The Ghost-Obsessed Professor Who Became Haunted By the Living
James Hervey Hyslop was not a superstitious man. His was a life dedicated to research and education, and he served as Professor of Logic and Ethics at Columbia University in the 1890s. Hyslop hated myths so much that he refused to read a novel until the age of 30, and when he finally did he came away agitated that something would serve a purpose beyond the establishment of facts. “His life,” said H.N. Gardiner, Chair of Philosophy at Smith College, “was one of arduous and unselfish devotion to truth.”
For him, the truth to which he was so devoted was inarguable, though he spent his life feverishly arguing for it just the same: He believed with all his heart that our spirits live on after we die, and that certain members of the living can speak with the dead.
The fiercely intelligent professor spent almost all his days hunched over various texts, mustache tips pointing outward like curious antennae (he had a noteworthy mustache, even for the mustache-rich era in which he lived). His lonely search for an imagined truth made him, in the words of a friend, “somewhat of a Don Quixote.”
It may seem ridiculous now, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was common for respected intellectuals to believe in spirits and life beyond the grave. W.B. Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Upton Sinclair, Sir Oliver Lodge ... they all, like Hyslop, were convinced of it. The key difference, however, is that Hyslop was a full-time believer. He did not hedge one bit, and this dedicated stubbornness would come to define—and end—his life.
When he died in 1920, Hyslop was, in the words of an acquaintance, “worn out, wearied, and completely exhausted from his long and continuous efforts, alone and unaided by but a few.”
While Hyslop’s life and work are essentially unknown to the modern public, his legacy still stands in plain sight in the form of a large mansion on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, half a block from Central Park. The American Society for Psychical Research operates out of that building, and a portrait of Hyslop, the Society’s “Father,” hangs in the foyer.
While the mansion is large, the society's operations are modest nowadays. I visited in an attempt to learn more about the professor after finding repeated mention of him in old press clippings while researching New York’s psychic craze of the early 20th century. Hyslop seemed to be, by all accounts, one of the most miserable men in modern history. I liked him immediately.
For evidence of his temperament, one only has to look as far as the posthumous tributes written by his few remaining friends in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, a publication he ran throughout his life (and contributed to so heavily that he had ten new articles appear in his own memorial issue).
“With his high strung temperament he did at times get angry,” remembered one eulogizer, and, according to another remembrance, “Hyslop would have gained a wider and more respectful hearing had he cultivated a better and more restrained style of writing, and been less dogmatic and combative in the expression of his opinions.”
For him, the phrase “he’s happier now” is not a banal platitude—this was a man who became haunted by the living. A life now forgotten, Hyslop’s is the post-industrial American ghost story that should haunt anyone who believes hard work and honesty will be rewarded in both this life and the next.
THE SCIENTIST STARTS TO BELIEVE
Having been born poor in rural Ohio in 1854, James H. Hyslop spent much of his early life surrounded by death. His twin sister died shortly after their birth, and an older sister passed away a few years later. When he was ten years old, scarlet fever took James's younger sister and his younger brother, Charles.
“Their deaths made a profound impression on me,” Hyslop wrote in his unpublished autobiography, now housed in the ASPR archives. He describes his childhood in the “primitive forest” of Xenia, Ohio as one surrounded by dogmatic religious devotion. His first memory, from when he was five years old, was of a preacher preaching so fiercely that it frightened him to tears. His parents, he recalled, laughed at him.
Hyslop suffered from croup and other ailments as a child, and he spent two straight years living in terror that he would die from consumption and go to hell. “I became unable to smile or laugh,” he wrote of that time. He had to invent a fake laugh so he could fit in with his peers.
Hyslop’s father wanted his son to become a minister, so a college-aged James moved to Edinburgh to pursue this line of study. He didn't make it to Divinity School because, while in London, Hyslop had a crisis of faith. He had already harbored doubts about religion, so he taught himself ancient Greek in order to read the New Testament in what he thought would be its truest form—no matter the subject, Hyslop was always the consummate researcher. The Bible, he found, didn’t hold up to examination. He remembered the epiphany, when he was compelled to say, out loud, “Well, I cannot believe it. I shall give up and take the consequences.”
A sense of relief flooded his body, and he “walked the floor crying like a child and perspiring like a horse.” Even though he knew his father would be crushed, he was free to pursue the life of the mind, and he fled to Austria to study philosophy at the University of Leipzig. There he met his wife, Mary Hall Fry, a music student and fellow American. “There were no excitingly romantic incidents in my love affair,” he wrote, “We both took a cool and rationale view of our situation and calmly abided the issue of events.” They were perfect for each other.
