Myers, Frederic William Henry (1843-1901)

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Myers, Frederic William Henry (1843-1901)

A leading theoretician during the first generation of psychical research. He was born February 6, 1843, at Keswick, Cumberland, England, and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. For 30 years Myers filled the post of an inspector of schools at Cambridge. Here his resolve to pursue psychical investigation was born in 1869 after a starlight walk and talk with Henry Sidgwick.

His theory was that if a spiritual world ever manifested to humans, a serious investigation must be made to discover unmistakable signs of it. For "if all attempts to verify scientifically the intervention of another world should be definitely proved futile, this would be a terrible blow, a mortal blow, to all our hopes of another life, as well as of traditional religion" for "it would thenceforth be very difficult for men to be persuaded, in our age of clear thinking, that what is now found to be illusion and trickery was in the past thought to be truth and revelation."

Myers had in mind an empiric method of deliberate, dispassionate, and exact inquiry. It was in this spirit that, in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), London, of which he was a cofounder, came to be established. He devoted all his energies to its work and concentrated with a deep grasp of science on the psychological side. Of the 16 volumes of the society's Proceedings published while he lived, there are few without an important contribution from his pen.

In Phantasms of the Living, a collaboration with Edmund Gurney and Frank Podmore (and one of the society's first major studies of the paranormal), the system of classification of paranormal phenomena was entirely his idea. The words "telepathy," "supernormal," "veridical," and many others less in use today were coined by Myers.

In the SPR he filled the post of honorary secretary. In 1900, Myers was elected to the presidential chair, a post that only distinguished scientists had previously filled.

To periodicals such as the Fortnightly Review he contributed many articles. They were collected and published in 1893 under the titles Science and a Future Life and Other Essays.

His chief work, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, was posthumously published in 1903. It is an exposition of the potential powers of the subliminal self, which Myers pictured as the real ego, a vast psychic organism of which the ordinary consciousness is but an accidental fraction, the life of the soul, not bound up with the life of the body, of which the socalled supernormal faculties are the ordinary channels of perception.

Myers challenged the Spiritualist position that all, or most of, supernormal phenomena were due to the spirits of the dead, contending to the contrary that by far the largest proportion was due to the action of the still embodied spirit of the agent or of the percipient himself. The theory brought order into a chaotic mass of psychical phenomena. On the other hand, it greatly enhanced the probability of survival after death. As the powers of the subliminal self did not degenerate during the course of evolution and served no purpose in this life they were obviously destined for a future existence. Why, for instance, should the subconscious so carefully preserve all thoughts and memories if there would be no use for them?

William James suggested that the problems of the subliminal mind should be called "the problem of Myers." And he added, "Whatever the judgment of the future may be on Mr. Myers' speculation, the credit will always remain to them of being the first attempt in any language to consider the phenomena of hallucination, automatism, double personality, and mediumship as connected parts of one whole subject."

Theodore Flournoy, a profound psychologist himself, considered Myers "one of the most remarkable personalities of our time in the realm of mental science." Further, he observed, "If future discoveries confirm his thesis of the intervention of the discarnate, in the web and the woof of our mental and physical world then his name will be inscribed in the golden book of the initiated, and, joined to those of Copernicus and Darwin, he will complete the triad of geniuses who have the most profoundly revolutionised scientific thought, in the order, Cosmological, Biological and Psychological."

Walter Leaf compared Myer to Ruskin and considered him in some respects his peer. According to Charles Richet "if Myers were not a mystic, he had all the faith of a mystic and the ardour of an apostle, in conjunction with the sagacity and precision of a savant."

"I never knew a man so hopeful concerning his ultimate destiny," wrote Sir Oliver Lodge in memoriam. "He once asked me whether I would barterif it were possiblemy unknown destiny, whatever it might be, for as many aeons of unmitigated and wise terrestrial happiness as might last till the secular fading of the sun, and then an end. He would not."

Myers was working not only in the first generation of parapsychology, but at a time when psychology was struggling to separate itself from the dominance of physiology. The kind words of Myers's contemporaries about his psychological theories reflect his general high standing in the intellectual community and the larger consideration that was being given to Myers's theories concerning the human personality. His psychological theories, which could possibly have made a significant place for the paranormal in the consideration of the psychological community, were, however, displaced by the competing thought of his contemporary, Sigmund Freud, and the emergence of psychotherapy. In the success of Freudian thought, Myers's ideas were pushed to the fringe.

