Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
True Stories of Our Local Ghosts is SPR member Chris Aspin’s follow-up to his 2014 Strange Stories from a Lancashire Village, again published by the Helmshore Local History Society. As is often the way, once word gets around that someone is recording experiences and family lore, more people come forward with accounts. Aspin has added to these with his own researches to produce another interesting selection, though some are not local but were recounted to him by people he met in the Helmshore area.
The booklet begins with an extract from Joseph Braddock’s Haunted Houses (1956) in which he recounts the ghost stories emanating from a house, Tor View, at Haslingden, which is close to Helmshore. Tor View was occupied by the family of Braddock’s maternal grandparents from 1893 to the 1920s and he visited it regularly at Christmas as a child. The main ghost was of a young lady, possibly a previous occupant of the house who was said to have had an unfortunate relationship. Totally benign, the ghost never gave a moment’s anxiety. An aunt also saw Braddock’s grandfather at her home at Colne after he died in 1914, come as she thought to reassure her about her engagement to his son, Braddock’s grandmother being opposed to the match.
Some buildings seem likely candidates for ghosts: Cemetery Lodge at Haslingden, for example, with an odd chill noted by some visitors, a sense of presence, and possibly the apparition of a suicide in the stairway. The oldest building in the area, Lumb Hall, parts of which date from the sixteenth century, is also reputed to be haunted, with a figure seen, footsteps heard, and a mysterious perfume smelt. The booklet contains crisis apparitions and intuitions, and even a possible time-slip. The oldest report is taken from a letter sent in 1786 describing knocks accompanying the death in 1765 of the writer’s wife.
Not only houses are venues for the paranormal. As might be expected in Lancashire, ghosts are found in an industrial setting, such as the one witnessed at a mill. The ghost of a man murdered in 1950 was seen in a platelayers’ hut on the railway line running through Helmshore, so frequently witnessed by the maintenance gang that he was nicknamed ‘George’. The sound of a locomotive whistle was heard after the line closed in 1966. Other ghosts are encountered in the countryside, and then there is the story of the unfortunate sequence of events which occurred after the removal of what was thought to be a ‘witch bottle’ from an abandoned agricultural building, but calming down once the bottle was returned to where it had been found.
As well as ghosts there are poltergeist incidents. In one case an exorcism (perhaps in fact a blessing) only made matters worse, arousing the animosity of whatever was causing the trouble. A longer narrative recounts a poltergeist episode which lasted three weeks in 2010 in the house of a Helmshore woman. She lived on her own and seems to have displayed a remarkable degree of sangfroid in the circumstances. She was subjected to, among other things, disappearing keys, furniture moving at night (to the irritation of her neighbour), a strange light, ‘thundering’ footsteps, blasts of ice-cold air on her face, and a moving quilt while in bed.
Moving away from ghosts and poltergeists, there is a possible UFO case, a pair of youngsters out angling at a reservoir who saw lights under the water that were not a reflection, and cases of dowsing, including that of an amateur dowser from Haslingden who helped (so he said) the police investigate the still-unsolved 1908 murder of Caroline Luard at Ightham in Kent.
The booklet concludes with a strange experience a Haslingden couple had one afternoon in 1961 or ‘62 while walking and climbing in North Wales. At about 2pm one day they heard a swishing sound behind them, but could see nothing to account for it. The sound came nearer, passed them, then faded into the distance. They were close to a feature known as The Devil’s Kitchen so were inclined to put a sinister spin on what had happened, and were feeling uncomfortable faced with this apparently causeless noise.
Quickly they decided that it was a natural phenomenon, the sun warming the ground creating the conditions for a dust devil in which warm air rises and spins. Unlike a dust devil in the desert there was nothing for the warm air to pick up on the rocky mountainside, but the sound was there. The pair were satisfied with this and the wife has since heard identical noises in the Middle East, supporting their interpretation. But what caused the sound if nothing was being moved by the air current? Were they looking for an explanation which seemed plausible because the alternative was too difficult to contemplate?
The Helmshore district is no different to communities around the country in possessing a rich tradition of strange stories (as Aspin himself noted in his previous compilation), but many are lost because no-one records them. It is good to have them, but the drawback with many is that witnesses often only agree to publication on condition that names and locations are left out. In addition authors may abbreviate details for publication or change them in order to disguise their origin. While understandable, such operations reduce their value.
To avoid this problem, local historians with such material can donate the complete records to an organisation such as the SPR, or arrange for their donation in their wills, under embargo if they (or their informants) wish. That way they can be maintained for the benefit of future researchers. Meanwhile, Chris is still collecting, so if anyone with a connection to the area has a curious tale to tell, I’m sure he would be happy to hear from you.
True Stories of Our Local Ghosts is 27 A5 pages. Copies can be obtained from the author at £2.50 inc. p&p - email chris_aspin[at]yahoo.co.uk.
Ghostology is a neologism meaning the study of ghosts, a discipline about which Steve Parsons is well qualified to speak. A member of both Para.Science and the Society for Psychical Research’s Spontaneous Cases Committee, he has a great deal of practical experience in conducting investigations and has lectured and broadcast extensively. He edited Paracoustics: Sound and the Paranormal with Callum E Cooper, also available from White Crow Books. Crucially – and this sets him apart from many of those who populate local paranormal groups and Most Haunted-style television programmes – he has a deep familiarity with technology and a realistic grasp of how it is used, and too often misused, in the attempt to find and record ghostly activity. It is this combination of theoretical and practical knowledge which makes Ghostology such a valuable book.
Chapters cover the history of ghost research, the basics of critical thinking, the scientific method and the nature of evidence, conducting an investigation, and the principles of measurement. The heart of the book is a detailed analysis of the arsenal of equipment which tends to be brought in to monitor environmental factors. Chapters examine sound recording, video and still photography and the increasing presence of smartphones and tablet computers. A chapter is devoted to Parsons’ work on photographic orbs in which a stereographic camera elegantly demonstrated that orbs are composed of dust and other particles close to the camera reflecting light back to the camera’s sensor, and thus explainable in terms that do not require the inclusion of conscious spirits which happen to look and behave like dust particles.
Judging by ghost groups’ websites and paranormal television programmes there is an enormous amount of pseudoscience involved in the way technology is utilised, such as assumptions about the way that ghosts might interact with their environment (for example manipulating magnetic fields) which have no empirical support. Parsons looks at what precisely items of apparatus are designed to do, what generally happens in practice, and assesses researchers’ claims, finding them to be frequently invalid. Unsurprisingly, the assertions of vendors catering to this market are often inflated, along with their prices. The discussion is a significant contribution to a sober assessment of the extent to which inferences based on these gadgets can be trusted. The key point is that anything used needs to be employed with a full understanding of what its capabilities are, and declarations should not be made which go beyond what it is able to measure. As in all spheres of life, hype should be treated with caution. Interpretation has to be grounded in reality, yet much of what groups affirm about the nature of ghosts, and their ability to detect those ghosts, is simply wishful thinking.
I have one or two criticisms, but these are minor and do not detract from the value of the book. One is a bugbear of mine: the reference to the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall photograph which repeats the error that the photographers were on a commission from Country Life and goes on to say it has ‘never been fully explained despite several attempts to cast doubt upon its authenticity. Unsuccessful ‘attempts to cast doubt’ sounds as it has held firm against all efforts to debunk it. Short of a signed confession by Provand and Shira turning up, it is true the photograph is unlikely to be definitively explained, but the circumstantial evidence against it is strong enough to make it an unconvincing example of a ghost photograph. The chapter on orbs is excellent, but leaving aside the obvious frauds such as those tedious smartphone apps, which are covered, more on the photographic anomalies which make up so much of the material that members of the public present in good faith as evidence of ghosts would have been valuable.
A couple of references to the SPR need to be clarified. Parsons states that the first intensive investigation of haunted premises conducted by the SPR was at Ballechin House in 1897. The first was actually at Brighton, lasting over a year from August 1888, when George Albert Smith and his wife Laura occupied a house on the Society’s behalf. It may have been in connection with this case that Edmund Gurney was in Brighton when he died on the night of 22/23 June 1888. Also, referring to the 1956 report on Harry Price and Borley by Eric Dingwall, Molly Goldney and Trevor Hall published as part of the SPR’s Proceedings (and as a book by Gerald Duckworth & Co.), Parsons writes that the SPR had offered a ‘posthumous apology’ to Price in recent years. He does not say what form he thinks this apology took, but the SPR does not hold corporate views so as an entity it cannot offer apologies – only individuals can do that.
It is a pity that Ghostology’s title refers to ghost hunters because it is a phrase with unfortunate connotations. Many spiritualistically-inclined people find it offensive that the departed should be ‘hunted’, whatever the hunters’ motivations, and feel that it denotes a lack of respect and empathy (‘hunter’ presupposes ‘prey’); while in terms of science, it conveys a macho approach to ghosts which is not necessarily conducive to a dispassionate examination. The text would have benefited from a final editorial sweep, and it should have had an index, but these are minor points.
Parsons claims his book is not a guide to hunting ghosts, but it should be essential reading for anyone who wants to study them in the field. Its strength is in analysing the instrumentation, but Ghostology could be expanded into the definitive guide, from choosing kit to the best way to conduct an investigation. There are numerous ghost hunting guidebooks on the market, but none with this degree of sophistication in approaching the technical aspects of the task, delivered in a clear and concise manner. To sum up, strictly speaking it may not be a ‘how to guide’, as the back cover blurb too modestly indicates, but it is full of sound information and good advice for all those who consider themselves spontaneous case researchers or, dare I say it, ghost hunters.
The ‘mammoth’ of the title does not refer to the book (a modest 128 pages) nor to the poltergeist episode it describes, which lasted for just a couple of weeks, but to a Californian mountain. Despite the brevity of both the event and the book, Jenny Ashford and Tom Ross have put together an interesting account, followed by a balanced discussion. Tom Ross was directly involved in the incident, which took place in December 1982, when he was 13. He had gone on a break to a condominium in a ski resort at Mammoth Lakes with his aunt Lois, his uncle Red and cousin Wes over the Christmas period. The condo was owned by an oil company for which Tom’s mother worked but she was unable to accompany them. He was close to his uncle and aunt, but less so it would seem to Wes who although the same age as Tom was deaf and absorbed in his own world, which mainly consisted of playing computer games.
Even before they arrived Tom was feeling apprehensive about the place, the journey putting him in mind of The Shining (which had appeared a couple of years before and which surprisingly he had seen). Their strange experience began immediately upon arrival, with a heavy oppressive atmosphere, and rapidly became stranger, with objects moved around, including in an organised way that suggested intelligence, coldness, breezes, a feeling of being watched, a blue luminescent haze, writing (the word ‘go’ marked on a window with a plastic bread tie), the TV turning itself on, banging, damage to the front door, and most impressively the moving of a massively heavy bunk bed. There was often a playfulness about these acts, but cumulatively they were distressing because the degree of force and the ultimate intention were unknown.
In order to be able to converse about the matter without alarming anyone overhearing them, the group, working on the assumption that they were dealing with a deceased person, christened the force in the apartment ‘The Blost’, a word rhyming with ‘ghost’ but meaningless in itself. After a while, however, they noticed that Tom seemed to be the focus, and this contention was supported after they left the resort and activity followed them back to Lois and Red’s place where a couple of neighbours were witnesses to small-scale events, including a peripatetic cheese knife.
Tom came to the conclusion that he was playing some role when he realised he could predict when an object would move. Yet that realisation somehow broke the spell because when he attempted to move something mentally, not only did that not happen, but the poltergeist activity abruptly ceased. The turning point was moving from an unsettling fear that some intelligence ‘out there’ was reading his mind to an understanding that he was the agent, able to cause the disturbance with his mind. At the time his parents had split up and he did not get on with his mother’s boyfriend. By his own admission he was highly-strung. On top of all that he would have been going through puberty. He fits the profile of a poltergeist focus quite well.
This idea that the poltergeist was not some external intelligence but was the result of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK) on Tom’s part was reinforced by a later incident when he was in the army and had a peculiar out-of-body experience linked to a physical but unintended effect on a microwave and a fridge in the room. It is described in great detail, with Tom looking down on the scene, his perceptions radically distorted. There was a witness who panicked when he thought Tom had died, but he was deeply hostile about what had happened because of his religious convictions so Tom was not able to ask him about the episode. On the surface it was dissimilar to what happened at Mammoth Lakes (for a start he was feeling relaxed rather than stressed, and was aware of his role as the originator as it was occurring) but it suggested that he had some ability to affect his environment which was able to manifest spontaneously.
The second half examines what happened in 1982 in the light of the broader psychical research literature. Tom laments the current state of serious poltergeist research despite the glut of films, television programmes and popular books on the paranormal. In order to understand what happened to him, he has to go back to older cases, notably Enfield and Don Decker, the ‘Stroudsburg Rain Man’, a case which happened shortly after his own, to draw out commonalities and differences. Concluding chapters briefly cover speculative scientific evidence for the paranormal and a sceptical perspective, plus there is a decent bibliography.
So how useful is this as a case study? Even assuming that the witnesses are sincere, relying on memories across such a lengthy period is always a problem. Ashford interviewed the family but there are no contemporary notes. Unsurprisingly the distance has led to discrepancies in memories and Ashford has taken ‘artistic licence in order to make the narrative timeline flow better and to try to integrate the witnesses’ versions where they differ in minor ways.’ This tweaking may be minor, as she indicates, but it is still unfortunate when an investigator uses ‘artistic licence’ to smooth inconsistencies. She may have remained faithful to the spirit of the story as related, but it is not completely accurate.
The lapse in time means that the authors can present no third-party testimony. They did get some limited verbal corroboration of peculiar occurrences from a family who shared the accommodation for part of the time, the owners having double-booked; and employees of the ski rental shop said that there had been paranormal activity in the area in which the condo was situated. A similar enquiry to the complex’s administration office elicited such a quick firm ‘no’ that that was odd in itself. The company driver who took them to the bus station saw a swinging light and remarked that he had seen things like that at Mammoth Lakes before. How the possibility of a haunting squares with the RSPK interpretation is left unexplored.
