Palladino, Eusapia (1854-1918)
Palladino, Eusapia (1854-1918)
The public name of Signora Raphael Delgaiz, the first physical medium who stood in the crossfire of collective scientific investigation for more than twenty years all over Europe and in America. It was largely due to her career that physical phenomena was given center stage by psychical research and the psychological complex of fraud was, in the early twentieth century, introduced to an array of brilliant minds.
Palladino was born in Minervo-Murge, Italy, on January 21, 1854. Her birth cost her mother's life; her father was assassinated by brigands in 1866. As a little girl she heard raps on the furniture against which she was leaning; she saw eyes glaring at her in the darkness and was frequently frightened in the night when invisible hands stripped off her bedclothes.
When she became orphaned, a family of the upper bourgeoisie received her in Naples as a nursemaid. They soon detected that she was not an ordinary girl, but her real discovery and mediumistic education was due to Signor Damiani, a noted Italian psychic investigator. His wife went to a séance in London. "John King" manifested and spoke about a powerful medium in Naples who was his reincarnated daughter. He gave her address, street and number. In 1872 Damiani went to the house and found Palladino, of whom he had never heard before. The development of her abilities progressed at a rapid rate. In the first five or six years she devoted herself mainly to phenomena of movements without contact. Then came the famous spectral appearances, the phantom limbs so often noticed to issue from her body, and the materialization of full but incomplete figures.
Her control "John King" communicated through raps and in trance spoke in Italian alone. Palladino always knew what phenomenon was going to take place and could warn the sitters. She appeared to suffer extremely during the process and exhibited a synchronism between her gestures and the movement without contact. If she glared defiantly at a table it began to move towards her, if she warned it off it backed away. A forcible motion of her head was accompanied by raps and upward movements of her hand would cause the table to lift in the air. Another peculiarity of her séances was that any particular phenomenon had to be wished for incessantly. Strong desire on the part of the sitters present usually brought about the occur-rence.
The first scientist who proclaimed the reality of her phenomena was Ercole Chiaia. An opportunity to invite public attention to Palladino was occasioned by Cesare Lombroso 's article on "The Influence of Civilisation upon Genius," which concluded:
"Twenty or thirty years are enough to make the whole world admire a discovery which was treated as madness at the moment when it was made. Even at the present day academic bodies laugh at hypnotism and homeopathy. Who knows whether my friends and I, who laugh at Spiritualism, are not in error, just as hypnotised persons are?"
On August 9, 1888, Chiaia addressed an open letter to Lombroso and challenged him to observe Palladino, saying:
"The case I allude to is that of an invalid woman who belongs to the humblest class of society. She is nearly thirty years old and very ignorant; her appearance is neither fascinating nor endowed with the power which modern criminologists call irresistible; but when she wishes, be it by day or by night, she can divert a curious group for an hour or so with the most surprising phenomena. Either bound to a seat, or firmly held by the hands of the curious, she attracts to her the articles of furniture which surround her, lifts them up, holds them suspended in the air like Mahomet's coffin, and makes them come down again with undulatory movements, as if they were obeying her will. She increases their height or lessens it according to her pleasure. She raps or taps upon the walls, the ceiling, the floor, with fine rhythm and cadence. In response to the requests of the spectators something like flashes of electricity shoot forth from her body, and envelop her or enwrap the spectators of these marvellous scenes. She draws upon cards that you hold out, everything that you want—figures, signatures, numbers, sentences—by just stretching out her hand towards the indicated place.
"If you place in the corner of the room a vessel containing a layer of soft clay, you find after some moments the imprint in it of a small or a large hand, the image of a face (front view or profile) from which a plaster cast can be taken. In this way portraits of a face at different angles have been preserved, and those who desire so to do can thus make serious and important studies.
"This woman rises in the air, no matter what bands tie her down. She seems to lie upon the empty air, as on a couch, contrary to all the laws of gravity; she plays on musical instruments—organs, bells, tambourines—as if they had been touched by her hands or moved by the breath of invisible gnomes. This woman at times can increase her stature by more than four inches.
