Occasional Writings – or This is Not a Blog.
I am working on a biography of the 19th-century psychical researcher and ghostbuster, Richard Hodgson.
The following article, written for the Bulletin of the University of Melbourne Archives (Spring 2009), sets out Hodgson’s story in brief.
Searching for Richard Hodgson
Expecting to find a few letter, I set aside an afternoon. I would end up spending more than ten transfixed days in the Archives reading room.
My adventure in the Archives began in the ether: down the rabbit-hole that is Google. I don’t recall (does anyone, ever?) the exact search terms I entered, but they took me to the footnotes of a book digitised from a US library and a reference to letters between the poet Enid Derham and her uncle Richard Hodgson – ‘in the Derham papers, University of Melbourne Archives’. It was one of those ‘Be still, my heart’ moments.
Richard Hodgson is my quarry. Born in La Trobe Street, Melbourne, in 1855, he won a University scholarship, completing a Law doctorate before embarking for Cambridge to study Moral Philosophy. He’d attended séances in Melbourne with his friend Alfred Deakin; at Cambridge he became involved in the fledgling Society for Psychical Research (SPR), whose object was to establish a scientific basis for paranormal phenomena. The SPR’s investigations oftentimes resulted in the exposure of shonky mediums and soothsayers, with Hodgson the leading fraud-buster. He taught himself conjuring so that he’d recognise trickery when he saw it, and made a study of ‘malobservation’ by séance participants to show what ready targets they made. In 1884 the Society sent him to India to investigate the phenomena – astral projections, hand-written letters from spirit-guides – claimed by Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. Hodgson’s damning report drew worldwide notice and confirmed his reputation as the most unflinching of psychical researchers.
The American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) needed a man of Hodgson’s energy and exactitude, and in 1887 he took up the paid post of Secretary to that organisation, based in Boston. And there he would stay for the rest of his life. The ASPR’s membership may have read like a roll-call of Boston Brahmins (the closest the US had to a peerage), but the sporty, lark-loving Australian bachelor was embraced as one of them.
Chief among Hodgson’s duties was to investigate the Boston medium, Mrs Leonora Piper. In her trance state, Mrs Piper appeared to be able to communicate messages from the dead. Here then was Hodgson’s destiny: for the next 18 years he systematically studied Mrs Piper and the products of her trance. Initially suspecting her of fakery, he had her trailed by a detective; to test the genuineness of her trance, he pinched her and stuck her with pins and put pepper on her tongue. Having eliminated fraud, he hypothesized that telepathy was at work (the term telepathy being newly coined by his friend and SPR colleague Frederic Myers). Finally, though, Hodgson believed: believed that, through Mrs Piper, he communicated with the dead; believed, too, that he had proven as much to the satisfaction of empirical science. Lo! the arch-sceptic believed!
Hodgson was among the first generation to live with Evolution as a fact of life. Upon his generation fell the challenge of synethesizing Evolution with religion. It was a fantastical time, bursting the boundaries of intellectual and existential possibility. Hodgson read widely across philosophy, theology, the natural sciences, physics and astronomy, as well as the emerging science of psychology – with a large dollop of the Romantic poets thrown in. In his teens, he became a disciple of Herbert Spencer, causing a rift with his father and the Wesleyan Methodist faith of his upbringing. (Hodgson’s later correspondence with his hero can be found in the Derham papers.) Yet he seems to have embraced Spencer’s materialism almost as a challenge to himself and his deepest convictions. Certainly, his adult life was dedicated to seeking proof that there existed something beyond matter.
Since Hodgson first caught my interest, just a few months before, I’d read millions of words about and by the man, but when I entered the University of Melbourne Archives reading room, I had yet to see a single stroke written in his own hand. Imagine then the thrill of opening the very first folder and meeting a poem of Hodgson’s own devising, written in what I would come to know as his own inscrutable, purple-inked hand. Titled ‘Oldfarm – Evening’, its first verse ran:
The golden sunset bloom has gone,
I had to smile. There was Hodgson in 21 words. A sunset, the sea, the hills, the stars. I knew already – from his recreations, his enthusiasms, his literary preferences – how important those natural elements were to him. (The stars, especially: he believed – literally believed – that he would travel among the stars after death.) And I would encounter them again and again in my journey through the Derham papers.
