The Medium and the Message


The following is excerpted from Stop Worrying: There Probably is an Afterlife. Kindle edition here; paperback here.

Mediumship is often described as a phenomenon that appeared in the mid-19th century with the birth of the ‘religion’ of Spiritualism, and is even sometimes specifically dated to 1848, when three young sisters – Leah, Margaret and Kate Fox – caused a sensation by claiming to be in contact with a spirit via rapping or knocking sounds in their family home in New York. The identification with this period is so strong that if you mention the word ‘medium’ to someone these days, they will likely perceive a darkened séance room from Victorian times (or more recently, someone like John Edward interacting with his audience on TV). But the phenomenon of mediumship goes back well before Western culture of the last 150 years. Indeed, it is as old as human history itself – the archaeological record and historical literature are full of references to apparent communication with the spirit world.[1]

Perhaps the most well-known ‘ancient’ reference to mediumship is the Biblical case of the ‘Witch of Endor’, mentioned in the First Book of Samuel. King Saul, in trying to determine the best course of action against the forces of the Philistines, requests that his servants find him “a woman that divineth by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her”. Told that such a woman could be found at Endor, Saul sets out (in disguise) to seek her counsel. The ‘witch’ raises the spirit of the recently deceased prophet Samuel, who tells Saul in no uncertain terms that the Lord is a bit miffed with him, and as such that both Israel and Saul himself will be delivered into the hands of the Philistines. If that wasn’t bad news enough, Samuel then informs Saul that “tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me” – that is, dead. According to the Biblical narrative, the following day Saul’s army was indeed defeated at the Battle of Gilboa, with three of his sons dying, while Saul committed suicide.

In China, spirit-mediums are known as wu, or ji-tong, and their historical origin can be traced back to at least two thousand years before the time of Christ.[2] In Japan, the itako were blind, usually female, shamans from northern Japan who were said to have the ability to communicate with the dead. And the original word shaman, which most of us know today, is taken from the Evenki people of northern Siberia, and denotes a person who, among others duties, could act as a vehicle for making contact with deceased ancestors. The Spiritualism of the last two centuries is just one more example of this apparent human ability, though it is perhaps more familiar to most of us due to its proximity in time, not to mention the cultural similarities.

The terms ‘medium’ and ‘psychic’ are often used interchangeably, but they actually do have specific, and quite separate, meanings. To be ‘psychic’ simply means that a person gains access to information via some source beyond our normal senses (e.g. possibly using telepathy, or clairvoyance), while the word ‘medium’ itself points clearly to its own definition: a person who acts as the medium, or conduit, for communication from the spirit world to our world (and vice versa). So, a medium can always be labeled psychic – and thus to call someone a ‘psychic medium’ is stating the obvious – but a psychic might not always be a medium.

Mediums also come in different flavours. Physical mediumship is where the communicating spirit allegedly interacts with the physical world: objects are moved (sometimes even teleported), lights are seen and winds are felt, and sometimes the dead even seem to appear in physical form and walk around the room. While it may be the most spectacular form of mediumship, it is also the most closely associated with fraud – with séances often held in the dark (light apparently interferes with the manifestation of spirits; and also, conveniently enough, interferes with manifestations of fraudulent techniques of deception), it is very difficult to come to a certain conclusion as to whether the ‘spirit’ that appeared was a genuine paranormal occurrence. While accounts of physical mediumship certainly make for good Hallowe’en tales – and some cases remain a mystery due to the inexplicable happenings during séances – they are a topic that we will not cover in detail.

As opposed to physical mediumship, mental mediumship is concerned with spirit communication through the mind of the medium, rather than physical manifestations. And mental mediumship is often divided into two particular types: trance and non-trance. Leonora Piper was an example of a trance medium – she would slip into unconsciousness, her normal personality would be ‘put aside’, and an intruding intelligence, apparently that of a deceased person, would take over the medium’s mind. The trance personality would then communicate with sitters by controlling the medium’s body – sometimes holding conversations through the voice of the medium, sometimes via writing (as already mentioned, Mrs. Piper did both – and at times simultaneously), and through general use of the body (wagging fingers, crossing arms etc.) Often in the case of trance mediumship, a certain spirit comes to be the main ‘control’ of the medium – the designated driver, so to speak – and acts as the intermediary in the spirit world between sitters and those queueing up to talk to them on ‘the other side’, retaining direct control of the medium’s body during séances over the course of many years. In the Piper case, the first main control was “Dr. Phinuit”, who was succeeded by the “G.P.” control many years later, among others.