"She is like an India rubber doll, like an automaton of a new kind; she takes strange forms. How many legs and arms has she? We do not know. While her limbs are being held by incredulous spectators, we see other limbs coming into view, without her knowing where they come from. Her shoes are too small to fit these witch-feet of hers, and this particular circumstance gives rise to the suspicion of the intervention of mysterious power."
Two years later Lombroso visited Naples for a sitting. His first report stated:
"Eusapia's feet and hands were held by Professor Tamburini and by Lombroso. A handbell placed on a small table more than a yard distant from Eusapia sounded in the air above the heads of the sitters and then descended on the table, thence going two yards to a bed. While the bell was ringing we struck a match and saw the bell up in the air."
A detailed account of his observations and reflections appeared in the Annales des Sciences Psychiques (1892). Lombroso admitted the reality of the phenomena and, on the basis of the analogy of the transposition of the senses observed in hypnotic cases, suggested a transformation of the powers of the medium as an explanation. He continued his researches for many years and ended in the acceptance of the spirit theory.
In his book After Death—What? (1909) he expanded upon his observation of the medium:
"Her culture is that of a villager of the lower order. She frequently fails in good sense and in common sense, but has a subtlety and intuition of the intellect in sharp contrast with her lack of cultivation, and which make her, in spite of that, judge and appreciate at their true worth the men of genius whom she meets, without being influenced in her judgments by prestige or the false stamp that wealth and authority set upon people.
"She is ingenuous to the extent of allowing herself to be imposed on and mystified by an intriguer, and, on the other hand, sometimes exhibits, both before and during her trance states, a slyness that in some cases goes as far as deception….
"She possesses a most keen visual memory, to the extent of remembering five to ten mental texts presented to her during three seconds. She has the ability to recall very vividly, especially with her eyes shut, the outlines of persons, and with a power of vision so precise as to be able to delineate their characteristic traits.
"But she is not without morbid characteristics, which sometimes extend to hysterical insanity. She passes rapidly from joy to grief, has strange phobias (for example the fear of staining her hands), is extremely impressionable and subject to dreams in spite of her mature age. Not rarely she has hallucinations, frequently sees her own ghost. As a child she believed two eyes glared at her from behind trees and hedges. When she is in anger, especially when her reputation as a medium is insulted, she is so violent and impulsive as actually to fly at her adversaries and beat them.
"These tendencies are offset in her by a singular kindness of heart which leads her to lavish her gains upon the poor and upon infants in order to relieve their misfortunes, and which impels her to feel foundless pity for the old and weak…. The same goodness of heart drives her to protect animals that are being maltreated, by sharply rebuking their cruel oppressors."
Arthur Levy also left a description of Palladino in his report on a séance held in the house of Camille Flammarion in 1898:
"Two things arrest the attention when you look at her. First, her large eyes, filled with strange fire, sparkle in their orbits, or again, seem filled with swift gleams of phosphorescent fire, sometimes bluish, sometimes golden. If I did not fear that the metaphor was too easy when it concerns a Neapolitan woman, I should say that her eyes appear like the glowing lava fires of Vesuvius, seen from a distance in a dark night. The other peculiarity is a mouth with strange contours. We do not know whether it expresses amusement, suffering or scorn."
Lombroso made a thorough psychological study of Palladino. He wrote:
"Many are the crafty tricks she plays, both in the state of trance (unconsciously) and out of it—for example, freeing one of her two hands, held by the controllers, for the sake of moving objects near her; making touches; slowly lifting the legs of the table by means of one of her knees and one of her feet, and feigning to adjust her hair and then slyly pulling out one hair and putting it over the little balance tray of a letter-weigher in order to lower it. She was seen by Faifofer, before her séances, furtively gathering flowers in a garden, that she might feign them to be 'apports' by availing herself of the shrouding dark of the room."
Similar observations were made by Enrico Morselli and later investigators. Her penchant to cheat caused Palladino trouble in her later years and destroyed any contribution her career might have made in the long run.
