Myers' method and the séances with Rosalie Thompson
The death of Myers
The part XLII of the SPR Proceedings, 1901, opened with some interventions in memory of Frederic W. H. Myers, died in Rome in January of that same year at the age of 58. Myers had been (with Sidgwick, Barrett e Gurney) one of the founders of the Society, at whose service had devoted all his energies. In 1900 he had been elected chairman, but the sudden illness that struck him at the end of that year, while he was staying in Italy, put an end to his tireless activity: his last important work, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, was published posthumous in 1903. In the Proceedings Myers was commemorated by the new SPR chairman, Oliver Lodge, and by William James, Charles Richet, Frank Podmore and Walter Leaf. Both James and Richet, great admirers of Myers and the value of his investigations, were convinced that Myers' work would represent a milestone in the development of human knowledge, especially in the field of psychology. Even better, Richet solemnly affirmed that only in the future the merits and the glory of Myers would be fully recognized. However, this future, now that more than a century has passed, has not yet arrived.
Myers did not show any displeasure when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness: in November 1900, when his doctor warned him that his days were counted, he wrote to his friends saying that he could not wait for the big change, since it counted the days that still separated him from the long-awaited holidays. He endured patiently the painful spasms which, in the terminal phase of his illness, prevented him from breathing, and his departure was described by a witness as «a spectacle for the gods: it was most edifying to see how a genuine conviction of immortality can make a man indifferent to what to ordinary people is so horrible». In short, a death worthy of Socrates. To Myers, in fact, all the symptoms, the cares and the pains of the body at the approach of death were necessarily related to the awakening of the soul and the liberation of the spirit, as he had foreshadowed in his youthful poetic work The Renewal of Youth.
Myers interests and experiments
In Myers' case, the faith in the survival of the soul did not arise from religion, but from reason and knowledge, even if all of his personality showed a deliberate and conscious spiritual orientation. Moreover, although being a classical scholar and not a scientist for training and education, Myers was very interested in science and showed a scientific insight and intuition out of the ordinary, as all scientists with whom he had frequent exchanges of ideas testified. He also had an extraordinary ability to investigate and experiment in very different fields considered – at that time – completely separate from each other, such as the phenomenon of multiple personalities, hypnosis, mediumistic trance, dream, telepathy, apparitions, so much so that Gurney – himself a scholar of uncommon skills – used to say: «In the time it takes me to read a book, Myers can master a whole literature». Between 1872 and 1876 Myers carried out several experiments to verify the physical paranormal phenomena, which, however, he considered of secondary interest, so much so as to affirm that those investigations had been tiresome and rather unpleasant. Personally he was convinced of the reality of some phenomena of telekinesis, but he did not think of having to mention it in his posthumous book, merely suggesting a possible spiritualistic explanation: an alien spirit can take possession of a human organism, using it more effectively and skillfully than what the proprietary spirit is able to do, and emitting through it a form of energy capable of moving at a distance physical objects with which the organism does not come into contact.
In 1874 Myers and Gurney became acquainted with the reverend Stainton Moses, a well-known medium. Knowledge soon turned into friendship, though Myers never directly investigated Moses' mediumship. However, at the death of the latter, in 1892, all Moses' notebooks, containing also those mediumistic communications he had not wanted to make public when he was alive, were given to Myers so that he could study them. Later, Myers published a series of articles in the Proceedings, concerning the uncommon mediumistic gifts of Moses. However, when he was able to personally conduct some experiments with the mediums Wood and Fairland, in 1878, he did not publish anything. The fact is rather strange because the séances, held in Cambridge under the auspices of the SPR and the supervision of Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Sidgwick, had yielded remarkable results. The wrists and ankles of the mediums had been tied to the chairs with adhesive tape whose ends were then glued to the floor and sealed. Several ectoplasmic forms, both of adults and children, were seen to come out of the mediumistic cabinet, and at the end of each séance the seals were found intact. At each sitting, the color of the adhesive tape and the sealing wax were changed unexpectedly, to prevent the medium from obtaining a similar one. On an occasion the mediums were also placed in a kind of hammock connected to pulleys with a system of counterweights that would have moved if they had made gestures: the weights remained steady, and the phenomena occurred the same, without any fraudulent cause being discovered.
