Immortal Longings: FWH Myers and the Victorian Search for Life After Death by Trevor Hamilton

I came across so many interesting people while researching my book, more people than I could possibly research myself. Among them was Frederic W. H. Myers, from the Society of Psychical Research.  It always bothered me that I couldn’t spend more time looking into Myers, mostly because of his book with the tantalizing title, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, which was published in 1903.

Like the 700 boxes of Parapsychology Lab archives at Duke University, I was sure investigating Myers and his work would be like getting to go through buried treasure. All that largely forgotten history, from someone who believed he found evidence of life after death—just what did he come up with?  

I know from my experience researching the Parapsychology Lab that just because most of us have never heard about his results doesn’t mean he didn’t come up with anything worth looking at, even if there are other ways of interpreting his findings today.

So I was excited to see this new biography by historian Trevor Hamilton.  Hamilton has done all the work, and now I can finally learn what Myers discovered.  I’ll also to be curious to see what Hamilton makes of it.  Did Myers’ insights leave clues that might be worth revisiting today?  The book can be purchased here.  (I skipped ahead to a couple of sections and what I read showed honesty, intelligence and compassion.)

(The picture of Myers was taken by his wife Eveleen.  I found it at the National Portrait Gallery, where the author is going to give a talk on June 18th.)

Ethel Johnson Meyers – The Medium at Bank Street

I wasn’t able to find out a lot about Ethel Johnson Meyers, the medium who accompanied Hans Holzer to Bank Street (the story I tell below). But as I say in the preface to the book, it always comes back to a love story, and this was true of Ethel Johnson Meyers.

Meyers, a former opera singer, was a trance medium and her control—the person who essentially used her body to become a guide between the living and the dead—was her dead husband, a musician named Albert.

Albert had died when his pharmacist made a mistake with his medicine and poisoned him. Ethel was going to walk into the sea and join him, but Albert came to her and stopped her. If she killed herself she wouldn’t be with him, he warned. Just the opposite. “It would separate us.” He told her that there was another way they could be together. Ethel went to a psychiatrist about the apparition and he rather surprisingly suggested that she contact J. B. Rhine.

Soon after Ethel found herself at the American Society for Psychical Research, which eventually led to her becoming a medium.

Whenever she went into a trance, Albert appeared. However, it was a bittersweet and ultimately unsatisfying reunion for Ethel and Albert. They weren’t really together again. Ethel was unconscious when Albert appeared, and when she awoke she remembered nothing. Hans Holzer spent more time with Albert than Ethel did. Even though Albert’s spirit was inside her, somehow suffused throughout her body in order to communicate with whoever required his afterlife services, Albert was still as far apart from Ethel as he was the day he died.

I called Hans Holzer to ask him what Ethel and Albert were like, but he wasn’t able to tell me anything. I had also intended to ask him if he ever tried to mediate any kind of exchange between his faithful medium and her beloved and deceased husband. IE, “Hey Albert, as long as I’ve got you, any messages for Ethel?” But Holzer didn’t seem to be feeling well and so I thanked him and got off the phone more quickly than I had planned.

Bank Street in 1942

Below, I tell the story of a possibly once haunted house on Bank Street in the West Village of New York City. (It’s the May 26th post.)

I searched the digital archives of the New York Public Library and found this 1942 picture of the building.

It’s the second building to the left of that car.

The block is largely unchanged since then. Only one building is gone today.

More Machines of the Paranormal

The Boston medium Mina Crandon, aka Margery, used a number of devices to communicate with the dead, and also to establish the authenticity of those communications.  This is one of her voice machines, but I’m not entirely sure which one it is.  Oh wait, this must be the “spirit bell box.”  Those are clearly bells inside.

Although Margery’s feet and hands were held or tied during seances, the bells in the box would ring out during the seance, supposedly rung by the spirit of Margery’s dead brother Walter.  However during one demonstration, Houdini felt Margery’s feet manipulate the box, just as J. B. Rhine saw Margery use her feet to recover a spirit megaphone that had temporarily gotten away from her.

That is Margery in the picture, but I don’t know who the two men are. 

My Favorite Ghost Story That Didn’t Make the Book

On June 26, 1957, The New York Times ran a piece by Meyer Berger about a haunted house in the West Village called:  Ghostly Coincidences Puzzle Bohemian Couple in 125-Year-Old House in Greenwich Village.