The sittings in Naples, which started Lombroso on his career as a psychical researcher, were followed by an investigation in Milan in 1892. Professor Schiaparelli, director of the Observatory of Milan, Professor Gerosa, G. B. Ermacora, Alexander Aksakof, Baron Carl du Prel and Charles Richet were among the members of the Milan Commission. Part of the report, based on a series of seventeen sittings, observed:
"It is impossible to count the number of times that a hand appeared and was touched by one of us. Suffice it to say that doubt was no longer possible. It was indeed a living human hand which we saw and touched, while at the same time the bust and the arms of the medium remained visible, and her hands were held by those on either side of her."
At the end of the report the committee concluded: "1) That in the circumstances given, none of the phenomena obtained in more or less intense light could have been produced by the aid of any artifice whatever.
"2) That the same opinion may be affirmed in a large measure with regard to the phenomena obtained in complete darkness. For some of them we can well admit, strictly speaking, the possibility of imitating them by means of some adroit artifice on the part of the medium; nevertheless, according to what we have said, it is evident that this hypothesis would be not only improbable, but even useless in the present case, since even admitting it, the assembly of facts clearly proved would not be invalidated by it."
In the following year, a series of séances took place in Naples under the direction of a Professor Wagner of the University of St. Petersburg. The next series was in Rome in 1893-94 under the direction of Mr. de Semiradski, but was interrupted by a visit to Warsaw where Julien Ochorowicz conducted additional experiments. He worked out the hypothesis of a "fluidic double" which, under certain conditions, detaches itself and acts independently of the body of the medium. In 1894, at Richet's home on the Ile Roubaud, Sir Oliver Lodge and F. W.H. Myers had their first opportunity to witness what they believed to be genuine physical phenomena of an unusual order. Lodge reported to the Society for Psychical Research that he had no doubts that movement occurred without contact.
Richard Hodgson, of Boston, criticized the report and pointed out that the precautions described did not exclude trickery. He suggested explanations for various phenomena on the theory that the medium could get a hand or foot free. Lodge, Myers, and Richet each replied. Richet pointed out that he attended 15 séances with Palladino in Milan and Rome and held 40 at Carquieranne and in the Ile Roubaud over a period of three months under his own supervision. He concluded: "It appears to me that after three months' practice and meditation one can arrive at the certainty of holding well a human hand."
Palladino at Cambridge (1895)
As an outcome of the critical reception of this report, Palladino was invited to England. In August and September 1895 twenty sittings were held at Myers's house in Cambridge. Hodgson and J. N. Maskelyne, the professional conjurer, were also invited. The sitters' attitude was not so much to prevent fraud as to detect it. Hodgson intentionally left Palladino's hand free. She was given every opportunity to cheat and she availed herself of this generosity.
In communicating the findings of the Cambridge investigation to the Society for Psychical Research, Myers, who on the Ile Roubaud was convinced of having witnessed supernormal phenomena, reversed himself in a most decisive fashion:
"I cannot doubt that we observed much conscious and deliberate fraud, of a kind which must have needed long practice to bring it to its present level of skill. Nor can I find any excuse for her fraud (assuming that such excuse would be valid) in the attitude of mind of the persons, several of them distinguished in the world of science, who assisted in this inquiry. Their attitude was a fair and open one; in all cases they showed patience, and in several cases the impression first made on their minds was distinctly favourable. With growing experience, however, and careful observation of the precise conditions permitted or refused to us, the existence of some fraud became clear; and fraud was attempted when the tests were as good as we were allowed to make them, quite as indisputably as on the few occasions when our holding was intentionally left inadequate in order to trace more exactly the modus operandi. Moreover, the fraud occurred both in the medium's waking state and during her real or alleged trance. I do not think there is adequate reason to suppose that any of the phenomena at Cambridge were genuine."
The Cambridge report was not well received by some psychical researchers. Lodge only attended two of the sittings but declared that he failed to see any resemblance between the phenomena there produced and those witnessed on the Ile Roubaud. He reaffirmed his belief in what he observed there. Ada Goodrich-Freer soon broke with the Society for Psychical Research and defended Palladino in her book Essays in Psychical Research (1899): "The Italian medium, Eusapia Palladino, may have been a fraud of the deepest dye for anything I know to the contrary, but she never had a fair chance in England. Even her cheating seems to have been badly done. The atmosphere was inimical; the poor thing was paralysed."
