Piper, Leonora E. (1859–1950)

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Piper, Leonora E. (1859–1950)

Celebrated American medium. Name variations: Leonore Piper. Born Leonora Evelina Simonds on June 27, 1859, in Nashua, New Hampshire; died on July 3, 1950, in Brookline, Massachusetts; fourth of six children of Stillman Simonds and Hannah (Stevens) Simonds; married William R. Piper (a manufacturer, salesman, and clerk), on October 6, 1881 (died 1904); children: two daughters, Alta Laurette Piper (b. 1884); Minerva Leonora Piper (b. 1885).

Perhaps the world's most celebrated psychic medium, and certainly one of the most scrutinized, Leonora Piper not only possessed extraordinary gifts, but used them for the good of humanity rather than her own personal gain. Piper, who was by all accounts a paradigm of virtue and integrity, viewed her mission as religious, and regarded herself as a "bringer of glad tidings."

Piper was born Leonora Evelina Simonds in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1859, and grew up there and in Methuen, Massachusetts, where her family moved when she was still quite young. Her parents, of English descent, were devout Congregationalists, as was Leonora until 1910, when on a visit to England she was baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church. In 1881, she married William Piper and moved to Boston, where William held various jobs in manufacturing and sales. The couple had two daughters, Alta Laurette Piper (b. 1884) and Minerva Leonora Piper (b. 1885), and led quiet, unassuming lives.

Leonora had her first experiences with "supernormal" powers in childhood, suffering occasional episodes where she lost consciousness and had visions portending future events. Several years into her marriage, in an attempt to resolve a number of recurring ailments as well as some problems arising from an injury she had sustained, she visited a psychic healer. Although she received little relief from her maladies, she was compelled to return to the clairvoyant a second time. "While seated with the other clients, she suddenly felt herself drawn into a state of suspended animation," writes Robert Somerlott in an article on the psychic for American Heritage. "The furniture appeared to whirl around her, her mind reeled, and collapsing on the table, she fell into a deep trance, apparently hypnotic." Subsequently, through the voice of a dead girl named Chlorine, Piper delivered a message to a male member of the circle who believed it to be a communication from his dead son. Word of this incident spread quickly through the Boston spiritualist community, and Piper began holding private consultations, mostly with believers who little doubted her powers. One of her sessions was attended by Harvard philosopher-psychologist William James, who came away so intrigued with Piper that he arranged for a serious investigation of her talent.

In the spring of 1887, through William James and the American Society for Psychical Research, Dr. Richard Hodgson, an English investigator of psychic phenomena, took up the Piper investigation, which he continued to pursue at intervals until his death 18 years later. Having previously exposed a number of psychic frauds, including Helena Blavatsky , Hodgson took extreme care in his study of Piper, diligently monitoring her sittings and testing the validity of her trances by keeping her under constant scrutiny. "Hired detectives often trailed her, volunteers watched her, her utterances were checked and double-checked, and every facet of her private life was scrutinized for evidence of fraud," Somerlott explains. "No fraud was discovered; Mrs. Piper was integrity itself."

Over the first years of the study, Piper, who was now able to invoke her trances at will, delivered to her sitters many personal messages from deceased relatives, receiving her information from a number of controlling figures, including the ghosts of Sarah Siddons , Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Eventually a French physician by the name of Phinuit emerged and asserted himself as the controlling spirit, remaining in exclusive command of Piper's pronouncements for some time.

In 1889, Piper visited England under the auspices of the British Society for Psychical Research. Since it was her first trip abroad, testing conditions were thought to be ideal. From the moment she boarded the ship, every precaution was taken to keep Piper's contacts with others to a minimum, and her arrival, according to Somerlott, was more like a kidnapping than a welcome. Piper was greeted on the dock by Oliver Lodge, a professor of physics at University College in Liverpool and head of the committee designated to test her, then she was whisked away by closed carriage to Lodge's home, where she was kept a virtual prisoner until her first seance. The initial test session was conducted before a group of absolute strangers presented to her under assumed names. "As soon as Mrs. Piper was entranced, Dr. Phinuit began to identify them one by one, revealing incidents, details, and occupations," writes Somerlott. "The sitters were astounded. Phinuit made a few mistakes and a few near misses, but the overall impression was amazing as he described homes and rooms, mentioned names of children, and even diagnosed ailments in the light of the subjects' past medical histories—histories that Mrs. Piper could not have known."

One can only imagine what Piper thought of her celebrity and of the constant probing into her private life and affairs. Outwardly, she remained patient, although somewhat bewildered at finding herself the center of attention. Since she was never able to remember her trances, she was hardly impressed with her powers. Her family remained supportive, her daughters only regretting that their mother's "work" took her away from them so often.

Since Piper's controlling spirits were apparently the ghosts of the long-dead, Hodgson first believed that she received her messages through "thought transmission from the minds of distant living persons," but when Phinuit was supplanted by a new control purporting to be George Pelham, a young man who had only recently died, he reversed his view. Basing much of his conclusions on the emergence of Pelham, in February 1898 Hodgson published a report (now considered a milestone in psychic research) in which he affirmed, as Gardner Murphy writes in Notable American Women, "the survival of consciousness after death."

Later, Piper's trances came under the control of religious personages known as the "Imperator Group." In addition to expressing their messages through Piper's voice, as was usual with earlier controlling spirits, they also communicated through automatic writing. In 1906, the year after Hodgson's death, Piper again went to England where she participated in several experiments in "cross-correspondence" involving automatists (persons who communicate by automatic writing or another automatic process). "In the most remarkable of the Piper cross-correspondences," writes Murphy, "an investigator, through Mrs. Piper, put to the deceased communicator the question: 'What does the work "Lethe" suggest to you?' Although she had no classical education, Mrs. Piper produced a long series of Latin references well known to the decedent during his lifetime. When the same question was put to a second medium, she also responded with relevant Latin sources, which did not duplicate those communicated by Mrs. Piper."

Piper's powers as a medium were also evaluated by William James in "What Psychical Research Has Accomplished," which appeared in The Will to Believe and Other Essays (1897). She was also the subject of some experiments in "trance personalities" conducted by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who concluded that some of Piper's "trance personalities" were less knowledgeable about their earthly lives than would have been expected.

By 1909, when Piper visited England again, her powers had significantly diminished, although a later episode involving a warning to Oliver Lodge about the impending death of his son in World War I grabbed some attention. Leonora Piper lived to the age of 91, succumbing to bronchopneumonia in 1950 at her Brookline home. She was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Arlington, Massachusetts.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

"The Medium had The Message: Mrs. Piper and the Professors," in American Heritage. Vol. XXII, no. 2. February 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts