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Mediumistic Phenomena: Observed in a Series of Sessions with Eusapia Palladino

From the publisher’s website: In the silence of the night, in a remote room in a laboratory at the Institute of Physiology of the University of Naples, a small group of scientists meet to attend séances with Europe's most celebrated medium, Eusapia Palladino, a peasant woman whose mediumship has been dazzling Europe for decades. It is not the first time she has been subjected to tests, but it is the first time that she is being examined with the automated tools of orthodox scientific research, in an effort to produce an impartial and unbiased record of her activities.

As fascinating as a theatrical piece, this true life narrative has a riveting plot: scientists at the Institute of Physiology of the University of Naples, attempt to penetrate the troubling mysteries of the occult and come to grips with the phenomena of mediumship, its dynamics and possibilities.

Eight séances with the famous medium, Eusapia Palladino, are literally - sometimes humorously - described by the group's director, the distinguished Italian physiologist, Professor Filippo Bottazzi, one of the most authoritative researchers in Italy at the time.

And it is Bottazzi himself who, on the basis of the evidence obtained, proposes an explanation of the observed events based on his knowledge of physiology. All of this occurred more than a century ago, but the story remains fascinating - and relevant - to our own time.

Originally published in 1909 in Italian, this book has now been translated into English for the first time by Prof. Antonio Giuditta and Ms. Irmeli Routii.

First Author: 
Filippo Bottazzi
Reviewed for SPR by: 
Tom Ruffles
SPR Review: 

Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) is one of the most famous, and controversial, of the physical mediums.  She is probably best known in the English-speaking world through the classic 1909 paper in the SPR’s Proceedings by Everard Feilding, William Wortley Baggally and Hereward Carrington, ‘Report on a Series of Sittings with Eusapia Palladino’, and Carrington’s book Eusapia Palladino and her Phenomena.  The first of these was given a new lease of life through the controversy ignited by Richard Wiseman’s analysis of the sittings in his 1992 SPR Journal paper ‘The Feilding Report: A Reconsideration’, in which he suggested that a confederate may have removed a panel in the door at the back of the ‘cabinet’ used in the séances, in order to fake phenomena.

Hitherto largely unknown outside Italy (and apparently not much better known in it) is Filippo Bottazzi’s account of sittings with Palladino, Fenomeni Medianici, osservati in una serie di sedute fatte con Eusapia Paladino.  Published in the same year as Carrington’s book and Feilding et al’s paper, it has been translated into English by Antonio Guiditta and Irmeli Routti. as Mediumistic Phenomena, Observed in a Series of Sessions with Eusapia Palladino.  The new edition has been issued by ICRL Press, the publishing arm of Brenda Dunne and Robert Jahn’s International Consciousness Research Laboratories.

The translators have added very brief biographical sketches of Palladino, Bottazzi, and themselves, and Guiditta’s foreword explains how he came across the neglected book through a friendship with Bottazzi’s grandson.  Bottazzi (1867-1941) was an eminent physiologist, falling neatly into that band of scientists in the Victorian and Edwardian periods who brought their expertise in the physical sciences to bear on the subject-matter of Spiritualism.  He claimed that he began as a sceptic of mediumship, insofar as he thought of it at all, a view which he said was reinforced by allegations that Palladino had resorted to fraud.  Disdain for the séance room seemed to be common among professional colleagues who had never attended a sitting, he added, which was hardly encouraging.

Despite this negative climate of opinion, he was intrigued by newspaper accounts of Palladino’s séances (which indicates how well known she was to the Italian public at the time), and he decided to take a closer look, examining her in his laboratory with the same dispassionate gaze that he would use for any other scientific investigation.  He therefore organised tests of Palladino at the Royal University of Naples in 1907, sessions which are the subject of his book.  Bottazzi notes Palladino’s dislike of innovation, preferring a familiar set-up, which meant that he had to overcome some resistance from her to using the laboratory as she had wanted to meet in a private house, but he eventually won her over.