In his book Metapsychical Phenomena (1905), Joseph Maxwell concluded, "I cannot help thinking that the Cambridge experimenters were either ill-guided, or ill-favoured, for I have obtained raps with Eusapia Palladino in full light, I have obtained them with many other mediums, and it is a minimum phenomenon which they could have and ought to have obtained, had they experimented in a proper manner."
Meanwhile, Ochorowitz argued that Palladino frequently released her hand for no other reason than to touch her head, which was in pain from the manifestations. It was a natural reflex and a fixed habit. Immediately before the mediumistic doubling of her personality, her hand was affected with hyper-aesthesia and consequently, the pressure of the hand of another made her ill, especially in the dorsal quarter. The medium acted by autosuggestion and the order to go as far as an indicated point was given by her brain simultaneously to the dynamic hand and the corporeal hand, since in the normal state they form only one. Sometimes the dynamic hand remained in place, while her own hand went in the indicated direction. Ochorowitz concluded that "not only was conscious fraud not proved on Palladino at Cambridge, but not the slightest effort was made to do so. Unconscious fraud was proved in much larger proportion than in all the preceding experiments. This negative result is vindicated by a blundering method little in accordance with the nature of the phenomena."
It appears from the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research that the dynamic hands of which Ochorowitz spoke created a strong presumption against Palladino. The paper said: "It is hardly necessary to remark that the continuity of the spirit limbs with the body of the medium is, prima facie, a circumstance strongly suggestive of fraud."
The issue of the "phantom limbs" continued to intrigue researchers, while at the same time it was well recognized that Palladino frequently resorted to fraud whenever allowed. Camille Flammarion tried to defend her:
"She is frequently ill on the following day, sometimes even on the second day following, and is incapable of taking any nourishment without immediately vomiting. One can readily conceive, then, that when she is able to perform certain wonders without any expenditure of force and merely by a more or less skillful piece of deception, she prefers the second procedure to the first. It does not exhaust her at all, and may even amuse her. Let me remark, in the next place, that, during these experiments, she is generally in a half-awake condition which is somewhat similar to the hypnotic or somnambulistic sleep. Her fixed idea is to produce phenomena; and she produces them, no matter how."
In the very month of the exposure a new series of experiments was made at l'Agnelas, in the residence of Eugene Rochas, president of the Polytechnic School. Dr. Dariex, editor of the Annales des Sciences Psychiques, Count de Gramont, Joseph Maxwell, Professor Sabatier, and Baron de Watteville participated. They all attested that the phenomena produced were genuine. On the result of the observations, Rochas built up his theory of "externalisation of motricity."
On December 1, 1898, a séance was arranged in Richet's library in Paris for the purpose of assisting Palladino to regain her reputation. The séance took place in good light, her wrists and ankles were held by the sitters, and before each experience she warned the sitters what she was going to do in order that they might establish the phenomenon to the best of their faculties and observation. She did not cease to admonish Myers to pay the closest attention and to remember exactly afterwards what had happened. "Under these conditions," wrote Theodore Flournoy, "I saw phenomena which I then believed, and still believe, to be certainly inexplicable by any known laws of physics and physiology." When Myers was begged by Richet to state his view, he again reversed himself and avowed his renewed belief in the supernormal character of Palladino's mediumship. Lombroso adopted the spirit hypothesis and Flammarion became firmly convinced of the reality of Palladino's phenomena.
In 1901 Genoa was the scene of important experiments in the presence of Enrico Morselli, professor of psychology at the University of Genoa, and the astronomer Porro, director of the observatories of Genoa, Turin, and later La Plata in Argentina. Much instrumental investigation was carried on by Herdlitzka, Charles Foà, and Aggazotti; assistants of Professor Mosso, the distinguished physiologist in Turin; and by Filippo Bottazzi, director of the Physiological Institute at the University of Naples, with the assistance of six other professors.