Briefly:  Harvey Slatin bought the red brick house and was in the process of converting it from a rooming house into a single family home.  The Slatins and the constructions workers sometimes heard what sounded like a woman on the stairs.  At first they just figured they had an intruder, and they’d wait to hear the sounds and then run upstairs.  But no one was ever there.  Their carpenter wrote it off to the odd sounds you hear in old homes.

Slatin wasn’t particularly unnerved either, and instead tried to study the phenomena.  He timed her ghostly steps and noted that they began at 11 in the morning and continued off and on until dusk.  “I’d call them rather friendly sounds; a wee bit spooky, maybe,” he said, “but somehow not frightening.”

Later, when the carpenter was removing the ceiling on the top floor, a small tin about the size of a can of coffee fell onto his head.  The label read, “The last remains of Elizabeth Bullock, deceased.  Cremated January 21, 1931.”  Slatin called the crematorium listed on the container and learned that Elizabeth Bullock had been hit by a car on Hudson Street, and taken to a drugstore nearby where she died.  She had lived on Perry Street though, and no one could explain how she ended up in a ceiling on Bank Street, and they weren’t able to learn anything else about her.

(The picture above is the Bank Street building where the actual haunting took place. The one below is the Perry Street building where Elizabeth Bullock was living before she died.) 

Ghost hunter Hans Holzer (who died this year) read Berger’s piece and contacted the Slatins to offer his services.  During a seance conducted in the building, Holzer and his favorite medium, Ethel Johnson Meyers, came up with more (alleged) information about Elizabeth Bullock, which I have since researched.  I love fact checking seances.

This particular seance had an interesting mix of hits and misses.  One thing that came out of the seance was Elizabeth Bullock’s wish to have a Christian burial, which she had been denied because she married outside her faith.  Holzer’s account ends with his suggestion that they bury her in the garden. The Slatins say they’re going to keep the tin with Elizabeth’s ashes displayed on the piano, where she’s happy they insist, but also in case someone shows up to claim her.

In 2007 I tracked down Harvey Slatin, who turned out to be Dr. Harvey Slatin, a Manhattan Project nuclear physicist.  He was now 92 years old, and not terribly interested in talking to me, but he did tell me enough so that I could research the story more thoroughly.  More importantly, although Dr. Slatin doesn’t believe in ghosts he confirmed the unexplained events at Bank Street, so whatever the final explanation, they happened.

The seance at Bank Street took place on a weekday evening in July.  Mrs. Meyers went into a trance and immediately connected with a spirit named Betty who she said was paralyzed on one side and walked with a limp.  Slatin’s wife Yeffe was thrilled.  She told them that she’d seen a lady with a limp with her “psychic eye”.

The spirit named Betty told her story, but like many stories told via mediums, her narrative is confusing.  “He didn’t want me in the family plot—my brother—I wasn’t even married in their eyes … But I was married before God … Edward Bullock … I want a Christian burial in the shades of the Cross … any place where the Cross is—but not with them!”  Betty gave a few details about her life: her mother’s maiden name was Elizabeth McCuller, and they came from Pleasantville, New York.  When asked why her ashes were in the attic of Bank Street she gave an answer which didn’t clarify anything.  “I went with Eddie.  There was a family fight … my husband went with Eddie … steal the ashes … pay for no burial … he came back and took them from Eddie … hide ashes … Charles knew it … made a roof over the house … ashes came through the roof … so Eddie can’t find them.”

(This is where Elizabeth died.  It was a drugstore at the time.)

It’s all a bit impenetrable.  “Just because I loved a man out of the faith, and so they took my bones and fought over them, and then they put them up in this place, and let them smolder up there, so nobody could touch them …”  Who cremated you, Holzer asked.  “It was Charles’ wish, and it wasn’t Eddie’s and therefore they quarreled.  Charlie was a Presbyterian … and he would have put me in his church, but I could not offend them all.  They put it beyond my reach through the roof; still hot … they stole it from the crematory.”

A few more facts emerged.  She had two children, Eddie, who was alive and living in California, and Gracie, who died as a baby.  Also, “Betty” spoke the entire time with an Irish brogue.  Holzer said he could tell an actor from the real thing and this was the real thing.   The spirit’s last words were, “Lived close by.  Bullock.”

