There’s no need to introduce you to what you already know.
We all have strange experiences, some stranger than others. People who think of themselves as basically rational might decline to call that noise in the attic a ghost or to celebrate a narrow escape from danger as a miracle. At the same time, the mechanisms of the physical world can fail to account for things seen, heard, and felt—things that take on the power of revelation in the course of individual lives and collective histories. This book maps the unstable terrain where assumptions clash with direct experience. It’s a space defined by absence: the absence of logical explanation, of the fixed laws and evidence that are supposed to govern modern life. It also encompasses the people we love who are gone—beyond reach, yet always present.
“The hour was high noon, and the sun was shining cheerfully. While busily smoking a cigar, and writing out my orders, I suddenly became conscious that someone was sitting on my left, with one arm resting on the table.” This is how a man from Boston, with the initials F. G., remembered the day in 1876 when he saw his dead sister. Prior to her appearance, he was having a very successful business trip in St. Josephs, Missouri. “Naturally I was startled and dumbfounded, almost doubting my senses; but the cigar in my mouth, and pen in hand, with the ink still moist on my letter, I satisfied myself I had not been dreaming and was wide awake.”1
Often, what pulls us into this confounding space is something intimately familiar, indeed central to who we think we are. The feeling of relation is instantaneous, natural—F. G. “sprang forward in delight” at the sight of his sister—yet disrupted by the knowledge that this particular relation is not possible. Some people search for a portal to this realm, but the majority wind up there by accident. For a lawyer from St. Paul, Minnesota, whose friends called him a “successful man of affairs and not at all a dreamer,” seeing a ghost also threw his sense of sanity into question.2 A young woman in New York, disturbed by a series of premonitions, wrote that “I should be glad to prove I am not psychic.”3 They feared exile from the shared reality of a secular, scientific age. Seeing things that weren’t there banished them to a corner of the map where superstition and madness reigned.
Others, however, use their strange experiences to argue for an expanded definition of reality. “This power I possess may be wave thought produced by the magnetism of the world passing through space,” wrote a psychic medium from Illinois.4 An oil company agent in California confidently explained, “I have seen so many instances where the existence of this power has been demonstrated . . . that I have accepted it as a fact in the same way that I have accepted the X-Rays, Wireless Telegraphy, etc.”5 Nineteenth-century Americans saw the horizons of the known universe expanding before their eyes.
Making sense of experience can be deeply personal work, but in thousands of cases like these, individuals looked to an emerging science, called psychical research, to figure out what happened to them. If the name sounds unfamiliar, that’s because psychical research no longer exists for practical purposes. It coalesced in the late nineteenth century, at a moment when scientists began seeking objective explanations for a set of experiences that included trance, hypnotism, clairvoyance, dissociation—all involving some perception, thought, or action that appeared to enter the subject’s consciousness from elsewhere but had no external, material correlate.6 Since they were the subject matter of psychical research, we might simply term these psychical experiences, but I will also describe them in a broader historical context as liminal states and contested experiences. Witnesses described them as occurring in a liminal space between sleeping and waking, madness and sanity, self and other. Historian Marlene Tromp describes them as altered states, for their power to reconfigure individuals, communities, and ideas of where the nation begins and ends.7 Indeed, popular writers of the time fixed on the metaphor of “borderlands” for all things psychical, turning an elusive fringe into a sensational center.
Further, from the seventeenth century onward, Anglo-American observers sought to make a distinction between experiences that were religious and those that were psychological in nature. As Ann Taves points out, this contestation mapped onto social divides, with the established Protestant elite attempting to discredit and control unruly religious enthusiasm by explaining it with the science of mental disorder.8 A third view emerged in this period that characterized psychical experiences as neither revelations from God nor pathological delusions, but rather as natural capacities of the human brain. Followers of Franz Anton Mesmer proclaimed, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that they could harness this natural capacity to heal the sick through magnetic influence. Yet the boundaries between religious, natural, and pathological interpretations were never solid.
