Great Spiritualists and Friends
A Harvard University professor for some 35 years, William James, M.D. distinguished himself as a pioneering psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. He is also credited with founding the American branch of the London based Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) and discovering the trance medium Leonora Piper in 1885.
After being told by his mother-in-law that she had sat with Mrs. Piper and had been given much information about deceased relatives, James became curious and decided to have his own sitting with her. He left his first sitting with Piper convinced that she had supernormal powers or that she had somehow become acquainted with a multitude of his family’s history. After a dozen sittings in which deceased relatives or friends communicated through her entranced body, James came to accept her supernormal powers, certain that she could not have known or researched all of the information that came through.
“I am persuaded of the medium’s honesty, and of the genuineness of her trance,” James reported, “and…I now believe her to be in possession of a power as yet explained.”
But James resisted the spirit hypothesis, initially theorizing that Dr. Phinuit, Mrs. Piper’s spirit control, was a secondary personality buried in her subconscious and that this secondary personality somehow had the ability to read the minds of the sitters. When information came through that was unknown to the sitters, James expanded his theory to suggest that she had the ability to tap into some kind of cosmic reservoir for information.
While James turned over the study of Mrs. Piper to Dr. Richard Hodgson, the executive secretary of the ASPR, in 1887, he continued to be interested in her until shortly before his death in 1910. Indications are that James leaned toward accepting the spirit hypothesis, at least privately, but sat on the fence publicly. “One who takes part in a good sitting has usually a far livelier sense, both of the reality and of the importance of the communication, than one who merely reads the records,” he wrote. “I am able, while still holding to all the lower principles of interpretation, to imagine the process as more complex, and to share the feelings with which Hodgson came at last to regard it after his many years of familiarity, the feeling which Professor (James) Hyslop shares, and which most of those who have good sittings are promptly inspired with [i.e., the spirit hypothesis].”
After Hodgson died in 1905, James began receiving very evidential messages from him through Mrs. Piper. James said he doubted that Mrs. Piper “dream life,” even if equipped with telepathic powers, was capable of impersonating Hodgson, but he still wondered if some spirit had been impersonating Hodgson. Thus, whether Hodgson or an impostor spirit, James appeared to recognize that a spirit was communicating with him.
Since his death, a number of reputable mediums, including Jane Roberts (“The Afterlife Journal of an American Philosopher”) and Susy Smith (“Book of James”) have reported channeling wisdom from James.
The death of their six-month-old son in 1885 had led both William and Alice to investigate spiritualism and the supernatural, an exploration which William had already embarked on to some degree when he founded the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research earlier that year. Survival after death remained unproven, he concluded, but room for many things in heaven and earth was allowed in his philosophy.
See the excellent resource page of the Emory University (Atlanta, GA) about William James.