Myers on Spiritualist Phenomena

In Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, physical phenomena received but little consideration. Myers believed in telekinesis, but in spite of his own experiments and those of Sir William Crookes, its genuine occurrence did not appear to him sufficiently believable to justify discussion in his book. Nevertheless, in dealing with possession he suggested an ingenious explanation, i.e., that the possessing spirit may use the organism more skillfully than its owner and may emit some energy that can visibly move ponderable objects not actually in contact with the flesh. Of his own investigations between 1872 and 1876 he said that they were "tiresome and distasteful enough."

On May 9, 1874, in the company of Edmund Gurney, he made the acquaintance of medium William Stainton Moses. The two became such close friends that when Moses died on September 5, 1982, his notebooks were handed to Myers for study.

Myers's articles in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (vols. 9 and 11) contain the best accounts of this remarkable mediumship, although his conclusions were not solely based on personal experiences with Moses. He also participated in some startling sessions involving C. E. Wood and Annie Fairlamb Mellon.

In 1894, on the Ile Roubaud, Myers was the guest of Charles Richet and participated with Sir Oliver Lodge and Julien Ochorowicz in the experiments conducted with Eusapia Palladino. The Cambridge exposure of Palladino's fraud shook his belief and he then wrote: "I had no doubt that systematic trickery had been used from the first to last, and that there was no adequate ground for attributing any of the phenomena occurring at these sittings to a supernormal cause." Later, however, he participated in another series of sittings with Palladino in Paris and at the solemn adjuration of Richet he declared himself convinced that both telekinesis and ectoplasm were genuine phenomena. He also sat with Mrs. Thomas Everitt, Elizabeth d'Esperance, and David Duguid.

Further, Myers experienced crystal gazing and he investigated the haunted Ballechin House in Perthshire, Scotland. As a result, he published two papers in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research: "On Alleged Movements of Objects without Contact, occurring not in the Presence of a Paid Medium" (vol. 7, pts. 19 and 20, 1891-92).

Myers Speaks from the Grave?

Myers died January 17, 1901, in Rome, Italy. After his death, a flood of claimed communications from his spirit came from many mediums. The most important ones were those received through Leonora Piper, Margaret Verrall, and Alice K. Fleming (known publicly as Mrs. Holland). As regards the latter, Frank Podmore and Alice Johnson agreed that the "Myers" control was a subconscious creation of the medium. The views there expressed were alien to the mentality of the living Myers.

Verrall apparently obtained the contents of a sealed letter that Myers had written in 1891 and left in the care of Sir Oliver Lodge for such a test. However, when the letter was opened in 1904 the contents were found to be entirely different.

In 1907, Eleanor Sidgwick obtained good identity proofs through Leonora Piper. On her behalf, Verrall asked some questions to which she did not know that answer and received correct replies as regards the contents of the last conversation that had taken place between Mrs. Sidgwick and Myers.

Many other impressive indications of his surviving self were found in cross-correspondences, especially during Piper's second visit to England in 1906-07. The whole system of cross-correspondences appears to have been elaborated by him, and the wealth of classical knowledge displayed in the connected fragments given by several mediums raises a strong presumption that they emanated from Myers' mind.

The most striking evidence of this nature was obtained after Piper's return to the United States by G. B. Dorr in 1908. Frank Podmore considered it "perhaps the strongest evidence yet obtained for the identity of any communicator."

In The Road to Immortality (1932), a book supposedly written by Myers through Geraldine Cummins, a stupendous vista was opened up, apparently by Myers, of the soul's progression through the after-death states. As regards the authorship of the book, Sir Oliver Lodge received independent testimony through Gladys Osborne Leonard from "Myers" of his communications through Cummins. Lodge saw no reason to dissent from the view that the remarkable accounts of the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh states "are the kind of ideas which F. W. H. Myers may by this time [1932] have been able to form."


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Haynes, Renée. The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History. London: Mcdonald, 1982.

Myers, F. W. H. Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death. London: Longmans, Green, 1903.

. Science and a Future Life: With Other Essays. London: Macmillan, 1901.

Myers, F. W. H., Edmund Gurney, and Frank Podmore. Phantasms of the Living. London: Trubner, 1886.

Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.

Salter, W. H. "F. W. H. Myers' Posthumous Message." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 52 (1958).

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