Michael Tymn is probably today's foremost authority on European and North American mediumship of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a subject matter that he covers in a blog and in several books, including his most recent: Resurrecting Leonora Piper.
As the title indicates, the book's purpose is to rekindle interest in Mrs. Leonora Piper, the turn-of-the-century Boston medium who became the principal subject of investigation by psychical researchers in America for over 20 years. Unassuming, sensible, and decidedly "normal" in all outward respects, Mrs. Piper was happily married and had two daughters. She took a small annual stipend from the researchers for the use of her time, but could have earned far more had she been interested in exploiting her talents for commercial gain. She sought no publicity and downplayed her abilities on the rare occasions when she consented to any media coverage. In a newspaper story she once speculated that the communications might be coming to her via mental telepathy from the living, a statement maliciously characterized as a "confession" by debunkers (most of whom, naturally, don't believe in telepathy either, so it's hard to see how the so-called "confession" does them any good).
Leonora Piper in a portrait by Eveleen Myers
Resurrecting Leonora Piper is an excellent summary of Piper's best cases, largely passing over the weaker sessions and the misfires. As Tymn puts it, he is acting like Piper's attorney, laying out the evidence in the light most favorable to his client. "If it is seen as an apologia for Mrs. Piper," he writes at the end, "so be it." In his view, the book is a necessary corrective to debunking accounts that overemphasize problematic sessions while downplaying or ignoring the more evidential ones.
Tymn's book makes it abundantly clear why early psychical researchers devoted so much time and effort to Piper, and why for many of them she (along with Gladys Osborne Leonard in England) was the "white crow" whose abilities established the reality of supernormal perception, whatever its ultimate source (spirits or ESP).
The book also corrects some frequent misconceptions about Piper's mediumship. For instance, it is often said that William James was deeply involved in investigating Piper. Actually, while James did "discover" her and brought her to the attention of other psychical researchers, he played a fairly limited role in the subsequent research, the bulk of which was carried out by Richard Hodgson and, later, James Hyslop, with important contributions by Oliver Lodge during Piper's two sojourns in England. Tymn makes it clear that William James remained on the fence about the "spirit hypothesis" throughout his life, clearly preferring the super-ESP idea or some equivalent. He may have been unwilling to jeopardize his hard-earned reputation by openly endorsing spiritism. Or perhaps he was sincerely in doubt about the evidence, since, as Tymn concedes, much of Piper's communications did consist of "misses," generalities, nonsense, obvious fishing, and other "bosh" (James's word).
With regard to fishing for clues, Tymn makes the valuable point that while it certainly occurred – more often in the earlier sessions when "Dr. Phinuit" was the spirit control, and (I think) less often in the later sessions under the guidance of "Imperator" and "Rector" – this can plausibly be interpreted as fishing for a clearer message from the communicating spirit. In other words, it seems as if there was not infrequently a failure of communication between the spirit wishing to address the sitter and the control (gatekeeper) whose job was to relay the message. Some of the communications indicate that the spirits must themselves engage in a kind of mediumship to make contact. The control (say, Phinuit) lowers his vibrations to take charge of the empty vessel of Piper's body (her spirit having temporarily exited); while Phinuit is in this entranced condition, he relays what he hears from the sitters on one side and the communicating spirits on the other. If this is in fact how the process works, then it's hardly surprising that there would be difficulties in communication, especially since the entranced Phinuit would be approximately in the condition of a sleepwalker or a deeply hypnotized subject.
Tymn devotes considerable time to Mrs. Piper's most evidential cases, the ones with the greatest proportion of "veridical" (verified) material. This emphasis is necessary to make the case for Mrs. Piper as a legitimate medium, but for me personally, the non-evidential communiqués are often more interesting, inasmuch as they venture into more philosophical territory. Perhaps the most intriguing is a message purportedly originating from psychical pioneer William Barrett, author of the groundbreaking book Deathbed Visions.
When I come into the conditions of a sitting I then know that I can only carry with me – contain in me – a small portion of my consciousness. The easiest things to lay hold of are what we may call ideas; a detached word, a proper name, has no link with a train of thought except in the detached sense; that is far more difficult than any other feat of memory or association of ideas. [p.73]
In a session with Mrs. Leonard, a communicator purporting to be Barrett elaborated on this idea:
Sometimes I lose some memory of things from coming here [i.e., coming to the sitting]; I know it in my own state but not here. In dreams you do not know everything, you only get parts in a dream. A sitting is similar; when I go back to the spirit world after a sitting like this I know I have not got everything through that I wanted to say. That is due to my mind separating again, the consciousness separating again. In the earth body we have the separation of subconscious and conscious. Consciousness only holds a certain number of memories at a time. When we pass over they join, make a complete mind that knows and remembers everything; but when one comes here to a sitting the limitation of the physical sphere affects one’s mind, and only a portion of one’s mind can function for the time being. When I withdraw from this condition one’s whole mind becomes again both subconscious and conscious; my subconscious mind encloses my conscious one and I become whole again mentally... I cannot come with and as my whole self. I cannot. [Pp. 191, 192]
In reading this, I was reminded of James Beichler's fascinating book To Die For, which interprets evidence for the afterlife in terms of a higher-dimensional reality. In a paper presented before the 2012 conference of the Academy of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, Beichler summarizes his basic view:
Consciousness itself is completely four-dimensional, which distinguishes it from three-dimensional mind. It is not just four-dimensional, but exists along the fourth direction of space as well as three-dimensionally. Mind and consciousness form the electromagnetic four-dimensional overlay and self-organizing control mechanism for the three-dimensional matter/energy body and Biofield….
Since consciousness is a four-space-dimensional physical object, there is no reason for mind and consciousness to cease existence when the three-dimensional material body dies. In fact, when the material body dies the matter/energy pattern or Biofield is disrupted and the biochemical processes that support life cease to function. But this disruption does not affect mind and consciousness other than to free them from their material reliance and captivity in three-dimensional space. Mind and consciousness survive death as a mutually cohering physical but non-material complexity without a material body or even a material connection to the three-dimensional world of matter and energy. However, the roles of mind and consciousness reverse. While alive, consciousness is dominated by the mind and hidden away as intuition. Consciousness takes over and dominates mind upon death of the material body and severance from the three-dimensional matter/energy pattern. The degree to which the surviving mind is aware of its new existence is a completely different matter. In fact, it is a matter of how advanced the individual consciousness became and its state of awareness of the higher dimension of space before death.
It's readily apparent that "Barrett's" remarks from a century ago dovetail neatly with Beichler's interpretation. This also explains why communicators and controls frequently seem easily confused or misled (as was the Hodgson control when a pair of debunking researchers invented a spirit named "Bessie Beals" and persuaded him to provide a message from her *) and why they sometimes lack the full range of mental powers they exhibited in life. William James himself was reportedly troubled by such things, fearing (as Tymn tells us) that the afterlife might consist of a mere shadowy zone of semi-existence, comparable to the Greek Hades or the Hebrew Sheol — a sort of limbo. The explanation provided by "Barrett" and seconded by other communicators is that the spirit has a greater range of mental faculties than its incarnate counterpart, but must surrender much of this newfound intellectual power when lowering itself to operate "the machine" (the medium). Again, this would seem to fit Beichler's theory of a four-dimensional consciousness restricting itself to three-dimensional operation in a 3D world.
Overall, Resurrecting Leonora Piper is a superb addition to the literature on one of history's most thoroughly studied mediums, a woman who sat patiently with researchers day after day for roughly 20 years. No serious person who reads the book can maintain the hypothesis that Piper was a conscious fraud; some of the information she obtained was simply impossible to have researched or guessed. At the very least, a fair-minded reader will conclude that Piper represents an enigma requiring an expansion of conventional views of the potentialities of the human mind. Many will go further and see Piper's communications – with their distinctive personalities, specific memories, and clear demonstration of active intent — as strong evidence of personal survival. I certainly do.
* Greg Taylor of The Daily Grail discovered, in researching the Bessie Beals case, that Bessie was not precisely a fictitious creation. There actually was a Bessie Beals known to one of the researchers, though she was alive, not dead.
But it is undeniably true that some controls, especially Phinuit, would confabulate in an effort to please the sitter if no authentic information was available. Critics take this as evidence that Phinuit was a secondary personality of the medium, but it is equally possible that he behaved much like the unconscious mind under hypnosis because he was, essentially, hypnotized in order to control the medium.
Incidentally, the frequent claims that "Dr. Phinuit" knew no French and nothing of medicine are refuted in Tymn's book; on some occasions (though not consistently) he did hold conversations in French, and he often prescribed herbal remedies appropriate to the era in which he purportedly had lived.
One thing I always found troubling about the Imperator control is his habit of speaking in stilted, antiquated English reminiscent of the King James Bible. (Example: "It will be so in spite of anything which thou mayst think to the contrary.") There seems to be no good reason why an exalted and supposedly ageless spirit would speak in this artificial way. Yet in thinking about it now, I wonder if this style of expression is a product of the interaction of the medium's own mind and the influence of the control. Perhaps Mrs. Pipers's subconscious, associating the cadences of the King James Bible with the highest spiritual truths (as most Christians in her era did, and as many still do), automatically rendered Imperator's high-sounding thoughts in this ornate language.
Incidentally, as Tymn points out, if Phinuit, Imperator, and Rector were "secondary personalities," then what about other controls, like George Pellew and ultimately the deceased Richard Hodgson himself? They were convincing enough to persuade longtime friends of their continued existence. As the Hodgson control communicated, "If I am not Hodgson, he never lived."