The year is 1892, and I am blessed to be interviewing Frank Podmore of the Society of Psychical Research and co-author with Frederick Myers and Edmund Gurney the book “Phantasms of the Living” – one of the cornerstones of psychical research. The 1880s saw a second huge surge in interest in ghosts, mysticism and the paranormal. 1892 is the year that WT Stead published his second volume of “Real Ghost Stories”, adding only more fuel to the fire. The Society of Psychical Research was established in 1882 but rather than celebrate ten years of corporation, the society was lampooned and ridiculed by the British media – yet usually they offered the only sane voice during the wave of claims of the newspapers and mediums.
I met Frank at his occasional accommodation in the Malverns, he was welcoming, calm but focused throughout the interview. As we drank tea, I asked if there was a corporate view of the Victorian S.P.R?
“We have no corporate view, we are a society of investigators.”
You’ve had ten years on the track of ghosts, have you come to sort of working theory about ghosts?
“I cannot say so much. Our chief investigators are all agreed as to the methods; but room is left for considerable divergence of opinion as to the inference. Of course, I speak solely for myself.”
I have read “Phantasms of the Living”, but are you sceptical to the existence of ghosts? I am sure my website’s visitors would be interested to know.
“My position, is roughly, that which is set forth by Gurney in the book you mention. There are certain purely subjective phenomena, of the nature of waking dreams, which are known to psychologists as hallucinations. Some of these hallucinations, as we have demonstrated, coincide with the death of the person whom they represent, or with some other external event. Such coincidental hallucinations – what you call “ghosts” – I regard as started by an impulse received from some other mind – that of the dying man, for instance. They are still, in my view, hallucinations, that is , they are simply ideas of unusual vividness and intensity; but they owe their origin not to some slightly abnormal state on the part of the percipient, but to an external impulse or brain-wave. The process by which that impulse is transferred from another mind has been named by F.W.H.Myers ‘telepathy’. Similar apparitions are occasionally seen representing dead persons; but I do not think that there is at present any evidence, in such cases, of the continued action of the dead. I am inclined to attribue the results to thought-transference from the living.”
In the last years there have been a rise in reports in newspapers about ghosts and similar sightings. Do you see the works of say, WT Stead who merely collects ghost stories for publication as being little worth?
“No, no! you must not put words into my mouth. Our society is most grateful to Mr Stead; not only for his generous and ungrudging appreciation of our work, but also for the magnificent boom – is not that the newspaper term? – which his widely circulated Christmas Number (special edition newspapers usually with ghost stories) has given us. There, at one stroke, is an audience such as our own efforts could not have reached for years to come. We, of course, could not have made such an appeal – but that does not imply any disparagement of Mr Stead’s methods. The aim to to get at the truth; it is the standpoint and the methods which differ. He approaches the subject as a professed believer in things spiritual – we do not. We, as experts, submit for the verdict of the public only the results of our labours in fairly complete form; Mr Stead concerned only to make out a ‘prima facie’ case for investigation, is at liberty to put his matter in whatever way he thinks best adapted to enlist the public’s interest and co-operation. His stories are a first-class ground-bait to attract more stories.”
It is well known that WT Stead ‘borrowed’ stories from the S.P.R collection, do you still think the stories have evidential value?
“Mr Stead viewing them rather from the, well, the dramatic, than from the scientific, point of view, quotes them, not, as they appear in their final form in ‘Phantasms of the Living’ cumbered with much evidential discussion and deduction, but as they originally appeared in our Proceedings, some years previously, when our standard of evidence was less exacting.”
Why is the society so protective of it’s cases, you value the evidential value of any story in inverse proportion to its merits as a “chiller.”
“I fear that is apt to be the case, especially when the story is secondhand and the events happened long ago. Deception and impositon apart, and we have met with little of either, it is extraordinary how much mere mis-recollection will do – and unintentional exaggeration. A story is bound to get altered as it passes from mouth to mouth; and you may be sure it does not get altered for the worse in point of interest. The imagination delights in dramatic unity as much in a ghost story as in a novel or a play. Mistakes of hour and date are not uncommon. One gets to distrust from sad experience the triumpant phrase, “At exactly the same moment, allowing for difference in longitude” etc However the evidence falls apart when we obtain the corroborative evidence of letters, diaries etc and the witness of persons who were present or who were told before fulfulment.”
So S.P.R. ghost stories go through a debunking stage?
“Many of the stories from WT Stead are in their first crude stage. The correspondents have not been interviewed; corroboration is yet lacking; diaries and registers have not so far been examined; dates of external events have not been verified; some of the stories are even second or third hand. Others have no coincidence or other characteristic to distinguish them from purely subjective hallucinations; and such they presumably are.
What are your thoughts on clairvoyance and psychics? Recently (in the late 1880s and early 1890s) there have been stories of people finding buried treasure or tracking murderers in day-dreams that penetrate walls etc. Do you think clairvoyants who deliver such minuteness of detail, make a mere “guess” a mathematical impossibility?
“Where the details had been noted down at the time and before the event – possibly yes. But where this has not been done (the usual state of the case) you can be sure of nothing. Nothing is more difficult to preserve the details of a dream or waking vision in a distinct form, and the attempt to make a sketch from the clairvoyant’s description would often prove the extreme haziness of the picture seen. But after the event, where the details are known – when for instance, the murderer has been otherwise discovered – the tendency is strong for the memory to fill in the picture unconsciously. Of course, some cases are better than others, but my own view is, so far as our investigations have yet gone, that clairvoyance without the possibility of telepathic transference of the idea from another mind cognizant of the facts is not yet sufficiently proved. I see not need yet to adopt any such theory as that Mr Stead calls “the cosmic camera,” retaining, as it were, photographs of past events taken by ‘astral light.’ Such a theory is fascinating, but hardly called for by the facts.”
Reading through many newspapers of this time, and especially of Mr Stead’s statements, he claims that the Society is engaged of a Census of Ghosts – is that a correct description?
“No, the census is a very different project from our ordinary work. We have undertaken to present to an International Congress of Experimental Psychology, the results of a systematic inquiry into the nature and relative frequency of non-morbid hallucinations. We have already obtained answers from about 11,000 persons. Of these over 11 per cent are in the affirmative. But the result does not mean that more than eleven persons in a hundred have seen ghosts. The great majority of these experiences are hallucinations simply, having as little connection with ‘ghosts’ or external events generally as dreams may be supposed to have; and probably due to the same cause – the revival and reconstruction of previous sensations. In fact, when people talk about ‘ghosts’ as inexplicable on any known laws, I would reply that most cases neither more nor less explicable than dreams – those less fitful and capricious visitants which we have nearly always with us. An apparition coinciding with a death is no doubt a marvellous thing; but the marvel lies in the coincidence, not in the apparition. We are still only at the threshold of a vast and momentous investigation. To admit of any certain conclusion being attained, more and yet more evidence is required.”
For the next eighteen years Podmore continued to be active in psychical research publishing a further eight books, seven of which on psychical theories. His untimely death in 1910 cut short a brilliant mind that would have delivered further works in this subject. If you have never read ‘Phantasms of the Living’ or Podmore’s “Studies in Psychical Research, then hunt them down, they are as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.
Reference: Frank’s interview originally appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette, January 26, 1892. All Frank’s replies are exactly as referenced in the newspaper.