Hyslop returned to the States where he won a fellowship to Johns Hopkins. He earned his Ph.D in psychology, writing a thesis on space perception (a subject he would write more about while he was a professor). Throughout this time, spiritualism didn't really cross his mind—he was focused on the schools of philosophy that he encountered in Europe.
Hyslop bounced between teaching gigs and built an impressive resume before being appointed Professor of Logic and Ethics at Columbia University in 1895. According to a colleague, he was "an agnostic and materialist" at the time, but, in an effort to explain dreams, he started to conduct tentative research and experimentation of spiritism. He befriended the famous William James, an outspoken believer in psychical phenomena who was also the first psychology professor in America, at Harvard.
Hyslop was invited to attend meetings of the Society for Psychical Research, whose American branch was founded by William James and a host of other highly regarded men. Hyslop came away impressed not by the incredible stories of séances and ghosts, but by the group's astute research and prudent bookkeeping. This was his kind of party.
His curiosity piqued, Hyslop visited Leonora Piper, a medium living in Boston who was known amongst William James and his SPR colleagues to be the real deal and totally uncrackable. Hyslop wanted to subject her to the rigors of his brand of scientific analysis, and, for his first visit, he showed up at her door wearing a hood and a mask. He also presented to her a false name, all part of his efforts to test her abilities on an anonymous participant.
During séances, Mrs. Piper would send herself into a trance while holding a pencil, inviting the “spirit” to communicate through her hand. The pragmatic Professor Hyslop was thrilled—this method meant his subject would be taking his notes for him. During Hyslop’s first visit, Mrs. Piper’s scribbling was unconvincing and showed “a good deal of confusion.” But during a subsequent reading, a name flowed from Piper’s pencil that rooted Hyslop to his chair:
Could the younger brother who died when Hyslop was 10 years old really be communicating with him? Intimate details about Charles' short life and abrupt death emerged:
“Is scarlet fever a bad thing to have in the body?”
Soon, the supposed spirit of Hyslop’s recently deceased father joined the conversation. Through Mrs. Piper his father asked if Hyslop remembered their conversations before he died, about how he promised to return to his father. He remembered.
Whatever the explanation, be it trickery, an informant (Mrs. Piper's friendly and talkative housekeeper was rumored to leak info to her boss), or something genuinely aetherial, the man of science was hooked.
By 1898, Hyslop had became convinced of the “spiritistic hypothesis,” as he called it. He continued his teaching duties at Columbia, though he was now regularly conducting research with various mediums, which took up a considerable amount of time. Wary of his behavior, the president of Columbia and the dean of the philosophy department moved him from Logic and Ethics to Epistemology and Metaphysics.
In 1902, during a period of immense stress and constant work, Hyslop developed tuberculosis. After taking a sabbatical to recuperate in the mountains, his wife Mary contracted meningitis and died suddenly. “It was a shock,” he wrote, describing the time he spent with Mary in the mountains as “one of the happiest in our lives.” He suffered a mental breakdown soon after and was forced to resign from his post at Columbia.
It was during this period of introspection that he typed out his 59-page autobiography (for no one in particular, he asserts). It is dated March 6, 1904. The ASPR kindly granted me two hours to examine it. In their early days, the society routinely and flamboyantly courted press coverage, but that was an era more friendly to all things psychical, hence my short time limit. In fact, Hyslop had much to do with the media's initial and lasting perceptions of the society (and spiritism in general).
James H. Hyslop’s life could be divided into two chapters, and what the autobiography covers amounts to part one. Part two would contain 16 of the busiest years of his life. No longer was he hampered by his position at the university (though he would keep the honorific "Professor"). Rather than retire, he would dedicate his life to the psychic research that had touched him so dearly.
After the Society for Psychical Research's American branch went bankrupt in 1905, Hyslop disputed with the SPR and rescued and re-established it under his own, total control in the States. Its purpose and success became inexorably tied to his own.
Men usually respond to newfound purpose in one of two ways: They either treat it as a gift that grants perspective, or it becomes a treasure that demands protection. You can guess which route Professor Hyslop took, and the rest of his life can be viewed as a series of bitter fights in the name of psychical research. Much to his eventual frustration, most of these battles played out in the press.
