Psychical research in Italy between '800 and '900 - 1



The skepticism of Italian academic circles at the end of the nineteenth century

It may be interesting to examine the reactions of some exponents of Italian scientific culture, between the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, to the spread of spiritualism in this country and the statements advanced from many parts on the reality and objectivity of the mediumistic phenomena. The legacy of positivism, still firmly rooted in academic circles, meant that for a long time men of science and culture refused even the mere idea of losing their time to examine what they considered – without exception – frauds, illusions, stage performances and superstitions. So the element that united all the personalities of the Italian scientific and cultural world who studied mediumistic phenomena in that period, was given by their initial aversion to spiritualism and their belief that mediumistic phenomena were due to practices of skilled cheaters against unwary gullible people. Why, then, did many of these illustrious personalities end up changing their minds, if nothing else about the reality of the phenomena? Probably the main reason lies in the fact that in those years an Italian medium particularly gifted for physical phenomena was active, that Eusapia Paladino (or Palladino, as she herself thought she was called), born in 1854 and died in 1918, who was perhaps the most studied and investigated medium of every age, both in Italy and abroad.   

Eusapia Paladino

As for Eusapia's biography and some aspects of her personality, I refer – among the many books written about her – to the annotations reported by the Morselli in Psicologia e Spiritismo (page 117 and following), by Carrington in Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena (page 19 and following) and to an article by Carlos S. Alvarado: Eusapia Palladino: An Autobiographical Essay (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2011-1), which refers to an autobiographical article by Eusapia herself published in February 1910 by the American monthly Cosmopolitan Magazine. The medium certainly had a psychic attitude that made her subject to mood changes, but she always showed a lot of respect and spirit of collaboration towards men of science who wanted to study in an objective way the phenomena that occurred through her, even if they were not inclined to spirit hypothesis. She was proud to include scholars such as Richet and Lombroso among her friends, while she did not show much consideration towards aristocracy's or government's members, although she received valuable gifts and sums of money for the séances – organized by her mentor, the Neapolitan spiritualist Ercole Chiaia – held in the main European capitals. Born very poor, and soon orphan of both parents, Paladino lived very modestly in Naples, in a small apartment. Much of what she earned she donated to anyone who was in need, or asked for help, since – as she used to say – in her neighborhood, in Naples, those who did not have the poverty in their home, had it anyway just outside the door. Since she could not have babies, she loved children very much, and often invited the street urchins to eat at her home.     

The cultural influence of Angelo Brofferio

Before examining how the investigations on mediumistic phenomena developed, let us consider the cultural impact that had a small book by Angelo Brofferio published in 1893: Per lo Spiritismo (In Favor of Spiritualism). Born in 1846 – son of the homonymous writer, patriot and Risorgimento politician – Brofferio studied philosophy, participated in the third Italian independence war and, after living six years in Paris, returned to Italy to devote himself to teaching and his studies of psychology. He taught both ancient letters and philosophy in Milan high schools, receiving some prizes for his works (Psychomitology in 1880, and The Species of Experience in 1884). In 1889 he published the Manual of Psychology, a textbook in which his philosophical ideas were presented in a logical and effective way. He was then attracted by experimental psychology of occult (mediumistic) phenomena, in the hope of being able to find an explanation of that human enigma that, in light of the considerations reported in his Manual of Psychology, had been left unresolved to him. Unfortunately, his studies were interrupted by his premature death in 1894. The preface to the German Karl Du Prel's book, entitled precisely The Human Enigma, published in that year, was written by Brofferio shortly before his death.    

Brofferio's book is still exemplary today for the clarity and effectiveness of the arguments, both in terms of logical reasoning, and in terms of the explanatory hypotheses examined and the order of importance attributed to their evaluation on the basis of the methodological criteria normally used in the scientific context. In the midst of the abundant literature – unnecessarily complex and not infrequently incomprehensible in its ineffective efforts to explain occult phenomena through the most abstruse, inconsistent and indemonstrable theories – Brofferio's analytic and explanatory talent means that Per lo Spiritismo, although written in 1892, can still be considered one of the key texts for the study of mediumistic phenomena. Not all Brofferio's arguments are (at least to me) equally convincing, and sometimes there is some gap due to the limits of his time's scientific knowledge, but on the whole it must be recognized that the strength and rigor of the arguments presented in the book, and the effective simplicity with which they are exposed, can hardly be overcome. In the book, which can be gladly read due to the author's intelligent verve, some of the topics dealt with on this site are also briefly discussed in relation to the origin and development of life, and to the differences between the organization of animal life and the evolution of human societies: on this regard, Brofferio's observations are remarkable for their concise accuracy.      

