Hodgson, Richard (1855-1905)

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Hodgson, Richard (1855-1905)

One of the leading members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), London. Hodgson was born September 24, 1855, in West Melbourne, Australia. He studied at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1874; L.L.B., 1875; M.A., 1876; L.L.D., 1878). His interest in psychical research began in Australia during his college years. He moved to England in 1878 to continue his legal studies at Cambridge University, where he took an active part in the undergraduate Ghost Society, which investigated psychical phenomena. His name appears in the first published list of the members of the SPR (1882-83), and in 1885 he was a council member. His legal training and personal attainments made him especially qualified for the detection of fraud.

In November 1884, as a member of the SPR committee, he was sent to India to investigate the paranormal phenomena being reported from the heart of the theosophical movement, especially that initiated by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. His "Report on Phenomena Connected with Theosophy," published in the Proceedings of the SPR in December 1885 charged Blavatsky with widespread fraud. The report created a pubic scandal for Theosophy and ensured Hodgson's place in the history of psychical research. (The report continues to embarrass Theosophists, and there were unsuccessful attempts to discredit it as recently as the mid-1980s.)

A short time later, in conjunction with S. T. Davey, Hodgson undertook important experiments into the possibilities of malobservation and lapse of memory in connection with séance phenomena. While not well known, this paper is actually his most original work in the field. He developed an extremely skeptical attitude toward all physical phenomena. He remarked that "nearly all professional mediums form a gang of vulgar tricksters, who are more or less in league with one another." All his early investigations ended with a negative opinion.

Hodgson was among the first to become convinced that Eusapia Palladino, whose sittings he attended at Cambridge in 1895, was an impostor, although investigations by other psychical researchers indicated that she produced genuine phenomena when properly controlled, but cheated on other occasions. He was sent to the United States in 1887 to act as secretary to the American Society for Psychical Research in Boston. (He would continue in this capacity until his sudden death of heart failure while playing a game of handball at the Boat Club in Boston on December 20, 1905.) A change in Hodgson's general attitude toward the phenomenal side of Spiritualism was brought aboutvery slowly and after much resistanceby his unparalleled opportunities to investigate the mediumship of Leonora Piper for a period of 15 years. His systematic study of the Piper mediumship cannot be overestimated in importance.

Piper was introduced to the SPR by William James, a lifelong friend of Hodgson's. Hodgson, being extremely skeptical, had Piper watched by detectives to learn whether she attempted to collect information by normal means. He took every precaution to prevent such acquisition of knowledge and finally became convinced not only of the genuineness of her mediumship, but also of spirit return.

His first report on the Piper phenomena was published in 1892 in the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 8). In it no definite conclusions were announced. Yet at this time Hodgson had already obtained convincing evidence of Piper's genuineness. It was of a private character, however, and since he did not include the incident in his report he did not consider it fair to point out its import. As he later told Hereward Carrington (who later printed the account in his The Story of Psychic Science ), Hodgson, when still a young man in Australia, had fallen in love with a girl and wished to marry her. Her parents objected on religious grounds. Hodgson left for England and never married. One day, in a sitting with Piper, the girl suddenly communicated, informing Hodgson that she had died shortly before. This incident, the truth of which was verified, made a deep impression on Hodgson.

In his second report, published in the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 13, 1897), his tone is definite in stating:

"At the present time I cannot profess to have any doubt that the chief communicators to whom I have referred in the foregoing pages are veritably the personages that they claim to be, that they have survived the change we call death, and that they have directly communicated with us whom we call living, through Mrs. Piper's entranced organism."

After ten years spent in these investigations Hodgson returned to England for one year and became editor of the SPR Journal and Proceedings. Then he went back to the United States and resumed his Piper studies. He intended to publish a third report but he did not live to do so.

His personal experiences changed his whole outlook on life. He lived in one room in Boston, dependent on an inadequate salary. Nevertheless, in order to devote all his time to psychical research, he refused remunerative offers from colleges and universities. In his latter years he lived an austere life and eagerly anticipated his own death.

It appears from the revelations of Carrington that, like so many other famous psychic investigators, Hodgson developed mediumship at the end. In the last years of his life he allowed no one to enter his room at 15 Charles Street. In the evenings when alone there, he received direct communications from "Imperator," "Rector," and Piper's other controls. These communications were convincing, but he told few people about them. The room was closed to everyone so as not to disturb the "magnetic atmosphere."

The Hodgson Memorial Fund was created at Harvard University in 1912 and was used to fund research by such investigators as Gardner Murphy.

Hodgson in the Afterlife

After Hodgson's death, alleged communications from him were received in England by Alice Kipling Fleming (then known under her pseudonym, "Mrs. Holland"). They contained a cipher similar to entries found in Hodgson's notebook, but it could not be solved. Not even by the dramatic and very lifelike "Hodgson" control of Mrs. Piper was the key ever given. Through Piper he first communicated eight days after his death and delivered many messages claimed to be from his surviving self.

However, many test questions were left unanswered. "If we could suppose," writes Frank Podmore, "that sometimes the real Hodgson communicated through the medium's hand, and that sometimes, more often, when he was inaccessible, the medium's secondary personality played the part as best it could, these difficulties would, no doubt, be lessened."

Many evidential messages bearing on the continued identity of Hodgson were received by James Hyslop. One of the first came through a friend who asked Hodgson, the communicator, if he would get in touch with him through another "light." The reply was, "No, I will not, except through the young light. She is all right." Later in the sitting, one of the other controls remarked that Hyslop would know what the statement meant. It referred to a young, nonprofessional medium whose powers were a subject of discussion between the living Hodgson and Hyslop. It appears that the surviving Hodgson investigated her case from "the other side," since the young lady's control about the time of the incident remarked that he had seen Hodgson. The news of his death was carefully kept from the medium at the time.

The detailed records of these séances, held from the time of Hodgson's death until January 1, 1908, were handed over to William James for examination. In his paper "Report on Mrs. Piper's Hodgson Control," he says,

"I myself feel as if an external will to communicate were probably there, that is, I find myself doubting that Mrs. Piper's dreamlife, even equipped with 'telepathic' powers, accounts for all the results found. But if asked whether the will to communicate be Hodgson's or be some mere spirit-counterfeit of Hodgson, I remain uncertain and await more facts, facts which may not point clearly to a conclusion for fifty or a hundred years."

In England the Hodgson messages were studied by Eleanor Sidgwick, J. G. Piddington, and Sir Oliver Lodge during Piper's visit to England. They did not find them authentic.


Baird, A. T. Richard Hodgson: The Story of a Psychical Researcher and His Times. London: Psychic Press, 1949.

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

Harrison, Vernon. "J'Accuse. An Examination of the Hodgson Report." Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 53 (1986).

Hodgson, Richard. "An Account of Personal Investigations in India, and Discussion of the Authorship of the 'Koot Hoomi' Letters." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 3 (1885).

Hodgson, Richard, and S. J. Davey. "The Possibilities of Malobservation and Lapse of Memory from a Practical Point of View." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 4 (1887).

James, William. "Report on Mrs. Piper's Hodgson Control." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 23 (1909).

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

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