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Interview With
Dr. Richard Hodgson
Dr. Richard HodgsonInterviewed by Michael E. Tymn

During some 20 years of psychical research, Richard Hodgson (1855-1905) moved from being a skeptic and debunker to a staunch believer in psychic phenomena and survival. He is best remembered for studying the mediumship of Leonora Piper for nearly 18 years.

Born in Melbourne, Australia on September 24, 1855 and raised a Methodist, Hodgson earned his B.A. (1874), LL.B (1875), M.A. (1876) and LL.D (1878) at the University of Melbourne. He then moved to England, entering the University of Cambridge as a scholar of St. John's College while studying Moral Sciences. He apparently chose St. John’s because William Wordsworth, whose works he admired, had attended the school.

After taking honors in 1881, he began teaching poetry and philosophy at University Extension. In 1884, he accepted a position at Cambridge as lecturer on the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. However, according to Alex Baird, Hodgson's biographer, Hodgson "imbibed enough of an idealistic philosophy to eliminate the materialistic tendencies of Spenser." Baird adds that Hodgson was too strong an individualist to follow any philosopher completely, as “unconsciously he was searching for the Source and Secret of All Life."

While attending Cambridge, Hodgson joined an organization called the Cambridge Society for Psychical Research, which was started in 1879 and was a forerunner of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). He took an active part in the Society, exposing several fraudulent mediums. When the SPR was formed in 1882, Hodgson became one of its first members. While lecturing on Spencer at Cambridge, he was asked by the SPR to travel to India to investigate the Theosophical Society and its leaders, including Madame H. P. Blavatasky. After more than four months in India, Hodgson concluded that Blavatasky was a charlatan. A bitter controversy resulted from this, the Theosophists claiming that Hodgson did not understand the physical phenomena resulting from Blavatasky’s mediumship and was too harsh in his judgment. Upon returning to England Hodgson investigated several other physical mediums and issued a report that “nearly all the professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters who are more or less in league with one another.”

In 1887, Hodgson moved to Boston to become executive secretary of the American branch of the SPR (ASPR) and to take over from William James the investigation of Mrs. Piper. This “interview” is based on Hodgson’s verbatim words as quoted in On the Cosmic Relations, published in 1914, and The Life of Richard Hodgson, by Alex Baird, published in 1949. Those sources draw primarily from the records of the ASPR. The questions have been tailored to fit his words.

Dr. Hodgson, it has been recorded that you were anxious to prove that Mrs. Piper was a charlatan. Is that true?

"I had but one object, to discover fraud and trickery…of unmasking her. Today, I am prepared to say that I believe in the possibility of receiving messages from what is called the world of spirits. I entered the house profoundly materialistic, not believing in the continuance of life after death; today I say I believe. The truth has been given to me in such a way as to remove from me the possibility of a doubt."

As I understand it, you gradually came to realize that Mrs. Piper was not a fraud. However, you initially believed that Dr. Phinuit, who claimed to be her spirit control, was a secondary personality buried away in Mrs. Piper’s subconscious and that this secondary personality had the ability to telepathically gather the information coming through Mrs. Piper’s entranced body. What is your position now?

“Having tried the hypothesis of telepathy from the living for several years, and the ‘spirit’ hypothesis also for several years, I have no hesitation in affirming with the most absolute assurance that the ‘spirit’ hypothesis is justified by its fruits and the other hypothesis is not.”

As I also gather from the written records of the ASPR, it wasn’t until George Pellew (G.P.) started taking over duties from Dr. Phinuit as Mrs. Piper’s control that you moved from the secondary personality/telepathy hypothesis to the spirit hypothesis. There was no way to prove that Dr. Phinuit ever existed, but you knew G.P. when he was in the flesh. Can you tell us a little about him?

“G.P. met his death accidentally, and probably instantaneously by a fall in New York, in February 1892, at the age of 32….He was an associate of our Society, his interest in which was explicable rather by an intellectual openness and fearlessness characteristic of him than by any tendency to believe in supernormal phenomena…We had several long talks together on philosophical subjects, and one very long discussion, probably at least two years before his death, on the possibility of a ‘future life’.”

What were his views on a future life?

“In this he maintained that in accordance with a fundamental philosophical theory which we both accepted, a ‘future life’ was not only incredible, but inconceivable; and I maintained that it was at least conceivable. At the conclusion of the discussion he admitted that a future life was conceivable, but he did not accept its credibility, and vowed that if he should die before I did, and found himself ‘still existing,’ he would ‘make things lively’ in the effort to reveal the fact of his continued existence.”

The records have it that G.P. started communicating through Mrs. Piper on March 22, 1892, four or five weeks after his death and that he was more inclined to use her hand rather than her voice or relaying words through Dr. Phinuit. Was there any explanation for that?

