Piper, Leonora E(velina Simonds)(1859-1950)

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Piper, Leonora E(velina Simonds)(1859-1950)

Trance medium of Boston, among the most renowned in the history of psychical research. Her work is credited with convincing Sir Oliver Lodge, Richard Hodgson, James H. Hyslop, and many others to believe in survival and communication with the dead.

Early Life

Piper was born Leonora Simmonds on June 27, 1859, in Nashua, New Hampshire. There has been some discussion of the correct spelling of her first name, though it is now largely agreed to have been "Leonora," rather than "Leonore," as is often found in the literature. This issue became the subject of a paper in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.

When eight years old, playing in the garden, she suddenly felt a sharp blow on her right ear, accompanied by a prolonged sibilant sound. This gradually resolved itself into the letter s, which was then followed by the words "Aunt Sara, not dead, but with you still." The child was terrified.

Her mother made a note of the day and the time. Several days later it was found that Piper's aunt Sara had died at that very hour on that very day. A few weeks later the child cried out that she could not sleep because of "the bright light in the room and all the faces in it," and because the bed "won't stop rocking." However, discounting occasional experiences of this kind, her childhood was relatively normal.

At age 22 she married William Piper of Boston. Soon after this she consulted Dr. J. R. Cocke, a blind professional clairvoyant who was attracting considerable attention by his medical diagnoses and cures. She fell into a short trance.

At the second visit to the clairvoyant's circle, which was held for effecting cures and developing latent mediumship, when Cocke put his hand on her head, Piper again saw in front of her "a flood of light in which many strange faces appeared." In a trance, she rose from her chair, walked to a table in the center of the room, picked up a pencil and paper, and wrote rapidly for a few minutes before handing the written paper to a member of the circle and returning to her seat. The member was Judge Frost of Cambridge, a noted jurist; the message, the most remarkable he ever received, came from his dead son.

The report of Frost's experience spread and Piper was soon besieged for sittings. She was not at all pleased by this sudden notoriety, and apart from members of her family and intimate friends she refused to see anyone. However, when the mother-in-law of William James applied for a sitting (after hearing strange stories through servant gossip), for some inexplicable reason her request was granted. Her own experience, the subsequent experience of her daughter (i.e., James's wife), and the marvelous stories they told finally induced James to visit Piper in order to explain away her reputed psychic talents. But his impression of her supernormal powers was so strong that he not only continued sittings, but for the next eighteen months monitored Piper and controlled virtually all of her séance arrangements.

Referring mainly to this first period of his experiences, he wrote in 1890 in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (vol. 6, pt. 17): "And I repeat again what I said before, that, taking everything that I know of Mrs. Piper into account, the result is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state, and that the definite philosophy of her trances is yet to be found."

James also made the famous statement: "If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black it is enough if you prove that one crow is white. My white crow is Mrs. Piper."

Piper's Controls

When James began his experiments, a claimed French doctor, "Phinuit," was in exclusive control of the sittings. He appeared to have been inherited from Cocke. He was known there as "Finne" or "Finnett." His manifestation was not immediate. The first of Piper's controls was an Indian girl of the strange name "Chlorine." "Commodore Vanderbilt," "Long-fellow," "Lorette Penchini," "J. Sebastian Bach" and "Mrs. Sid-dons," the actress, were the next communicators encountered.

"Phinuit" had a deep gruff voice, in striking contrast with the voice of the medium. His exclusive regime lasted from 1884 to 1892 when "George Pelham," who had died in an accident, appeared and manifested in automatic writing. Still, the trance speaking was left for "Phinuit" and the control, speaking and writing, was often simultaneous.

In 1897 the "Imperator" group took charge of the séance proceedings. "Phinuit" disappeared and "Pelham" became relegated to the role of a minor communicator. While "Phinuit" had much difficulty in keeping back other would-be communicators, the advent of the "Imperator" group of controls made the communications freer from interruptions and from the admixture of apparently foreign elements. They excluded "inferior" intelligences (whom they spoke of as "earth-bound" spirits) from the use of the light.

Under the new regime, the communications assumed a dignity and loftiness of expression, as well as a quasi-religious character, which they had heretofore entirely lacked. Moreover, the passing in and out of the trance state, which in the earlier stages had been accomplished with a certain amount of difficulty, now, under the new conditions, became quiet and peaceful.

James called special attention to the fact that the "Imperator" group of controls not only exhibited characteristic personalities, but they could also divine the most secret thoughts of the sitters. As a lasting influence of this regime in later years, Piper showed remarkable development as spiritual adviser in her waking state. "It is almost," wrote Alta L. Piper in 1929, "as if, since the trance state has been less and less resorted to, the cloak of 'Rector' has fallen upon Mrs. Piper herself, and the good that she has been able to do along these lines, during the past nine or ten years, is almost unbelievable."