There is too a danger in writing about relatives and those with whom one is intimate (Jenny and Tom are in a relationship). The possibility of self-censorship in addressing possibly embarrassing aspects has to be borne in mind by the reader when making an assessment. For example, Wes is a shadowy figure, either denying that anything odd is happening, or simply ignoring it, immersed in his games. But he was the same age as Tom, and if puberty was a factor he could have been more involved than he might want to acknowledge, or even appreciate. His connection is suggested by the fact that something odd happened to him at night when he was asleep which Lois found alarming: on the first night he was pale and breathing so shallowly that she at first had thought he might have died, and he adopted a peculiar sleeping posture. Possibly he was as disengaged as the book suggests and played no part, but we cannot know for sure: it could be that he was a contributory factor, necessary though not sufficient to generate activity, but his possible influence was not examined out of deference to him and his parents. Nor are we told if there were any tensions in Lois and Red’s relationships, or between Red and Wes – presumably Red was Wes’s stepfather as he was 28 at the time, a fact only mentioned in passing.
What is said to have happened was intensely dramatic, but the family members do not seem to have been traumatised, even if they were unnerved at the time. There is much talk about them being snowed in, Overlook-style, but the roads were clear enough for them to visit a local restaurant, and good enough for the other family who shared the condo to make it. Admittedly the Greyhound bus did not run every day, but they could have cut their break short. Instead they stayed on for the entirety of their booking, even though what was happening to Wes at night must have been scary, and despite claiming to be so weary and frightened that by the end of it they were all sleeping in the living room, in their clothes with the light on.
The authors’ sincerity is palpable, but we are dealing with memories that are well over 30 years old with no independent verification. Ultimately there is no way to say with certainty what went on and what it all meant. Whether we are looking at collaborative yarn-spinning, a discarnate entity with considerable power, or significant PK on the part of Tom, possibly with unconscious contributions from other family members, is an open question. As Tom argues, the poltergeist issue needs a great deal more research.
Since writing The Mammoth Mountain Poltergeist Jenny Ashford has written about another case, The Rochdale Poltergeist, with Steve Mera.
During the early 1920s many of those who were suffering a sense of loss after the upheavals of the preceding decade became receptive to the consolations of Spiritualism, temporarily reversing its gradual pre-war decline. David Jaher’s fascinating study explores one particular facet of this rekindled enthusiasm, the mediumship of Mina Crandon, known as ‘Margery’, and the enquiry into physical mediumship conducted by the Scientific American magazine which saw Margery intensively investigated. As Jaher’s subtitle indicates, the magician, escapologist and larger-than-life personality Harry Houdini played a key role in the story.
The Scientific American announced a competition at the end of 1922 as the result of a challenge issued by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that it examine psychical phenomena in a rigorous manner. The idea was not taken up by the magazine for purely altruistic reasons: its publisher, Orson Munn, had been spending freely on his personal life and needed to boost circulation. The project had been preceded by well-attended tours of the US by Sir Oliver Lodge and, with even greater fanfare, Conan Doyle, which showed that there was public interest in evidence for survival of bodily death. The offer of a prize built on a culture of competitions in the inter-war period (notably dance marathons) and was sure to generate publicity and sales.
The arrangement was that a medium who could demonstrate genuine physical mediumship in front of a committee nominated by the magazine would receive a $2,500 prize (mental mediumship and other psychic abilities were excluded). Another prize to the same value was to be awarded for production of a ‘psychic photograph under test conditions’. Initially it seemed a straightforward mission: put together a panel of experts, have them test mediums, winnow out the fraudulent and deluded, and see if anybody could pass stringent tests to provide incontrovertible evidence that their productions were truly paranormal. If that should occur, the successful individual would get the money. The reality, as one might imagine, proved far from straightforward.
The judges were William McDougall, president of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and head of the psychology department at Harvard; Walter Franklin Prince, the ASPR’s research officer, and later founder of the Boston Society for Psychical Research, an independent splinter organisation of the ASPR; Hereward Carrington, previously an ASPR investigator and prolific author on psychical subjects, Daniel Frost Comstock, physicist, engineer and Technicolor pioneer; and Harry Houdini, naturally a much bigger draw than the others, but potentially a loose cannon among his staid colleagues. They were assisted by Scientific American associate editor James Malcolm Bird as secretary, with responsibility for day-to-day arrangements.
Canadian-born Mina Crandon was the wife of prosperous Boston, Mass., surgeon and instructor at Harvard Le Roi Crandon, whom Jaher paints as a rather sinister character despite his urbane surface polish. Propelled by her husband’s interest in mediumship after he met Lodge, Mina had attended séances as a sitter, tried her hand as medium, and during 1923 found she had a talent for it, with her late brother Walter Stinson, who died in a railway accident in 1911, acting as her control. Walter was an outgoing, blunt kind of chap who said what was on his mind, a contrast to the ethereal didacticism which might be expected in the séance room. In early 1924 the Crandons agreed to participate in Scientific American tests, but stipulated that these would have to take place in Boston rather than the magazine’s offices in New York. To safeguard her identity Mina adopted the pseudonym ‘Margery’ (leading to her occasionally being referred to incorrectly by writers as ‘Margery Crandon’).
To begin with the contest had gone well, if slowly, the panel easily identifying the frauds who presented themselves in an attempt to win the money. But when it came to Margery, the situation was more complicated. Margery was not like the previous candidates. There were class issues arising from her social background, and her physical allure was a barrier to complete objectivity. She was blonde, younger than her husband by 17 years, and confident around men. Sitters were wined and dined at their elegant Lime Street home on Boston’s Beacon Hill before séances, and a cordial atmosphere was established. The Scientific American investigators were invited to stay at the house rather than at an hotel, creating a sense of obligation. If what she did in the séance room was fraudulent it was done with a subtlety that had been beyond her rivals for the prize and the committee, minus Houdini, were impressed enough with the wide range of physical phenomena she produced to continue testing her.
These phenomena mostly took place in the dark, and as well as two-way communication with Walter, Margery was noted for the production of ectoplasm, rather disgusting-looking tuberous forms possibly consisting of animals’ internal parts. Other elements in her repertoire included dramatic table levitations, materialisation of limbs, raps, breezes, scents, trance writing in a variety of languages, apports, music, luminous shapes, and ringing a bell in a box out of reach. There was allegedly the production of Walter Stinson’s thumbprint in wax, later the cause a fierce controversy that generated its own literature to which Jaher fails to do full justice. Even without the thumbprints, by any standard it was an astonishing array of phenomena, undermined somewhat by Le Roi’s presence next to Margery at sessions. As might be expected, once he had had the opportunity to observe Margery in action himself, Houdini had strong reservations.
Houdini’s charisma means that he is the natural focus whenever he appears and Jaher sketches in enough of his background to assist the reader in understanding his motivations and methods. He was on a mission to debunk phoney mediums, and he did not spare Margery. Utilising his skills in deception, he went to extraordinary lengths to exert total control over her, including commissioning the construction of a large box for her to sit in. Nothing happened when she was so confined – except the cabinet was destroyed.
Despite Houdini’s scepticism, for a time it looked like she might take the money, and she was more intensively scrutinised and for far longer by the Scientific American group than any other medium who came to them. Houdini’s influence rolled back the panel’s inclination to award the prize to her and the competition descended into chaos as the judges tried to make up their minds. Bird was forced to resign as secretary after his objectivity became compromised and Houdini denounced him as an accomplice of Margery. Finally only Carrington was firmly behind her genuineness, while Houdini used his stage shows to demonstrate what he considered to be Margery’s modus operandi, though this was largely based on supposition. In February 1925 the Scientific American decided against awarding the prize to Mina Crandon, essentially on the grounds that even if they had not caught her cheating, she could have, and she could not prove to their satisfaction that she hadn’t.