“Apparently G.P. was more confident of giving his own exact words by the direct writing process than by the method of getting Phinuit to repeat them.”

Was it that solely the fact that the existence of Dr. Phinuit could not be verified and you personally knew G.P. that prompted to you to adopt the spirit hypothesis?

“With the advent of the G.P. intelligence, the development of automatic writing, and the use of the hand by scores of other alleged communicators, the problem has assumed a very different aspect. The dramatic form has become an integral part of the phenomenon. With the hand writing and the voice speaking at the same time on different subjects and with different persons, with the hand writing on behalf of different communicators at the same sitting, with different successive communicators using the hand at the same sitting, as well as at different sittings, it is difficult to resist the impression that there are here actually concerned various different and distinct and individually coherent streams of consciousness. To the person unfamiliar with a series of these later sittings, it may seem a plausible hypothesis that perhaps one secondary personality might do the whole work, might use the voice and write contemporaneously with hand. I do not, however, think it all likely that he would continue to think it plausible after witnessing and studying the numerous coherent groups of memories connected with different persons, the characteristic emotions, tendencies distinguishing such different persons, the excessive complication of acting required, and the absence of any apparent bond of union for the associated thoughts and feelings indicative of each individuality, save some persistent basis of that individuality itself.”

I remember reading that Mrs. Piper was able to see the spirit taking over her body as she was leaving the body after going into trance. At one of the early sittings, you showed her 32 photographs and asked her if she recognized any of them. She identified the photo of G.P. as the one taking over her body, even though you kept her in the dark about G.P. That seems pretty evidential.

“Now in the face of such an occurrence as this (and it does not stand alone), the talk about subliminal self, in the usual sense, secondary personality and all that, simply won’t do. We can talk of telopsis here, if we want to, but teleopsis of what? Of that photograph? Nonsense!”

You reported that out of at least 150 different people sitting with Mrs. Piper, G.P. knew 30 of them and recognized each of them. That certainly suggests an independent personality. Moreover, the non-recognition went against teleopsis, or what came to be known as “super psi” theory.

“The continual manifestation of this personality – so different from Phinuit or other communicators – with its own reservoir of memories, with its swift appreciation of any references to friends of G.P., with its ‘give and take’ in little incidental conversations with myself, has helped largely in producing a conviction of the actual presence of the G.P. personality, which it would be quite impossible to impart by any enumeration of verifiable statements. It will hardly, however, be regarded as surprising that the most impressive manifestations are at the same time the most subtle and the least communicable.”

The skeptics point to the fact that much of the communication is muddled and not always evidential. There is so much groping for words, ideas, and names. How do you explain that?

“Take the communications as a whole, and we find them coming very far short indeed of what we should expect from the real friends who once lived with us. It may well be that the aptitude for communicating clearly may be as rare as the gifts that make a great artist, or a great mathematician, or a great philosopher. It may well be that, owing to the change connected with death itself, the ‘spirit’ may at first be much confused and such confusion may last for a long time…If my own ordinary body could be preserved in its present state, and I could absent myself from it for days or months or years, and continue my existence under another set of conditions altogether, and if I could then return to my own body, it might well be that I should be very confused and incoherent at first in my manifestations by means of it. How much more would this be the case were I to return to another human body…Now the communicators through Mrs. Piper’s trance exhibit precisely the kind of confusion and incoherence which it seems to me we have some reason a priori to expect if they are actually what they claim to be. And G.P. himself appeared to be well aware of this.”

Would you mind explaining that?

[On February 15, 1894, G.P. communicated:] “Remember we share and always shall have our friends in the dream-life, i.e., your life so to speak, which will attract us forever and ever, and so long as we have any friends sleeping in the material world; – you are to us are more like as we understand sleep, you look shut up as one in prison, and in order for us to get into communication with you, we have to enter into your sphere, as one like yourself asleep. This is just why we make mistakes as you call them, or get confused and muddled, so to put it, H (Hodgson). Your thoughts do grasp mine. Well now you have just what I have been wanting to come and make clear to you, H, old fellow. Yes, you see, I am more awake than asleep, yet I cannot come just as I am in reality, independently of the medium’s light. Yes, because I am a little nearer and not less intelligent than some others here.”

Is there now any doubt in your mind that spirits are communicating through Mrs. Piper?

“I have no doubt but that the chief communicators to whom I have referred…are veritably the personalities they claim to be, that they have survived the change we call death, and that they have directly communicated with us, whom we call living, through Mrs. Piper’s entranced organism.”

Thank you, Dr. Hodgson. Any parting thoughts?

“It adds a great deal to life, of course, to be assured of the nearness and help of particular discarnate spirits, but, apart from this, there is no necessity for anyone who believes in God doubting the absolute persistence of the moral order throughout the whole of existence.”

Thank you, again. Oh, there is something else you wanted to add?

[Laughing]: “I can hardly wait to die.”

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