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Mrs. Piper & the Society for Psychical Research by Michael Sage

III Early trances--Careful first observations by Professor William James of Harvard University, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

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I have already explained on what occasion Mrs Piper had her first trance. Suffering from a traumatic tumour, she had gone to ask advice of a blind medium named Cocke. This medium gave medical consultations, but he also asserted that he had the power of developing latent mediumship. At this first sitting Mrs Piper felt very strange thrills, and thought she was going to faint. At the following sitting Mr Cocke put his hands on her head. She felt at once that she was on the point of losing consciousness. She saw a flood of light, as well as unrecognised human faces, and a hand which fluttered before her face. She does not remember what happened afterwards. But when she woke she was told that a young Indian girl named _Chlorine_ had manifested through her organism, and had given a remarkable proof of survival after death to a person who happened to be present.

Mrs Piper was therefore really a medium. Her personal friends immediately began to arrange sittings with her. Little by little strangers were admitted to this private circle. Various self-styled spirits communicated by her means in the earlier days. Phinuit, who later took almost sole possession of Mrs Piper's organism, was far from being alone at first; his place was disputed. The first controls, if they themselves are to be believed, were the actress Mrs Siddons, the musician John Sebastian Bach, the poet Longfellow, Commodore Vanderbilt the multi-millionaire, and a young Italian girl named Loretta Ponchini.

At the outset Dr Phinuit, when he appeared, confined himself to diagnosing and giving medical advice. He thought everything else beneath him.

At last, one evening, John Sebastian Bach announced that he and all his companions were about to concentrate their power on Dr Phinuit, and make him the principal control. Naturally we do not know what they did, but it is certain that from that time Dr Phinuit became so much the principal control that he had almost sole possession of Mrs Piper's organism for years. As we shall see, he ceased to confine himself to giving medical consultations. He willingly replied to all questions addressed to him, and he even talked readily on all sorts of subjects without being questioned at all.

The first person of educated intelligence who had an opportunity to examine and study, although somewhat summarily, Mrs Piper's trance phenomena, was Professor William James of Harvard University. In 1886 he made a brief report of them, which he published in the _Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research_. Professor James did not at first recognise all the importance of the Piper case. No shorthand report of the sittings was made, and he did not even take complete notes. However, he assured himself that fraud had nothing to do with the phenomena, but without taking all the minute precautions which others have since taken. He satisfied himself that here was an interesting mystery, and says so in his report, but he left the charge of looking for the key to others. But I shall give an account of the sittings of Professor James, in the first place because it would be improper to neglect even the superficial studies of a man of such eminence, and secondly, because they will give my readers a clear idea of the phenomena.[8]

Professor James made Mrs Piper's acquaintance in the autumn of 1885 in the following way. His mother-in-law, Mrs Gibbens, had heard a friend speak of Mrs Piper, and as she had never seen a medium, she asked for a sitting out of curiosity. Mrs Gibbens, who went sceptical, returned rather impressed. She had heard a number of private details which she believed were unknown outside her family. On the day following Professor James's sister-in-law went in her turn to see Mrs Piper, and obtained even better results than her mother. For example, the inquirer had placed a letter in Italian on the medium's forehead. It must be observed that Mrs Piper is entirely ignorant of that language. Nevertheless, Phinuit gave a number of perfectly correct details about the writer of the letter. The mystery became interesting, as the young Italian who had written it was only known to two people in the whole United States. Later on, at other sittings, Phinuit gave the exact name of this young man, which he had been unable to do at first.