I'm halfway through the recently published book Life after Death: Some of the Best Evidence, by former Jet Propulsion Laboratory physicist Jan W. Vandersande, and I decided to post my reaction to what I've read so far. To put it briefly, I have mixed feelings about the book, but I do think it's worth reading.
Vandersande is unusual in that he has a solid scientific background and is also outspoken in his conviction that mediumship -- including materialization mediumship -- provides very strong evidence of life after death. He does acknowledge that there are a great many fraudulent and deluded "mediums" and "psychics," and he estimates that 75% of the sittings he has attended have been "a waste of time." Nevertheless, he has had enough evidential experiences to convince him that mediums are in contact with the deceased.
One thing I noticed about the book is that, like many books published by small presses, it would have benefited from professional proofreading and copy-editing. There is a plethora of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. For instance, on the second page of the introduction we read that skeptics have "made up there minds," and two pages later we are informed, "Over the past 150 years (the current age of modern psychic phenomena) many fraudulent mediums and psychics has been exposed." On page 13 we learn that the trance state is "like being a sleep." On page 23 we are told that a certain medium would "dose-off" (doze off) when going into a trance. After a while I stopped noticing the mistakes, but they do reflect a certain sloppiness that detracts slightly from the book's credibility.
Another red flag, in my opinion, is that the author relies heavily on Victor Zammit's Web site for information and, in a closing chapter (which I skipped ahead to read), endorses Zammit's "million-dollar challenge to anyone who can rebut his objective evidence (expressly stated in 23 areas) for the existence of the afterlife." I find this challenge no less dubious than the comparable challenge issued by debunker James Randi. Randi's challenge - as Vandersande correctly notes -- comes with a great deal of fine print and loopholes. Zammit's challenge requires his opponent to prove a negative, which cannot be done. Both challenges strike me as nothing more than publicity stunts.
In describing séances that he attended, Vandersande is much impressed with the movements of the trumpet -- a cardboard or metal megaphone -- around the dark séance room. "The trumpet flew like a bee would around the room; quite fast up to the ceiling, and from one side of the room to the other side. The trumpet would occasionally gently touch Marlene or me on the knee or on the top of the head. The trumpet never collided with the walls or the ceiling of the room or with anything else or anyone in the room. There is absolutely no way anyone in the room ... could move the trumpet like we witnessed in the pitch dark that evening."
Here and elsewhere Vandersande shows no familiarity with The Psychic Mafia, by M. Lamar Keen. This well-known book was written by a fake medium who incorporated physical effects into his performances. In Chapter 5 he describes how he would move the trumpet around the pitch dark séance room with great skill, amazing the sitters. It was surprisingly easy to do.
Life After Death's chapter on mental and trance mediumship is competently done. Vandersande briefly covers some of his personal experiences, Gary Schwartz's early experiments in Arizona, and the career of Leonora Piper. He relies extensively on Arthur Findlay's book On the Edge of the Etheric, providing some very intriguing excerpts -- intriguing enough that I was motivated to order a copy of the book. He gives a short summary of the R-101 case, and considers the issue of spirit controls and whether they are actual discarnate entities or subpersonalities of the medium. It's a good, albeit short, introduction to the subject.
Next he covers direct-voice mediumship, focusing on Leslie Flint and John C. Sloan. Unfortunately, he relies almost exclusively on Flint's autobiography for information on him. It would have been far preferable to seek out a more objective source. The material about Sloan is again taken largely from On the Edge of the Etheric and is quite interesting.
One noteworthy detail about the Leslie Flint investigations is found in a letter written by Brigadier Firebrace, which is quoted on p. 67 of Vandersande's book. It involves a test in which Flint was observed via "an infra-red telescope" in the dark séance room. According to Firebrace's letter, written to Flint:
This test may well indicate that infrared instruments really do interfere with physical mediumship, as mediums of this type have always claimed.
I well remember the test sittings I had with you and [Charles] Drayton Thomas. At these sittings, during the séance we had an infra-red telescope focused on you and you had a throat microphone round your throat. There was an electronic expert present to watch the instruments which were attached to the throat microphone. I can well remember that under these conditions we got direct voice without any indication on the instruments that it was registered by the throat microphone. But the voices were fainter than on previous sittings I had had with you. An interesting point was on the final occasion when with a voice speaking faintly the infra-red telescope suddenly fused [i.e., failed]; the voice immediately doubled in volume. This indicated to me that infra-red rays weaken mediumship in some way. I must add you could not possibly have known that the infra-red telescope was out of action.
The main focus of the book, however, is materialization mediumship, the subject of the following chapter. Vandersande begins with a brief historical overview covering the investigations of William Crookes, Baron Schenck-Notzing, and Charles Richet.