Due to the author's notoriety and cultural level, Brofferio's book aroused interest and was the subject of debates. In the note on page 13, Brofferio writes: «In the journal La Perseveranza (August 11th and 12th) senator Gaetano Negri wrote two brilliant articles against my book. These articles have done me good; because many people argued that if an authoritative man like Negri deigned to fight me, it was a sign that spiritism, up to now considered just ridiculous, was beginning to become dangerous, and therefore worthy of study». Brofferio had personally investigated mediumistic phenomena during several sittings with Paladino and other mediums, however his book was mainly based on opinions and testimonies of many scientists who, abroad, had studied those phenomena confirming their reality, and he mentioned «Challis, professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, of whom Wallace says that he was perhaps the only one to admit the facts without seeing them, because: "the testimonies are so numerous and perfect, that we must admit such manifestations as they are told, or renounce the possibility of ascertaining any fact through human testimony"». As Crookes stated, there is no fact of sacred and profane history as established as mediumistic phenomena, so either we must admit them, or we must burn history. And speaking of the various and more or less abstruse theories set up to explain mediumistic phenomena without resorting to intelligences and interventions unrelated to the psychic faculties of the medium and the sitters, Brofferio wrote: «now I can not but exclaim with captain (Richard) Burton, the famous explorer: "If anything could make me jump the great leap from matter to spirit, it would be the extreme and complete irrationality of the theories with which the phenomena are explained"».   

A challenge in science's name

In August 1888, was published in the weekly magazine Fanfulla della Domenica published an open letter addressed by the spiritualist Ercole Chiaia (who, as we have already mentioned, organized Paladino's séances) to the famous professor Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), who until then had openly professed his skepticism about mediumistic phenomena. The letter, which appeared in the form of a public «challenge for science», is fully reproduced on pages 208 and following of Adriano Pappalardo's book Spiritismo (a text which, all in all, does not add anything to what is more effectively exposed in other volumes), and deserves to be read, both because it offers a very lively picture of the spirit of that time and the disputes that could arise on mediumistic phenomena, and for it is a testimony to the honesty with which a serious and dispassionate proposal for the investigation of the medium had been presented, under conditions deemed the most appropriate by the researchers.    

The only prize requested by Chiaia in case he had won the challenge, that is, if the investigators had to recognize the reality of the phenomena produced by Eusapia, consisted in a public declaration by Lombroso in this sense. At the time the consideration in which Lombroso was held as a man of science, anthropologist and criminologist, was much greater, both in Italy and abroad, than the one with which he is remembered today (his theories are now considered pseudo-scientific). In July 1888, on the same weekly magazine was published an article by Lombroso, Influence of Civilization on Genius, in which the author denounced how scientists, and himself among them, were often reluctant to face new fields of investigation, different from those to which they had become accustomed and adapted. In this regard, Brofferio had mentioned in his book «a cruel but wise Englishman» who said: «What a beautiful thing if scientists never lived more than sixty years! After sixty years there is no one who wants to know how to change his ideas». In his article, Lombroso wrote among other things: «...even now the academic world laughs at criminal anthropology, laughs at hypnotism, laughs at homeopathy; who knows that me and my friends, who laugh at spiritualism, are not in error; because we are – just like hypnotized people, thanks to misoneism that lies in all of us – in the impossibility of realizing that we are in error, and just like many insane people, being we in the dark of truth, we laugh at those who are not». It should be noticed that in these sentences there is already a sign of recognition of the psychological relativism to which many of the human convictions may be attributed.      

Since, evidently, some cracks began to open up in Lombroso's skepticism on the reality of mediumistic phenomena, Chiaia took advantage of it to throw – so to speak – the hook with the bait, presenting Paladino as «infirm... a a woman of little consequence of the lowest social class, about thirty, robust, illiterate, whose background is useless to exhume because too vulgar...». But «on some occasions, this poor woman has the virtue of reaching out until she stretches a few tens of inches longer than her height, becoming a gutta-percha puppet who pulls herself, as a new coin automaton, and takes on whimsical forms. How many legs does she have? We do not know. How many arms? Not even... When she is bound like a salami and sealed for greater security, a third arm comes out, and one does not know where from, and starts a series of games with the sitters...». Perhaps to ensnare Lombroso even better, Chiaia admits: «I myself, with a calm mind... passing in review my impressions, end up not believing to myself, despite all the testimony of my senses and my consciousness, are standing there to state that it is not a matter of deceit or illusions...».      