Piper did not exhibit physical phenomena, except for one single strange manifestation: she could withdraw the scent from flowers and make them wither in a short time. To establish rapport with her spirit communicators, she utilized psycho-metric influences (see psychometry ), usually asking for an object belonging to the departed. James succeeded in hypnotizing her and found the conditions of the hypnotic and medium trances entirely different. He found no signs of thought transference either in the hypnotic condition or immediately after it.

Of the earliest trances there is no contemporary record. When, owing to other duties, James relinquished direct control of the Piper séances he wrote to various members of the Society for Psychical Research of the puzzling and remarkable facts of the mediumship. It was as a result of these letters that Richard Hodgson arrived in the United States for the express purpose of continuing the investigation on behalf of the SPR.

With his arrival began the most famous period of Piper's mediumship. Hodgson was a keen fraud -hunter, having previously caught Eusapia Palladino and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in trickery. He took every precaution to bar the possibility of deception including hiring a detective to follow Piper and watch for possible attempts to obtain information by normal means. On the first three days of the week, when sittings were given, Hodgson forbade her to see a morning newspaper. He arranged the sittings without communicating the name of the sitters and the sitters were in most cases unknown to her. They were introduced under the pseudonym "Smith." The sittings were often improvised for the benefit of chance callers.

She was usually weakest precisely where the pseudo-medium is most successful. She was vague about dates, preferred to give Christian names to surnames, and mostly concentrated on the sitters diseases, personal idiosyncrasies, and characters. On the other hand, she often failed to answer test questions. For example, the spirit of "Hannah Wild" manifesting through her could not describe the contents of the sealed letter she wrote before her death.

The possibility of fraud was discussed at length by Hodgson, James, William R. Newbold (of Pennsylvania University), Walter Leaf, and Sir Oliver Lodge. In 1898 James wrote in the Psychological Review:

"Dr. Hodgson considers that the hypothesis of fraud cannot be seriously maintained. I agree with him absolutely. The medium has been under observation, much of the time under close observation, as to most of the conditions of her life, by a large number of persons, eager, many of them to pounce upon any suspicious circumstance for (nearly) fifteen years. During that time not only has there not been one single suspicious circumstance remarked, but not one suggestion has ever been made from any quarter which might tend positively to explain how the medium, living the apparent life she leads, could possibly collect information about so many sitters by natural means. The scientist who is confident of 'fraud' here must remember that in science as much as in common life a hypothesis must receive some positive specification and determination before it can be profitably discussed, and a fraud which is no assigned kind of fraud, but simply 'fraud' at large, fraud in abstracto, can hardly be regarded as a specially scientific explanation of concrete facts."

He added, at a later period:

"Practically I should be willing now to stake as much money on Mrs. Piper's honesty as on that of anyone I know, and I am quite satisfied to leave my reputation for wisdom or folly, so far as human nature is concerned, to stand or fall by this declaration."

In 1888-89, Hyslop joined the investigation. On the first two or three occasions he took the extraordinary precaution of putting on a mask before he got out of the cab, removing it only after Piper was entranced, and resuming it before she awoke. Twelve sittings were sufficient to convince him of the untenability of the secondary personality hypothesis. He declared, without hesitation, that "I prefer to believe that I have been talking to my dead relatives in person; it is simpler." His first report was published in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (vol. 16, pt. 41) and concluded: "I give my adhesion to the theory that there is a future life and persistence of personal identity."

Piper in England

With unabated zeal, Hodgson sought still more stringent precautions and conceived the idea of removing Piper from her normal surroundings and placing her in a foreign country among strangers. As a result Piper made her first visit to England in November 1889. She was met at the station by Lodge and escorted the next day to Cambridge by F. W. H. Myers, at whose house she stayed. Myers later stated,

"I am convinced, that she brought with her a very slender knowledge of English affairs and English people. The servant who attended on her and on her two children was chosen by myself, and was a young woman from a country village, whom I had full reason to believe to be trustworthy and also quite ignorant of my own or my friend's affairs. For the most part I had myself not determined upon the persons whom I would invite to sit with her. I chose these sitters in great measure by chance; several of them were not residents of Cambridge; and except in one or two cases where anonymity would have been hard to preserve, I brought them to her under false namessometimes introducing them only when the trance had already begun."