Hans Holzer and the Slatins didn’t have the benefit of the Internet and resources like to help them research Elizabeth’s history.  Also, enough time has gone by that Elizabeth’s death certificate is now in the public domain.  What’s interesting is how much Ethel Johnson Meyers got right.  Elizabeth’s husband was Edward Bullock.  In Holzer’s account he said her husband was Charlie, which was a reasonable guess based on the spirit’s rambling monologue.  The names Eddie and Charlie kept coming up and it was hard to tell who was who.  But in fact, Elizabeth’s husband was Edward Bullock, practically the first name out of the spirit/Ethel’s mouth.   And Elizabeth had a brother—his name was Charles.

After that, most of what was learned by both normal and supernatural means turned out to be wrong.  Elizabeth Bullock did not die as a result of being hit by a car.  The death certificate says “chronic myocarditis,” which is an inflammation of the muscle walls of the heart (but she did die in that drugstore).  She also didn’t speak with an Irish brogue.  Elizabeth was born in New York and her father was German and her mother, whose maiden name was Mary Schwieker, not Elizabeth McCuller, was born in the United States.

Elizabeth and Edward didn’t have any children that I could find, and New York does not have a death certificate for a child named Gracie Bullock.

What I was most curious about was:  whatever happened to the tin of ashes? (Pictured at left, scanned from one of Hans Holzer’s books.)

Slatin told me that The Washington Post did a piece about their ghost in 1981.  A few months later the Slatins got a letter from a northern California priest named Devereaux.  Father Devereaux offered to have a service for Elizabeth and to bury her in St. Patrick’s Cemetery at Table Bluff, in Humboldt County, California.  “Elizabeth will be resting with many of her own countrymen, in a very beautiful little cemetery,” he wrote.  Some of the tenants at Bank Street didn’t want to see her go, she was a New York ghost after all.

I asked Slatin why they never arranged for a Christian burial before this since this was what the spirit said she wanted. He said they’d taken Elizabeth’s remains to a Catholic church in the city, but the church refused to bury her because she had married outside her faith.  I hung up the phone, but then it hit me.  Not only was this church being rather uncharitable, if what Slatin said was true, they were basing their decidedly uncharitable decision on information gained from a seance!  This whole marrying outside her faith thing was never confirmed outside the seance.

The Slatins decided that laying her to rest as she desired was the right thing to do, and so over their neighbor’s objections they shipped her ashes to California.  Fifty people attended the funeral mass at Father Devereaux’s church in the town of Loleta.  Like a movie, it poured the day they buried Elizabeth. During the seance Betty had said, “I want a Christian burial in the shades of the Cross.” And so they very kindly buried her beneath a cedar cross.

Update: Nancy Wallace sent me pictures of Elizabeth’s grave which I posted here.

How Elizabeth ended up in a ceiling at Bank Street when she was a resident of Perry Street remained a mystery.  But 21st century technology is a wonderful resolution-provider.  According to Edward Bullock’s World War II draft registration card, now available online, sometime after Elizabeth died, Bullock moved out of their Perry Street apartment and into smaller, more affordable accommodations in the rooming house at Bank Street.  Why her tin of ashes were stored in the ceiling, I can’t say.

During our brief phone call Dr. Slatin, who doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife, nonetheless admitted to me, “I felt her presence.”  The air in the apartment filled with cheap perfume whenever she made her appearance known.

NOTE:  There’s no point in banging on the door of this building with the hope of experiencing a haunted house.  Whatever was causing the disturbances, they stopped decades ago.

AND: Here is a picture of the Bank Street Building in 1942.

AND:  If you like the kind of research and writing that went into this piece, you can buy my book … here!

Finally, here’s a short movie I made of the site described and pictured above.

Gertrude Schmeidler, RIP

I only just heard that Gertrude Schmeidler, a well known psychologist and parapsychologist, died on March 9, 2009.  She was 96 years old!  We talked a number of times while I was researching my book, although she preferred email.   It frustrated her if she couldn’t couldn’t think and respond quickly, although I never noticed a delay.

So sad.  Towards the end of my research I looked into an interesting experiment that Gertrude had tried in the seventies.  She started bringing a control group to hauntings along with mediums.  She was doing this in order to use statistics to analyze the medium’s findings.  She’d put together a list of things that were reported in the initial hauntings.  She’d then compare what the control group sensed and felt to what the mediums sensed and felt.  Did the medium’s impressions fit more than the control group’s?

