An account of fin-de-siècle investigations into the murky worlds and weird works of mediums, mesmerists, rhabdomancers and spiritualists.
Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Blum (Science Journalism/Univ. of Wisconsin; Love at Goon Park, 2002, etc.) has done her homework; she seems to have read all the relevant correspondence and publications of the scientists and psychologists who, around the turn of the 20th century, tried to determine if there was scientific basis for spiritualism. Although her focus is on the redoubtable William James, she offers much about his colleagues in the ghost-busting business, including William Crookes, William Fletcher Barrett, Edward Gurney, Richard Hodgson, Fred Myers, Henry Sidgwick, James Hyslop and others. The author also focuses sharply on two women with apparent powers: the medium Leonora Piper and the Italian telekineticist Eusapia Palladino, who could make curtains billow and tables hang in the air. Blum excels at demonstrating how troubled James and his cohorts were by their investigations. In some cases, they simply could not find scientific explanations for the stories they were gathering, or for what some of them had witnessed. In her trances, Piper said things that astonished them; Palladino flummoxed more than one cocky skeptic. Blum also does a fine job of showing how the scientific community was embarrassed and angered by the fact that some of its most respected members were pursuing research into the paranormal. Perhaps the most extreme reaction came at Columbia University, where a group of professors demanded that Hyslop abandon psychical research. What’s largely missing here is the author’s perspective. Blum seems content to relate rather than to analyze; her text lacks analysis. She ends with the patent observation that the conflict between science and the supernatural endures.
A useful but oddly uncritical summary.