Into this evidential morass stepped McDougall along with Eric Dingwall, the SPR’s research officer, who conducted their own investigation into Margery’s mediumship. Houdini however dismissed this effort as fatally flawed by what he saw as Dingwall’s financial dependence on the Crandons. Le Roi in turn found Dingwall to be much more reasonable in his approach than Houdini had been, though Dingwall, after initial enthusiasm for Margery’s results, eventually proved to be ambivalent, expressing doubts about their validity. Further investigations similarly failed to support the genuineness of Margery’s phenomena. Following the cessation of academic interest, Jaher treats Le Roi’s death and Mina’s decline into alcoholism briefly, and the book’s closing pages capture the sadness of her later years.
Having reviewed Margery’s career, the reader will still be asking why Margery would have wanted to put herself through all that effort simply for the kudos of winning a magazine competition. The number of séances she undertook must have been exhausting, though perhaps they acted like a drug, making stimulating what was otherwise a mundane existence, acting as a creative outlet for someone whose horizons were limited to being an ornament of her husband. A possibility is that she did it to please Le Roi (’the king’) and retain his affections in an asymmetric relationship, but if so it was a high-risk strategy that could have backfired had she been caught unambiguously cheating. The couple do not seem to have needed the magazine’s money and offered to donate it should they win. On the contrary, the venture must have cost them quite a lot in hospitality; the Crandons opened their home to the investigators and never charged sitters.
Certainly Mina met people and travelled, including to London where she was tested by the SPR and at the British College of Psychic Science. She did not have to be a medium to do either of these though. She could have met interesting people say as a salon hostess or patroness of the arts, and relaxed foreign travel the Crandons could presumably have afforded. Mina obtained publicity, but as much notoriety. There was never a hint from the sitters that the Crandons approached the séances in a cynical manner for some extraneous motive. Margery carried on with her mediumship after the end of the Scientific American competition, and even after Le Roi had died, when she had nothing to gain.
It is possible that Mina liked the thrill of control, particularly of men. There seems to have been a lot of sexual energy generated by the Crandons, both of whom were experienced – this was his third and her second marriage – and a possibility Jaher doesn’t raise is that Le Roi was interested in candaulism which dovetailed with Mina’s fondness for exhibitionism. Her detractors were able to attack Mina by using her attractiveness and uninhibitedness against her, insinuating that she employed these attributes to corrupt the judges in order to produce a positive verdict. It is unfortunate that Jaher does not include examples of the fairly explicit photographs of a déshabillé Margery producing ‘ectoplasm’ from her vagina, as these are important to an understanding of her mediumship, but perhaps they were deemed a little rich for the intended readership of his book.
There is also the question of where she learned her techniques. Other contestants were usually caught cheating fairly easily, but Margery kept the majority of the Scientific American team in a state of uncertainty for an extended period, and they effectively gave up the effort rather than reach a firm verdict. There was sophistication to her mediumship which set her apart from her peers and it is intriguing that she was able to put together an act without being caught as she refined it, even if the members of the committee were distracted by her sexuality. When Nandor Fodor attempted to get to the bottom of her mediumship shortly before her death she dismissed his enquiry with ‘Why don’t you guess? You’ll all be guessing … for the rest of your lives.’
The book is very well researched; Jaher has marshalled a large amount of information into a well-paced engrossing read, presenting a complex story with elegance and humanity. It is nicely packaged, but I do have a peeve concerning the index: as so often with American books which include both the SPR and the ASPR, the former has been incorrectly indexed under ‘B’ as the ‘British Society for Psychical Research (SPR)’. Anybody looking for its correct name under ‘S’ will be surprised to find it absent.
One comes away from The Witch of Lime Street with a firm understanding of why Margery’s mediumship retains its fascination to this day. What one does not really gain, because of the focus on the Scientific American and Margery and Houdini’s duel, is a sense of her place within the history of psychical research more broadly: how severely she damaged the American SPR, being responsible for the schism that led Prince to form the independent Boston SPR in protest at what he saw as a lack of objectivity in the ASPR’s championing of Margery, a split lasting sixteen years; and most importantly an understanding of her role in the development of parapsychology, a statistics-based academic discipline which J. B. Rhine (who attended a Margery séance and left unimpressed, considering her to have behaved fraudulently) undertook in a more controlled laboratory environment. Here he was able to conduct experiments that were designed to minimise the risk of fraud and produce reliable results.
Within his scope, however, Jaher has found enormous dramatic potential in the interplay between Margery and her investigators, notably of course Houdini, and it is not surprising that the film rights have been optioned by STX Entertainment, with Andres Muschietti down to direct and Jaher himself providing the screenplay. The book will appeal to both specialists and the interested general reader, and will help to increase interest in this enigmatic figure still further.
A review by Peter A. McCue appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, January 2016.
In Spooky Science John Grant (Paul Barnett) examines a number of topics relating to life after death. These include mediumship, hauntings, poltergeists, electronic-voice phenomena, the possible existence of the soul, out-of-body and near-death experiences and reincarnation. The key to his approach is in the uncompromising subtitle: his core position is that definite support for the paranormal has not been forthcoming, but the will to believe helps to maintain conviction in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in a field beset by fakes and wishful thinking. Psychical research to his mind has nothing in common with proper science and is doomed to failure. He states: ‘This is a wonderful defence mechanism for psychic research: Unless and until every single relevant report has been revealed as a farrago, the mantra runs, there’s no reason to believe that the supernatural is bunk’ (p. xv)
There are several problems with this assertion, Leaving aside the issue of ‘the supernatural’ as a poor term for psychical research’s objects of study, Grant seems to not to have met any serious psychical researchers. The areas which can be grouped under the umbrella of ‘the paranormal’, or even survival research, are not monolithic and individuals can have varying attitudes to different aspects according to their estimate of the evidential soundness or weakness of each. Belief shouldn’t come into it (which is why the ‘sceptics versus believers’ characterisation is so unhelpful), and he appears to think that the psychical research community is somehow in denial about what is obviously rubbish, desperately holding on to whatever is as yet undebunked while the forces of rationalism whittle away their cherished but erroneous theories. That the section the quotation comes from is titled ‘Why do we fall for it?’ indicates his attitude is that it is unlikely any report will escape the fate, if not now then later, of being described as a ‘farrago’ [of nonsense].
The major problem with this type of charge, and it is a common one, is that it assumes a lack of common sense on the part of the psychical researcher, able to hold on to some scrap of possibility only because the sceptics have not yet got round to exposing it for the fraud or error that it undoubtedly is. Much of the criticism anyway comes from within the psychical research community (Grant mentions S. G. Soal as someone whose results have been exposed as ‘bogus’, and that is a very good example of an analysis by SPR researchers demonstrating his manipulation). Yet the Soals of this world do not invalidate other areas of psychical research because they falsified results, just as a chemist or psychologist who fakes results does not thereby invalidate chemistry or psychology.
