This blog post was cross-posted from the Royal College of Physicians blog, and was written by Alana Farrell, project coordinator UK-MHL in 2015. It is one of a series of blog posts on the theme of Magic and the Supernatural, as part of History Day 2017.

Les mystères de la science. Louis Figuier, published Paris, 1880

Picture this scene: a group of people are sitting around a table in a fine room. They wait in the dark, with bated breath, as a medium attempts to contact the spirit world. Soon strange things start to happen. Shadowy figures with veiled faces of loved ones or sacred figures holding flowers appear to walk around the room. The medium may begin to levitate, or to lengthen as they are pulled by spirits. A red hot lump of coal may be plucked by the medium out of the fire, which they hold with their bare hands. Thanks to the spirit’s intervention, their hands do not burn.



All of the above events were purported to have occurred during 19th century séances in England, in particular those of Daniel Dunglas Home. Although this century is best known for its scientific developments, interest in the supernatural was common. Spiritualism, which began with the Fox sisters in the US and was brought to the UK by the medium (and later physician) Maria B. Hayden, became popular. Many eminent members of society became captivated by attempts to contact the afterlife including Arthur Conan Doyle and fellow of the RCP John Ashburner.

How can I distinguish between a memory and a dream?

A patient of professor Pierre Janet

However not everyone believed that spirits were visiting the world of the living. A psychical researcher and writer Frank Podmore was one of many people to investigate the claims of mediums. A former member of the British National Association of Spiritualists, Podmore once visited the medium Henry Slade to experience slate-writing. Later he joined The Society for Psychical Research where he investigated claims and applied new physical and psychological scientific methods in search of an explanation.

In Modern Spiritualism: a History and a Criticism Podmore looks at some real-life cases to see if there were natural explanations for what occurred. When examining séances, just like the ones described above, Podmore posits that a form of hallucination may be the cause. Some in the emerging field of psychology believed that hallucinations could only occur in extreme circumstances, but others, such as the English Society for Psychical Research, found evidence that hallucinations could occur in otherwise healthy individuals. They claimed that 1-in-10 English men could recall hallucinogenic experiences.

Hallucinations occurred, according to Podmore, due to a number of converging circumstances. The external sensory organs experience the world and influence what the brain perceives. If information is found to be lacking, then the imagination steps in to fill those gaps of knowledge. Many of the séances were done in the dark, with poor visibility. Podmore argued that this combined with people’s own expectations would lead them to experiencing spooky events. Stress could also play a part, heightening emotions and impacting how the brain perceived the world.

Podmore made sure to ground his ideas in the wider psychology of the day, drawing on incidents outside the supernatural arena. One such example came from the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and his voyage to the South Seas. Stevenson and his crew anxiously watched the horizon for signs of the coral islands on which they needed to land. Islands popped into view, lush and green, but in the blink of an eye they were gone again; just illusions across the vast expanse of the ocean.

Debate continued to rage through the 19th and early 20th centuries as to the cause of these experiences. Some claimed they were real, others claimed they were caused by contraptions and trickery. Podmore’s work attracted much praise from publications such as The American Journal of Psychology for his open-minded approach, seeking out plausible evidence and explanations grounded in the best science of the day.

Rare books and pamphlets from the RCP collections began to be digitised in March 2015 for the UK Medical Heritage Library. There are now over 4,000 books online free to read and use. These items date from 1780 to 1914, and cover a wide range of scientific, medical, sociological and historic topics. For more information on Frank Podmore and 19th century Spiritualism the following references are recommended as they informed this post: