Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
In Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena (New York: B. W. Dodge, 1909) psychical researcher Hereward Carrington (1880-1958) presented an overview of the career of Italian medium Eusapia Palladino, who lived between 1854 and 1918. In addition to providing us with one of the best general sources of information about this medium up to 1908, the book is still important today for several reasons.
Carrington included: (1) a summary of particular incidents of Palladino’s mediumship of relevance to the history of psychical research; (2) biographical material about the medium; (3) examples of the phenomena reported around her; (4) an overview of seances with Palladino up to 1908; (5) a report of his sittings with the medium in 1908; (6) an overview of attempts to explain physical phenomena through conventional processes; (7) a review of explanations of Palladino’s phenomena through various unorthodox concepts of force (including the author’s speculations); and (8) arguments defending the reality of the medium’s phenomena. In addition, the book has other valuable lessons for us today that I will comment on later.
Although Palladino produced mental phenomena, she was mainly a physical medium. In addition to a variety of movements of objects, such as table levitations, and to the materializations of limbs, the phenomena reported to take place in her presence included temperature changes, sounds, direct writing, imprints on plaster, and luminous manifestations. Although these phenomena are rare today, they were once widely discussed in the literature of Spiritualism and psychical research.
Palladino was brought to the attention of the world beyond small spiritistic circles in 1891 when Cesare Lombroso sat with her and became convinced of the genuineness of her phenomena. Soon after, in 1892, the medium was investigated in Milan by a variety of researchers, producing a report that circulated through Europe and in the United States. The report included a description of the use of instruments to measure the forces applied to the table and changes of weight of the medium (Aksakof et al. Rapport de la Commission Réunie a Milan pour l’Étude des Phénomènes Psychiques. Annales des Sciences Psychiques 1893, 3, 39–64).
This was followed by many investigations that made Palladino well-known in psychical research. Some of them were those discussed in such works as Albert de Rochas’ L’Extériorisation de la Motricité (Paris: Chamuel, 1896), Jules Courtier’s “Rapport sur les Séances d’Eusapia Palladino a l’Institut Général Psychologique” (Bulletin de l’Institut Général Psychologique, 1908, 8, 407–546), and Enrico Morselli’s Psicologia e “Spiritismo”(Turin: Bocca, 1908, Vol. 1: click here, Vol. 2: click here), among many other sources.
Although Palladino persuaded many of the reality of her phenomena, she was caught in fraud on several occasions. Still, Palladino’s mediumship, Carrington argued in his book, was very important. He wrote:
“Eusapia Palladino holds almost a unique place in the history of spiritualism, and for several reasons. The chief reason is this: That in her may now be said to culminate and focus the whole evidential case for the physical phenomena of spiritualism. If it could be shown that—in spite of all these years of work, in spite of the elaborate precautions taken, in spite of the testimony of the numerous scientific men who have carefully investigated her, and brought in favorable reports—her performances were fraudulent throughout, and that nothing but fraud entered into the production of these phenomena—then the whole case for the physical phenomena would be ruined—utterly, irretrievably ruined. . . . If, on the other hand, it becomes evident that fraud will not cover all the facts, and that genuine phenomena do occur in her presence—phenomena as yet inexplicable by science—then it will be proportionately more probable that many of the historic cases were genuine also. . . .” (p. 4)
The section of the book reporting Carrington’s seances with this medium referred to seances held with his colleagues Everard Feilding and W. W. Baggally. They were all commissioned by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to study the medium. Extracts of the report published by the SPR (Feilding, E., Baggally, W.W., Carrington, H. Report on a Series of Sittings with Eusapia Palladino. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1909, 23, 309-569) appear in Chapter 4. To assess the importance of these seances for Carrington, and to understand why he included them in his book, we need to see the issue in its historical context.
Palladino was at Cambridge in 1895 and had seances with SPR members. Their report was negative, concluding that the phenomena were fraudulent and that the SPR would not have anything further to do with the medium (Sidgwick H. Eusapia Palladino. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 1895, 7,148–159).
Some criticized this conclusion, as can be seen in a classic paper generally neglected in the English-language literature authored by Julian Ochorowicz (La Question de la Fraude dans les Expériences avec Eusapia Palladino. Annales des Sciences Psychiques, 1896, 6, 79–123). Because of the accumulation of independent positive testimony in favor of the medium in later years, and the good impression Carrington and Feilding had in preliminary seances with her, the SPR decided to sponsor another investigation. As Carrington had stated in a previous book, he was skeptical of Palladino’s phenomena. He summarized his view in the work commented on here:
“As for myself, I can but say that, during ten years continued investigations of the physical phenomena of spiritualism, during which period I have sat many score, if not hundreds of times, with mediums, and traveled many hundreds of miles in order to see genuine physical phenomena, if such existed—I had invariably been disappointed, and until I had attended my first seance with Eusapia, had never seen one single manifestation of the physical order which I could consider genuine. On the contrary, I had always detected fraud, and, being an amateur conjurer myself, was enabled in nearly every instance to detect the modus operandi of the trick, usually the first time I saw it. In my Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism  I devoted more than three hundred pages to the psychology of deception, and to a detailed exposure of the tricks and devices of fraudulent mediumship” (p. 154).
The report of the 1908 sittings at Naples was unique in the Palladino literature for several reasons. First, it was more detailed than previous reports, consisting of stenographic notes dictated by the researchers. Second, the report included descriptions of control at the same time that the phenomena were described. Third, Feilding, Baggally, and Carrington were all highly experienced in the investigation of mediums and the tricks many of them employed.
Carrington not only became convinced, but he became the champion defender of the medium, as seen in the book commented on here and in several other publications. But his conversion took place gradually. He wrote: “Seance after seance, we remained doubtful, until the sixth, when we felt that we had become finally and irrevocably convinced. The facts had at last found lodgment in our minds, and we felt that our observations had not been mistaken” (p. 323). This is a reminder of the way many psychical researchers have become convinced of the existence of mediumistic phenomena, a process that involves a measure of familiarity with unusual phenomena achieved through repeated exposure to them, combined with personal involvement with the precautions taken to control the medium. Such observations should be of interest to current researchers of dramatic physical phenomena.
Referring to further studies with the medium, Carrington wrote:
“It is earnestly hoped that sufficient money and sufficient interest will soon be raised in this country to bring Eusapia to America, and to study her by means of a long series of experiments; and, when once the facts have been established (as I feel certain they would be), to begin a scientific investigation . . . of the medium and her phenomena. Certain it is that the present state of things is a disgrace to science—particularly in a country which boasts of its wealth, its progress, and its openmindedness!” (pp. 336-337).
Carrington brought the medium to New York, where many seances were held between November 1909 and June 1910. Although there were phenomena that could not be easily explained, as argued by Carrington throughout his career, and as seen in his book The American Seances with Eusapia Palladino (New York: Garrett Publications, 1954), the New York séances were disastrous for the reputation of the medium. Unfortunately, rather than helping to get Palladino’s phenomena accepted or better understood, the New York seances were not systematically conducted and ended up creating a media circus. The seances generally did not reach the stage of scientific investigations referred to by Carrington. Many of the sitters were inexperienced sitters and journalists who were more interested in reporting to the public than in understanding the phenomena. To this day the seances remain a good example of the need to separate systematic research from media-laden environments. Furthermore, a factor contributing to the controversies was that Carrington was believed by some to have had financial interests in the venture and was publicly perceived as the medium’s “manager.”
In the book discussed here, Carrington also reviewed various explanations offered to explain the medium’s phenomena. Among the conventional ones, he mentioned hallucination and fraud. Carrington did not believe hallucination explained anything, pointing to the instrumental recording of some of the phenomena. In addition to photographs of the manifestations, particularly table movements, Carrington wrote: “Additional evidence is furnished by those cases in which records of the phenomena have been obtained by instrumental means. The actual occurrence of a phenomenon has been proved, e.g., by means of revolving cylinders, electrical apparatus, and other devices which have checked the progress of the phenomena by purely automatic means” (pp. 243-244).
Fraud, Carrington stated, was a more serious objection, and one he had documented through personal experience with Palladino. But he refused to accept the idea that her case had to be rejected on the basis of some instances of trickery. A good part of the phenomena, he stated, simply could not be explained by the simple tricks the medium was well-known to perform. He assured his readers: “In our own seances I am absolutely certain that fraud was not and could not have been employed in the vast majority of cases. Not only did we feel the hands controlled by us, not only did we encircle them with our hands, trace the arm to the body, and ascertain from the relative position of the thumb and fingers which hand we were holding, but we could frequently see, as well as feel, the medium’s hands resting in ours upon the table or stretched before us perfectly visible” (pp. 246-247).
Furthermore, Carrington pointed out that there were many instances in the seance records in which movement of objects and other phenomena took place at a distance and out of reach of the medium. There were also particularly impressive incidents under conditions that Carrington considered to be fraud-proof. The following, from his seances with Feilding and Baggally was an example:
“During the ninth seance, the small stool which we had placed just outside the cabinet, about three feet distant from the medium, came out of its own accord and moved up to within a foot of her. Eusapia waved one of her hands, still controlled by ours, above the stool, and it moved in various directions, corresponding to the movements of her hand. She then approached her hand to the stool and a complete levitation resulted. One of us then passed his hands between the stool and the medium’s body, and along the carpet, showing that no thread, hair, string, or other attachment was possible. We picked up the stool and examined it, replacing it on the ground. We did not allow Eusapia to touch the stool with hand or foot, after it had been placed on the floor, but held her hand in ours about three feet above the stool, and held her leg by knee and ankle on the side nearest the stool. There was a brightly illuminated patch of carpet of about eighteen inches between the small stool and her skirt. In spite of these precautions, however, the stool immediately began its movements, and rose into the air several times under the hands of one of the investigators and without being touched in any way by Eusapia” (pp. 259-260).
