Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by Deborah Blum

Blum Ghost Huners cvr

New York: The Penguin Press, 2006. 370 pp.

[This review first appeared on the nthposition website, May 2007.  Reprinted in shorter form as ‘It’s a Matter of Life and Death’, Fortean Times, No. 223, June 2007, p. 59.]


Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters has been gathering general acclaim, but while it is readable, it has a few problems.  To begin with, the title gives a misleading impression of what the book is about.  The protagonists of Deborah Blum’s story – scientists and scholars of the calibre of Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Oliver Lodge and William James – were, by and large, concerned with investigating the possibility of life after death, but ‘ghost hunter’ conjures up a particular image of vigils and technology which is far from how they went about it.  It is however a catchy title and should encourage purchasers.

Despite the author’s science Pulitzer it is not a scholarly book, but within the terms she sets for herself she succeeds in depicting something of the personalities of the first generation of scientific psychical researchers and the issues they had to navigate in their attempt to put the new discipline on a firm footing.  Unfortunately her approach to the complex field of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century psychical research betrays a lack of familiarity with the literature.  Her sources are by and large secondary, and not particularly new.  Primary ones are largely confined to the American Society for Psychical Research and the Houghton Collection of James’s correspondence at Harvard.  She does not seem to have visited the Society for Psychical Research’s extensive archive at Cambridge University Library, though she acknowledges the Wren library at Trinity College.

She has been selective in her sources for no apparent reason: for further information on French hypnotism, for example, she refers the reader to a few pages from Brian Inglis’s Natural and Supernatural, Gordon Epperson’s The Mind of Edmund Gurney and Charles Richet’s Thirty Years of Psychical Research, but not Eric Dingwall’s encyclopaedic Abnormal Hypnotic Phenomena: A Survey of Nineteenth Century Cases, an entire volume of which is devoted to France, nor Alan Gauld’s A History of Hypnotism.  Her treatment of the field is sketchy in any case: Jean Charcot warrants a paragraph, Pierre Janet little more, and she gives no indication of their massive influence.

There is no bibliography, forcing the reader to wade through endnotes to find the first reference to a publication.  Blum is not always scrupulous in providing references in any case.  For example she says simply (p129) that “Perhaps the most publicised attack in England [on Phantasms of the Living] appeared in the magazine Nineteenth Century in August 1887, in a lengthy article devoted to discrediting the documentation Gurney and his co-authors had used to establish their ghost stories” but does not give the author’s name or the article’s title, A. Taylor Innes and Where Are the Letters?: A Cross-Examination of Certain Phantasms respectively.  Nor does she acknowledge the robust defence Gurney mounted in the same publication in October 1887, Letter on Phantasms: A Reply.  She refers the reader to a number of articles by William Crookes first printed in science journals in the 1870s, not mentioning that they were collected together in a handy form in Crookes’s Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism.

There are odd little lapses indicating haste.  Blum suggests that Kinetoscope films were playing in New York in 1893, whereas the first presentation was on 14 April 1894; Catherine Crowe, author of The Night Side of Nature, was not Scottish but from Kent; the governess in The Turn of the Screw is not engaged by the children’s father, who is dead, but by their uncle.  Cambridge (England, the reader occasionally has to disentangle whether we are in Massachusetts or East Anglia as it is not always made clear) does not have a single campus, but 31 colleges dotted around the city.  Edward VII’s style was “By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India”, not what Blum says, which is briefer but not correct. More seriously she invariably calls the SPR the British Society for Psychical Research, as if that is its official title, whereas it needs no modifier, as it was first in the field.  Unforgivably it is listed in the index under B as “British Society for Psychical Research (SPR)”.

Perhaps the strangest lapse comes on pages 89-90 when she describes an experiment conducted by Gurney “on two young men, identified only as A, who was put in a hypnotic trance, and B.”  The experiment involved the transference of the sense of taste.  Blum ‘quotes’ Gurney:  “I suddenly and silently gave [B] some salt, motioned to him to put it in his mouth.  He did so; and [A] instantly and loudly exclaimed ‘What’s this salt stuff?’”  Blum continues that Gurney then provided sugar and finally salt again, and records B’s responses.  Why she cast the test in this form is a mystery.  No reference is given but the experiment can be found on pages 205-6 of the second volume of SPR Proceedings, from 1884: An Account of Some Experiments in Mesmerism, in the section entitled Community of Sensation.  There it can easily be seen who the participants were as Gurney names them:  “…the agent being Mr G. A. Smith, and the ‘subject’ a very intelligent young cabinet-maker, named Conway…”  Gurney writes, “Standing at some distance behind him [i.e. Conway], I suddenly and silently gave Mr. Smith some salt, motioned to him to put it into his mouth.  He did so; and Conway instantly and loudly…etc.”  Blum quotes Conway’s responses correctly but omits the fact that Gurney gave Smith a number of substances to transmit, of which salt and sugar were only two, and recorded all of Conway’s responses in a table.  As a description of Gurney’s report Blum’s account is inadequate.