And finally here are the terms of the challenge: «You, Mr. Professor, will choose a room, where I will enter only when the experiment is about to begin; there only you, by your hand, will place the furniture chosen by yourself, the instruments of your special taste, and if you like also a piano with lock and keys: I will only deliver the little woman in adamitic costume: for no one could believe that under her skirt she brings the workshop: naked as Eva... Four other gentlemen will assist, as godparents and attendants, as in any chivalrous trial: the two on your behalf will be chosen, of course, by you, and mine... also by you, and will be known to me only at the time of the trial: better conditions could not be granted... But on one condition, though: if the experiment to which I invite you, were to result in a mammoth fiasco, I should not be granted any sort of regard, I invoke that you publicly judge me for a gullible person, who spontaneously came to you to be taken care of like a madman; if, on the other hand, the experiment succeeds in that sense that I expect, you, for a debt of loyalty, without circumlocutions, reticence and allusions, should attest to the seriousness of this wonderful phenomenon, and promise to investigate its mysterious causes».         

The first sittings and Lombroso's impressions

At first Lombroso took into consideration the idea of accepting the challenge, putting as a further condition «that the séance room will be lit up at full day, and no experiment will be made in the dark». But since Eusapia's mediumship could not produce effects in full light except for a limited number of phenomena, the agreement was not reached. However Lombroso went to Naples in February 1891 for work reasons (he was a member, with the psychiatrist Augusto Tamburini and Dr. Ascenzi, of a commission charged with inspecting the asylum at Aversa). Here he was again invited by Chiaia to experiment with Paladino, and this time he accepted. The séance was held on March 2nd in a room at Hotel de Genève, where Lombroso dwelt, in the presence of Tamburini and Ascenzi, Gaspare Virgilio (director of Aversa asylum), and professors Raffaele and Francesco Vizioli. Chiaia did not participate. According to Lombroso's daughter, Gina Lombroso Ferrero (1872-1944), the medium was denuded and visited: once ascertained that she did not hide anything, she was dressed with new clothes never worn before. During the sitting the room was lit with a gas lamp, as Lombroso had requested. After a few minutes a table a few meters away from Eusapia began to levitate without anyone touching it. Then some luminous phenomena occurred, tactile sensations were felt, and sounds and sudden blows were heard. Francesco Vizioli tried to block the table that levitated, almost climbing on it, but despite his efforts the table escaped him and ended up falling more than three meters from the medium.    

On March 15th another sèance was held. In a corner of the room was created a mediumistic cabinet separated by curtains (defined as alcove), and there were placed a small table, a soup plate with flour in it, a trumpet and some sheets of paper. Although Paladino had been tied to the chair, the phenomena occurred again. Neapolitan spiritualist Ernesto Ciolfi, in charge of writing the minutes, wrote that at the end of the sitting, with the medium still immobilized, «we heard a noise in the alcove, we saw the curtains shake strongly, and the table behind them came gently toward the medium. Then professor Lombroso noticed that the dish containing the flour had been turned upside down, and all the flour was underneath it, without the smallest flour particle could be seen scattered around, which – as Lombroso observed – not even the most expert juggler would have been able to do». Although he attributed the phenomena to the medium's alleged psychopathies, Lombroso was impressed and, not doubting the genuineness of what happened in his presence, he wrote in a letter to Ernesto Ciolfi, published on Tribuna giudiziaria of July 5th, 1891: «The double report you sent me is perfectly correct; indeed, I add that when the overturned flour was found, the medium had announced that she would spray the flour in the faces of her neighbor sitters. Such was supposed to be her intention, evidently aborted at half. To me this is a new proof of Eusapia's perfect honesty and of her semi-unconscious state. I am very ashamed and sorry to have fought with such tenacity the possibility of the so-called spiritual facts; I say «the facts», because I'm still against the spirit theory. But the facts exist, and of the facts I am proud to declare myself a slave...». (Di Bolmar, Spiritismo. Storia, fede ed esperimenti - 1905).