PROFESSOR HYSLOP VS. LILY DALE
James Hyslop was astonished that people weren’t as impressed with Mrs. Piper’s feats as he was. In his mind he had tested her as carefully as any scientist could hope to, and he had boxes upon boxes of séance transcripts—hard data!—to prove it. While he managed to earn a few write-ups in the papers, his PR push was failing, as was the financial health of his new research society. He felt he was on the cusp of a groundbreaking discovery—that these spiritual phenomena could be responsible for psychological issues like multiple personality disorder and obsession—and no one cared.
Hyslop knew the public had its doubts, so to grab their attention and earn their trust he would have to play to this skepticism. What better way to do this than by bringing down psychic frauds?
Lily Dale was an upstate retreat hailed as "the most famous and aristocratic spiritualistic camp in America.” Wealthy New Yorkers vacationed at the lavish campgrounds where they'd get their palms read and sit in on dramatic séances. While it was established by die-hard spiritualists, Hyslop discovered that Lily Dale had been taken over by money-hungry charlatans. Exposing the sham turned out to be a righteous breeze.
Hyslop sent his assistant, the charming and eager Hereward Carrington, to Lily Dale for an undercover investigation. Carrington, who gave a fake name, took in all the retreat had to offer and reported his findings back to Hyslop. The two debunked these so-called phenomena, and the New York Times featured their report as part of a full-page spread on March 8, 1908: "INGENIOUS FRAUDS AT LILY DALE SEANCES."
In the article, Hyslop and Carrington relate how the "mystics" of Lily Dale took "spirit photographs" that featured “ghosts” floating in the background. A quick cut-and-paste job was thoroughly convincing in the early days of photography, but the psychic investigators were able to prove that the pictures were doctored by magnifying them. During a séance in which bells and tambourines appeared to move and shake on their own, Carrington coyly observed a thread tied to both. "Materialized" little girls who fluttered about the camp were found to be actresses dressed up in different clothing from séance to séance>.
“The professional fakers have all along been the greatest obstacle in the path of psychic research," Hyslop said in a Times story published a few months after the Lily Dale exposé. "These are the imposters whose juggling must be swept away before any progress toward true enlightenment in spiritism can be made.”
But pulling the curtain back on the psychic world's most notable fraudsters revealed unintended consequences for Hyslop. He had fueled the skeptics rather than satiate them, and he helped create a new fad of ghost-busting that would side-track and annoy him all the way to his grave.
PROFESSOR HYSLOP VS. THE METROPOLITAN PSYCHICAL SOCIETY
A new group called the Metropolitan Psychical Society had been making lots of noise ever since the frauds at Lily Dale were exposed. Unlike Hyslop's American Society for Psychical Research, the MPS didn't believe in ghosts or spirits. Inspired by Hyslop and Carrington's work, they wanted to take down the world of clairvoyants and mediums, and they made an offer they thought any real psychic couldn't refuse: Prove yourself by reading from a book opened at random without looking and we'll pay you $3500.
The offer—which was originally set at $1000 and dramatically raised in a series of announcements to the press—was heavily publicized by W.S. Davis, Hyslop's counterpart at the MPS. Davis wasn't afraid to use smug schoolyard rhetoric—or worse—in his quest to expose charlatans. As he wrote in a 1909 New York Times editorial: “We must pretend to be friendly and sympathetic with the medium when we are really planning her downfall; and we must frequently resort to violence."
Davis and the MPS aimed their challenge at Hyslop, and he diplomatically deferred while speaking to a New York Times reporter. “I am not disposed to treat lightly the challenge that has been made in a general way by the Metropolitan Psychical Society," he said. “The trouble with the test spoken of by Mr. Davis is that no reputable medium would take it up saying that she could carry it out."
Offering a cash prize, Hyslop argued, made the whole enterprise moot. "No respectable medium—and I try to associate myself with none other—would accept any such gratuity, no difference how successful the test.”
No one ended up taking the challenge, and Hyslop continued his own research. He had recently started working with a medium—"Mrs. Quentin," as she was pseudonymously known—who had shown great promise (and who happened to be a wealthy benefactor to his society).
Hyslop managed to spin the situation into PR buzz for his own work. The Times included some of Hyslop's transcripts from Mrs. Quentin's séances in their breathless coverage of the Metropolitan Society's challenge, most notable being an instance where the medium revealed the definition of hell—“Hell is a condition,” she said. Hyslop didn’t even have to die of consumption—his greatest fear as a child—to find out he had nothing to worry about.
