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Piper grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire where, according to her parents, she first displayed psychic abilities as a child. At the age of 22 she married shopkeeper William Piper of Boston, [[Massachusetts] and settled in the Beacon Hill area. Piper did not levitate tables or exude ectoplasm, she was not a physical but a mental medium. She became known for her trance mediumship but she also did automatic writing on occasion.
The spiritualist supporters of Piper claimed she could channel numerous spirits through her consciousness. The problem with the spiritualist interpretation is that even Piper herself admitted her trance personalities were not spirits and many of the things she said in her trance sessions have proven to be false.
On this subject the British hypnotist and psychical researcher Simeon Edmunds wrote:
“”In contrast to the extravagant claims made by the vast majority of mediums, Mrs Piper herself was not convinced that the information obtained through her came from discarnate sources or that her 'controls' were, in fact, the spirits they purported to be. One of her early controls, who called himself Phinuit, was obviously fictitious, for although he claimed to be the spirit of a French doctor who had lived in Marseilles, he knew but little of French and still less of medicine. All attempts to verify his statements met with failure. One investigator invented a dead niece whom he named Bessie Beale, and requested Mrs Piper's control to contact her spirit. Messages from the non-existent 'spirit' were duly given.
The scientific community has rejected the telepathic and spiritualist hypotheses and have written that there is no need to resort to the paranormal as fraud and psychology explain the mediumship of Piper. The psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Amy Tanner who observed some of the trances of Piper wrote the explanation was in terms of the subconscious mind harboring various personalities that pretended to be spirits or controls. Piper had subconsciously absorbed information that she later regurgitated as messages from spirits in her trances.
Psychical researchers and scientists who investigated Piper also believed she was fraudulent. Andrew Lang wrote that Piper would cheat when she could by making guesses and would try and get information out of her sitters. A detailed refutation of Piper was by the physiologist Ivor Lloyd Tuckett who examined her mediumship in 75 pages and came to the conclusion it could explained by "muscle-reading, fishing, guessing, hints obtained in the sitting, knowledge surreptitiously obtained, knowledge acquired in the interval between sittings and lastly, facts already within Mrs. Piper's knowledge".
Piper made many errors and mistakes in her mediumship. The following information can be found in the books by Ivor Lloyd Tuckett (1911), Edward Clodd (1917), Walter Mann (1919), Joseph McCabe (1920), Joseph Rinn (1950) and Martin Gardner (2003).
- Piper's supposed "spirit" controls made false predictions, her control Moses said that a great world war was going to take place. Germany would have no part in it and that it would be caused by Russia and France against England.
- Piper's control Walter Scott made absurd statements about the planets. He claimed beautiful creatures live inside Venus and the Sun is populated by "dreadful looking creatures" which he described as monkeys that live in caves made out of sand and mud. Her control "Walter Scott" claimed to have visited all the planets and when asked if he had seen a planet further away from Saturn answered "Mercury".
- Piper's control who claimed to be the writer George Pellew did not know any Greek or philosophy but during his life Pellew was well educated in these subjects. Pellew's family members were shown the communications of Piper' control and they were insulted by what they had read. A cousin of Pellew declared that the impersonation was "beneath contempt" and his brother said the communications were nothing like the real Pellew and were "utter drivel and inanity".
- Piper's control "Phinuit" who claimed to be a French doctor could speak very little French and had no knowledge of medicine. Phinuit's historical existence could not be verified by any researcher. William James described the Phinuit communications as "tiresome twaddle".
- Piper's control who claimed to be the deceased psychical researcher Edmund Gurney was heavily criticized by parapsychologists who had known Gurney during his life. Frank Podmore wrote that the control sounded nothing like the personality of the real Gurney. William James also strongly rejected the claim that Gurney communicated through Piper.
- Before his death, the psychical researcher Frederic Myers left a message in a sealed envelope. Piper's Myers control failed to reveal the message. The Myers control of Piper also failed to understand Greek and Latin, this was unlike the real Myers who was a classicist scholar.
- The Hodgson control of Piper sounded nothing like the real Richard Hodgson. When friends put test questions to the control of Hodgson about his early life in Australia, the answers were all wrong. Before he died Hodgson had written a test letter, and claimed that if he was to communicate through Piper he would reveal the contents inside the letter. Piper's Hodgson control failed to reveal the test letter.
- The Irish anatomist Alexander Macalister who attended a séance sitting wrote that apart from one common guess Piper got nothing correct and that her trance mediumship was a poor imposture.
- Thomas Barkworth who held the hand of Piper in one of her séances accused her of practicing muscle reading. Piper liked to hold a client's hand throughout a sitting, or even to place the hand against their forehead.
- The English astronomer George Darwin attended two séance sittings with Piper anonymously. The control of Piper mentioned names, but according to Darwin "not a single name or person was given correctly, although perhaps nine of ten were named."
- Horace Howard Furness attended a séance with Piper and concluded that the she had feigned her trances. During the séance Furness caught Piper with her eyes open, looking at some flowers which he had placed in the room.
- The Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang wrote that Piper would practice cold reading. According to Lang "Piper would cheat when she could—that is to say, she would make guesses, try to worm information out of her sitter, describe a friend of his, alive or dead, as ‘Ed.,’ who may be Edgar, Edmund, Edward, Edith, or anybody."
- The English classical scholar Walter Leaf attended séances with Piper and described them as unsatisfactory as she got nothing correct.
- Thomas W. M. Lund before a séance with Piper told another sitter about his son's illness and his wife's plans "within earshot of Mrs. Piper." In the séance Piper's control mentioned his statements. Lund suggested that Piper was not unconscious during the séance and that she had used clever guesswork and other mentalist tricks.
- The American paleontologist Nathaniel Shaler attended some séances with Piper and wrote in a letter to William James that he could not "exclude the hypothesis of fraud".
- In an experiment to test if Piper's controls were purely fictitious the psychologist G. Stanley Hall invented a niece called Bessie Beals and asked Piper's Hodgson control to get in touch with it. Bessie appeared, answered questions and accepted Dr. Hall as her uncle.
- Piper's control told Richard Hodgson he would get married, have two children and have a long life but Hodgson died a few months later, unmarried and childless.
- Edward Clodd. (1917). The Question: A Brief History and Examination of Modern Spiritualism. Grant Richards, London. pp. 190-214.
- Martin Gardner. (2003). How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James in Are Universes Thicker than Blackberries? W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 252–262.
- Walter Mann (1919). The Follies and Frauds of Spiritualism. London: Watts & Co. pp. 158-180.
- Joseph McCabe. (1920). Is Spiritualism Based On Fraud? The Evidence Given By Sir A. C. Doyle and Others Drastically Examined. London Watts & Co. pp. 101-105.
- Joseph Rinn. (1950). Sixty Years Of Psychical Research: Houdini And I Among The Spiritualists. Truth Seeker.
- Ivor Lloyd Tuckett. (1911). The Mediumship of Mrs Piper in The Evidence for the Supernatural: A Critical Study Made with "Uncommon Sense". K. Paul, Trench, Trübner. pp. 321-395.
- Simeon Edmunds. (1961). Hypnotism and Psychic Phenomena. Hal Leighton Printing Co. p. 122
- Amy Tanner. (1910). Studies in Spiritism. Prometheus Books, 1994, Originally published by D. Appleton, 1910.
- Andrew Lang. (1889). The Making of Religion. Longmans, Green & Co. pp. 103-104
- Ivor Lloyd Tuckett. (1911). The Evidence for the Supernatural: A Critical Study Made with "Uncommon Sense". K. Paul, Trench, Trübner. pp. 321-395
- Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife http://whitecrowbooks.com
- Mrs. Piper Michael Prescott's Blog