A year later, on March 5th, 1892, Cesare Lombroso again experimented with Paladino in Naples. I transcribe in full the minutes of this séance, as reported in a 1893 book, Lo Spiritismo, by Giovanni Giuseppe Franco (1824-1908), a Jesuit who, on the pages of Civiltà Cattolica, defended without ifs and buts the Church's positions on the diabolic origin of spiritic phenomena: «According to the desire expressed by the illustrious prof. C. Lombroso, with letter from Turin to the egregious cav. Ercole Chiaia; to attend during his next visit to Naples at an experimental spirit séance, to make some studies and experiments on the well-known medium Eusapia Paladino, these took place on the evening of Saturday March 5th, 1892 at 10 pm at Vomero. In a room 3 1/2 x 4 1/2 meters, perfectly naked of any furniture, except for eight chairs and a small rectangular white wooden table, the following gentlemen gathered; 1st, Cesare Lombroso, professor of Psychiatry at Turin University; 2nd, Tommaso de Amicis, professor of Syphilography at Naples University; 3rd, Federico Verdinois, journalist; 4th, Ercole Chiaia, doctor of medicine; 5th, Ernesto Ciolfi; 6th, the medium Eusapia Paladino. Before starting the experiments, professor Lombroso, assisted by professor De Amicis, proceeded to a careful visit of the medium; then he went to scrupulously examine the room, the table and the eight chairs. He locked the room doors, took out the keys and filled the holes in the locks with pieces of paper. Paladino sat near the table with on her right side professor Lombroso and De Amicis on the left: all three were holding hands. Chiaia, Verdinois and Ciolfi sat side by side away from the table. The room was lit by the vivid light of a gas lamp, suspended in the middle of it».   

«After about ten minutes, the usual movements of the table began, until its total lift from the ground, at a height of thirty to fifty centimeters, remaining from five to eight seconds raised in the air. Having cav. Chiaia requested to the force operating under the name of John, if it were possible to observe in the light of the formation of a certain limb under the medium's skirts, the table with the alphabetic system answered «yes» – and added with raps: to the le... At this point everyone exclaimed: Are we asses? And the table answered «no», and instead continued to spell the word «to the left» – making it clear that it (the force) would produce the phenomenon to the left of the medium, close to prof. De Amicis. This being an evident proof that the word on the left was not a reflection of the thought of any of the sitters, no one having guessed it. For further guaranty against every possible deception, prof. De Amicis held still the medium's feet with one hand, and her knees with his other hand, and prof. Lombroso wanted to stand up on the left of Paladino, holding her hands in his. Chiaia, Verdinois and Ciolfi were standing behind the two professors, and were also waiting for the phenomenon to occur; which, after a few minutes of waiting, began by slightly lifting a hem of the garment, and producing a certain swelling of it. Professor. Lombroso repeatedly tried to grasp that sort of mysterious limb, but with the same rapidity it disappeared under his hand. So we spent a lot of time waiting for the reproduction of the same phenomenon, and prof. Lombroso wittily asked why it did not reproduce itself soon despite the fact that it was so much desired by everyone with all the power of their will; whereupon one of those present appropriately reflected that this negative result was a proof no less important than the positive, since it showed that the cause was at all unrelated to the will of the sitters, while instead affirming a totally alien and independent will».       

«Meanwhile, professor Lombroso wanted to put a powerful magnet (which he had brought with him along with two dynamometers) closer to Eusapia's occiput, to examine the action on her nervous system during her mediumistic performance, but nothing special could be detected. In that while professor De Amicis noticed that a chair, one foot away to the left of Paladino, approached the medium by itself. Lombroso, leaving the magnet, quickly moved to the left of the medium, and together with all the others he saw that the chair had lifted twice off the ground by itself, lapping Eusapia's clothes and for the height of about thirty centimeters, and putting quickly his hands on her dress he could this time touch the limb, which seemed to him to have rather the shape of a foot, while professor De Amicis pointed out to him, to avoide any misunderstanding in his judgments, that he had never left free the feet or knees of the medium, who had remained motionless during that phenomenon. Then prof. Lombroso wanted to measure the medium's muscular force through two dynamometers, obtaining this result: with the Collin dynamometer pressed first with the right and then with the left hand, the index marked 80 degrees; with the Charrier one, pressed simultaneously by both hands, it reached 36 degrees. Always in full light, the movements and total lifting of the table at a height varying from thirty to fifty centimeters were repeated several times. In this while, on the advice of cav. Chiaia, everyone, including the medium, pushed their chairs back, taking their hands off the table and moving away from it; but always keeping the chain with their hands, and the table was seen first shake for some time, and then rise from the ground by itself for about thirty centimeters, and remain so for several seconds suspended in the air. Paladino, during this phenomenon, showed to suffer a lot, perhaps for a greater effort of will, and for greater expenditure of fluids, having to operate without close contact with the table».  