In 1894, as a guest of Charles Richet, Myers took part in a series of experimental sittings with Eusapia Paladino. Although at first he had admitted to believe that the phenomena were genuine, later the report of attempts of fraud carried out by the medium during the séances in Cambridge made him change his mind, so much so that he wrote: «I had no doubt that a systematic series of tricks could be carried out from beginning to end, and that there was not enough evidence to attribute even one of the phenomena that were produced to a supernatural cause». Later, however, he participated in another series of sittings with Eusapia in Paris, at Richet's home, and at the request of the latter to give his sworn testimony, Myers declared to consider both the telekinesis and the emission of ectoplasm genuine and real phenomena. But, as was said, Myers always found himself uncomfortable experimenting with physical phenomena, although he published two articles in the Proceedings, 1891-92, On Alleged Movements of Objects, without Contact, Occurring not in the Presence of a Paid Madium.
Myers continued his experiments with various mediums including Mrs. Everitt, d'Esperance and David Duguid, but the medium that interested him most was Rosalie Thompson, because the communications received through her provided him with a definitive confirmation of his faith in survival. Since the Thompson case has a primary interest for the studies on her mediumship conducted by the SPR, and not just by Myers, we are going to examine the results of the experiments carried out by some researchers.
Born in 1868, daughter of a Birmingham architect, Rosalie (Rosina) married Edmond Thompson, owner of an important trade company in Hampstead, in 1886. Although some particular phenomena had accompanied her since childhood, it was only in 1896 that Rosalie Thompson consulted Frederic Thurstan (a Cambridge graduate researcher in paranormal phenomena) about some trance states in which she frequently fell. Mrs. Thompson was described as an active, vigorous and concrete woman, devoted to the care of her children and home management, and with various interests in both sporting and cultural activities. Both she and her husband, though not particularly interested in psychical research, were motivated by the desire to contribute to science progress, and so they accepted the proposal of Myers, with whom they had been put in contact by Thurstan himself, to carry out a series of experiments under his supervision. Rosalie never accepted any payment as a medium, nor did she consider herself a professional medium. It is worth of note that in a letter written to the SPR Journal's editor in October 1901, she stated that she did not understand: «how any investigation worth the name can be made unless the investigators are free to approach the problem from any reasonable standpoint. And in view of the large amount of fraud which admittedly enters into the class of phenomena with which the Society is concerned, I should consider it unreasonable if the evidence were not submitted to the severest tests». She herself always endeavored to communicate to the experimenters all the possible causes of a conscious or unconscious psychic nature that could explain the mediumistic communications occurring through her.
Probably it was her loyal, disinterested and sincere personality, so alien from pursuing sensational goals and results, to make her particularly congenial to Myers. During a first series of séances held with Thompson in 1897/98 at the Delphic Circle of Battersea, under the supervision of Thurstan (before the medium met with Myers) physical phenomena of remarkable intensity occurred: raps, movements of objects, psychic lights, elongations, direct voices, apports, perfumes and materializations. An extensive report of these phenomena was given in a series of articles published in the journal Light, in which the medium was referred to as Mrs. T. However Myers made every effort to discourage such physical manifestations and to persuade Thompson to put her talents at the service of the SPR, as a trance medium, starting from 1898. From 1898 to 1901, Thompson held 217 sittings for members of the SPR. Besides Myers, she was studied by Hodgson, Podmore, van Eeden and Mrs. Verrall. When Myers became ill, the medium completely suspended the séances, but after his death she felt the urge to give two sittings for Oliver Lodge, who then declared that he had received some communications that seemed to come directly from Myers' spirit.
Apart from Hodgson, who only took part in six sittings with Thompson and gave a decidedly unfavorable judgment (certainly not about her personality, but on the value of communications), all the other experimenters declared that a good part of the information received contained elements worthy of attention and not explicable with the ordinary forms of knowledge, not even of a subliminal type.
Myers' method for survival research
It should be remembered that at the time a passionate debate was underway within the SPR, regarding the ways in which certain information (those which were then the subject of mediumistic communications) can come to be known by mediums, even at an unconscious level. The reason why Myers was not interested in physical phenomena was that in his opinion these phenomena – although certainly caused by non-ordinary forces, in any case distinguished from those of which we have knowledge in the physical world – do not give any information or certainty about survival, the only question that really interested him. He was instead convinced that a truly valid proof in this regard was constituted by those statements of communicating entities that could not spring from any other source except from the personality and memory of the dead. This was the reason why Myers discouraged physical phenomena in the mediums he experimented with, focusing instead on mediumistic communications. On this topic Myers himself, in his speech on the mediumistic phenomena of Mrs. Thompson held in 1901 at the 4th International Congress of Psychology in Paris, so stated:
«The matter given falls under four main classes, whose proportions vary with the sitter.
