Smith, Hélène (1861–1929)(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
Hélène Smith was a relatively young, attractive Swiss medium who, in the 1890s, offered her psychic visions of the planet Mars to Professor Theodore Flournoy (1854–1920). Flournoy’s subsequent investigation of the material produced by Smith has become a classic of psychic research and stands as a warning to all who would investigate mediums and channelers.
Flournoy was initially impressed by Smith. She described events from his childhood, and he dutifully recorded her descriptions of her previous incarnations and her dramatic reenactments of historical events. At one point, for example, she announced that she was the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. He was more impressed, however, with what he termed the “Oriental Cycle.” In these sessions Smith claimed to be Simandini,the daughter of an Arab shiek from the sixth century, as well as the wife of Prince Sivrouka Nayaka of Tchandraguiri, Kanara, Hindustani, from the fifteenth century. During these sessions she occasionally spoke Hindustani or wrote in Arabic. She even used a few Sanskrit words. Only after a lengthy search was Flournoy able to find a book that related the basic facts of the story Smith was elaborating upon. He concluded that the material Smith produced was very difficult to explain by normal means.
However, the events of 1894 were to prove decisive. In her trance state, Smith claimed that she astrally traveled to Mars and subsequently offered both verbal descriptions and sketches of what she saw. Her descriptions of Mars built on the 1877 announcement of Milan astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835–1910) that he had seen “canali” on the surface of Mars. He saw what in English would be accurately rendered as channels, but which were understood at the time to be canals. The Martian canals were interpreted to be similar to the recently completed Suez Canal, and were thus believed artificial. Other astronomers, including French astronomer/psychical researcher Camille Flammarion (1842–1925), expressed their agreement with Schiaparelli’s views. However, in the mid-1890s a new advocate of the idea had appeared. American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855–1916) initiated the construction of a new observatory in 1894. The observatory, which now bears his name, was designed primarily for the further observation of the structures on Mars.
The world Smith described, as Nandor Fodor (1895–1964) observed in the book These Mysterious People, was very similar to 1890s Europe, with some minor variations. There were horseless and wheel-less vehicles, unisex clothing, and a Martian alphabet. As the séances continued, Smith began to speak Martian and offered translations of the Martian language.
The very interesting material being produced by Smith did not stand up well under scrutiny, however. Flournoy began to examine the reputed Martian language, only to discover that it was entirely based on French. This revelation offended Smith and led to the two parting company. Smith continued to produce material related to Mars and to other celestial objects, primarily Uranus and the Moon.
Flournoy finally published his study of Smith in 1900 (released in English as From India to the Planet Mars). It turned out to be a classic study of the use of mundane sources by a creative mind to produce an elaborate body of material that, upon first examination, seemed to be of paranormal origin. While Flournoy and Smith had parted company, the book did not damage her reputation the way that some exposés had destroyed careers of Spiritualists. Smith continued to operate as a medium, and at her death in 1929 she left a voluminous collection of materials behind. She never again allowed herself to be scrutinized by a scholar, but following her death her papers were examined by Professor Waldemar Deonna (1880–1959) of Geneva. He produced a study of her later work, including material from a religious phase through which she passed in which there were many Christian references. Deonna noted the unusual quality of paintings done of religious themes during this time, but Smith’s legacy failed to present any outstanding evidence of the paranormal.