«Professor Lombroso eager to investigate to the bottom, asked this invisible energy, called John, if all those phenomena were a product of the will or the brain of the medium; and he was answered with two strong raps from the table, "no". Before moving on to experiments in the dark, prof. Lombroso placed on his left side – and on the medium's right side, at a distance of more than one meter from her – one of the two chairs left empty, placing a tambourine, a bell and the dynamometers (which marked zero) on it. The other empty chair, located a couple of meters away from prof. De Amicis, was next to the wall. Following a suggestion by cav. Chiaia, professor Lombroso tied all the sitters's wrists with the same rope, leaving untied only his right wrist and Chiaia's left one, whose hand he kept constantly in touch with his. Shortly after the gas lamp was turned off, both De Amicis and Lombroso began to feel some touches on their persons. Chiaia asked John to ring the bell. Instead he surprisedly threw down dynamometers, tambourine, and bell from the chair, moving at the same time the two empty chairs, well distant from each other, that were heard crawling on the floor, and bumping into each other with noise. Lombroso asked if the objects fallen to the ground could be carried on the table; it was answered affirmatively. Shortly afterwards, the noise of objects put on the table was heard; and asked if they were the dynamometers, the table answered "yes". Wanting to turn the lamp on to verify, John opposed, and in the meantime the noise of the fall of a chair on the ground was heard, while the other chair came to settle gently on the table, without touching the hands of any of the sitters in that darkness. With the light on, the chair was found on the table, above the dynamometers, of which the Collin marked 65 degrees, and the Charrier 37. The other chair was found on the ground. Professor Lombroso reset the dynamometer pointers to zero».  

«Done again darkness, the chair was taken slightly by John from the table, and relocated to the ground. Chiaia then begged again John to want to make the bell sound heard; but instead a march was heard on the tambourine. Asked to make the sound of the fingertips distinctly audible, playing the tambourine with fingers, as we say, John performed properly, and made the sound of his fingernails heard with clarity and sonority. This phenomenon lasted from 25 to 30 seconds. At the request of all, and after some time, a few flames of a blueish color were seen in the air, at various ascending directions. The chair on which prof. De Amicis sat, was forcefully removed, and after a few seconds put back in place so as to allow him to sit down. Asked John if he wanted to repeat the dynamometer pressure experiment, he answered "yes", inviting the sitters to speak. After a while, the medium said it was done. When the gas lamp was lit, it was found that the Collin dynamometer marked a pressure of 33 degrees and the Charrier 30: both were out of the medium's reach, who was always tied by her wrists to professors Lombroso and De Amicis. Done darkness again, some powerful handstrokes in the middle of the table were heard, without ever hitting any hand of the sitters in the dark. All of them, one after another, felt the sensation of a fresh aura on their hands, and then a sensation as if a beard were lightly touching them. While the sitters were talking, Eusapia exclaimed, in an almost frightened mood, to see a shadow, then a standing person behind Lombroso, a shadow that stretched to take the dynamometers. Actually, professor Lombroso claimed to feel a pressure behind him, as if produced by the contact of a human body, and leaving for a moment Chiaia's left hand, he wanted to touch with his free hand what was behind him. But he could not touch anything. Meanwhile, Eusapia announced that John would strongly grasp the dynamometers left on the table, and begged professor De Amicis to allow her to approach her left hand, tied to his wrist, to her right one held by Lombroso; and so she squeezed with both her hands the hand of prof. Lombroso, almost to show how John worked. When the lamp was lit, it was observed that the Collin dynamometer marked 30 degrees of pressure and the Charrier, found upside down, marked 42 degrees. Professor Lombroso pointed out that the pressure he received on his own hand from Eusapia's hands corresponded more or less to 42 degrees of the latter».    

«After that, having ascertained that everyone was always properly tied, prof. Lombroso began to untie the first sitters, and after sometime everyone was untied. Being all standing up, he asked John if he wanted to say goodbye; and the table just lightly touched by a finger of the medium, Lombroso and De Amicis, twice rose wonderfully at the height of over a meter above the ground, then falling suddenly to the ground. The sitting ended at half past midnight. Professor Lombroso then wanted to find the medium's muscle strength after the phenomena occurred; and he found that the medium's strength had diminished, as it is known to happen: the Charrier dynamometer marked a resistance of only 23 degrees. Thus, if the medium could be weighed before and after the sitting, a more or less significant decrease in weight would also be observed, after the experiments, as cav. Chiaia could observe several times in accordance with the statements of other investigators. Naples, March 6th, 1892. Signed: Prof. Cesare Lombroso, Prof. Tommaso de Amicis, Ercole Chiala, Ernesto Ciolfi, Federico Verdinois, drafter».     