While Hyslop plucked away, members of the Metropolitan Psychical Society worked to devise a more effective publicity stunt. On November 15, 1908, some five months after their first offer was largely ignored, they finally had some takers with a new psychic test: Count the oranges dumped onto a table behind you, and $5,000 is yours.
This new challenge was far simpler and easier to convey to prospective contestants. Once desperate for attention, the Metropolitan Psychical Society had mystics and mediums lined up outside their Manhattan offices, including, notably, a 300 lb. man "filled with the spirit of Shakespeare" who insisted that "Mr. Shakespeare will help me count those oranges all right if you will give me a chance." He acted the part of Macbeth ("giving the lines perfectly") with such fervor he had to be led outside, lest he "have a stoke of apoplexy."
The MPS received thousands of applications, so many that they said they had to screen the prospective orange-counters with an initial test to separate the "spirit fakers and guessers ... from those who sincerely claimed supernatural powers." No one could pass the insanely difficult entrance test which required, in part, detailed descriptions of mystery items locked in a box. Not a single orange was spilled.
PROFESSOR HYSLOP VS. HIS OLD FRIEND
As the Metropolitan Psychical Society faded from relevance, a tantalizing letter to the editor appeared in the pages of the New York Times. Titled "A HINT TO PALLADONO [sic]," the November 22, 1908 note read:
"In the event of a failure to secure decisive mental phenomena cannot the Metropolitan Psychical Society be induced to offer its reward of $5,000 to Mme. Eusipia Palladono [sic], the famous physical [sic] medium who is now demonstrating for some of Europe's most noted scientists?"
The scientists mentioned were members of the English Society for Psychical Research, the group Hyslop's American Society had splintered away from. Among those visiting was none other than Hereward Carrington, Hyslop's former assistant and charlatan-debunker nonpareil.
The letter to the editor was signed "T.B. Curtis," though the conspiratorially minded could be forgiven for believing it was sent by Carrington himself. He had plenty of reason to sow the seeds of excitement for this mysterious Italian medium: Carrington was Madame Esusapia Paladino's manager, and he was planning her American tour for November 1909.
Carrington was an expert hype man, and the press whipped up Paladino-Mania before her tour even began. Strange happenings were coyly leaked to the Times as she made her sea voyage to America. An article, headlined "AWESOME WONDERS BY THE NEW MEDIUM" told incredible tales of glowing limbs and levitating tables aboard the German liner Prinzess Irene. Esusapia Paladino had been performing her famously dynamic séances in her cabin, and the "manifestations were so sudden and awful that a ship’s passenger, a young woman, was sent into hysterics, from which she didn’t recover for the rest of the voyage.” Who could resist?
The trip's purpose, the Times reported, was so that she could "give private séances [for] Prof. William James of Harvard [and] Dr. James H. Hyslop." But, in reality, Carrington had no intention of letting his former boss sit in on these séances. Hyslop’s requests to examine Paladino's methods were briskly rejected.
Carrington's traveling show became the talk of the town, and society types were paying up to $100 for the chance to sit in on Paladino's séances. The last thing Carrington wanted was for Hyslop to spoil the lucrative fun, though the professor still tried. “Eusapia Paladino is a hysteric" and not the real deal, Hyslop explained to a class at the Calvalry Baptist Church. "It strikes me that all the excitement which has been aroused over her is uncalled for."
Her act was further exposed when a shop owner came forward and said that Carrington had bought phosphorescent paint from him to create the illusion of Paladino's famous glowing limbs. Disappointed, Hyslop called out his old protegé. How could such a trusted ally in the fight for truth throw away his principles for profit?
Carrington defended himself in the press and ruthlessly attacked Hsylop, asserting that his former friend was nothing but a "dog-in-the-manger" who was "simply jealous" of Carrington's success.
Hyslop responded to these attacks with a somber editorial of his own. “I represent a society which is struggling to interest the intelligent and respectable public in a very serious problem," he wrote. "[Mr. Carrington] took a course which was opposite to the one taken by all scientific men when they introduce a new group of phenomena to the public."
Many saw the Paladino affair as yet another example of psychic fraud. Much to Hyslop's chagrin, the press focused on these famous charlatans, not the mediums he and the ASPR were working to prove as genuine through hours of extensively recorded testing. Though he would never relent in his work, Hyslop was running out of sympathetic ears.