His goal was to obtain superior documentation to that of previous investigations, and the variety of instrumentation he employed indicates a high degree of ingenuity in constructing devices.  His rationale for using a range of these was that doing so would provide stronger evidence than endorsements based only on eyewitness testimony, which were open to dispute.  The investigation would adhere to the standards of any other scientific research programme, recording events automatically and objectively.  That, with the possibility of fraud excluded, would carry much more weight than earlier accounts, and also give more fine-grained (and permanent) detail than would be possible with sitters’ recollections.  People can disagree in good faith over an event but technology does not, he thought.  Critics, presented with unbiased documentation, would not be able to claim that there was misperception or misinterpretation on the part of the sitters.  If such critics still carp, Bottazzi loftily argues, their opinion is not worth entertaining because of their lack of scientific education.  True to his word he reproduces photographs of equipment, traces from recording cylinders, and a couple of action shots taken during a session.

Bottazzi sets out the conditions under which the experiments were made, the laboratory being amenable to his control and making it possible to record without Palladino being aware.  The intention was to conduct both proof and process experiments, to demonstrate the genuineness of the phenomena, and attempt to understand how they occurred.  However, he does not appear to have examined Palladino’s person, which was a major weakness.  Also, the curtains and rings used for the cabinet were provided by Palladino.  These were too long by about 10cm and were folded on the floor.  Palladino insisted that this was necessary, and although Bottazzi confessed he did not know why it should be, he was happy to accommodate the medium.

Palladino was generally agreeable to the suggestions for sitters that Bottazzi made, except that she showed a “keen desire” that one individual, Prof De Amicis, be included in the sessions.  The rest, chosen by Bottazzi, were novices in the séance room, though with scientific credentials and a high degree of discretion.  They were mostly at professorial level and with impeccable track records in science.  Eight sessions are described, lasting from 17 April to 5 July 1907.  Bottazzi wrote detailed reports shortly after each one to go with the instruments' output, all discussed with the other sitters to obtain a final account.  Events occurred too quickly to allow for contemporaneous notes to be made, and there was no secretary, but Bottazzi is at pains to stress that his recollection was clear and vivid, his reports accurate in every respect.

Complete darkness was used only rarely – the room was usually illuminated by a lamp with a heavily-painted red shade, light enough to see Palladino’s hands and upper body.  This proved to be too bright still, so Bottazzi had a rheostat fitted to allow the illumination to be reduced further without being extinguished entirely.  Palladino’s urine was collected and analysed before and after several sessions, and details of the analysis are supplied, though what paranormally-relevant conclusions might have been drawn from this procedure are unstated.

Séances got off to a slow start, but phenomena increased in frequency and impact as Palladino became familiar with the set-up.  There was a certain restlessness in the room; Palladino herself was noted for this, but it extended to other participants, who often left the circle in order to observe events from a distance, free, as they saw it, of the medium’s influence.  During the fourth session they attempted to lure Palladino into obvious fraud by placing objects inside the cabinet within her reach, but she passed the test to their satisfaction.

The sitters experienced a wide range of phenomena with Palladino being controlled, some while a participant was standing with his arms around her shoulders.  There were levitations, rappings outside the cabinet and movements within.  A chair was shunted about 40cm with Bottazzi sitting on it (total weight about 93kg), a feat a colleague found difficult to replicate by main strength.  A mandolin moved on its own and was strummed.  Faint lights were seen.  More dramatically, flames appeared to emanate from Palladino’s head.  Current of air of unknown origin moved the curtains of the cabinet.  Invisible hands were felt by the sitters.