Non-trance mental mediumship includes the sub-group most are familiar with today – the John Edward-style medium who remains conscious, but gets feelings, hints and visions from the dead communicator. They might get the letter of a name, or be shown an object that is a metaphor for some important facet of the sitter’s relationship with the spirit; in many ways, communication through this type of medium seems to be symbolic, delivered through impressions rather than direct contact. But this is not the only type of non-trance mental mediumship. Another claimed way of conversing with the dead is through the use of ‘motor automatisms’, where conscious control of parts of the body is relinquished, allowing (supposed) outside intelligences to take control. Most readers would be familiar with one such method that has become a stock standard of the supernatural and horror genres: the Ouija Board. A person (or group) puts their hand on the pointer (‘planchette’), and without consciously willing it to move, allows it to spell out words and messages, or answer questions, via the markings on the board. Another method is what is known as automatic writing, where the medium relinquishes conscious control of their writing arm, and through either trance, or usually at least entering a slightly dissociative state, allows the arm to ‘be controlled’ and write messages.

The Enigmatic Mrs. Leonard

When the Society for Psychical Research set out to investigate the possibility of there being an afterlife, they investigated all types of mediums. But over the following few decades, the real ‘stars’ who seemed to offer evidence of the survival of human personality after death were mental mediums, and of those, most often trance mediums. As we have seen, Leonora Piper was of this type. Another trance medium who impressed the S.P.R. was Mrs. Gladys Osborne Leonard. Like Mrs. Piper and many other mediums (and shamans, it might be noted), Mrs. Leonard’s ability manifested at an early age – she often saw visions, but the expression of her talent was frowned upon and discouraged by her conservative parents.[3] As an adult though, her mediumship manifested again when, at a ‘fun’ table-tipping séance with friends, she suddenly fell into trance, and was told afterwards that the spirit of her mother, and a young girl of Indian descent called ‘Feda’, had apparently spoken through her. Feda went on to become Mrs. Leonard’s control during her occasional trances, and as the First World War approached, warned of an impending catastrophe that would require Mrs. Leonard to devote all her time to acting as a medium to help people connect with the other world.

Like Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Leonard allowed herself to be studied by the S.P.R. for a large portion of her life, from the beginnings of her career with the First World War until after World War II had come to an end. And as with Mrs. Piper, the S.P.R. applied a skeptical attitude to their investigation, to the point of having detectives shadow Mrs. Leonard to determine if she was researching sitters’ details. Today Mrs. Piper and Mrs. Leonard are considered the two foremost mediums to have undergone scientific testing. We have already seen some of Mrs. Piper’s work, so let’s take a quick look at some of Mrs. Leonard’s sittings.

In one case, the Reverend Charles Drayton Thomas was asked by a well-known critic of survival research to attempt to contact a deceased individual, one Frederic William Macaulay, on behalf of his daughter, Mrs. Lewis. The following passage gives Feda’s communication, with Mrs. Lewis’s later feedback:

FEDA: There is a John and Harry, both with him. And Race…Rice…Riss…it might be Reece but sounds like Riss, and Francis. These are all names of people who are connected with him or linked up with him in the past, connected with happy times. I get the feeling of an active and busy home in which he was rather happy.

[MRS LEWIS: This is a very curious passage… Probably the happiest time of my father’s life was in the four or five years before the war, when we, his five children, were all at school, and the home was packed with our friends during the holidays. John, Harry and Francis could be three of these… But the most interesting passage is ‘It might be Reece but it sounds like ‘Riss’… My elder brother was at school at Shrewsbury and there conceived a kind of hero-worship for one of the ‘Tweaks’ (sixth form boys) whose name was Rees. He wrote home about him several times and always drew attention to the fact that the name was spelt ‘Rees’ and not ‘Reece’. In the holidays my sister and I used to tease him by singing ‘Not Reece but Riss’ until my father stopped us…]

FEDA: I get a funny word now…could he be interested in…baths of some kind? Ah, he says I have got the right word, baths, He spells it, BATHS. His daughter will understand, he says. It is not something quite ordinary, but feels something special.

[MRS LEWIS: This is, to me, the most interesting thing that has yet emerged. Baths were always a matter of joke in our family – my father being very emphatic that water must not be wasted by our having too big baths… It is difficult to explain how intimate a detail this seems.][4]

The final point from Mrs. Lewis above is worth emphasizing. When we discuss the topic of afterlife evidence, it’s very easy to get into “explain it away” mode – in the above case, we could all fit the word ‘bath’ into our upbringing and relationship with our father somehow. What’s the big deal? But Mrs. Lewis makes the point that this really was more than just a general statement – the word ‘bath’, in relationship to her father, held such personal meaning for her that she struggled to put into words exactly “how intimate” this communication was.

But even if we discard this extremely meaningful and successful hit, we still have the idiosyncratic “Not Reece but Riss” comment to explain away. And, beyond that, Feda kept piling on the extra evidence:

FEDA: Godfrey; will you ask the daughter if she remembers someone called Godfrey. That name is a great link with old times.