Piper gave, under the supervision of Myers, Lodge, and Leaf, 88 sittings between November 1889 and February 1890. Wherever she stayed in England, her movements were planned for her, and even when shopping she was accompanied by a member of the SPR Lodge, which even exceeded Myers in caution. Prior to Piper's stay in Liverpool, Lodge's wife engaged an entirely new staff of servants. Lodge safely locked away the family Bible, and throughout the duration of her stay, all of Piper's correspondence passed through the hands of Lodge, who had permission to read it.

In Lodge's first sitting, his father, his Uncle William, his Aunt Ann, and a child of his who died very young were described. There were some flaws in the descriptions that were later rectified. Many personal and intimate details of their lives were given. In subsequent sittings the names of the dead relatives were communicated in full, and supernormal knowledge of the history of the whole family was exhibited. Sir Oliver Lodge's report, published in 1890, concluded:

"1. That many of the facts given could not have been learnt even by a skilled detective.

"2. That to learn others of them, although possible, would have needed an expenditure of money as well as of time which it seems impossible to suppose that Mrs. Piper could have met.

"3. That her conduct has never given any ground whatever for supposing her capable of fraud or trickery. Few persons have been so long and so carefully observed, and she has left on all observers the impression of thorough uprightness, candor and honesty."

Lodge enumerated 38 cases in which information not within the conscious knowledge of the sitter was given. In only five instances did the sitter acknowledge that the facts were at one time known to him. Considering the extraordinary familiarity of "Phinuit" with the boyhood days of two of his uncles, Lodge was curious how much of this knowledge might be obtained by normal means. He sent a professional inquiry agent to the scene for the purpose of making full and exhaustive inquiries. "Mrs. Piper," reported the agent, "has certainly beat me. My inquiries in modern Barking yield less information than she gave. Yet the most skilful agent could have done no more than secure the assistance of the local record keepers and the oldest inhabitants living."

In his summary, Lodge added,

"By introducing anonymous strangers and by catechising her myself in various ways, I have satisfied myself that much of the information she possesses in the trance state is not acquired by ordinary common-place methods, but that she has some unusual means of acquiring information. The facts on which she discourses are usually within the knowledge of some person present, though they are often entirely out of his conscious thought at the time. Occasionally facts have been narrated which have only been verified afterwards, and which are in good faith asserted never to have been known; meaning thereby that they have left no trace on the conscious memory of any person present or in the neighborhood and that it is highly improbable that they were ever known to such persons. She is also in the trance state able to diagnose diseases and to specify the owners or late owners of portable property, under circumstances which preclude the application of ordinary methods."

Further he stated:

"That there is more than can be explained by any amount of either conscious or unconscious fraudthat the phenomenon is a genuine one, however it is to be explainedI now regard as absolutely certain; and I make the following two statements with the utmost confidence:

"1.That Mrs. Piper's attitude is not one of deception.

"2. No conceivable deception on the part of Mrs. Piper can explain the facts."

Further Work with Hodgson

After Piper's return to the United States, Hodgson took charge again. His first report was published in 1892 in the Proceedings of the Society Psychical Research. He refused to consider spirit hypothesis acceptable. In 1892 the Piper phenomena underwent a notable evolution in the quality of trance communications. Automatic writing developed and "Pelham" a became the primary control.

Hodgson's second report, which appeared in the Proceedings of the SPR in 1897, ended with the adoption of the spirit hypothesis. His statement was quite firm:

"I cannot profess to have any doubt but that the 'chief communicators are veritably the personalities 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. Having tried the hypothesis of telepathy from the living for several years, and the "spirit" hypothesis also for several years, I have no hesitation in affirming with the most absolute assurance that the "spirit" hypothesis is justified by its fruits and the other hypothesis is not."

It is interesting to quote here the following note from Alta L. Piper's biography of her mother: "During the latter years ofhis investigation I more than once heard Dr. Hodgson say, ruefully, that his amour propre had never quite recovered from the shock it received when he found himself forced to accept unreservedly the genuineness of the so-called Piper phenomena."

Hodgson's intended third report was cut short by his unexpected death in 1905. J. G. Piddington came over from England to go through his papers and a committee was formed to dispose of the material on hand. The reports were filled with intimate and personal data concerning the sitters, who trusted Hodgson but would not trust anybody else. Finally, despite Hyslop's efforts, all these reports were returned to the original sitters and the valuable material was lost. Piper remained under the jurisdiction of the SPR, and the sittings were continued under Hyslop's charge.