There were ‘materialisations’ of some shape, hard to discern among the shadows in the dim light, which could have been a head or a large fist.  At other times the spirit hands were visible, while Palladino‘s own hands were being controlled.  These spirit hands had the same sensitivity, Bottazzi says, as her physical ones.  At one point they were apparently simultaneously beating a tambourine and a table, on another the table, tambourine and a telegraph key, again while her physical hands were held, on yet another occasion they depressed a balance plate (Palladino had been standing close to it when this occurred but Bottazzi considers and discounts the use of a hair to produce the effect, as she had been caught using in previous experiments).

There were instances of the hands grasping those of the sitters from inside the cabinet, well above Palladino‘s head, while her own were being held.  The spirit hands felt real, but could not have been Palladino’s.  Yet a Wiseman-style theory that a confederate could have entered the building surreptitiously (not an hotel as in the Feilding sessions, but a university building in which a stranger would have been more likely to be challenged), and crept into the cabinet from the adjacent room through the door at the cabinet’s rear, is not tenable as equipment was piled behind it with tubes going through the door to apparatus inside the cabinet.  This arrangement could not have been disturbed without the experimenters noticing it.

Occasionally Palladino touched the curtains, but never put her own hand inside the cabinet, even though her invisible spirit hands apparently did enter it.  Palladino never inspected the cabinet herself at any time, but Bottazzi says that she had no need as she did so with her invisible limbs during the sessions.  He attributes the ease with which Palladino’s ‘spirit hand’ was able to lift and move furniture, compared to the fine motor skills needed to press a key, to the fact that force was easier than skill, and her invisible hands required training in the same way that her visible ones did, improving as the sessions progressed.

Despite the remarkable proceedings in his laboratory, Bottazzi acknowledged that Palladino’s powers were waning because of her advancing age and ill-health, and he expressed the hope that younger mediums, of which he was convinced there were many, would be amenable to testing, to allow the conditions to be explored more fully.  All of the sitters were convinced that what they experienced was genuine, but the meaning was open to dispute.  Though Palladino’s spirit control ‘John King’ was heard inside the cabinet, Bottazzi remained convinced that ‘John’ was an aspect of Palladino’s personality, whether conscious or unconscious.  He felt that a spiritualistic explanation for the results was less likely than that Palladino’s powers emanated from within herself, in some form analogous to a split personality but that was both physiological and psychic.  Bottazzi refers to the way the phenomena synchronised with muscle contractions of the medium’s closely controlled limbs, which to him suggested some direct (ie psychokinetic) effect: the effects could not have been hallucinations, as Palladino’s movements corresponded with events further off that were perceived acoustically or visually by the sitters.  Fraud was naturally ruled out.

An issue which Bottazzi does not confront was that the network of investigators was quite small.  Bottazzi and his circle knew Charles Richet (who furnished a letter of introduction to Palladino) and Cesare Lombroso, for example, and as Richet and Lombroso were on good terms with Palladino, there was a disincentive for Bottazzi to attempt any procedure which might have annoyed Palladino.  It may well have been that she was happy with the arrangements while they worked to her advantage, and Bottazzi did not appreciate how much flexibility they provided her to cheat.  Unusually for a scientific author he acknowledges the emotional aspect, and it is clear that the sitters were caught up in the excitement of the project.  His belief that the arrangements were rigorous may have led to complacency, and he considered Palladino to be of low intelligence, surely a dangerous assumption.  As with other investigations of working-class mediums, there is the possibility that the professors underestimated the ability of Palladino to manipulate the situation.

The translators and publisher are to be congratulated on making this text available to non-italophones, though a fuller introductory discussion would have been welcome.  While unlikely to shift established opinions on the subject at a distance of a hundred years, Bottazzi’s entertaining and very readable account is seemingly immune to the sorts of ad-hoc accusations levelled against the work with Palladino carried out by Feilding and Co.  It is a valuable addition to the literature on this enigmatic and fascinating personality, one who still arouses fierce debate on the value of her mediumship.

Reference Information: 
Mediumistic Phenomena. ICRL Press, August 2011. ISBN-13: 978-1936033058