Spiritualism was at its peak in popularity at the turn of the last century. Thousands of people met with mediums in hopes of reaching their dead loved ones. Even Mary Todd Lincoln attended a séance in hopes of speaking with Abraham one more time.
Leonora Piper was one of the more famous mediums in 1910. Dr. James Hyslop, head of the American Society for Psychical Research, attended one of her séances and wrote about it in this article.
I’ll believe that the dead can communicate with the living when there is actual evidence to support this claim. Until then, I’m a skeptic. Hyslop, however, seemed to believe that Piper really did communicate with the dead.
In 1992, Martin Gardner wrote an article called How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James which demonstrated how Leonora Piper used cold reading techniques to give the impression that she can communicate with the dead.
Cold reading is the same practice used today by so-called mediums and psychics like Sylvia Brown, John Edward, and James Van Praagh. The thing about cold reading is that it doesn’t always work, and often relies on the subject making connections where there is none; then the subject counts that as a successful hit on behalf of the psychic.
Hyslop does exactly that just a few paragraphs into the article, explaining that “two or three incidents which he had to reject as false… have since then found a probable interpretation.”
One of these is an incident which he had referred to before as the incident of “the broken wheel.” His father communicating from the spirit land by means of a medium, he says, had mentioned that he (his father) and his (Dr. Hyslop’s) aunt, Eliza, had been in an accident in which the wheel of a wagon was broken.
When Dr. Hyslop asked his aunt about the accident she denied that it had taken place. Therefore, he discarded the communication as of no value.
Now he declared the incident turns out to be one which occurred the day after his father’s death, and involved Dr. Hyslop and his uncle. This uncle has since died, and, Dr. Hyslop declares, the latter, in communicating from the spirit world, has used the incident to prove his identity to his wife, Dr. Hyslop’s aunt.
Even though the psychic got almost all the details wrong, Hyslop managed to make it fit something in his life that made sense to him. That’s a hit! More likely it’s an example of confirmation bias on Hyslop’s part. Who doesn’t know someone who’s been in an accident?
While some so-called psychics may actually believe they have supernatural powers, it’s the ones who know better and prey on innocent people who really infuriate me. So it’s with pleasure that I link to this great video of famed psychic James Van Praagh attempting to give a cold reading where absolutely nothing goes right for him.
DR. HYSLOP TELLS OF EXPERIMENTS WITH FAMOUS MEDIUMS: Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research Reports Furthers on the Piper Phenomena (PDF)
From June 12, 1910