Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918)
EUSAPIA, THE ORPHAN
Eusapia Palladino’s mother died when she was an infant. When she was 12, her father was murdered and the orphan was shipped off to Naples to adoptive parents. She was a handful. Evidently the family tried in desperation to civilize her, to get her to perform basic acts of hygiene, and to educate her. They didn’t succeed. Eusapia wound up with another family at age 13. It was in this temporary home that she manifested her first paranormal phenomena. Word quickly got around and it wasn’t long before she was giving séances.
EARLY INVESTIGATIONS OF EUSAPIA PALLADINO
Cesare Lombroso, a respected professor of psychiatry at the University of Turin, agreed to investigate La Palladino. He had been publicly challenged to do so in an open letter to a Rome newspaper written by Dr. Ercole Chiaia, an ardent though amateurish investigator.
After two sittings with Palladino, Lombroso declared himself “converted.” His report resulted in a gathering in Milan of more psychically sophisticated investigators to study her on a scientific level. Among them was Professor Charles Richet of the Sorbonne.
THE ILE ROUBAUD SITTINGS
The most well-known of these investigations was held in the summer of 1894 on Richet’s own little island off the French coast, Ile Roubaud. He and three other men, all experts in séance phenomena and tricks, plus a secretary to take notes, held a series of experimental séances with Palladino at that location. Even though it was the only house on the island, they took precautions to ensure there were no accomplices.
English parapsychologists F. W. H. Myers and Oliver Lodge were introduced to Palladino at this meeting. These two men were astute, experienced psychical investigators. Myers had been to hundreds of séances and knew every trick in the book employed by fraudulent mediums.
Their expertise was crucial to these sittings because Eusapia was a notorious cheater. Lombroso described her as a “crafty” trickster, both in and out of trance. But Dr. Stephen Braude, in his book The Limits of Influence, makes an important point, often overlooked by historians, that Palladino was certainly not “crafty” in her cheating. . . .“Nothing about Eusapia was sophisticated or particularly clever. Her tricks were discovered precisely because they were clumsy and elementary.” He notes that she only cheated when she felt she could get away with it, or when she was entranced and was allowed to slip her fetters or controls either through incompetence or by those who wanted to “prove” she was cheating.
PALLADINO, THE HONEST CHEAT
She was an “honest cheat” in that she would warn those she respected that when entranced she would try to do what they wanted by normal means rather than exert her paranormal powers.
The men controlled her completely holding hands, arms, legs while they felt hands touching them, pushing them from behind and at one point covering Richet’s mouth. Over the few days they were there she caused unwound music boxes to wind and play tunes and float around the room, an accordion to move from a chair to the floor and play a sequence of 26 notes while her fingers made movements in the researchers’ hands as though she were pressing the keys and many other demonstrations of her rare talent.
A lamp floated up off a small round table, flew slowly over their heads and came to rest on the larger table at which they sat. The round table moved away and “blows” or raps were heard coming from it.
During one sitting, she took one of Myers’ fingers and drew some scrawls with it outside Richet’s jacket, which was buttoned up to his neck. Myers had said, “She is using me to write on you,” and they thought no more of it. After the sitting, while Richet was undressing, he found on his shirt front, which had been covered by the flannel jacket and a high waistcoat, “a clear blue scrawl,” which he immediately ran out to show to the others.
SABOTAGING THE VULGAR PEASANT, PALLADINO
A British member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) named Richard Hodgson set out to discredit Palladino whom he referred to as a “vulgar Neapolitan peasant” and also to boost his own prestige. He knowingly loosened controls and when she “cheated,” as he had planned, he denounced her as a fraud and those in charge at the SPR decided that since she had cheated there was no reason to believe that any of her phenomena were genuine. They refused to have any more to do with her.
EUSAPIA AND THE FRAUD SQUAD
Eventually they were forced to give in to pressure from the continent, and in 1908, the SPR assigned three arch skeptics (who Brian Inglis called “The Fraud Squad”) to travel to Naples to settle the matter, fully expecting that their “triple threat” would finally unmask this fake. The trio was eminently suited to the job.
Everard Feilding was an extreme skeptic who had vast experience, and had exposed many frauds. He was, however, open minded and would not accept critical comments unless they were accompanied by “properly adduced evidence.”
Hereward Carrington, was an amateur magician as well as a psychical researcher. He had just written a book on physical phenomena that mostly exposed and analyzed the trickery used by bogus mediums.
W. W. Baggally was an expert at conjuring who claimed to have investigated almost every British medium after D.D. Home “without finding one who was genuine.” Baggally, who was almost as skeptical as Feilding and just as eager to be a detective on the psychic bunko squad, knew more about the methods of trickery than Feilding and could therefore better concentrate on essentials.
Their skepticism and confidence that they would easily expose this trickster had gradually given way to wonder as they were forced to realize that what they were experiencing did not fit into their material world view. After a few sessions with the medium, they were converted.
VERDICT: PALLADINO’S GENUINE
Because of their rigid controls and the illumination of the room, the three investigators were convinced of the reality of her phenomena. The tables levitated numerous times, various objects moved about, and hands and heads of different sizes, shapes, and complexions appeared both in and outside the cabinet. The men were touched and grabbed by phantom hands, which they all attested were “human” in every respect, complete with fingernails. They were not Eusapia’s or anyone else’s present, and by their feel and action could not have been produced by some contraption. (Besides, the medium allowed them to search her and no such device was ever found.)
Of course even today Eusapia and the “squad’s” findings are still being attacked: It’s very hard to accept these phenomena if you haven’t experienced them.
Watch video interview with Dr Carlos Alvarado discussing Eusapia Palladino
Read about other “inside the séance” people:
D.D. Home • Eusapia Palladino • Fox Sisters • Franek Kluski • Helen Duncan
Indridi Indridason • Katie King
In the limited space here I’ve been able to cite only a fraction of Palladino’s phenomena.
More details may be found in Chapter 17 of
Rosemarie Pilkington, The Spirit of Dr. Bindelof: The Enigma of Seance Phenomena, Anomalist Books.