Despite the generally negative verdict on the subject, a section devoted to the SPR is actually fairly complimentary: ‘...the SPR is no dodgy fly-by-night organization populated solely by the credulous – although it has to be accepted that, over the decades, its membership has included plenty of the credulous among the skeptics…. It’s important to note that not all the promoters of the SPR and the various related societies were convinced that the paranormal actually existed; what they supported was research to find out whether or not it did.’ (pp. 22-3) No examples of the credulous are provided and it would be informative to know whom Grant has in mind, but the final sentence still holds, as indicated by the SPR’s ‘no corporate opinions’ stance.
The conclusion – that it is dangerous to believe in one form of foolishness because it opens the door to belief in others (there’s that emphasis on belief again), a collective ‘brainrot’ as he puts it – reminds me of the assertion ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.’ Grant is as wrong as Émile Cammaerts was. Our critical faculties do not automatically go out of the window simply because we choose to take such matters seriously. It’s not a slippery slope to a new dark age of superstition and blind faith. There are forces aplenty dragging us there at present, but I would not want to include psychical research, conducted along scientific lines, among them. I feel a sense of déjà vu writing this because such accusations come up from time to time and are resistant to contrary views. It seems there is a will be believe on the part of writers like Grant that is hard to overcome.
Spooky Science is one of a series on fringe science that Grant has compiled, hence he is not a specialist in the specific areas he covers. Lack of depth in his research is apparent, and it also leads him to make the occasional error of fact. The book essentially plays the old pseudosceptical trick of lumping together a load of topics with varying credibility and damning them by association. Consequently it needs to be read with caution. However, despite the clear bias it is still useful as it warns that it is easy to accept what we read without subjecting the evidence to sufficiently rigorous scrutiny; as with all such books, those interested in the subject should dig further and not assume that there is nothing more to be said.
A review by Robert McLuhan appears in the October 2015 issue of.The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Christian Romer appears in the October 2015 issue of The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
God’s Magic, first published in 1960, is the final volume in a series of four short books written by Hugh Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding, on the subject of Spiritualism, all of which have been brought back into print by White Crow Books. Lord Dowding is best known for his distinguished military career, particularly his role in the Battle of Britain, but he was also a committed Spiritualist and Theosophist, and his books are collectively a trenchant defence of the idea of survival of death.
In God’s Magic he urges caution in examining testimonies from those who have passed beyond as even honest mediums can make mistakes, and he readily concedes that mediumship is not an exact science. In addition, those who have died do not necessarily immediately change personalities to become honest and truthful if they were not before, necessitating a degree of caution in accepting what they say. Despite these difficulties, he argues that the messages are still a vital source of information about life after death, and their accumulation will encourage conviction in those studying them.
He addresses the suggestion that we might as well wait for the future to reveal itself in its own time if the messages are problematic. There are a number of reasons why it is worth making the effort, even if what is produced is fragmentary and unreliable. One is the possibility of conversing with those it was never expected to be able to reach in this lifetime, which brings comfort. Also, knowing that there is an existence beyond death removes fear of it, and will assist in the process of integration following the transition. Communication is a two-way street because we can assist the departed, such as those who had been traumatised by war or who had harboured emotions of hatred while alive, to adjust to their new state. This is accomplished using the power of thought, which in Dowding’s opinion is all that prayer represents. He describes cooperating with helpers who have themselves passed over (including his own wife, who died in 1920) in rescue work for those who fell in the war but had not realised it, to encourage them to move on.
Obtaining ‘proof of survival’ is only the beginning, not the end, of the process of contact with the other side. The accumulation of data gives an inkling of ‘the Scheme of the Universe and of the Progress of Humanity’, insofar as we are able to comprehend it. That the evidence may be contradictory Dowding considers a reason to be more energetic, not less, in disentangling the truth. Widespread acknowledgement of survival would, he believes, provide a broader perspective and undermine the materialism which flows from an assumption that death is the end. He emphasises the continuum between this world and the next, that ‘eternity is here and now’. The way we treat our fellow beings has consequences for our True Personality, something that is far more than the traits we develop during the course of a single lifetime. It is not essential to attend services or séances in his view, it is the way we live our lives that counts.
In that sense our behaviour can be said to be ‘enlightened self-interest’, which is what he understands by religion. However, he is interested in the essence of religion, not its outward trappings; those he sees as a distraction because their formulaic nature dulls meaning. While Dowding is operating within a Christian framework, he is adamant that the established Church has been found wanting in the effort to make sense of these matters, particularly its reluctance to delve into conditions in the afterlife, about which it is ‘woolly’. If the Church’s teachings on the subject are vague, he argues, the public is simply going to ignore them. There is a need for intellectual honesty in assessing the phenomena.
He includes some brief talks by ‘Z’, a discarnate Egyptian, received though Dowding’s circle in July 1945. ‘Z’ supplies general Spiritualistic advice on issues such as the state of the world and what Spiritualists should do, the problem of pain and the proper attitude to death – to approach it without fear. The volume concludes with a broad outline of the different levels that the individual ascends, each with finer vibrations than the one below as earthly preoccupations are progressively shed. Dowding’s style is bluff and straightforward, and his practical experience as a military man lends his Spiritualist writings credibility, though the reader may wish for more testing of the evidence that he finds so convincing.
Alistair Duncan has established himself as an active author and blogger about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as a champion of the Undershaw Preservation Trust which is fighting to preserve one of Conan Doyle’s houses as it stands empty and decaying. No Better Place completes a trilogy tracing the last forty years of Conan Doyle’s life and career using the houses he owned as a peg., following The Norwood Author: Arthur Conan Doyle and the Norwood Years (1891-1894) and An Entirely New Country: Arthur Conan Doyle, Undershaw and the Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes (1897-1907). The third volume examines the years when he lived at Windlesham, near Crowborough, East Sussex, starting rather abruptly in November 1907 with Conan Doyle and his second wife Jean in France, about to reach England at the conclusion of their honeymoon and move into their new house. The ‘No better place’ of the title is Conan Doyle’s verdict on Windlesham, given in a letter to his mother.
No Better Place draws primarily on contemporary newspapers, particularly the Daily Express and Daily Mirror, plus a scattering of foreign papers, mainly the New York Times. Duncan also had assistance from Georgina Doyle, the third wife of John Doyle, the son of Conan Doyle’s younger brother Innes, and has used her book Out of the Shadows: The Untold Story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s First Family. Of other published sources, Brian W Pugh’s A Chronology of the Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a mainstay, but biographies are used sparingly. The result is a straightforward year-by-year account of the final third of Conan Doyle’s life.
As the book’s cover image and subtitle indicate, the main activity during this period was the promotion of Spiritualism, but Conan Doyle was still writing Sherlock Holmes stories as well as plays and other fiction, notably the Professor Challenger stories. At the same time he was campaigning against miscarriages of justice and on social issue such as euthanasia and divorce law reform. He agitated for a channel tunnel, worked to expose Belgian cruelties in the Congo, and visited the front in the First World War. He broke into film, with both Holmes and Challenger depicted on screen.
As well as these varied activities he campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Spiritualism, defending it against all comers and touring the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Africa. He threw his weight behind the Cottingley fairies and spirit photography. The book covers as well the friendship and falling out with Harry Houdini, the births of his three children with Jean, the loss of loved ones in war and peace, but also his leisure interests – boxing, cricket, billiards and motoring. He had a huge amount of energy and packed an enormous amount in, and Duncan traces the winding down as overexertion and ill health tell, the pages devoted to each year becoming fewer as 1930 approaches.