The Institut Général Psychologique of Paris carried on extensive experiments in 43 sittings from 1905 to 1907. Pierre and Marie Curie were among the investigators. Fraud and genuine phenomena were observed in a strange mixture. Jules Courtier's report states that movements seemed to be produced by simple contact with the medium's hands; even without contact, such movements were registered by automatic recording instruments that ruled out the hypothesis of collective hallucination. The instruments show that molecular vibrations in distant external objects could be positively asserted. They explained the fraud by suggesting that Palladino was growing old and that she was strongly tempted not to disappoint her clients when genuine power failed. On the whole, the phenomena were less striking and abundant as the years passed. On one or two occasions she succeeded in discharging an electroscope without anybody being able to find out how it was done.
In consequence of this report and under the effect of a growing number of testimonies to the genuine powers of Palladino, the council of the Society for Psychical Research reconsidered its attitude and delegated in 1908 a committee of three very capable and skeptical investigators: W. W. Baggally, a practical conjurer; Hereward Carrington, an amateur conjurer, whose book The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism (1907) is a reliable authority on fraudulent performances; and Everard Feilding, who also brought many a fraudulent medium to grief. They held eleven sittings in November and December in a room of a member of the committee at the Hotel Victoria in Naples.
Finally, they admitted that the phenomena were genuine and inexplicable by fraud. Their report was published as Part 59 of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and even Frank Podmore, the most hardened skeptic of the time, felt compelled to say: "Here, for the first time perhaps in the history of modern spiritualism, we seem to find the issue put fairly and squarely before us. It is difficult for any man who reads the Committee's report to dismiss the whole business as mere vulgar cheating."
It is sufficient, however, against any outside criticism to quote the opinion of Everard Feilding as expressed after the sixth séance:
"For the first time I have absolute conviction that our observation is not mistaken. I realise as an appreciable fact in life that, from an empty curtain, I have seen hands and heads come forth, and that behind the empty curtain I have been seized by living fingers, the existence and position of the nails of which were perceptible. I have seen this extraordinary woman, sitting outside the curtain, held hand and foot, visible to myself, by my colleagues, immobile, except for the occasional straining of a limb while some entity within the curtain has over and over again pressed my hand in a position clearly beyond her reach. I refuse to entertain the possibility of a doubt that it could be anything else, and, remembering my own belief of a very short time ago, I shall not be able to complain, though I shall unquestionably be annoyed when I find that to be the case."
By this verdict, Palladino's standing was enormously enhanced, and not without reason. Richet wrote:
"There have perhaps never been so many different, sceptical and scrupulous investigators into the work of any medium or more minute investigations. During twenty years, from 1888 to 1908, she submitted, at the hands of the most skilled European and American experimentalists, to tests of the most rigorous and decisive kind, and during all this time men of science, resolved not to be deceived, have verified that even very large and massive objects were displaced without contact."
In discussing materializations he added: "More than thirty very sceptical scientific men were convinced, after long testing, that there proceeded from her body material forms having the appearances of life."
The most extraordinary séance recorded with Palladino was probably the one described in full detail by Morselli in Psicologia e 'Spiritismo' (Turin, 1908, Vol. 2, pp. 214-237). The séance was held in Genoa on March 1, 1902. Besides Morselli, Ernesto Bozzano, Dr. Venzano, and six other persons were present. The cabinet was examined by Morselli and he himself tied the medium to a camp bed. In fairly good light six phantoms presented themselves in succession in front of the cabinet, the last one a woman with a baby in her arms. Each time after the phantom retired, Morselli rushed into the cabinet and found the medium tied as he left her. No doubt was left in Morselli's mind of the genuineness of the phenomena, yet strangely his materialistic attitude remained unshaken.
Palladino in America (1909-10)
Still one final blow was in store for Palladino. Owing to the success of the Naples sittings, the story of which was ably told in Hereward Carrington's Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena (1909), she was invited in 1909 to visit America. She landed in New York on November 10, 1909, and left on June 18, 1910.