In his discussion of Crookes's work with Florence Cook, he makes two statements that I find questionable. First, he writes, "Critics have tried to explain away these materializations by claiming that the medium Florence Cook and the materialized entity Katie King are the same person, i.e. the medium was dressed up in a costume pretending to be the materialization. This criticism breaks down with the photograph showing Cook and King together demonstrating they were two separate entities." What the author does not say is that in the photo in question (halfway down this page), the medium's face is covered with a shawl; thus it is impossible to say for sure that Florence was not impersonating Katie, with a stand-in filling in for Florence herself.
Of course, this would require an accomplice. Vandersande tells us "there is no evidence" that anyone aided and abetted Florence. But is this true? Florence worked for a time with another medium, Rosina Showers, who later admitted she was a fraud. And there are reasons (presented here) to believe that Florence may have worked with her own sister to produce the so-called materializations for Crookes.
In any event, Vandersande does not place much weight on these early cases; he even acknowledges that Crookes, Schenck-Notzing, and Richet "appear to have been or could have been fooled." He then moves to the still-controversial medium Helen Duncan, who was active in the middle of the 20th century. He notes that psychic researcher Harry Price believed Duncan swallowed and then regurgitated cheesecloth in order to produce the diaphanous costume she would wear while impersonating materialized spirits. Price photographed the so-called ectoplasm emerging from the medium and found that it precisely resembled cheesecloth, showing (as Vandersande says) "warp and weft of the material, selvedge creases and even dirt marks. Even rubber gloves and safety pins were in the photographs." Vandersande further notes that, according to Price, "Helen's former maid came to him and supported his theory concerning regurgitation." (The maid claimed that after every séance, Duncan gave her yards of phlegmy cheesecloth to launder.)
In contrast to Price, the magician Will Goldston thought Duncan was genuine. But Goldston's observations, as reported by Vandersande, contain at least one problematic element. Vandersande reports, "After the sitting Mrs. Duncan drank two cups of coffee and ate two tea cakes. Naturally, the question is how is it possible to store all that food and drink into the stomach that is already packed with cheese cloth? [Goldston] had no answer for that but did not think it was possible."
There are two misunderstandings here. First, there is no reason to think Duncan bothered to swallow the cheesecloth after her performance. She was searched before some of her performances but no one thought to search her afterward, so it would have been easy enough to secrete the used cheesecloth on her person. Therefore it would not have been in her stomach after the séance and would not have provided an impediment to eating. Second, her stomach would not have been "packed with" cheesecloth. The whole point of using cheesecloth is that it is an extremely thin, gauzy material that can be wadded up into a remarkably small pellet not much bigger than a vitamin pill. It is not a question of swallowing yards of cloth like someone at a hot-dog-eating contest scarfing down frankfurters. The two or three yards of cheesecloth required for a costume are compressed into a tiny ball and swallowed that way.
Unfortunately, Vandersande seems to be unaware of this fact. Again, some familiarity with The Psychic Mafia or similar books would have been useful. He writes, "I find the explanation of a second stomach and the swallowing and regurgitation of yards of cheesecloth extremely far-fetched and extremely unlikely. Try swallowing yards of cheesecloth and then try to regurgitate it without making sounds that the sitters could hear!!" But what was swallowed and regurgitated would have been a pellet about the size of a gum ball, not "yards of cheesecloth" in uncompressed form, as Vandersande apparently assumes. Furthermore, a common feature of such séances is that the sitters will sing hymns or popular songs in the early stages, supposedly to "raise the vibrations" in the room and encourage spiritualistic phenomena. This singing could provide the necessary cover for any noises of regurgitation that the medium might make.
That takes us to page 89 -- halfway through the book and as far as I've gotten to date. I don't want to be unduly harsh or critical, and perhaps I have focused too much on areas of disagreement. As I said before, Vandersande's coverage of mental mediumship is generally good, and his presentation of direct-voice mediumship includes some interesting information. The excerpts from Arthur Findlay's book motivated me to find a used copy of this out-of-print volume online and to order it. And I should add that it takes a good deal of courage for someone in the scientific community, with a Ph.D. degree in physics and a career at JPL, to publish a book touting any kind of mediumship -- especially materialization mediumship, which remains controversial even among those of us who are quite open to paranormal phenomena.
My main reservation about the book, at least so far, is that Vandersande does not seem to have familiarized himself with the rather extensive literature on how physical phenomena in the séance room can be produced fraudulently. As a result, he misunderstands some criticisms of materialization mediums (such as Harry Price's criticism of Helen Duncan) and he is perhaps overly impressed by phenomena (like the whizzing trumpet) that have been faked many times.
It will be interesting to see how the book unfolds in its second half. Stay tuned!