Lombroso's coherence

The position publicly taken by Lombroso regarding the aknowledgment of the reality of mediumistic phenomena attracted him the criticism of many fellow scientists, to whom he was linked by relationships of collaboration and friendship. He himself wrote, in the dedication of an article published on Archivio di Psichiatria, «to my dear friends Sciamanna, Morselli e Bianchi, who look at us with eyes of deep compassion when we want to study the hypnotic and spiritualistic phenomena with the attention they deserve, and without academic contempt». In February 1892 Lombroso published on a periodical, La Vita Moderna, an article entitled Spiritic Facts and Their Psychiatric Explanation, in which – after reiterating his initial skepticism towards mediumistic phenomena – presented a report of his experiences with Paladino. After recognizing the reality of the facts, Lombroso attempted to give a psychiatric interpretation of them, climbing on the mirrors in a rather awkward way: «...These are the facts. Now none of these facts (which must be admitted, because who can deny the facts when they are seen?) is of such a temper that it must be presumed, to explain them, a different world than what is admitted by neuropathologists. It must be premised that Eusapia is a neuropathic, who in her childhood had a blow to her left parietal bone, so deep that a finger can be put in the hole, and who later remained subject to epileptic, cataleptic, hysterical accesses, in which, moreover, she falls during mediumistic phenomena, and that she shows a considerable sensory dullness... Now I can not find it so inadmissible that, as in hysterics and hypnotics, the excitement of some centers, which rises powerfully due to the paralysis of all others, allows a transposition and transmission of psychic forces, also giving rise to a transformation in luminous or kinetic force; and then we understand how the force, say, cortical and cerebral of a medium, can, for example, raise a table, pull the beard, beat, caress, which are then the most general phenomena in these cases... When then the transmission of thought takes place, what happens? Evidently then in a given condition, which is very rare to find, that cortical movement in which thought consists, is transmitted at a small or great distance. Now, as this force can be transmitted, it can also transform itself, so that the psychic force can become motor force, especially as we have in our cerebral cortex some clusters of nervous substance (motor centers), that preside precisely over movements and that, when they are irritated, as in epileptics, cause violent movements of the limbs, etc. But it will be said that these spirit movements do not use the muscle, that is the most common means of transmission of movements. It's true; but also the thought, in the cases of thought transference, does not follow its usual means of communication which are the hand and the larynx; in these cases it is necessary to admit the hypothesis that the means of communication is that which is used by all other energies, luminous, electric, etc., and that is called, with hypothesis admitted by all, the ether». And so on!

Ermacora's criticism

A smart Italian scholar, the physicist Giovanni Battista Ermacora (1869-1898) who in 1895 founded – with Giorgio Finzi – and edited the excellent Rivista di Studi Psichici (Journal of Psychical Studies) until his premature death, had a good game in refuting these arbitrary and superficial hypotheses in a booklet entitled I fatti spiritici e le ipotesi affrettate (Spiritual facts and hasty assumptions) published in 1892, which also included the original article by Lombroso. Ermacora recognized Lombroso the merit of having finally approached the study of mediumistic phenomena: «Unfortunately, in Italy the mediumistic phenomena, which include the spiritic ones, were extraordinarily neglected, and the great majority of educated people were completely outside the great movement that has operated abroad for some years, particularly in Germany and England; and therefore this unprepared public will be too easily carried away by the ideas of the first influential scholar, who will break the silence. Fortunately, the first to speak was a loyal man, professor Lombroso. But was he sufficiently prepared? Or did the sudden imbalance that new knowledge brought into his ideas make him out of the scientist's characteristic caution? This is what I permit myself to examine; and I do not mean by this to attack in any way his well-known reputation as a learned man, because I know that, as the most intrepid man can wince at a harmless and sudden bogey, so the most solidly constituted mind can make hasty judgments in periods of excitement».         