Duncan treats Conan Doyle’s first family sympathetically, and acknowledges that Conan Doyle did not always treat Mary and Kingsley well after their mother’s death, influenced by Jean’s determination to be the centre of his world. On the other hand he is more generous to Jean than some commentators have been, arguing that she was not a gold-digger as she sincerely loved Conan Doyle and was prepared to wait for him to be free to marry her without knowing when that might be. The children though remain shadowy, especially the three youngest.
The strongest aspect of the book is the use of newspaper articles charting Conan Doyle’s activities, particularly the overseas ones that tracked and commented on his extensive tours. The weakest unfortunately is the coverage of Spiritualism, a real problem in a book in which it is so prominent. Duncan’s introduction acknowledges that he is not familiar with the subject and that his lack of knowledge was initially an inhibiting factor in deciding whether to follow his Undershaw book with a further volume on the Windlesham period. It is therefore surprising to find that Kelvin I. Jones’s Conan Doyle and the Spirits: The Spiritualistic Career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not used at all as it would have provided valuable background.
There are a number of points at which this lack of familiarity shows, some more significant than others. For example the Rev. Charles Drayton Thomas is called Brayton Thomas (Pugh’s book has the correct spelling of Thomas’s name but Duncan cites the Daily Mirror). In covering Conan Doyle’s resignation from the Society for Psychical Research, Duncan prints an extract from the ‘Reply by the President and Hon. Secretaries’, attributing this to the President. Lawrence J Jones (whom he calls the chairman) alone, whereas it was signed by Jones along with Eleanor Sidgwick and W H Salter, the two Hon. Secretaries. He adds ‘[sic]’ in a reference to physical mediumship in quoting their reply as if the word physical is incorrect, whereas it is being used to distinguish physical from mental mediumship (the same sentence refers to ‘physical phenomena’).
The well-known psychical researcher and SPR Research Officer Eric J Dingwall makes a brief appearance as just an SPR representative ‘named Dingwall’, no first name supplied, in connection with a poltergeist case near Wisbech. The Scientific American competition to find genuine mediumistic phenomena is mentioned but not Mina Crandon (‘Margery’), whom Conan Doyle recommended to the committee. The description of the court case involving psychical researcher Frederick Bligh Bond, medium Geraldine Cummins, and the Cleophas scripts is misleading because Duncan relies for his information about Cummins v. Bond on a single article in the Daily Mirror, and does not tell us how it was resolved (Cummins won, costs were awarded against Bond), instead simply saying ‘the case was adjourned’. And so on. Some slips and omissions can be rectified in a subsequent printing, but other topics are too vaguely presented to be particularly informative. The problem with newspapers is that as a first rough draft of history they can be very rough indeed, and often fail to tell us a story’s ending.
Justine Picardie’s memoir of her search for post-mortem contact following her sister Ruth’s death from cancer was first published in 2002. It has been republished by Picador with the addition of an introduction by Andrew O’Hagan and an afterword by Justine Picardie. As well as a heartfelt exploration of sisterly love and the grief of bereavement, it provides an interesting outsider’s perspective on the state of psychical research and mediumship research at the time, as Picardie tries various methods of contact and meets individuals who may have answers for her.
The book is written in the form of a diary covering a year, from Good Friday 2000 to Easter Monday 2001. Ruth, her best friend as well as only sibling, had died in 1997 at the age of 33, but three years later Justine still felt the rawness, and thought and dreamt about her constantly. The usual methods used to control the worst symptoms – therapy, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, Valium, homeopathic remedies – having proved useless, she decided to follow up a suggestion given to her some time earlier that she visit the medium Arthur Molnary at the College of Psychic Studies. This was the start of an investigation into the possibility of communication with Ruth, or exploring ‘the underworld of spiritualism’ as the Picador description puts it.
Unfortunately Molnary, being extremely popular, was not available for a couple of months, so in the meantime she had a session with a ‘junior sensitive’ at the College which was less than illuminating. She was then contacted by Judith Chisholm, an Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) researcher, who sent her book Voices from Paradise after reading an article Justine had written about Ruth. Picardie visited Chisholm to listen to samples of EVP, but was unpersuaded, Chisholm’s interpretations of the recordings seeming to be an example of something Picardie was to encounter many times during the course of the year, finding what you want to find. Her sitting with Molinary went better than the one with the junior sensitive, but while he was able to tell her things about Ruth that were true, much else was banal, and she felt it unlikely that he was communicating with Ruth. Her attempts at EVP and automatic writing were failures.
On a visit to New York she met Dale Palmer, another EVP researcher whose grand plans for comupterised communication with the dead have gone the way of many grand plans in psychical research, and a medium who charged her $120 for a sitting and gave her a book by Sylvia Browne. The indications are that Picardie did not find the sitting a good investment of time and money. A visit to the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain was similarly fruitless. Attending a mediumship training weekend at the Arthur Findlay College (the most notable aspect of which was the bizarre presenting style of course leader Glyn Edwards) showed mainly to demonstrate that Picardie has some talent for cold reading.
She even flew to Tucson, Arizona, USA, to a conference run by Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek at a grim venue in an industrial area, where she learned about Schwartz’s emphasis on love, which irritated her, and his fondness for singing James Taylor songs at the drop of a hat. She met a woman who claimed to be a transfiguration medium, but despite squinting hard and getting a headache, Picardie could not see it. On the other hand Ray Hyman, Executive member of what was then the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, did a cold reading on her to show how easy it is for mediums to get what appears to be information from those in the afterlife, and was woefully inadequate. Despite the presence of supposedly top-notch mediums, the quality of the evidence at the conference seemed no better than that in England.
Of particular interest to SPR members will be those sections dealing with aspects of the Society. Picardie attended a Gwen Tate lecture given by David Fontana where she met Montague Keen and purchased a copy of The Scole Report, written by Fontana, Keen and Arthur Ellison, which discusses séances held by a group in Norfolk. Having read the Report, she had lunch with Keen, where he told her about the ‘Spellchecker’ case at Westwood Hall school, Leek; a discarnate spirit, ‘Prudentia’, was said to be communicating through a computer via corrections to misspellings in documents (the case was reported in the October 2005 SPR Journal). Monty also attended the Schwartz conference and later he and Picardie visited Westwood Hall for a demonstration of the mysterious computer, but when Picardie attempted to communicate with hers she failed to obtain meaningful results, perhaps because her Mac did not have the requisite software bug that allowed Lady Prudentia to manifest.
Picardie’s approach to those who are sure of communication with the afterlife is one of sympathetic objectivity, being willing to examine the evidence yet not allowing her judgement to be clouded by her wish to believe that Ruth survived death. Sceptical friends she talks to about her researches express surprise that she should engage in what they consider an irrational activity, but she is always prepared to try if there is a chance of success. As she proceeds though her initial excitement and sense of anticipation fade as one failure follows another, until the sense is that by the end of the book nothing has convinced her that the various techniques have indicated Ruth’s survival of bodily death. True a briefly reported telephone reading by medium Rita Rogers contained a significant proportion of hits, but even they do not prove that Ruth continues to exist and was the source of the information.