The Hyslop Era

In 1906, Piper made a second visit to England. It was mainly devoted to elucidating the mystery of cross-correspondences. Several famous investigators (such as Myers, Edmund Gurney, and Hodgson) had died and communications of an intricate nature were purported to emanate from their surviving spirits. Piper held 74 sittings. Many others were held with Margaret Verrall and Alice K. Fleming (usually cited as Mrs. Holland in the literature to protect her privacy). The results were summed up and analyzed by Piddington and others. According to their findings, the coincidences of thought and expression in the various messages were too numerous and too detailed to be accounted for by chance.

In 1909, James published his report on the Hodgson communications jointly in the Proceedings of the SPR and the ASPR. He judged the findings to be inconclusive. Writing on the Myers, Gurney, and Isaac Thompson communications in the same number of the Proceedings, Lodge showed none of James's reserve,

"On the whole they [the messages] tend to render certain the existence of some outside intelligence or control, distinct from the consciousness, and, so far as I can judge, from the subconsciousness also, of Mrs. Piper or other mediums. And they tend to render probable the working hypothesis, on which I choose to proceed, that the version of the nature of the intelligences which they themselves present and favour is something like the truth. In other words, I feel that we are in the secondary or tertiary touchat least occasionallywith some stratum of the surviving personality of the individuals who are represented as sending messages."

In only one instance were aspersions cast, in public, on Piper's character and phenomena, and this happened simply as an advertising stunt. On October 20, 1901, the New York Herald published a statement by Piper, advertised as a "confession," in which she was quoted to say that she intended to give up the work she had been doing for the SPR, as fourteen years' work was not enough to clear up the subject and summed up her own views as follows: "The theory of telepathy strongly appeals to me as the most plausible and genuinely scientific solution of the problem I do not believe that spirits of the dead have spoken through me when I have been in the trance state. It may be that they have, but I do not affirm it."

According to the inquiries made by the editor of Light, Piper forbade the publication of the article as soon as she learned that they had advertised it with the word "confession" above it. She received a telegram from the New York Herald assuring her that the word was used for advertising only and would not appear in the article. On October 25, 1901, Mrs. Piper stated in The Boston Advertiser:

"I did not make any such statement as that published in the New York Herald to the effect that spirits of the departed do not control me. My opinion is today as it was eighteen years ago. Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know. I have not changed.I make no change in my relations."

As Lodge pointed out, her honesty was not in question and the New York Herald spoke of her throughout in laudatory terms, "since little value would be attached to her opinion in favour of the spiritistic hypothesis, it cannot fairly be urged that her opinion on the other side would weigh with us. Mrs. Piper in fact is not in a more favourable, but even in a less favourable position for forming an opinion than those who sit with her, since she does not afterwards remember what passes while she is in trance."

The Closing of a Career

In October 1909, Piper made her third visit to England. Prostrated by a heavy cold, she was not able to give her first sittings until the late spring and early summer of 1910. Lodge supervised these sittings, during which Piper's return from the trance state was very difficult. Both the sitters and the controls were disturbed by these conditions and at a sitting on May 24, 1911, a coming suspension of Piper's mediumship was announced. The last sitting was held on July 3. After the appearance of a new control, "Mme. Guyon," the sitting was closed by "Imperator." In the years that followed, communications by automatic writing remained intermittent but the trance state did not make its appearance until 1915 when the famous "Faunus" message, relating to the forthcoming death of Sir Oliver Lodge's son Raymond, was given.

Between 1914 and 1924 Piper did no regular work. Her mother's failing health made increasing demands upon her time and strength. Further, no suitable supervisor for her work was found. In October 1924, Dr. Gardner Murphy conducted a series of sittings, at the end of which the SPR agreed that Piper should sit with the newly formed Boston Society for Psychical Research during the season of 1926-27. She complied.

Piper's work in the cause of psychical research was of tremendous importance. For several decades her powers were tested to a degree that no other medium had approximated. Psychical research owes an enormous debt to her generous and sustained cooperation, often under difficult circumstances. The literature covering her work is vast and is spread out over several decades of the publication of both the SPR and the ASPR. Piper died in 1950.


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

Bull, K. T. "Mrs. PiperA Study." Harper's Bazaar 33 (1900).

Matlock, James G. "Leonor a or Leonor e? A Note on Mrs. Piper's First Name." Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 82, no. 3 (July 1988).

Piper, Alta L. The Life and Work of Mrs. Piper. London: Kegan Paul, 1929.

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

Robbins, Anne Manning. Both Sides of the Veil: A Personal Experience. Boston: Sherman & French, 1909.

Sage, M. Mrs. Piper and the Society for Psychical Research. London, 1903.

Salter, W. H. Trance Mediumship: An Introductory Study of Mrs. Piper and Mrs. Leonard. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1950.