Her first twenty séances were comparatively good ones. In the later sittings at Columbia University and at the house of Professor Lord she was caught in the use of her old trickery. The press made a tremendous sensation of the exposure. The authenticity of the published account, however, was questioned by Carrington. It said that at a sitting held on December 18, a young man crept under the cover of darkness into the cabinet and, during the movement of a small table, while Professor Hugo Munsterberg was controlling the left foot of Palladino, the young man grabbed a human foot, unshod, by the instep. Palladino's foot was pulled out of the shoe. Later she was watched from a concealed window in the cabinet and from a bureau provided with a secret peephole. She achieved the desired effect by gradual substitution, i.e., making one foot do duty for two as regards the control of her limbs, and acting freely with the loose foot.
It had not been emphasized that Paladino, at this stage, was so apprehensive of her investigators that she did not allow herself to go into trance for fear that an injury might be done to her. The psychological attitude of her sitters was reflected by the following statement of Palladino to a newspaper man: "Some people are at the table who expect tricks—in fact they want them. I am in a trance. Nothing happens. They get impatient. They think of the tricks—nothing but tricks. They put their minds on the tricks and I automatically respond. But it is not often. They merely will me to do them. That is all."
Carrington contended that far from having been exposed in America, as the public imagined, Palladino presented a large number of striking phenomena that have never been explained; only a certain number of her classical and customary tricks were detected, which every investigator of this medium's phenomena had known to exist and had warned other investigators against for the past twenty years. No new form of trickery was discovered and Carrington had warned the sitters against the old and well-known methods in a circular letter in advance.
According to Palladino, when her power was strong, the phenomena began almost at once. When it was weak, long waiting was necessary. It was on such occasions that she was tempted to cheat. She did this so often that, as Carrington stated: "practically every scientific committee detected her in attempted fraud, but every one of these committees emerged from their investigations quite convinced of the reality of these phenomena, except the Cambridge and American investigation which ended in exposure."
This was not the case as stated in a document from April 1910 at Columbia in which she was again exposed by a set of conjurors. Nevertheless, Palladino did not depart from America without her convert Howard Thurston, a magician, who declared: "I witnessed in person the table levitations of Madame Eusapia Palladino … and am thoroughly convinced that the phenomena I saw were not due to fraud and were not performed by the aid of her feet, knees, or hands."
He also offered to give a thousand dollars to a charitable institution if it could be proved that Palladino could not levitate a table without trickery.
To the Present
In December 1910 Everard Feilding stated in documents in Naples that Palladino's observed phenomena were produced by fraud. Carrington, who had worked with Feilding earlier but was not with him in Naples, remained a supporter of her phenomena throughout his life and as late as 1930 concluded:
"To sum up the effects of these séances upon my own mind, I may say that, after seeing nearly forty of her séances, there remains not a shadow of doubt in my mind as to the reality of the vast majority of this phenomena occurring in Eusapia Palladino's presence … I can but record the fact that further study of this medium has convinced me more than ever that our Naples experiments and deductions were correct, that we were not deceived, but that we did, in very truth, see praeternormal manifestations of a remarkable character. I am as assured of the reality of Eusapia Palladino's phenomena as I am of any other fact in life; and they are, to my mind, just as well established."
Paole Carrara, the daughter of Lombroso, published a biography of Palladino in 1907. A comprehensive bibliography related to her work is in Morselli's Psicologia e spiritismo (Turin, 1908).
Barzini, Luigi. Nel mondo dei Misteri con Eusapia Palladino. Milan, 1907.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.
Bottazi, F. Nelle regioni inesplorate della Biologia Umana. Rome, 1907.
Carrington, Hereward. The American Séances with Eusapia Palladino. New York: Helix Press, 1954.
——. Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena. New York: B. W. Dodge, 1909. Reprint, London: T. Werner Laurie, 1910.
Feilding, Everard. Sittings with Eusapia Palladino & Other Studies. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.
Flammarion, Cesar. After Death—What? London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909.
Ochorowicz, Julien. La Questione della frode negli Experimenti coll' Eusapia Palladino. Milan, 1896.
Podmore, Frank. The Newer Spiritualism. New York: Henry Holt, 1911.
——. Studies in Psychical Research. New York: George Putnam's, 1897.
Rochas, Albert de. L'Extériorisation de la Motricité. Paris,1906.