In many ways, ensuing debates around these experiences centered on the question of what is normal and natural—and therefore possible in the material universe—versus what is divine or disordered. Natural mental functions like perception and memory could be explained without at all diminishing their concrete reality. Most scientists maintained a general commitment to Christian values which placed divine experiences safely above explanation, though the criteria for “true religion” were disputed and evolving. Finally, pathological experiences fell below the threshold of respectful engagement; to explain them was to explain them away and label their subjects as fundamentally mistaken about reality. Of course, these categories are human creations, and debating them was also a process of purifying a heterogeneous field of experience to make the world more legible and controllable for those who had power or sought to secure it. This book focuses on people who troubled the purity of the posited categories.
Contested experiences proliferated, and their social valence shifted, in the mid-nineteenth century with the spread of Spiritualism, a popular religious movement that originated in upstate New York and quickly swept the U.S. and Europe with dramatic demonstrations of trance mediumship. Spiritualists saw themselves as mediating between religious and pathological interpretations of liminal states, asserting that they communicated with the dead through a natural process, a yet-to-be-discovered scientific law. They appealed this claim to academic authorities, many of whom felt compelled by the overwhelming popularity of the movement to investigate for themselves. Whereas Spiritualists considered their theory that the dead speak to be proven by firsthand experience, wary investigators termed this the “spirit hypothesis,” one among many possible explanations. Though not sold on spirits, liberal-leaning Protestants and those drifting away from the church were inclined to experiment with a “both/and” option that allowed for communion with some kind of transcendent universal force to occur through physical pathways.9 With the discipline of psychology in its infancy, a wide variety of investigators weighed in, and those who were drawn more deeply into the realm of séances and telepathy called this field of investigation psychical research.
The psychical researcher was a peculiar kind of authority: not a psychiatrist or a theologian, but an expert in the collection and classification of experiences; versed in detecting superstition and deceit, yet interested in a middle way between these possibilities. No special training certified psychical researchers to counsel the distressed or to experiment on the curious. No diagnosis or therapy came out of a consultation. Psychical research, in fact, had no conclusive answers for any of its participants, yet they eagerly wrote letters, filled out questionnaires, attended lectures, and read every shred of literature on the subject. Ordinary people contributed their raw experiences in the hope of building up a new field of scientific knowledge where none had existed.
“We number at present only twenty,” the letter writer explained, “but all of them are persons of intellect and trained observers, and especially interested in this kind of study.” William James read this missive in 1890, a year after securing an endowed chair in psychology at Harvard and a month before he would ship the manuscript for his Principles of Psychology to the New York offices of publisher Henry Holt. James was a rising academic star at the forefront of his field. His correspondent, Herbert L. Spence, who led a circle of psychical investigators in Cincinnati, was not. Little remains of Spence’s life, mostly nominal mentions in the records of a local literary club. Yet Spence reached out to James as a colleague in psychical research—albeit a senior colleague who was integral in establishing the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), the first national organization devoted to spearheading work on the topic.
Spence’s group of twenty Ohioans convened once a week to conduct experiments just like those that James performed with and on his Harvard graduate students. Though James is remembered for establishing the first academic psychology laboratory in the United States, he never made much use of the chronometers and resonators there. He preferred less structured tests of telepathy and clairvoyance, sittings with mediums, and collecting case reports—the kind of thing that Spence and his friends could do at home. Indeed, groups like Spence’s met across the United States and Europe throughout the 1880s and 90s and well into the twentieth century. Similar groups are at work today. Most of them gathered in private homes and parlors, and even those based in universities rarely had the formal support of a psychology department.