Ermacora continued recalling what had happened in the academic context towards animal magnetism, first mocked, denied and opposed, and then recognized, studied and practiced under the new name of hypnotism. He then highlighted the limits of the psychiatric interpretation of mediumistic phenomena: «That all hypnotic phenomena can be considered, rightly or wrongly, a simple branch of physiology, this is understandable since they occur within the subject. It is much more difficult, however, to see how mechanical, physical, and chemical phenomena occurring outside the medium can be studied with competence and well understood only by those who deal with the human brain, and particularly with its diseases. In this regard it is to be noted that about hypnotism itself, although its phenomena simply concern the subject and although it has been studied by doctors for several decades, researchers have not yet managed to agree on considering it a physiological or a pathological state. Thus the author could still wait a while before adding the neologism mediumistic access to that science which is already by far the most rich of words... Prof. Lombroso has seen in spirit phenomena a simple matter of psychiatry for the only reason that he is a psychiatrist, in the same way that a theologian sees in them the demon's action as clear as the sun. And to convince us better, he informs us that the medium is a neuropathic, that she has a hole in her left parietal, tactile dullness, hysterical disorders, etc.: all circumstances that to a psychiatrist will suffice to explain the bells' and tables' flights, and perhaps the materializations, but that, it must be said, are too little to persuade other people».

By analyzing point by point the arguments contained in Lombroso's article, Ermacora highlighted its limits and contradictions. For example: «Lombroso admits that the mechanical work performed in spirit phenomena outside the medium and on inanimate bodies, comes from the cerebral cortex; and mentions in comparison the reflex motions of the limbs of epileptics' after cerebral irritation, adding that, if in this case the muscles are necessary to transmit the movement, in the former the ether can replace them. Now here the author has incurred a misunderstanding that seems strange to those who know the human machine. Muscles do not transmit mechanical energy from the brain to the object put in motion, but, following the signal received from the brain, they transform the potential energy of the fuels that the circulatory system brings them into mechanical work, because when they work they burn more matter. In other words, the muscles are the engine and the brain is the engineer. Now, what is the invisible engine in remote movements? Will it be the engineer who replaces the engine with his own forces? This can not be said a priori impossible, but we can not understand how the neuropathologists can immediately see that a human brain can perform with its own energy, as it was repeatedly observed, a mechanical work of the same order of magnitude as that produced by energy coming from the muscles. Therefore, the comparison with the magnet does not fit, because the question is not about the path, but rather the source of energy».

The séances of 1892 in Milan

In 1892 Eusapia Paladino was the object of further experimentation during 17 sittings held in Milan, in the apartment of engineer Giorgio Finzi, in which, in addition to Lombroso and Ermacora himself, also psychiatrist Enrico Morselli, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910), Alexandr Aksakov (1832-1903), Karl du Prel (1839-1899) and Charles Richet (1850-1935) took part. A report of the phenomena occurred is given on pages 29 and following of Carrington's book Eusapia Palladino and her Phenomena. To return to Lombroso, over the years his evaluation of mediumistic phenomena underwent a transformation in spiritualist sense. In one of his articles published in 1906 on La Lettura (a monthly magazine attached to Corriere della Sera), entitled Sui fenomeni spiritici e la loro interpretazione (On Spirit Phenomena and Their Interpretation), the famous psychiatrist began by recalling his first experiences: «If there was in this world a person, by scientific education, contrary to spiritism, that was me, who of the thesis that every force had to be a property of matter and the soul an emanation of the brain, made the most tenacious occupation of my life, I who have laughed for so many years at the soul of tables and chairs! But if I always had a great passion for my scientific flag, I had one even more fervent: the adoration of truth, the ascertainment of facts. Now I, who was so averse to spiritualism not to accept for many years even to attend an experiment, in March 1891 had to attend one in the middle of the day, face to face with Eusapia Paladino, in a hotel in Naples, in which I saw a table rise to a great height and very heavy objects move into the air; and from then on I accepted to investigate those phenomena...».  

After having recalled the experiences on mediumistic phenomena conducted in Europe by distinguished researchers, and recognized the validity of Ermacora's criticism to his attempts to explain the physical phenomena of mediumship on the basis of psychic abnormalities of the medium and the influence of thought on a supposed etheric fluid, Lombroso ended up admitting that: «the responses, often sensible and not infrequently prophetic (although more often vain and false), almost always in complete contradiction with the culture of mediums, and of their assistants, and the appearance, under their presence, of phantoms with so much appearance of momentary life, can not be explained, although this explanation should naturally arouse the scientist's disgust, without admitting that the presence of mediums in trance often provokes the appearance or the more or less lively activity of forms of existence that do not belong to the living but temporarily assume their appearances and many of their properties». It should be acknowledged that Lombroso did not have the gift of communicative clarity: we can not understand why, in presenting a hypothesis that could possibly escape the sphere of scientific experimentation, he had to speak of disgust in the scientist. However, the article ended with other hypotheses, more or less imaginative, on the fact that also the spirits' bodies are made up of rarefied matter (in poor words, of gas), or to support the hypothesis of the fourth dimension put forth by the German astrophysicist Johann Zöllner (1834-1882), to explain the phenomena of apport and materialization, in his book Trascendental Physics, 1880.

In September 1907, first on the monthly La Lettura and then on Archivio di psichiatria (vol. 28), a second article by Lombroso was published, entitled Eusapia Paladino e lo spiritismo, in which detailed information was given about the measurements made on the medium with various equipment, either by Lombroso himself or by other researchers, both in normal conditions and during the sittings, when physical phenomena occurred. The article also gave some information on the medium's personality: «Her culture is that of a commoner; but she is rich in common sense and wit, and has an intuition and an intellectual finesse that contrasts with her lack of culture and which makes her, despite this, judge and appreciate the true merit of men of genius, with whom she is in contact, without be influenced in her judgment by the false notes given by wealth and authority. So naive as to be overwhelmed and mystified by some trickster, she has then sometimes – before and during her trance – a cunningness that goes in some cases up to deception. So she was once seen tearing off one hair, which placed on the plate of a small scale had to cause its lowering; another time she was seen secretly taking some flowers to simulate an apport, and fashioning with a handkerchief, using her hands, some puppets that, put in motion in the semi-darkness, could simulate ghosts... When she is angry, especially when her reputation as a medium is offended, she gets violent and impulsive, up to insulting and even beating her opponents. These features strangely contrast with a singular kindness of mind, which makes her squander her lavish gains to relieve the miseries of poors, children and sick, and which makes her feel a boundless pity for old and weak people, up to lose sleep, and that pushes her to protect animals up to maltreat their torturers».     

As can be seen from these observations, and as we will also see by examining Morselli's reports of the sittings held in Genoa in 1901, the researchers were well informed and aware of the medium's attempts at deception, and were perfectly able to take adequate countermeasures to ensure the genuineness of the investigated phenomena: certainly they were not willing to throw away their time to be duped by some cheater. Lombroso continued his article by explaining the reasons why he could no longer defend his original explanation about the fact that the phenomena were due exclusively to the projection or transformation of the medium's psychic forces, without the intervention of other intelligent entities, and stated: «It is therefore evident that also in spiritual phenomena a third will can intervene, that is neither that of John, nor of Eusapia, nor of the sitters, but rather it is contrary to the will of all of them; and it belongs only to the entities reproduced in the phantasmal image. It is also noteworthy that in the trance state physical and intellectual energies are operating, which are very different, much greater and certainly disproportionate to those of the medium, and which lead us to suppose the intervention of another intelligence, of another energy». Finally he concluded: «I have the courage to affirm all this, as if to say that a fourth dimensional space is formed around the medium, because I have not and never had the fear of ridicule, when it came to affirming facts, of which I have experimentally acquired a profound certainty; and above all because I do not – like those who too naively call me a naive – improvised a doctrine based on one or two sittings with a single medium, but after a study of many years I was able to put in relation the few fragmentary facts that Eusapia offers us with the many others registered by science and which together collimate».   

After Lombroso's death (October 19th, 1909) his last work was published posthumously, Ricerche sui fenomeni ipnotici e spiritici (Research on Hypnotic and Spirit Phenomena), in which the scholar presented a compendium of his investigations and studies on hypnotic and mediumistic phenomena. As regards the latter, the hypothesis of the existence of spiritual entities as operative agents, through the use of the medium's psychophysical resources, was taken into serious consideration, so much so that in the epilogue of the volume (chapter XIV) a diagram of the biology of spirits was even drawn.     


Kant & Swedenborg
Hypnotism & psyche
Hypnosis research
Research hypotheses
Myers' research
Frederik van Eeden
Dualism of theories
Research in Italy: 1
Research in Italy: 2
Research in Italy: 3
Ernesto Bozzano
Theories about spirit
Joseph B. Rhine
G. A. Rol's faculties
Ugo Dèttore
Limits of paranormal
Psyche, reality & will