.  At the end of that time, the hand began to write.  To my surprise, and of course I believed he was all wrong, he said: ‘Mrs. Savage was at home, and when I was there, she was standing in the front hall saying good-bye to a caller.’”  When Savage went home later, he was told by his wife that she had been paid an unexpected call by a friend and that she was bidding her good-bye at the very time the spirit reported.
“The number and kind of facts which have been discovered and verified beyond any reasonable doubt are such as to leave fraud and self-delusion and mere coincidence out of the questions,” Savage concluded.  “There are facts, and great numbers of them, which must be treated seriously.”  He added that the question of survival after death may be considered without any regard to the question of theism or atheism.  “Whatever a man may believe concerning God, it is still true that we are here and are what we are.  Some power has produced us, and a power which is adequate to this may, for all we know, be adequate to continuing our personal existence beyond the experience of death.” 

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:  November 20




“Your scientists include among mediums those individuals who have the gift of clairvoyance and clairaudience. This is not correct. It is true that clairvoyants, clairaudients and clairsensitients have mediumistic powers, but they are not true mediums.”
Michael’s analogy to the runners fits in well with my understanding of the Greber quote. I used the expression of a radio spectrum (this is no longer a great expression given the autistic spectrum having top of mind).
I used to explain that mediums pass on messages, the trance medium being the less distorted end of the spectrum. Clear transmission -true medium. As the spirit of the medium (for not trance) is an active filter there is a distortion of the message. It depends on their ability to understand, remember Stanton Moses being told that they were waiting for his training to complete. This has the problem in marketing, you want a medium rather than a partial medium. Nobody wants to get advice from a partial medium.  In Michael’s analogy you might place your trust in a sprinter (I was good at 100 yard so I know what he means) but they will not go the distance, we have an expression Tell them they are dreaming. There are many mediums with differing abilities, some sprinters and some distance runners. How would you know which one to trust?
In transmission theory there are losses unless the correct protocol is used. Think about video breaking up if the data speed is too fast for the system.  Clairvoyance is video but when you show people the same video they see different messages. This is one of the tricks of marketing. You reduce the parts which detract from the message.  In Australia w have a television show where marketing professionals review the quality of the message called Gruen.
The training of mediums is similar, but not as entertaining.. A person tells their message and others ask what was actually shown as opposed to what you saw (remember same technique as marketing).  You might see a plane and the questions which would be asked Which airline? Was it a good or bad feeling? Travel or warning?
In the past we had trouble with IEEE-488. HP equipment was expensive so we sometimes bought other brands which did not work as well. They said they were IEEE-488 compliant but were in reality not fully compliant. We needed to tighten the meaning. Same as medium. 
Amos asks about the withdrawing of the spirit not being noticeable. Think of job sharing where there are two spirits sharing a medium. My feeling is that someone would not see any difference to normal Bruce if it was Bruce 80% plus 20% control spirit.  My wife can tell as I seem to be “away” as she calls it. It has taken her many years for her to spot the clues.

Jon, Thu 9 Nov, 09:48

Amos, like everything else, it seems to be a matter of semantics and definition. When I was covering road racing for the morning paper, the evening paper would say that 25,000 “runners” lined up for the Honolulu Marathon. I would say that 25,000 runners, joggers, plodders, frolickers, walkers and strollers lined up for it. Out of the 25,000, perhaps fewer than 100 were real “runners.”  The fastest on the track were “sprinters” and they didn’t call themselves “runners.”  Paradoxically, the best runners were in one respect the slowest among the group as the best long-distance runners have an abundance of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Sprinters don’t do well at long distance as they have too many fast-twitch fibers.  Such overlap and confusion seems to exist in mediumship as well.  I suspect that many people who advertise themselves as “psychic mediums” are equal to people in the jogging and plodding categories of running.

Michael Tymn, Tue 7 Nov, 20:48

Thanks for the Greber quote.  Your guides must have been looking out for you when they directed you to open the book on page 116.

Greber’s distinction between types of mediums seems reasonable and makes sense to me except for the last couple of sentences where he talks about the spirit of the mental medium detaching itself from the body to a greater or lesser degree.  He talks about a spirit being “partly withdrawn” from the body becoming independent of the medium’s physical senses.” And “assumes the faculties and properties of a discarnate spirit, . . . according to the extent to which [the spirit of the medium] is detached and to the purity of the od surrounding it.”

It doesn’t appear to me that the mental mediums I have seen are in any way “partly withdrawn” from their body nor do they assume any of the qualities of the discarnate spirit, nor do they appear possessed except perhaps in the case of Elaine Thorpe, modern-day trance medium from Wales who seems to actually be possessed by a discarnate spirit, ‘Jonathan.’ I suppose there are many others.  Greber is muddying the waters between a medium who is possessed by a discarnate spirit and a medium who is “assuming the faculties and properties of a discarnate spirit.  I think there is a fine line here that Greber is walking and including the “purity of the od surrounding it” in his explanation doesn’t help me at all.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 7 Nov, 19:30

Yes Bruce;
There are a lot of things that I don’t remember.  But I do remember when a ‘mouse’ was a filthy little rodent caught in a mousetrap that I had to empty.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 7 Nov, 15:44

Thanks for your post. “You are not authorized to post on this site.” I was also on the naughty list.
I have been working with Jon to test browsers. I used Avast - problem then Chrome - problem Opera - problem and this post is using Edge.
You would be too young to remember the browser wars between Netscape and IE. A lot of Javascript would not work with IE as Microsoft was pushing their VBScript.

Jon, Tue 7 Nov, 10:39

Incidental to the comment I just left about what Johannes Greber was told by spirit, I hesitated before going to my book shelf for the book as I had no idea how long it would take me to search the 432 pages of the book to find that quote.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend time thumbing through it.  However, I opened the book to the exact page, page 116, and my eyes immediately went to that paragraph.  What are the odds?