The book is not just about Picardie’s venture into afterlife research. It also recounts everyday life with her family and friends, including her children and her divorced parents, who grieve for their lost daughter in their own ways, her therapist mother unostentatiously, suggesting various ideas in Freud’s writings to help Justine, her father floridly emphasising his Jewishness as his means to find consolation. What comes through the account of family life is the sense that bereavement can result in self-absorption, an unwillingness to let go of the dead that can affect relationships with the living. The true hero of this book is Justine’s then-husband Neill MacColl, endlessly patient throughout Justine’s search for answers despite his own tragedy – the death of his half-sister Kirsty MacColl in Mexico in December 2000, hit by a speedboat as she pushed her son to safety. Despite his own grief he still has to listen to his wife’s obsession with her sister while trying to come to terms with the loss of his own. Picardie refers to Kirsty MacColl as ‘a semi-famous pop star’, which seems an unnecessarily grudging verdict on someone who was very well known, as if Kirsty’s death is a distraction from Picardie’s preoccupation with Ruth.
There are no easy answers about the loss of a loved one, for Picardie as for any of us, but perhaps the main, hesitant, conclusion she reaches is one she comes to near the beginning of her search, not at the end:
‘But still I love my sister. And my sister loved me … And now I know, at least I think I know, that after all, after all of this, in the end there is a beginning. And there is life after death, because I am still living.’
Even those who have researched the nineteenth century Spiritualist scene will probably know little about the mediumship of Mrs Guppy other than she was noted for her apports (objects which appeared mysteriously in the séance room), and most famously her three mile spirit-powered ‘aerial transit’ on 23 June 1871 over the roofs of London from her home in Highbury, landing unceremoniously in the middle of a séance in progress in Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, her account book in one hand and a wet pen in the other. That journey is alluded to in Molly Whittington-Egan’s title and on the cover, but as she amply demonstrates, there was more to Mrs Guppy than that.
Determining what that ‘more’ was is not an easy task. Mrs Guppy’s life has hitherto been obfuscated by the mythologised version of her origins she promoted, one which has too often been taken at face value by later commentators. What has helped to disentangle the fabrications she disseminated, and makes this portrait so valuable, is the power of the electronic search which facilitated a comparison of Mrs Guppy’s version against the facts. The result is a straight no-frills biography aiding enormously in tracing her life. What Whittington-Egan has discovered is that Mrs Guppy wove a ‘bogus family history’ to improve her social standing.
So Elizabeth White (not Agnes Nichols or Nichol or Nicholl) came from a humble background; she was born in Horncastle, Lincolnshire and the family moved to Hull when she was a small child. Later she portrayed herself as having more genteel origins. Whittington-Egan describes her as ‘upwardly mobile’, ‘an opportunist of the actress type with natural dramatic ability’. The reference to actresses carried a wider set of connotations at the time than merely having the ability to play a role, but otherwise it is probably a fair assessment.
Like many in her position, she reinvented herself in order to break through rigid class constraints. Mediumship was one way in which working-class women could better themselves socially, and Mrs Guppy did this with aplomb, moving in circles far removed from her modest origins. Her talents can be gauged by her avoidance of the outright exposures that plagued her confreres, and by the significant influence she wielded on Alfred Russel Wallace, for whom, in Whittington-Egan’s words, ‘she was the enchantress’, but who was ‘blind to her legerdemain and gross conjury’.
Her apports were extremely varied, including feathers, live starfish, eels and lobsters, butterflies, doves, ducks prepared for the oven, and enough fruit and flowers to keep Covent Garden in business by herself. The volume later puzzled Frank Podmore, who wondered at the economics. Remarkable as her productions were, what mainly marks her out from her fellow physical mediums is the contrast between what we think of as a rather ethereal pursuit, contacting spirits, and her undoubted bulk. Reference by contemporary commentators to her aerial journey as a ‘transit of Venus’ was a clever but cruel pun, likening her to an astronomical object. She stands out among the general mass of mediums operating at this time because of her size; to move around the séance room in the dark undetected required a great deal of skill, and the image of the portly Mrs Guppy tip-toeing in the dark strikes the reader as ridiculous.
As well as tracing the trajectory of Mrs Guppy’s career, Whittington-Egan is good on the social aspects of being a regular attendee at séances and becoming part of the community of believers. Mediumship was not just about wanting to make contact with the departed, it was also about a social network that gave its members a particular identity and offered mutual support, as well as the chance for a chat over tea and cakes. Mrs Guppy had good connections in the movement and Whittington-Egan follows many of the threads that connected Mrs Guppy to her fellow workers for Spirit which could express themselves in both close friendships and hostile rivalries. Her mediumship enabled her to marry twice, Samuel Guppy and William Volckman, both Spiritualists and prosperous in business. But times changed, she outlived her husbands, and a son, and when she died in Brighton of ‘senile decay’ in December 1917 her occupation as a medium had long been over, her fame evaporated.
Whittington-Egan’s view is that Mrs Guppy was (putting it loosely) a humbug, and it difficult to demur. Despite this dispassionate verdict it is a warm and affectionate portrait, even clearing Mrs Guppy of the most egregious charge made against her, that she had arranged in a fit of jealousy to have vitriol thrown in the face of ‘Katie King’ at a Florence Cook séance, thereby ruining Miss Cook’s looks (this plot rests on the assumption that Cook and Katie were the same). Whittington-Egan reasonably characterises Mrs Guppy’s accuser as a ‘man of bad character’, and concludes that there is no necessity to believe his accusation.
Mrs Guppy Takes a Flight is an important study for anyone with an interest in Victorian Spiritualism as it clears away much misinformation while avoiding the excesses of cultural theory, and presents Mrs Guppy in, as it were, the round. More, it helps to bring alive the sense of adventure as well as solemn pursuit after truth that characterised the early days of Spiritualism, before psychical researchers came along and in their determination to control the mediums made it, in Whittington-Egan’s words, ‘deadly serious and dull’. Just one puzzle remains: why the publisher has chosen to categorise this as ‘true crime’ rather than biography. Whittington-Egan has written about crime previously, but the only crimes that Mrs Guppy can reasonably be charged with, on the evidence presented here, are against the credulity of her sitters.
A review by Prof. John Poynton will appear im The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
A review by Professor Donald J. West will appear in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Released in late 2012, Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven garnered an enormous amount of attention, including making the cover of Newsweek, being discussed on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and picking up a cover endorsement from the doyen of near-death experience (NDE) research Raymond Moody which declares that ‘Dr Eben Alexander’s near-death experience is the most astounding I have heard in more than four decades of studying this phenomenon...’ As a result of all the exposure it has now sold millions of copies, as indicated by the cover announcement ‘The New York Times bestseller’. While that attention has waned, the questions surrounding the author and his remarkable story have grown.
As Alexander, a neurosurgeon, tells it, in November 2008 he fell prey to a devastating strain of E. coli bacterial meningitis that left him in a coma for seven days, his cortex completely shut down. Against all medical prognostications he survived this massive assault on his brain that by rights should have led to death or a vegetative state, but he came back with a bizarre description of where he had been during the time his body lay helpless in an intensive care unit. While the doctors were battling to save his life against what seemed hopeless odds, and his family were preparing themselves for what they believed was the inevitable, Alexander himself was, he says, undertaking a hyper-real journey into the afterlife.
