A Lost Story of Psychic Power & an Italian Séance…

Who was Eusapia Palladino and what did she see?

In 1908, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) appointed a committee of three to examine Palladino in Naples. The committee comprised Mr. Hereward Carrington, investigator for the American Society for Psychical Research and an amateur conjuror; Mr. W. W. Baggally, also an investigator and amateur conjuror of much experience; and the Hon. Everard Feilding, who had had an extensive training as investigator and “a fairly complete education at the hands of fraudulent mediums.”

Three adjoining rooms on the fifth floor of the Hotel Victoria were rented. The middle room where Feilding slept was used in the evening for the séances. In the corner of the room was a séance cabinet created by a pair of black curtains to form an enclosed area that contained a small round table with several musical instruments. In front of the curtains was placed a wooden table.

During the séances, Palladino would sit at this table with her back to the curtains. The investigators sat on either side of her, holding her hand and placing a foot on her foot. Guest visitors also attended some of the séances; the Feilding report mentions that Professor Bottazzi and Professor Galeotti were present at the fourth séance, and a Mr. Ryan was present at the eighth séance.

Sketch showing the layout of a séance in the 1908 Naples investigation (Wikipedia).

——

Although the investigators did catch Palladino cheating, once, they were convinced Palladino produced genuine supernatural phenomena such as levitations of the table, movement of the curtains, movement of objects from behind the curtain and touches from hands. Regarding the first report by Carrington and Feilding, the American scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce wrote:

Eusapia Palladino has been proved to be a very clever prestigiateuse and cheat, and was visited by a Mr. Carrington… In point of fact he has often caught the Palladino creature in acts of fraud. Some of her performances, however, he cannot explain; and thereupon he urges the theory that these are supernatural, or, as he prefers it “supernormal.” Well, I know how it is that when a man has been long intensely exercised and over fatigued by an enigma, his common-sense will sometimes desert him; but it seems to me that the Palladino has simply been too clever for him… I think it more plausible that there are tricks that can deceive Mr. Carrington.

Frank Podmore in his book The Newer Spiritualism (1910) wrote a comprehensive critique of the Feilding report. Podmore said that the report provided insufficient information for crucial moments and the investigators representation of the witness accounts contained contradictions and inconsistencies as to who was holding Palladino’s feet and hands. Podmore found accounts among the investigators conflicted as to who they claimed to have observed the incident. Podmore wrote that the report “at almost every point leaves obvious loopholes for trickery.” During the séances the long black curtains were often intermixed with Palladino’s long black dress. Palladino told Professor Bottazzi the black curtains were “indispensable.” Researchers have suspected Palladino used the curtain to conceal her feet.

The psychologist C. E. M. Hansel criticized the Feilding report based on the conditions of the séances being susceptible to trickery. Hansel noted that they were performed in semi-dark conditions, held in the late night or early morning introducing the possibility of fatigue and the “investigators had a strong belief in the supernatural, hence they would be emotionally involved.”

In 1910, Everard Feilding returned to Naples, without Hereward Carrington and W. W. Baggally. Instead, he was accompanied by his friend, William S. Marriott, a magician of some distinction who had exposed psychic fraud in Pearson’s Magazine. His plan was to repeat the famous earlier 1908 Naple sittings with Palladino.

Unlike the 1908 sittings which had baffled the investigators, this time Feilding and Marriott detected her cheating, just as she had done in the US. Her deceptions were obvious. Palladino evaded control and was caught moving objects with her foot, shaking the curtain with her hands, moving the cabinet table with her elbow and touching the séance sitters. Milbourne Christopher wrote regarding the exposure “when one knows how a feat can be done and what to look for, only the most skillful performer can maintain the illusion in the face of such informed scrutiny.”

In 1992, Richard Wiseman analyzed the Feilding report of Palladino and argued that she employed a secret accomplice that could enter the room by a fake door panel positioned near the séance cabinet. Wiseman discovered this trick was already mentioned in a book from 1851, he also visited a carpenter and skilled magician who constructed a door within an hour with a false panel.

The accomplice was suspected to be her second husband, who insisted on bringing Palladino to the hotel where the séances took place. Paul Kurtzsuggested that Carrington could have been Palladino’s secret accomplice. Kurtz found it suspicious that he was raised as her manager after the séances in Naples. Carrington was also absent on the night of the last séance. 

Massimo Polidoro and Gian Marco Rinaldi, both of whom analyzed the Feilding report, came to the conclusion that no secret accomplice was needed—as Palladino during the 1908 Naples séances could have produced the phenomena by using her foot.<

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