Talking with Ghosts? Eusapia Palladino, a Medium Who Drew in Scientists
The world of scientists, writers, and other intellectuals was charmed by her and curiosity made them attend her séances - Eusapia Palladino was an enigma who could supposedly communicate with the dead.
She was a supernatural phenomenon of her times. Eusapia was born on January 21, 1854 in Minervino Murge, Bari Province, Italy. When she was very young, she married a theatrical artist and traveling conjuror named Raphael Delgaiz. Many suggest that she learned a lot from her first husband. This knowledge allowed her to make an incredible career. Later, she married Francesco Niola, a merchant.
Although many magicians and skeptics of magic concluded that she was nothing more than a clever trickster, her séances were full of people who trusted her gifts. Even now, people still wonder about the levitating tables in her spiritual meetings.
Alexandr Aksakov (right) "controls" while Palladino levitates table, Milan. (1892) (Public Domain)
The Séances in Warsaw
Palladino’s fame may have its beginnings in Poland. She visited Warsaw on two occasions. The first time, she was invited by the psychologist, Dr. Julian Ochorowicz. He hosted her from November 1893 to January 1894. She wanted to demonstrate her phenomenal séances, influence the local society, and create an impressive income.
Ochorowicz introduced her to the Polish writer, Bolesław Prus, who attended a number of her séances and promoted her in the press. During the meetings with Palladino, he felt inspired to write the historical novel Pharaoh. Prus started to write it in 1894, after Eusapia left Poland. It wasn't a secret that Eusapia adored Prus.
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Eusapia Palladino. (Public Domain)
Palladino returned to Poland in the second half of May 1898. She was traveling from St. Petersburg to Munich and Vienna. She met Prus again, but it seems that there was nothing more to their relationship.
Eusapia’s growing fame brought her an invitation to England. In July 1895, she appeared in Cambridge for a series of séances. This may have been the first time when she faced strong criticism. An article was published in the British Medical Journal titled “Exit Eusapia!” It questioned the scientific legitimacy of her talents as a medium.
Photograph of Bolesław Prus. (c. 1905) (Public Domain)
Spiritual Experiences with Marie and Pierre Curie
From Poland, Eusapia traveled to France, where she became a very captivating person there as well. In 1898, the astronomer Eugene Antoniadi investigated her spiritual talents. He said that his results proved her performances were fraudulent from beginning to end. Nonetheless, it seems that her fame from Warsaw provided her with a group of great scientists who wanted to research her skills. The group of chemists, biologists, and physicists, was led by the famous Marie and Pierre Curie.
Pierre and Marie Curie, c. 1903. (Smithsonian Institution @ Flickr Commons)
The first meeting took place in 1905. Apart from the Curies, the meeting included scientists like Charles Richet, Henri Bergson, Jacque-Arsene d'Arsonval, William Crookes, Jean Perrin, Louis Geroges Gouy, and Paul Langevin.
It seems that many of them were fascinated with the growing field of quantum physics, as well as research about life after death and the mechanisms which could allow people to attract things and opportunities they wanted. Pierre Curie reported to his friend Gouy:
"We have had a series of séances with Eusapia Palladino at the [Society for Psychical Research]. It was very interesting, and really the phenomena that we saw appeared inexplicable as trickery—tables raised from all four legs, movement of objects from a distance, hands that pinch or caress you, luminous apparitions. All in a [setting] prepared by us with a small number of spectators all known to us and without a possible accomplice. The only trick possible is that which could result from an extraordinary facility of the medium as a magician. But how do you explain the phenomena when one is holding her hands and feet and when the light is sufficient so that one can see everything that happens?”
Cesare Lombroso and Charles Richet "control" while Palladino levitates table, Milan, 1892. (Public Domain)
The Curies also saw the séances as scientific experiments. They took notes and discussed the conclusions with other researchers. It is possible that they were looking for the source of an unknown energy. Pierre was much more fascinated with the Palladino's séances than Marie. Nevertheless, the attention of great researchers made Eusapia one of the most influential spiritual mediums of the world.
The End of the Magic
After her stay in France, Eusapia went back to Italy, but also traveled to America. The more she traveled, the more skeptical voices appeared. Researchers, scientists, and philosophers all attended and analyzed her séances. They wanted to know why famous scientists like the Curies appreciated her, but also to find a way to explain her activities. The first notable person who criticized her in America was probably Charles Sanders Peirce, who wrote:
''Eusapia Palladino has been proved to be a very clever prestigieuse and cheater, 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."
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Palladino seemed to not care much about the criticism she received and she agreed to organize a séance in the physics laboratory at Columbia University. With the assistance of other magicians and researchers, she demonstrated her talents.
In January 1910, researchers discovered that Palladino had freed her left foot to perform the phenomena of levitating the table. It raised some doubts about her séances and scientists finally found the first argument to support the belief that she was a cheat. In the same year, Stanley LeFevre Krebs wrote a book about her tricks called ''Trick Methods of Eusapia Paladino''.
Mandolin (striped instrument, top, right) levitates above Palladino's head in front of the curtains at the far short end of the table during Palladino's séance in Munich, Germany, March 13, 1903. (Public Domain)
Fake medium or a Danger to Science?
Another person who criticized her was Harry Houdini, the famous magician. He even explained some of her tricks. According to him, she cheated during every single séance. At the same time, many people confirmed incredible talks they had with deceased relatives through her mediumship.
The most famous story is connected with a talk with the ghost of the legendary King John of England. Even some of the French researchers who studied her admitted that the information she gave them about their relatives and friends, whose ghosts supposedly contacted her, was very convincing.
Houdini in 1899. (Public Domain)
If Eusapia Palladino wasn't actually a cheat, she may have been viewed upon as a very dangerous person for world authorities, people who earned money as magicians, and also scientists. Many tried to solve her secrets, but until now nobody knows for sure if she was just an intelligent woman who knew how to manipulate an audience, or a real medium who had special abilities.
Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life, 1995.
Joseph McCabe, Spiritualism: A Popular History From 1847, 1920.