Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

In one of my last published articles, “Classic Text No. 107: Joseph Maxwell on Mediumistic Personifications” (History of Psychiatry, 2016, 27, 350-366, I will send a pdf reprint on request,, I discuss changes of personality in mediums as discussed by French jurist and physician Joseph Maxwell. The article is basically a reprint of an excerpt published by Maxwell in his book Metapsychical Phenomena: Methods and Observations (London: Duckworth, 1905; translated from Les Phénomènes Psychiques: Recherches, Observations, Méthodes. Paris: Félix Alcan, 1903).


Joseph Maxwell (on right) and Albert de Rochas in a seance with Eusapia Palladino in 1895


Here is the abstract:

“The study of mediumship received much impetus from the work of psychical researchers. This included ideas about the phenomena of personation, or changes in attitudes, dispositions and behaviours shown by some mediums that supposedly indicated discarnate action. The aim of this Classic Text is to reprint passages about this topic from the writings of French psychical researcher Joseph Maxwell (1858–1938), which were part of the contributions of some psychical researchers to reconceptualize the manifestations in psychological terms. Maxwell suggested these changes in mediums were a production of their subconscious mind. His ideas are a reflection of previous theorization about secondary personalities and a particular example of the contributions of psychical researchers to understand the psychology of mediumship.”



Maxwell saw personification as “the presentation of statements and behaviours apparently representing foreign beings or personalities.” His work is discussed in the context of developments in Spiritualism and the study of changes of personality, such as double and multiple personality cases. “This included the cases of Mary Reynolds . . . , Félida X. . . . and Ansel Bourne . . . , among many others . . . French student of dissociation Pierre Janet . . . became known for his observations of secondary personalities appearing during hypnosis . . . This literature included much about the effects of suggestion on personation, such as Richet’s . . .  induction of dramatizations of various characters using suggestion.”


Ansel Bourne

“Articulating previous ideas from writings about hypnosis, secondary personalities and mediumship, Maxwell insists that personifications do not depend on spirit influence, but are a function of the unconscious mind. Furthermore, he argues that such personifications depend on the beliefs of the circle surrounding the medium, and thus are a collective production, as argued by others before him . . . But Maxwell does not limit his discussion to the psychological nature of the personification. He also sees these imaginal characters as a necessary part of mediumship in the sense that researchers needed to work with, and not against them. To some extent, these personages are the assistants of researchers wishing to study mediums, and should not be contradicted while, at the same time, not be granted the status of a real being.”

However, not everyone agreed with Maxwell that mediumistic personalities were psychological creations of the medium. This was particularly the case with those that believed in discarnate agency.

One of the reasons behind my motivation to write this article was that Maxwell is not well known among English speaking researchers, even those interested in mediumship. But his work of Maxwell was an influential contribution to the psychology of mediumship, particularly in France. More broadly, Maxwell’s ideas “show not only that psychical research was concerned with psychological issues as a subject of study, but also that the ideas developed in such context contributed much to the study and theoretical conceptions of the hidden levels of the mind prevalent in the last quarter of the nineteenth-century and beyond, something documented in various ways by writings about the history of psychiatry and psychology appearing in the last decades.”