First there was what he terms ‘the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View’, a place of darkness that he describes in a chapter appropriately titled ‘Underworld’. Then he was transported to what he calls ‘The Gateway’, filled with light, beautiful sounds, and with wonderful butterflies flitting around. Riding on one of the butterflies (scale being meaningless in this place) was a beautiful young woman who gave him a message of hope. Finally there was ‘The Core’, where Alexander understood that God (or ‘Om’, a word he uses interchangeably but which does not have the same associations as the term God), the omniscient creator, is real, and that we are loved unconditionally. He learns lessons which, he says, will take a lifetime to unpack and digest, and presumably promote in subsequent books. With a brief side-trip back to the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View he wakes up just as his doctors are debating whether to switch off his life support. The prime lessons he learned may not have been original, but for him they were profound: that everything in the universe is connected, and the force that binds is Love. After his return he saw a photograph of a deceased sister he had never met (he was adopted) and recognised her as the person who had ridden a butterfly.
The first thing to say is that this is not a technical book written for the specialist community of NDE researchers. Nor does it engage with the NDE literature, despite a six-page reading list. It is a popular, not an academic volume, and it is doubtful it would have sold as well if it had been. That is fine as long as it is rigorous enough to sustain the claims made in it, but its degree of rigour is where the issues start. The book has been hugely controversial, polarising readers into opposing camps. The detractors are spearheaded by Luke Dittrich in a 2013 Esquire feature called ‘The Prophet’. Dittrich takes issue with a number of details in the book, and also attacks Alexander on a professional level. The implications of the article’s biographical exposé are that Alexander lacks sufficient focus and attention to detail to be a first-rate doctor, is prone to interpersonal problems with his superiors, and the theme emerges of him altering the historical record in his surgical practice to conform to the narrative he wants to promote: he did it during a number of malpractice suits according to Dittrich, and the implication is that he is doing the same with this book. Dittrich paints a picture of a troubled professional life, Alexander having failed to live up to his adoptive father’s standards (his father was also a neurosurgeon). His natural father was a high achiever too, and Alexander implies in the book that he has suffered from self-esteem problems.
While Dittrich’s lengthy critique was disputed by Alexander, the subtext of the controversy being whether or not Alexander could be trusted, it is important because we have to rely on Alexander’s account of his ‘journey into the afterlife’ with no independent verification, and Dittrich argues that Alexander is unreliable. The book’s success, Dittrich continues, pulled Alexander out of a financial hole caused by long periods of unemployment resulting from work problems. On the other hand, Alexander’s contention is that despite travails stemming from his personal history (he does mention a struggle with alcohol, though not the malpractice issues) he is still a fine surgeon and a truthful witness. Trying to square both sides simply raises uncertainty about the veracity of what Alexander has said and what his motives may have been for saying it. He seems happy to sacrifice precision for dramatic licence, but his willingness to do so leaves open the issue of where that licence ends and strict accuracy begins. It is one of those books, marketed as nonfiction, which raises doubts as to the amount of fiction it might contain.
The debate seems to have got hung up on minor elements, such as whether Alexander had a tube down his throat which would have prevented him shouting out ‘God help me!’, as he said he did, or whether there could have been a rainbow as he regained consciousness – he and his family say there was, his detractors counter that meteorological records indicate there could not have been. Of course, if he can embroider the small things, he can do so with bigger things, but such aspects are of less importance than the key issue of whether the condition of Alexander’s brain during coma precluded the claimed experience. One significant discrepancy is Dittrich’s discovery that Alexander’s coma was not caused by the infection, rather it was medically induced, which is not how Alexander depicts the course of events, and is frankly less dramatic. According to one of the doctors Dittrich spoke to, Alexander’s brain was active throughout his ordeal; he was ‘conscious but delirious’. That doesn’t seem to square with a medically-induced coma either, but whichever is the case, conscious or unconscious, this is a long way from a complete lack of cortical activity.
In an appendix Alexander lists several alternatives that might still explain his NDE, but dismisses them all as they founder on him having had a completely inert cortex, and any activity in the lower brain regions would not have been sufficient, considering its richness. But coma is a long way from a case like Pam Reynolds’, say, where the blood was drained from her head and her brain activity could be carefully monitored. Alexander cannot reasonably aver that all brain function had ceased on the basis of occasional scans. It seems odd that he uses his scientific credentials to buttress his contention that he visited heaven, yet as a scientist he does not adopt the parsimonious explanation that he was hallucinating but assumes that what he encountered possessed an external reality. He has jumped to the conclusion that he was vouchsafed a vision of heaven for no other reason than it felt profound to him, but it is conjecture that his ‘trip’ coincided with a lack of cortical activity. Even if his cortex did shut down completely, and that has not been demonstrated beyond doubt, his trip could have been an hallucination occurring after the resumption of activity, possibly over a short period of time.
Part of the problem is that Alexander stresses that words cannot do justice to what happened to him, which goes beyond language to a state in which to see is to know directly and without mediation. The corollary is that his readers will not be convinced by what he says unless they are predisposed already to accept that he visited heaven and met his sister (he recounts the irony of trying to convince colleagues who reacted in much the way he used to when his patients tried to tell him of similar experiences they had undergone). To his critics’ argument that after such a severe trauma there is no guarantee that Alexander could produce a reliable record afterwards, his response is that while he is attempting to render in words something beyond language, such memories, which are not reliant on the brain, do not fade as conventional memory traces would; but this is speculation, without independent corroboration. Psychical research has struggled since its inception for ways to isolate communications alleged to originate in the afterlife from other explanations, and demands a far higher level of evidence than can be found here. Alexander may be right when he says he went to heaven, but to maintain he has proof is incorrect. If this were submitted to a peer-reviewed journal it would be sent back saying that the data were insufficient to validate the conclusions. Taking these caveats into consideration, the book’s title is a loaded one.
Even if his account is taken to be broadly accurate, it is still a leap to the existence of God/Om and of heaven. There is nothing here that contradicts standard Christian theology. More to the point, there is nothing that contradicts Alexander’s own religious persuasion, and this reinforcement of existing beliefs will be a bonus for many of his followers. One wonders how its reception would have been affected if Om had informed him that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger. Yet despite the book’s trajectory feeling convenient, it is possible that Alexander has been maligned by critics, and that his journey happened in the way he said it happened, and supplies evidence for an afterlife (whether or not one wants to go further and characterise that as heaven presided over by a supreme being). Alternatively it may be that he is a cynical charlatan with a money-making scheme to compensate for the loss of a medical career. Or he may be honest but misguided, fantasising that his NDE – an atypical one as he concedes – has more meaning that it actually warrants, and happy to ignore small discrepancies in search of the big picture.
His recovery from such an illness may have been miraculous (in either a loosely metaphorical or strictly theological manner), but whatever occurred during his time in the intensive care unit, there is nothing in his book that provides a definitive answer. A reasonable conclusion is that Alexander has spun a little into a lot, and pushed his conclusions far past the point warranted by the evidence. There is an assurance that makes the book superficially convincing, but its reluctance to acknowledge counter-arguments, and its omissions, generate doubt. That may be why, although Universal Pictures quickly picked up the film rights to the book, nothing has been heard of a screen adaptation since. Alexander comes over as superficially sincere, but there are too many questions raised to take what he says at face value, let alone as proof of heaven.