Piper, Leonora E.

Piper, Leonora E. (1857–1950)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Leonora E. Piper was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1857. When she was eight years old, she was playing in the garden and felt a blow to the side of her head, on the right ear, which she said was accompanied by “a prolonged sibilant sound.” This sound gradually became the letter S, which then was followed by the words, “Aunt Sara, not dead but with you still.” Leonora was terrified. When she told her mother, her mother noted the time of day. A few days later they learned that Aunt Sara had in fact died at that very moment. Other childhood experiences for Leonora included bright lights seen in her bedroom at night and an unexplained rocking of the bed.

In 1881, Leonora married William Piper of Boston. In 1884, she discovered her psychic and mediumistic abilities. This came about when she visited Dr. J. R. Cocke, a blind healer and clairvoyant, seeking treatment for a tumor. Cocke went into trance but Piper also went into trance. While in that state she wrote down a message to a Judge Frost of Cambridge (another of Cocke’s clients), from his dead son. Shortly after that a number of spirit guides made themselves known, and as word of her message to Judge Frost spread, she was talked into conducting her own séances. In trance she would undergo spasms and grind her teeth ferociously, though in later years this passed and she went smoothly into trance. She would speak with various voices, many of them deep men’s voices. Her guides included a purportedly French “Dr. Phinuit,” who knew little French and less about medicine. There was also a Native American girl named Chlorine. Piper wasn’t happy with this development and initially would only sit with relatives and close friends. But when Mrs. Gibbins—who happened to be Professor William James’ mother-in-law—asked for a sitting, for some reason Leonora accepted her. The results were so amazing that Mrs. Gibbins reported them to her son-in-law. In turn Professor James, a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, was so impressed by Piper’s séances that he devoted the next eighteen months to carefully controlling everything she did, making all arrangements, and reporting (in Proceedings, Vol. VI, “I repeat again what I said before, that, taking everything that I know of Mrs. Piper into account, the result is to make me feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state, and that the definite philosophy of her trances is yet to be found.” Between 1885 and 1915, Leonora Piper became one of the most investigated mediums of all time.

William James examined her and after attending many séances (some with his wife) became convinced that Piper was “in possession of a power as yet unexplained.” She was never found cheating. She was examined by James, by Dr. Richard Hodgson, Professor Newbold, Dr. William Leaf, and Sir Oliver Lodge. James introduced her to Richard Hodgson, who had exposed a number of other mediums. Hodgson was stunned with the personal information that Piper provided about his own family. He tested her with other subjects only to get similar results. Her details about deceased persons were so accurate Hodgson hired private detectives to carry out surveillance to see if she actually obtained the information fraudulently. Then Hodgson decided to remove her from her surroundings. He sent her to England in November, 1889, where she was met by Sir Oliver Lodge. Lodge gave a glowing report on her mediumship after she had eighty-eight sittings between her arrival and February, 1890. All sitters were introduced anonymously to Piper. Servants were changed in houses where she stayed. She wasn’t even allowed to go shopping alone and couldn’t see a newspaper for three days prior to a sitting.

In the end, on Leonora Piper’s return to America and after further testing by Dr. Hodgson, Hodgson reported (Proceedings, Vol. XIII, in 1897), “I cannot profess to have any doubt but that the ‘chief communicators’ … are veritably the personalities that 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. 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.”

On Hodgson’s unexpected death in 1905, Professor James Hyslop took over. The following year Piper went back to England, and with the later deaths of Frederick W. H. Myers, Edmund Gurney, and others, started producing cross-correspondences from their various spirits. Seventy-four sittings were held with her and other sittings with mediums Mrs. Verral and Mrs. Holland. The cross-correspondences were produced by the three mediums.

Because Leonora Piper never had any remembrance of what came through her in the trance state, she always remained unconvinced herself that she was a channel for spirits. But, as Sir Oliver Lodge pointed out, “Little value would be attached to her opinion … Mrs. Piper in fact is not in a more favorable, but even in a less favorable position for forming an opinion than those who sit with her, since she does not afterwards remember what passes while she is in trance.”

Frank Podmore commented, “Mrs. Piper is a typical medium. By a fortunate combination of circumstances she has been saved from the temptation to which nearly every other clairvoyant medium of note has at one time or another succumbed, to advertise her gifts by resorting to physical phenomena. So far as I am aware, no other clairvoyant medium of note since 1848 has failed at one time or another to exhibit physical phenomena, if only to the extent of table rapping, as part of her mediumistic gifts.”

In later years Leonora Piper’s abilities faded, especially when she had to devote time to her ailing mother. Various controls took over at different times. The French doctor was pushed out by the spirit of George Pelham, a deceased friend of Dr. Hodgson. Then the Imperator group took over, producing what was described as a “higher caliber” of spirits making contact. Piper’s trance mediumship ended in 1911 and she then did mainly automatic writing. In October, 1924, Dr. Gardner Murphy conducted a series of sittings and from 1926 to 1927 the Boston Society for Psychical Research took over. Leonora Piper died in 1950, at age 93.


Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan: The History of Spiritualism. New York: Doran, 1926
Fodor, Nandor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthurs Press, 1933 Piper, Alta L.: The Life and Work of Mrs. Piper. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929 Spence, Lewis: An Encyclopedia of the Occult. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1920
P.K. see Psychokinesis
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