Once upon a time at the turn of the 20th century “physical mediums”– the kind who claimed to manifest ethereal apparitions, cause sort-of-seen spirits to knock on walls and rock seance tables — were all the rage.
Given the mad skills required to float a sofa with your mind, it’s not exactly surprising that a sizable percentage of these physical mediums were caught levitating their clients’ wallets instead of the furniture.
There was one distinct exception: Eusapia Palladino, an orphaned and unschooled Italian peasant. Despite much evidence that she was using trickery herself, even the most skeptical investigators could never explain away all of her psychokinetic feats.
If you’re not familiar with her levitating ways, here’s a first hand report from Cesare Lombroso, one of the many scientists who investigated Palladino in action. Bear in mind that Lombroso was a unapologetic skeptic, until he met Palladino:
“If ever there was an individual in the world opposed to spiritualism by virtue of scientific education, and I may say, by instinct, I was that person. I had made it the indefatigable pursuit of a lifetime to defend the thesis that every force is a property of matter and the soul an emanation of the brain.”
After studying Palladino, he recanted, “I am ashamed and grieved at having opposed with so much tenacity the possibility of the so-called spiritualistic facts.”
Here’s one example of the kinds of activity that changed Lombroso’s mind:
In semi-darkness, Eusapia was often levitated, chair and all, on to the table…. And Prof. Poro reports that while she, sitting in her chair, was raised above the table top, he and another sitter passed their hands under her and the chair. In good light articles of furniture were often seen to advance untouched towards the medium, and a small table sometimes [seen to] climb up, apparently with difficulty, on to the larger one, round which the sitters sat….” via Michael Prescott’s Occasional Thoughts on Matters of Life and Death
Could any human perform such astonishing feats or was it all trickery? Fair question and, lucky you, you’re just a click away from downloading a seat at Palladino’s seance table and deciding for yourself. Thanks goes to Robert Mcluhan at Paranormalia for sharing this rare document he used to research his forthcoming book Randi’s Prize:
“The Feilding Report (Palladino in Naples) on Eusapia Palladino [is the report on] the famous series of eleven sittings carried out by three researchers on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research in Naples in 1908. As far as I know this has never been freely available before, in contrast to out-of-copyright books such as the SPR’s Phantasms of the Living, Richet’s Thirty Years of Psychical Research and Oliver Lodge’s Raymond, which can be downloaded in various places….I’m tempted to pull some extracts out and discuss them, but there’s no substitute just for browsing it. What I will say is this: the report provides a detailed picture of three men – articulate, alert, highly intelligent and experienced in the dodgy medium business – shut up in a locked hotel room for hours at a time, on eleven different occasions, with a short, stout, middle-aged woman in long skirts, whom they have firmly controlled, and at times even tied up, watching all kinds of weird stuff happening: hands and faces appearing, the sensation of touches and grips on their arms, musical instruments playing themselves, tables and stools levitating, objects gliding around, raps sounding from the furniture. The disbelievers’ position, by and large, has always been that this is explicable if we accept that Palladino got a hand or foot free here and there. My view is you have to read the report to see just how untenable this is.”
Will reading these first person transcriptions convince you that tables can that tables can walk across the room like an animated character from a Disney’s Beauty and the Beast ? It depends, I think, on what your views on the subject were to begin with.
For instance, Michael Prescott thinks Palladino was the real thing:
In a blog post where he tries to parse out the wheat from the chaff of psychic claims he writes:
“If the only evidence for psychokinesis were the reported phenomena of Uri Geller, would I believe in PK? Probably not. Too many questions have been raised about some of Geller’s more bizarre claims — for instance, being in telepathic contact with extraterrestrials. Plus, there is Geller’s undeniable gift for showmanship, which at the very least blurs the line between genuine phenomena and stage magic.
If the only evidence for psychokinesis were the reported phenomena of Eusapia Palladino, would I believe in PK? Probably, yes. Though Palladino was unquestionably capable of cheating, she also seems to have produced genuine phenomena in circumstances that preclude fraud. The 1908 Naples sittings are the prime example. I think it is highly unlikely that a team of very experienced investigators, who among them had debunked more than 100 physical mediums, and who observed Palladino in adequate light, taking strenuous precautions, would be completely fooled over a long series of sittings.”
On the other hand, if you go by James Randi you’ll agree with Prescott’s doubts about Uri Geller, but draw no distinction between Geller and every other psychic and paranormal claim that comes your way. Here’s Randi’s take on psychokinesis from his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
“Psychokinesis (PK) Once known as “telekinesis,” PK is the claimed power to affect matter by mind alone. Such feats as spoon-bending, moving small objects, causing items to fall over or fly through the air, or changing the quality or quantity of any substance are included in this category.
Many explanations have been offered for such feats, including certain mythic energies such as “ectenic force,” said to come from the body of the spirit medium during a séance, resulting in table tipping and apports. (The word ectenic was coined by two Swiss scientists, Count de Gasparin and Professor Thury, who convinced themselves that table tippers were generating a special force, rather than simply pushing the table about. This postulation denies the existence of ectoplasm and its more divine origins.)”
Anyway, here’s that download link again. Read it and see how the spirit moves you.