[MRS LEWIS: My father’s most trusted clerk, one who specially helped in [his] hydraulic research, was called William Godfrey. He was with my father for years and I remember him from almost my earliest childhood.]

FEDA: What is that? Peggy…Peggy…Puggy… He is giving me a little name like Puggy or Peggy. Sounds like a special name, a little special nickname, and I think it is something his daughter would know.

[MRS LEWIS: My father sometimes call me ‘pug-nose’ or ‘Puggy’.]

When we see a number of intimate details such as in the above sitting – culminating in the medium accurately offering the father’s special name for his daughter – it’s hard to dismiss the feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, something interesting might be going on. And after the sittings on behalf of Mrs. Lewis, the skeptic who instigated the contact – classical scholar E.R. Dodds – was moved to much the same conclusion. In contemplating the summary of the sittings – of 124 pieces of information given, 95 were classified under ‘right/good/fair’, and only 29 as ‘poor/doubtful/wrong’ – he noted that “the hypotheses of fraud, rational influence from disclosed facts, telepathy from the sitter, and coincidence cannot either singly or in combination account for the results obtained”. The experiment, he said, seemed to present investigators with a choice between two paradigm-shattering conclusions: either Mrs. Leonard was reading the minds of living people and presenting the information so obtained, or she was passing on the thoughts of minds “other than that of a living person”. Dodds concluded that he could see no plausible means of departing from this “staggering dilemma”.[5]

As with Mrs. Piper, books could be (and have been) filled with the fascinating evidence provided by Mrs. Leonard, but we’ll have to settle here for just one more case. Mary White was a distraught wife who wrote to the researchers of the S.P.R. when her husband Gwyther died from stomach cancer, aged just 38. The couple had shared a deep love, and Mary had taken the loss so hard that her friends feared for her life.[6] In a fit of desperation, she reached out to the investigators of the S.P.R. to help her find reassurance that Gwyther lived on in some fashion.

An investigator by the name of Nea Walker responded to Mary, offering to sit with mediums on behalf of the bereaved widow in an effort to contact Gwyther. She managed to collect a substantial amount of evidence from a number of mediums, one of whom was Mrs. Leonard. For example, just as in the case of Mrs. Lewis mentioned above, the medium was able to offer the pet names that Mary and Gwyther had for each other. Mrs. Leonard asked: “What am I getting B for?”, despite not knowing that Mary’s pet name for her husband was ‘Bee’. Mrs. Leonard’s control personality, the child-like ‘Feda’, then referred to a piano: “Mrs. Nea, you know the piano, you tap on his teeth, the one with the big white teeth?” When Mary read the transcript of this sitting, she was amazed. “Gwyther often called my piano ‘the animal with the big white teeth’,” she noted.

Nea Walker then organized for Mary White to have a sitting with Mrs. Leonard, but as an anonymous guest so that the medium was unaware of her identity. In the very first sitting, Mrs. Leonard spelled out Gwyther’s pet name for his wife: ‘Biddy’. Mary noted that this particular name was very special, as it was only Gwyther that used it. He also mentioned “the house of sweet scents”, which was a specific phrase that he had invented to describe potpourri.

But again, as with Mrs. Piper, perhaps the strongest evidence was unable to be shared due to the private nature of the communication. “Do you know what he means about the Shrine?”, Mrs. Leonard said. “It is connected with that chair… He likes to go in there at night. That is our Holy of Holies – where I meet you, so specially, so spiritually. I speak of my love to you. And there – and there, you make me feel I am going to have you again”. Mary White was unequivocal in her reading of this particular communication, though reticent to share the details. “I do not wish to annotate this”, she stated, but was at pains to confirm that it was “full of meaning. Gwyther can give me no greater evidence of his nearness or of his intimate association with my inmost self”.

And, as with Mrs. Piper’s ‘impersonations’, beyond the provocative evidence that comes down to us today in written form, there was even more to the sittings for those present in the way the medium transmitted the personality – dare we even say the ‘soul’ – of the deceased individual, in a way that was immediately recognizable.


Stop-Worrying-Cover-Medium

[1] Melton, J. G.  “Spiritualism.” Encyclopedia of American Religions, Volume 2. Wilmington, NC: McGrath Publishing Company. 1978

[2] Chan. M. (2009). “Warrior gods incarnate of Chinese popular religion”. Unpublished manuscript., cited in Graham, F. “Vessels for the gods: tang-ki spirit-mediums in Chinese popular religion” (forthcoming)

[3] Gauld, Alan. Mediumship and survival: A century of investigations. Academy Chicago Publishersm, 1984.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cited in Grosso, Michael. Experiencing the next world now. Simon and Schuster. 2004.

[6] Case notes Grosso, Michael. Experiencing the next world now. Simon and Schuster. 2004.

Image by the L-files, courtesy of Creative Commons license.