«I believe, then, that I have good reason for ascribing many of these messages to definite surviving personalities, known while on earth to friends of mine whose presence with Mrs. Thompson has evoked the messages, or to myself. I believe that most of these messages are uttered through Mrs. Thompson's organism by spirits who for the time inform or possess that organism; and that some are received by her spirit in the unseen world, directly from other spirits, and are then partially remembered, so that the sensitive can record them on emerging from the ecstatic state. But although I cannot ignore the evidence for these extreme hypotheses, I by no means wish to assert that all the phenomena in this or in any similar case proceed from departed spirits. Rather, I am inclined to hold that whenever an incarnate spirit is sufficiently released from bodily trammels to hold any conscious intercourse with the unseen world, that intercourse will inevitably include various types of communication. I think that there is likely to be knowledge derived telepathically from incarnate as well as from discarnate spirits; and also telresthetic or clairvoyant knowledge of actual scenes, past, present, or future, which lie beyond sensory reach».
These precise statements by Myers give us a fairly clear idea of the state of art of psychical research at the beginning of the twentieth century. The whole debate was about the possibility of determining what could be obtained from the known and unknown powers, ordinary and extraordinary, of the human mind (that is, ascribable to the instrument of an organism living only in this earthly dimension), and what should necessarily be excluded from the human sphere. Regarding this debate – which in some respects is still open today – Myers' conclusions seem to be well-founded and coherent. But we must agree that Myers himself recognized to the human mind telepathic, telestetic and clairvoyant faculties, without offering any reliable cognitive and interpretative framework in this regard, unless we assume that these capacities are activated when (and only when) the mind operates according to a different system, which in ordinary life is almost never used.
As for the Thompson's mediumship, it was mainly an incorporating trance with frequent loss of consciousness, voice communication (not so different from the medium's normal voice) and some intermittent episodes of automatic writing. Visual and auditory perceptions about the presence of spirits and their voices were restricted only to the medium, therefore – from the point of view of psychical research – the only interest was represented by the content of communications. Like other mediums, Rosalie Thompson was restful and happy when she awakened from her trance, and felt that her health had greatly benefited from the sittings.
Other sitters and communications obtained
Myers attended Thompson's sittings in company of the most disparate people: they could be members of the SPR or well-known personalities of scholars with whom he had a friendly relationship, or occasional acquaintances he had just met. In some cases, different events in the lives of these people were well known to Myers, while in other cases he was in the dark about almost everything. As for Thompson, all the people who accompanied Myers were introduced to her anonymously, and they were asked not to speak, in order not to influence the medium's mind with their accent or with some revealing expression. And if some of these personalities could even be known to Thompson, most were totally unknown to her. Myers' purpose was to verify how the personality and character of the sitters could possibly influence the messages received: he came to the conclusion that the most significant communications were addressed to people whose identity was completely unknown to the medium, while the most renowned and famed researchers (like Crookes, Sidgwick, Hodgson, and others), whom the medium knew well and on whose lives she could easily have got adequate information, obtained almost nothing.
Myers also observed that the success of the sittings depended also on the sensitivity of the sitters, on the way they were tuning with the medium's sensitivity, but above all on the fact that there was an entity willing to communicate with someone present and able to do it. Hodgson too reached these same conclusions by attending numerous sittings held by Leonora Piper: he had observed that the best results were obtained when acting on the basis of spirit hypothesis, i.e. treating the communicating entities for what they claimed to be. Once Myers went to Thompson with an American novelist, Miss Sedgwick, whom he had just met and of whom he knew only the name and some titles of the novels she wrote. Thompson did not even know her name, but immediately, while only Myers was in the company of the medium, a flow of intimate and familiar memories emerged from communications coming from an entity that introduced itself as a spirit friend of the writer. When Miss Sedgwick joined Myers and the medium, she remained silent to offer no clue, but the communications continued and she eventually recognized that many events had been recalled that she herself had no longer memory of.
Thompson was also diligently investigated by Dr. van Eeden, a remarkable personality of a Dutch psychiatrist with many interests, very famous in his homeland. As reported in the following page dedicated to him, this scholar obtained, during several sittings (whose detailed report was published in the SPR Proceedings), both very precise evidence that convinced him of the effective presence of the spirit of a friend who had committed suicide, and statements not corresponding to reality or unverifiable: so he came to the conclusion that most of the communications apparently coming from the control or from other entities were instead to be attributed to the unconscious of the medium or to her telepathic faculties.