What should we call these participants in psychical research? For the most part they were not professional scientists or psychologists—although some groups started with local professors of psychology, and many participants worked in other branches of the sciences. They might be called amateurs; even William James deemed himself “a dabbler and amateur” in psychical research compared to the more experienced British leaders in the field.10 But no academic degree existed to make such formal distinctions; James deferred to his self-taught British colleagues because of their practical success in documenting cases. Psychical researchers might be called hobbyists, since many participated out of casual interest, enjoying the sociability and amusement of their gatherings. However, they viewed this activity as something more than a diversion. They understood it as part of a larger, knowledge-generating project, requiring special skills of observation and critical thought. Scientific rigor and experimental control were their gold standards, though they debated what exactly such ideals meant in practice. In this book I will often call them investigators—defining them by their activity rather than a fixed identity or formal role.
Spence wrote to William James with specific questions about how to do psychical research, hoping to improve the quality of his group’s work. Only later did he suggest that the Cincinnati investigators might want to join the ASPR and contribute to a national project. Spence did not view a formal institution run by academics as inherently superior to the firsthand experience available in his own parlor. When he asked James if he could “fall into regular, systematic work” with the ASPR, he wanted reassurance that the ASPR would help his group measure up to the scientific ideals which they had already adopted for themselves.11
From 1885 onward, scores of other psychical investigators would contact the ASPR on similar terms. After a few years, James admitted that this onslaught of correspondence had become “almost intolerable,” occupying more of his scarce time than he’d ever expected.12 He sometimes spoke condescendingly of informal investigators, bemoaning their stream of “anecdotes and other disjointed details.” His attempts to structure knowledge-making around some differential of expertise were in tension with the desire of the society’s membership to participate not as data sources, but as peers.13 In the heterodox world of psychical research, the preeminent expert could call himself an amateur while still looking down his nose at people who’d seen more phenomena than he had. Meanwhile, truly self-taught amateurs, moved by the conviction of firsthand experience, could declare themselves experts. Such an unstable assemblage seemed destined to fly apart.
I located the mortal remains of American psychical research on the third floor of an Upper West Side brownstone in New York City: bundles of letters, yellowed newspaper clippings, surveys, and circulars lining the walls of crypt-like storage rooms. This was my reward for a gamble of a research trip: after many unanswered phone calls, voicemail messages, and emails to the ASPR, I simply took a bus to New York and sat vigil on the building’s steps, in front of the locked iron gate, slipping a letter of support from my librarian through the bars. A morning and afternoon passed. For good luck, I paged through James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience in the shade.
1. Letter from F. G. in Josiah Royce, “Report of Committee on Phantasms and Presentiments,” PASPR 1:4 (1889): 422.
2. E. V. Smalley to Richard Hodgson, April 12, 1894, folder 1, box 3, ASPR.
3. Anna E. Seymour to Walter Franklin Prince, June 8, 1933, folder 4, box 37, ASPR.
4. Mary V. Asmann, Evansville, Illinois, to James Hyslop, Sept. 29, 1900, folder 3, box 37, ASPR.
5. R. W. Fenn to James Hyslop, July 20, 1908, folder 3, box 37, ASPR.
6. This definition of psychical experience is based on Ann Taves’s discussion of self-alien religious experience in Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 7–9.
7. Marlene Tromp, Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007), 4.
8. Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions, 6–7.
9. Some liberal Protestant clergy embraced this “complementarity,” mobilizing universalist notions of spirituality, energy, and life force in their healing practices. Pamela E. Klassen, Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 91–92.
10. William James to George Croom Robertson, August 29, 1886, in The Correspondence of William James, Vol. 6, eds. Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992–2004), 158.
11. Herbert L. Spence to William James, April 9, 1890, box 36, folder 1, ASPR.
12. William James to Frederic W. H. Myers, January 30, 1890, in The Correspondence of William James, Vol. 7, 139.
13. The term data has taken on a much broader significance in the twenty-first century; nineteenth-century researchers used data for items of scientific information gathered through observation and experiment. However, this use of data for large-scale observation of human behavior contributed to later developments in the human sciences and the rise of “big data.” For histories of big data, see Rebecca M. Lemov, Database of Dreams (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).