Carrington then went on to summarize the ideas of those who postulated forces coming out of the medium’s body. In fact, and as I have argued elsewhere (Alvarado, C.S. Gifted Subjects’ Contributions to Psychical Research: The Case of Eusapia Palladino. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 1993, 59, 269–292), Palladino’s mediumship provided a context for, one may say an opportunity for, many of her researchers to develop ideas of this sort using a concept that preceded her mediumship.
Writing in a previous book, Vitality, Fasting and Nutrition (New York: Rebman, 1908), Carrington stated his belief that the human body was ruled by a vital force independent of metabolic processes and that this force was the real principle behind life in the organism. To explain Palladino’s phenomena, Carrington postulated that this vital principle, a connecting link between mind and matter, and usually at work only inside the body, could exteriorize on rare conditions and produce physical phenomena. Carrington postulated phenomena that were not particularly intelligent—referred to by him as “class one” phenomena—could be under the control of the subconscious mind of the medium. But there was a second class of phenomena that seemed to express intelligence.
Carrington wrote in the book reviewed here:
“This same vital energy, which is controlled by the medium’s own mentality, when producing the phenomena of class one, is utilized by the manifesting intelligence in very much the same manner (when the medium is in trance) in producing the manifestations and phenomena of class two. We might conceive that this vital energy is utilized by the manifesting intelligence, who imbibes and clothes himself with it, as it were—creating a sort of temporary fluidic body through which it can manifest—can come in contact with the material world, move material objects, be seen, felt, and even photographed. . . . The vitality would act as a sort of sheath or cloak, a semi-material substance through and by means of which a spirit can manifest to us here, and initiate the varied phenomena witnessed at Eusapia’s séances” (p. 300).
Such a concept, Carrington recognized, without presenting examples, was not completely novel. In fact, Carrington’s idea of a vital principle capable of being used by spirits was similar, to give one example among many, to the concept of the perispirit discussed by French spiritists such as Allan Kardec and Gabriel Delanne.
In another chapter, Carrington focused on psychological and psychophysiological aspects of the medium. Among the points he raised was the importance of keeping the medium in a good mood so as to obtain phenomena. Carrington wrote that the medium hiccupped going into trance. Furthermore: “She also sighs, groans, and seems to be extremely uncomfortable, until the phenomena are well under way; and especially during the production of any larger phenomena she cries, ‘Oh, dear! Oh, dear!’ and groans repeatedly. When she passes into trance, however, this suffering is lost. . . . The lesser phenomena are, apparently, nearly always remembered—the more remarkable ones are forgotten” (pp. 319-320).
The chapter also included speculations about the causes of the medium’s fraudulent performances. In Carrington’s view, fraud could be conscious, caused by “her love of mischief” (p. 327). But Carrington believed that most of the fraud was unconscious, taking place during trance: “There is a strong impulse to produce phenomena, and, if she is not restrained, she will endeavor to produce them in a perfectly normal manner. But if she is restrained, genuine phenomena will result—as we repeatedly ascertained” (p. 328). Carrington’s writing, together with those of others such as the above-mentioned article by Ochorowicz, reminds us that Palladino’s mediumship contributed to the development of the concept of unconscious fraud in mediums.
Carrington ended his book by restating his belief in the reality of the phenomena and hoping that further investigations would make the world see Palladino “not as a vulgar impostor, but as a rarely gifted individual, possessing powers worthy of the deepest study and respect; as a delicate and sensitive piece of organic machinery, which should be guarded and cared for with the utmost kindness and consideration” (p. 338).
Carrington’s wish has not been fulfilled, as is clear from many later writings about the medium. Not everyone sees Palladino today positively, even within parapsychology. But perhaps we may learn from Carrington’s experiences. Even if physical mediumship is not a main line of research in current parapsychology, and if concepts of force such as Carrington’s are not widely accepted by researchers, some of the points made by him in the book are still valuable today. Among them I will mention the value of having knowledge of trickery, something that is clear in Carrington’s discussion of his own seances. Unfortunately, there are examples of researchers coming from old to more recent times who, without any particular expertise in the detection of trickery, have presumed that they are capable of conducting research on macro-PK phenomena solely because they have been trained in an academic discipline. Although this may not be a problem in some cases, Carrington’s book reminds us of the importance of researchers having the proper qualifications to conduct credible and well-controlled research with physical phenomena.
Carrington’s work is also a reminder of important but often forgotten aspects of past theory, and of the difficulties of achieving personal and collective conviction in the study of phenomena that, even within parapsychology, are very controversial.
A slightly different version of these comments appeared in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (2010, 24, 126-133).