Considering her book is about the growth of organised psychical research and how it fared while William James was alive, i.e. until 1910, the formation of the SPR itself in 1882 is very sketchily handled.  In talking about its personnel a certain false matiness is on display: Frederic Myers is usually Fred, his wife Eveleen is Evie, and Eleanor Sidgwick is always Nora.  Blum calls Florence Cook a “street medium”, a peculiar description which inevitably conjures up associations with prostitution but is meaningless.  She is perhaps groping for the distinction between public and private Alex Owen discusses in The Darkened Room, to distinguish between those mediums who performed for the general public and those who operated within closed circles from which the public was excluded.

Although Blum has used Trevor Hall’s hatchet job The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney as a source, she has thankfully soft-pedalled on Hall’s theory that Gurney committed suicide after allegedly discovering his secretary George Albert Smith (he of the taste experiments above) was still engaged in fraudulent practices when he had given an assurance he would no longer do so.  In an endnote Blum comes down on the side of suicide as opposed to accident, though she does not say why, yet is also in the camp that maintains Gurney had neuralgia, which undermines the suicide theory because an accidental overdose is a possibility.  However she does cite Epperson’s The Mind of Edmund Gurney and Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research which both contradict Hall’s view that Gurney’s death was unambiguously suicide.

Joe Nickell’s review of Ghost Hunters in The Skeptic (November/December 2006) takes Blum to task for not having read Martin Gardner’s analysis of Mrs Piper, who was the medium William James knew best.  Gardner’s contention is that scientists who know nothing of magic techniques are the easiest to fool.  It is a sweeping generalisation, and ignores the fact that the psychical researcher most closely associated with Mrs Piper was not William James but Richard Hodgson.  Hodgson had originally been a fierce sceptic: he had subjected Madame Blavatsky to a devastating critique, and collaborated with conjuror S. J. Davy on a series of fake séances resulting in an article, the very title of which – The Possibilities of Malobservation and Lapse of Memory from a Practical Point of View – published in Volume Four of the SPR Proceedings in 1887, indicates the level-headed nature of the early SPR investigations.

Hodgson became convinced that Mrs Piper was genuine, but his previous record makes his conversion all the more interesting, and it cannot be shrugged off by the likes of Gardner and Nickell as Hodgson falling prey to simple cold reading.  To agree with Gardner that “Because believers in Mrs Piper were convinced she could recall nothing of what was said during a séance, it never occurred to them that Mrs Piper might be lying…” is to assume a degree of stupidity out of keeping with the intelligence informing the investigations made by the psychical research community at that time, nor their successes in debunking fake mediums.  In any case, Blum certainly points out that during her career, but especially towards the end of it, Mrs Piper would fish for information and make erroneous statements, and this was recognised by those who came into contact with her.  To her credit Blum is even-handed in her assessment of the material and cannot be faulted for not having written the sort of book that would have made Joe Nickell happy.

Blum skilfully, if selectively, weaves together the various strands of activity on both sides of the Atlantic.  The result is an entertaining read that brings to life the characters who pursued psychical research against ferocious opposition, and with a single-mindedness and energy which put the current generation to shame.  Although William James is supposed to be the focus it becomes clear, though it is never made explicit, that actually he was not central to the development of the subject, which was largely going on in Europe.  Blum covers a great deal more than James’s contribution, but it would have been even better if she had delved more deeply and widely in the archives.

A final puzzle is the jacket illustration, a photograph taken by Albert von Schrenck-Notzing of Eva C (Marthe Béraud) on 17 May 1912, well after William James’s death.  Neither Schrenck-Notzing nor Eva C is featured in the text so what connection this image has to it is unclear, even if it is a fascinating picture in its own right.


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