Michael Tymn, Mon 6 Nov, 21:20

Amos, concerning the difference between trance mediumship and the clairvoyance type, here is how it was explained to researcher Johannes Greber by a spirit:

“Your scientists include among mediums those individuals who have the gift of clairvoyance and clairaudience. This is not correct. It is true that clairvoyants, clairaudients and clairsensitients have mediumistic powers, but they are not true mediums. With them, it is their own spirit which is active, which sees and hears, whereas in mediums properly so called it is a strange spirit which acts while the medium’s spirit is temporarily dispossessed. The gifts of clairvoyance and clairaudience do indeed enable the spirit of a man to see and hear the spirits about him, but a clairvoyant is not an instrument of these spirits and therefore should not be classed as a medium. The spirit of a person endowed with clairvoyance, clairaudience and with supernatural powers of feeling, smelling, and tasting, owes these faculties exclusively to the fact that it can detach itself from the body to a greater or less degree. A spirit so detached and partly withdrawn from the body thereby becomes independent of the latter’s physical senses of perception and assumes the faculties and properties of a discarnate spirit, seeing, hearing and feeling after the manner of ultra-mundane spirits, according to the extent to which it is detached and according to the purity of the of the od surrounding it.” (Pg. 116, “Communication with the Spirit World of God”)

Michael Tymn, Mon 6 Nov, 20:59

Yes, I did have trouble posting to your site.  After posting for over 12 years, I kept getting a drop-down message that said “You are not authorized to post on this site.” (I am still getting this message!) I am thinking that there is a ‘war’ between Microsoft Edge browser and Google Chrome browser as I have WARNING drop-downs with Chrome, but when I switch to Microsoft Edge, I don’t get the warnings. I don’t know.  The computer systems are getting to be overwhelming for me.  Computers used to be a good tool that was easy to use and maintain, but now, what used to be simple to do is complicated.

Thanks to you, Leonora Piper will not be forgotten by the general public.  Like Keith, I read your book a few years ago and need to read it again.  The Piper case is a good one because there were so many years of reliable documentation about her sessions.  Piper was unique as mediums go, I think because she seemed to be actually possessed by spirits who took over her vocal cords and wrote through her hands, sometimes both of them at the same time. Different from modern mental mediums, Piper went into and out of trance, often exhibiting somewhat bizarre movements and other side effects and behaviors. The modern mental mediums I have watched on video today do not exhibit such gyrations as Piper when they contact spirits.  I am thinking about Tyler Henry, Matt Fraser, John Edward, James Van Praagh, George Anderson, Allison Dubois and others. None of them appear to be in a trance.

I must say that Matt Fraser is very direct and precise in his contacts with ‘spirits’ and provides very detailed information including names, cause of death, and personal details that, I think exceed what Piper did. He says that he sees spirits, hears them speaking to him, feels their illness, knows if they smoke or use marijuana and smells their perfume or cologne. He is also aware of miscarriages, and pets that have “crossed over!”

It is interesting to me that Eleanor Sidgwick came to believe in spirits but she did not think they were possessing the body of Leonora Piper.  Sidgwick conceded that there were spirits but the dead were communicating to Piper through telepathy and Piper was relaying what she received through telepathy in a dramatic way. 

I have seen pictures of wreaths made in the Victorian period; wreaths with hair of deceased individuals woven in.  I think that was a common thing to do.  I myself have kept hair from my best friend, Woody, who died almost 20 years ago. A few of the modern mental mediums ask for something that belonged to the deceased before they do the reading.  Tyler Henry comes to my mind as a medium who does this.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 6 Nov, 18:58

Jon & Michael…

The “psychometry” angle (Re: the hair) immediately caught my attention as well. Whether there’s any relevance in this particular case, who knows—but if I recall correctly (I have no idea where my notes on this are now…) the evidence in some other cases was quite compelling…

Don Porteous, Mon 6 Nov, 17:57

I like that Savage started with the telepathy theory that mediums can read the minds of those present. This was mentioned in a recent demonstration by Gordon Smith (Scottish medium) where a member of the university audience said “I know how you are doing this, you are reading their minds”. When evidence is unknown to the sitter and later proved to be correct then telepathy theory doesn’t work.
I noticed that there were test after test. The hair test requires some further thinking. The concept of psychometry (objects retaining a connection) might work but the safer way is for the spirit to watch the process of collecting hair to reveal the answers. I might be biased as I could not get any good results from psychometric methods.
Victorians liked to retain hair from a deceased one. In recent times the Spiritualist churches did flower readings (you pick up a flower, hold it and put it at the front) to avoid giving readings which would lead to an arrest under the Fraudulent Mediums Act.

Jon, Mon 6 Nov, 14:16

Brilliant evidence Mike. I agree, way beyond mental telepathy. Thank you for bringing these gems to our awareness.

Wendy Zammit, Mon 6 Nov, 11:23

I really do not know how it is possible for reasonable sceptics to reject the significance of this Piper evidence, once they’ve found it. Another excellent blog, Michael, thanks. Calling Savage and Piper deluded does not wash. I enjoyed your Piper book, by the way, but it was years ago now. Must have another read.



Keith P n England, Mon 6 Nov, 10:57

Jon, yes, I think “Judson” would be a difficult one for the skeptic to explain. I’m not sure, but I think it even goes beyond Superpsi or Living Agent Psi. 

I gather the comments section hasn’t been working properly as two readers sent me emails last week saying their comments weren’t posted, but it looks like it is working now.

Michael Tymn, Mon 6 Nov, 10:02

I like the Judson evidence, Michael.

Jon, Mon 6 Nov, 09:41

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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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