But she’s probably most famous for what are referred to as her sheep/goat experiments.  From the Parapsychological Association website.  “Repeatedly, average ESP scores of subjects who rejected any possibility of ESP success (whom I called goats) were lower than average ESP scores of all other subjects (whom I called sheep). This was inexplicable by the physical laws we knew; it implied unexplored processes in the universe, an exciting new field for research. From then on, naturally, my primary research interest was parapsychology.”

Most of my questions were about Parapsychology Lab and the people who worked there.  These were the people I was writing about and most have them had passed on.  She knew them, and her descriptions were so personal and colorful. 

I asked her about her first contact with J. B. Rhine, who headed up the Lab.  

“That first contact I had with the Parapsy Lab was a pleasant surprise to me: a letter from Dr. Rhine, whom I’d never seen, saying nice things about my work.  I don’t remember what year, but it came soon after I began publishing in parapsychology.  Early-ish in World War II.”

Did she ever work at the Lab?

“No, I never had any formal connection to Dr. Rhine’s lab.  It took my husband and me about five minutes of serious consideration to decide it wasn’t what we wanted—about the same length of time as to decline a similar invitation to him from the military.  But I gladly accepted – and very much enjoyed – Dr. Rhine’s invitations to visit for a weekend.”

I found a letter where Rhine described her visit.  Everyone loved her of course, and Rhine noted that she seemed to get along with Charlie Stuart and Betty Humphrey best.  I had asked Gertrude to describe Betty, and her description, like all her descriptions, gave such an evocative glimpse!

“When I first met her she was a tall, rather gawky young woman, strong and well built, with a face that the French might call belle laide—not conventionally pretty but attractive because she was such a thoroughly nice person that it came through in the way she looked. She had a friendly, hearty manner; outgoing.  And not only was she bright, and a good experimentalist who was sensitive to people’s needs, but she also was interested in the deeper theoretical questions that her research couldn’t directly address.”

I asked her why she didn’t accept Rhine’s overtures about working at the Lab.  Most of the reasons had to do with her husband’s professional needs and interests, and Gertrude’s interest in teaching psychology, and family concerns, but she also said this.  

“ …. here’s an anecdote to show the second major reason: my preferring not to be in an authoritarian society.  On one of my delightful, friendly visits to the parapsy lab, always full of good will, I attended a seminar. The staff and visitors sat around a table, with Dr. Rhine at the head.  He’d bring up a problem – for instance a request that had to be granted or denied.  Anyone who had an idea spoke up, one way or the other.  When all had had their say, heads turned to Rhine and there was silence.  Then he spoke, telling us the decision … There was no pretense of being first among equals; Dr. Rhine was First.”

Two days later she wrote me, concerned that she had been unfair to J. B., which shows what a decent person she was.

“I told you only a badly incomplete, one-sided impression of J.B.  The very same characteristic that made it impossible for me to work contentedly with or under him was a characteristic that made him an important, useful figure in the world.  There’s a place for alpha males!  In fact, it’s impressed me that most of the (admittedly few) Nobel laureates I’ve known were tall, muscular, powerful men, insistent on achieving their immediate goals and careless about brushing other people out of their way.”

I found a 1952 letter Gertrude had written to Gaither Pratt, another scientist at the Lab, after Rhine had fired Betty Humphrey and Frasier Nicol (that’s a whole other story).

“Betty has written me something – only a little- of what’s been happening at the Laboratory, and told me that she and Frasier left. I’m sorry – even though I don’t know enough about it, to know what to be sorry about. But your Laboratory was such a wonderful place when everyone was friendly and bubbling with ideas and full of new projects that I can’t help wishing those times never had to change.”

Gertrude did get to teach psychology, as she had wanted, at City College.  But her archives are not there!  They’re at Duke I see, you can read an overview of the collection here.

Wow.  It’s so extensive and varied.  Sy Mauskopf interviewed her in 1976 for his book The Elusive Science, and there’s a tape of that interview at Special Collections Library at Duke, in the Seymour H. Mauskopf Papers, 1972 – 1985.

Freeman Dyson

“If one believes, as I do, that ESP exists but is scientifically untestable, one must believe that the scope of science is limited.” – Freeman Dyson, in a Foreword to Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind, by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph.D.

I don’t know what to make of this quote by theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson. Shouldn’t it be, “is scientifically untestable today,” (and I’d add perhaps) and that “the scope of science is limited today“?

Dyson says ESP is untestable because emotion is so inextricably tied to ESP that a controlled scientific experiment for ESP is forever out of our reach.  “The experiment necessarily excludes the human emotions that make ESP possible.”