Soon after arriving at Cambridge, in 1879, Hodgson wrote home to his sister Ellen describing an English sunset as ‘very meagre & poor relatively to Australian sunsets’. In his homesick first year, he wrote to Ellen often – long letters, brimming with anecdote and ambition. But his letters chart the souring of that ambition over the course of his three years’ study. He performed poorly at exams and set work, and his prospects narrowed to almost nothing – until the advent of the SPR supplied him with a career uniquely fitted to his philosophy and abilities.
Ellen Hodgson married, becoming Ellen Derham, in 1880. She began a family around the same time as Hodgson became immersed in psychical research, and letters between them dwindled. In the 1895, however, Ellen’s daughter Enid – then aged 13 and a budding poet – commenced a correspondence with her Uncle Richard, whom she had never met. She sent him her poems for criticism (which he supplied, with gusto); he sent her his, for praise. Theirs is a lively, bantering, challenging exchange between two loving strangers. As Enid grew into womanhood – winning scholarships, blitzing exams, on the brink of becoming a published poet – she increasingly assumed an equal footing with her Uncle Richard.
What fascinated me as I read their letters was the contrast they provide to the otherwise known facts of Hodgson’s life during that period: the plummeting disappointments and otherworldly highs of his life in the psychical realm. It was a relief to read a first-hand account of the earthly Hodgson: his tramps in the mountains, hi-jinks at his club, the pleasure he took in stodgy food and his pipe. On the other hand, his letters are crammed full of poetry – Browning, Wordsworth, Coleridge, as well as Hodgson’s own – shedding light on the world of his imagination.
There came a day and an hour when I thought my discoveries were done. Each new file I opened was filled with Enid Derham’s own poems: draft, published, unpublished. Except for the one that held three typewritten sheafs of Hodgson’s utterances from beyond the grave.
He died aged just 50, in 1905. The Boston Evening Herald (in a cutting among the Derham papers) noted his sudden death on 20 December thus: ‘Dr Hodgson has gone where he may learn the laws of psychic force untrammelled by the earthly limitations of time and space.’ And sure enough, three days after Christmas, the spirit of Hodgson spoke for the first time through Mrs Piper. The typewritten sheets in the Derham papers record three of the early ‘sittings’ at which Hodgson’s spirit is supposed to have spoken. They were sent by an ASPR colleague to his sister, presumably in an attempt to comfort her. Via the entranced Mrs Piper, ‘Hodgson’ flirted with a lady friend, fretted over the dispersal of his books and private papers, and explained that ‘I have been lecturing at the University here on the subject of communication as it appears to us when on your side.’
He would continue to appear – ‘I am Hodgson!’ – for as long again as he had known Mrs Piper in life, chatting with friends, giving advice to strangers, expounding on life ‘beyond the veil’. In 1909, his old friend and ASPR colleague, the philosopher William James, published his assessment of the posthumous Hodgson. The inventor of pragmatism concluded – or, characteristically, failed to conclude – that, ‘asked whether the will to communicate be Hodgson’s, or be some mere spirit-counterfeit of Hodgson, I remain uncertain and await more facts’.
A hundred years have passed and Hodgson still bears the reputation of sceptic-turned believer. The Derham papers tell a different story, though – and so will the book I write.
Work on The Dark Companion (as I have tentatively titled my book – see below) has slowed to a crawl since, returning from overseas in October 2009, I commenced a full-time job – my first in 25 years. I have, however, collated my research chronologically into 861 pages of notes, of which I am now making a close reading, so as to familiarise myself before writing with the full sweep of Richard Hodgson’s life and after-life.
The Dark Companion
There is an orb that mocked the lore of sages
But they knew the ways of God unchanging,
And knowing it alone through perturbation
But when, through new perfection of appliance,
No Dark Companion, but a sun of glory;
Oh, Dark Companion, journeying ever by us,
Oh, Dark Companion, Death, whose wide embraces
Thou, too, in this wise, when, our eyes unsealing,
No ruthless wrecker of harmonious order;
So, too, our strange unrest in this our dwelling,
So, doubtless, when beneath thy potence swerving,
The night wind moans, The Austral wilds are round me.
A friend of Hodgson’s later life would write of his ‘omnivorous appetite for poetry’; William James went further, calling it ‘excessive’. Already hungry for poetry, the young Hodgson had his attention snagged by Stephens’ poem, with its seeming assurance that, just as ‘new perfection of appliance’ had given proof of the Companion – and dispelled its darkness – so it would the afterlife.
Astronomers using the Hubble space telescope in 2005 ascertained that Sirius B has a diameter similar to that of Earth, but with a mass as great as the Sun’s. Hodgson would have liked that ratio.
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