Leonora Piper’s Alleged Abilities As A Medium Were Subjected To Extensive Investigation And Testing

Throughout history, people who have claimed to possess psychic powers have been scrutinized by skeptics who try to debunk them. From Madame Blavatsky to Theresa Caputo, if you claim to be psychic, you can bet someone’s going to put you to the test. But one woman who claimed to have psychic powers withstood all the tests by skeptical men: Leonora Piper, historically known by many psychics as Mrs. Piper.

The Society for Psychical Research studied Mrs. Piper for over 25 years, finding no concrete evidence that she was faking the psychic powers she claimed - and believe us, they tried.

  • When Leonora Piper Was 8 Years Old, She Predicted Her Aunt’s Death

    Mrs. Piper’s alleged psychic abilities came to light when she was only 8 years old. She had her first documented psychic experience at this time, and it was a big one. She was playing in the garden when she suddenly felt as if someone had struck her on the head with a powerful force. Then Piper claimed she heard a loud hissing noise and a message - not just any message, but one that carried a chilling claim in the voice of her aunt. She told her mother:

    Something hit me on the ear, and Aunt Sara said she wasn’t dead but with you still.

    Unfortunately, what was likely chalked up to an active child’s imagination was confirmed when her family received a letter a few days later. Not only had her aunt Sara died, but her death had occurred at approximately the same time as Leonora’s strange episode in the garden.

  • Piper Visited A Clairvoyant To Help With Her Chronic Pain, But Instead, Her Gifts Were Awoken

    Piper Visited A Clairvoyant To Help With Her Chronic Pain, But Instead, Her Gifts Were Awoken
    Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The New Hampshire native had many strange experiences as a child, but she later moved to Boston and married shopkeeper William Piper. Mrs. Piper gave birth to their first daughter, Alta, soon after.

    Childbirth is painful under ordinary circumstances, but Leonora had suffered a chronic injury in an ice sledding accident as a child that was severe enough to cause internal bleeding in her abdomen. Alta's birth triggered pain so severe that Mrs. Piper sought the advice of a blind psychic, J.R. Cook, known for his psychic cures. 

    What followed was a strange paranormal experience, not for Cook, but for Mrs. Piper herself. She fell into a deep trance and began channeling dead spirits, or so she claimed. This incident would change the course of her life forever.

  • In 1885, Piper Reluctantly Began Mediumship Readings For Clients

    Mrs. Piper attended a Spiritualism circle with Cook and fell into a second trance. She allegedly channeled her psychic powers to give a fellow guest an incredibly accurate reading. She began performing private readings in her home during the height of the Spiritualism craze, and this was when she caught the attention of Harvard professor William James, a member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).

    James's mother-in-law, Eliza Gibbens, said her first reading with Mrs. Piper was incredibly accurate. She told her son-in-law about this woman performing seances in her home, and it sparked his interest. Little did he know it would turn into an obsession with studying Mrs. Piper that would last decades.

  • William James, A Member Of The Society For Psychical Research, Paid Piper A Visit

    William James, A Member Of The Society For Psychical Research, Paid Piper A Visit
    Photo: Notman Studios / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Because of the trickery James had encountered in the past, he expected all kinds of theatrics when he visited Mrs. Piper for the first time. Instead, he found a quiet, unassuming woman with none of the cliche Spiritualism props, such as red lights, bells, or circles of chairs. She even warned her seance guests not to expect spooky occurrences or things flying around the room. 

    He also didn't expect such an accurate reading. James was so impressed and convinced that Mrs. Piper was genuine, it prompted one of his most famous quotes:

    [A] universal proposition can be made untrue by a particular instance. If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn't seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My own white crow is Mrs. Piper. In the trances of this medium, I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears which she has never gained by the ordinary waking use of her eyes and ears and wits.

    In fact, he was so impressed that he sent 25 of his friends to get readings.

  • The Society For Psychical Research Focused On Investigating Fake Psychic Effects

    The Society for Psychical Research, whose founding members included future prime minister of England Arthur Balfour and Cambridge professor Henry Sidgwick, was known for exposing fake psychics. They exposed popular Spiritualists of the day, such as William Hope and Helena Blavatsky. They even ran educational seances for the public demonstrating how these parlor tricks were faked. They would send members to sit in on the seances to see how the tricks were done and then expose these purported psychics' secrets. James was a member of the London branch of the society since its beginning and founded the American Society for Psychical Research in 1884.

    This was no ordinary group of superstitious, uneducated people studying psychic phenomena. Some of the most noteworthy minds in science and medicine were members of a society under which, as James put it, "innocent-sounding name, ghosts, second sight, spiritualism, and all sorts of hobgoblins are going to be 'investigated' by the most high toned and 'cultured' members of the community." It was no easy task for so-called psychics to fool these members.

    The American branch of the society boasted its own share of prominent minds in its day, including Harvard anthropologist Charles Sedgwick Minot, Cornell president Andrew White, and Johns Hopkins astronomer Simon Newcomb. James would attend seances with this wife, but his interest wasn't only scientific - the couple's son, Herman, had died in 1885. James admitted he was searching for answers about his lost son from beyond the grave in what he referred to as "that dark portal" of death.

  • Piper Became One Of The Most Thoroughly Scrutinized Mediums Of The Time

    Piper Became One Of The Most Thoroughly Scrutinized Mediums Of The Time
    Photo: Thomson Jay Hudson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the most convincing arguments for the legitimacy of Mrs. Piper's alleged psychic powers was her willingness to cooperate with extensive testing and investigation.

    Members of SPR would constantly participate in her seances to observe her firsthand for any parlor tricks. They would also change locations to ensure she couldn't prepare any deception. They even had private investigators follow her around to try to find evidence of fraud. All of their efforts were unsuccessful.