PROFESSOR HYSLOP VS. THE MEDIA
By 1909, the media had become stingingly cruel to James Hervey Hyslop. The New York Times ran a gossip article that said he had called off a second marriage because he thought his dead wife and father had told him to. The article, "AN UNKNOWN LADY'S LUCKY ESCAPE," gleefully poked fun at Hyslop, who was now portrayed as a superstitious boob by a paper that had once considered him an intelligent man of science.
The un-named author asserted Hyslop and his life's work were one big joke, and that no woman in her right mind would even entertain the idea of marrying him:
”It needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us that a healthy, sensible woman, of marriageable years, is not likely to sympathize with spook hunting and the investigation of the unseen world as an occupation for a husband…We have a sort of dim suspicion that the lady this psychic investigator did not take for his second wife had made up her mind to refuse him long before.”
Hyslop wrote to the Times to issue a series of corrections, informing them that his relationship had ended for reasons other than his job. "The lady, contrary to your statement, was deeply interested in ‘spook hunting,’” he wrote.
Though he shows his trademark defiance, there is a sadness that permeates Hyslop’s letter: “I should not have mentioned the matter at all."
PROFESSOR HYSLOP VS. BROOKLYN
While the press mocked him, the general public didn't treat Hyslop much better. Ironically, the culture of healthy skepticism he had helped create no longer had room for him or his ideas. He was nearly heckled off the stage at a 1910 lecture in Brooklyn about the prospect of life after death. "What's a spirit, anyway?" a man screamed. "Show us the goods!"
The audience erupted in applause, and a woman taunted him, "What do you know about that? He's got him on the run!"
Hyslop tried his best to reason with the unruly crowd. "Scientific men in this country don’t pretend to understand just what is going on in these spirit manifestations,” he pleaded, but he could not calm them down. Audience members took turns mocking Hyslop, and he didn't get a break until a man stood up to ask why they were talking about ghosts and not labor issues. The crowd accused this man of being a socialist and re-directed their ire at him, much to Hyslop's relief.
At the end of the contentious lecture, the chairman of the Brooklyn Philosophical Association took the stage to vouch for Hyslop, saying he had known him for years and, while they didn't agree on these specific matters, the psychical researcher was an honorable man who came to his conclusions carefully. The chairman then offered Hyslop $500 if he could find a medium capable of reading a locked-away letter written by his dead friend.
PROFESSOR HYSLOP VS. HIS OWN WORDS
In 1914, psychologist Dr. Amy Tanner published Studies in Spiritism, a book that closely examined the major figures of the psychical movement and aimed to expose them as gullible simpletons.
Tanner's book focused heavily on Professor Hyslop's well-documented experiences with mediums. Tanner asserted that Hyslop was overly suggestible, and that he allowed his research to be skewed by his own eagerness and lack of detachment.
It's a brutal take-down, one that was helped immensely by the professor himself. "Hyslop made it a special point to get down every word spoken in his sittings, even the most casual ones," she wrote. Tanner used these words to pick apart Hyslop’s early séances, the ones with Mrs. Piper that had sparked his obsession and changed his life forever.
Tanner scornfully dismissed these intimate meetings where Hyslop believed with all his heart that he was talking with his deceased brother and father. These moments were, Tanner argued, "inexpressibly trivial and stupid."
Hyslop responded in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research with a fiery 98-page defense that accused Dr. Tanner of “lying,” “distortion,” "falsification," "misrepresentation," "pure fiction," and "misstatement of facts."
Hyslop returned to his work, as he always did, filling books with new research on the matter of spirits. However, his communications outside his circle of faithful spiritualists shrank (as did the circle itself), and his patience with non-believers had run its course. "I regard the existence of discarnate spirits as scientifically proved and I no longer refer to the skeptic as having any right to speak on the subject," he wrote in his 1918 book Life After Death. "Any man who does not accept the existence of discarnate spirits and the proof of it is either ignorant or a moral coward." This anger would go on to define him in the eyes of the few people who stuck around long enough to write eulogies.
Hyslop rarely spoke with reporters after the publication of Dr. Tanner's Studies in Spiritism, and if he did, it was to issue corrections. An exception came on January 30, 1920, after a man who called himself the "ghost breaker" offered Hyslop $5,000 to prove the existence of spirits.
"The public has no sense," Hyslop responded in the Times. "I advise them to let mediums alone."
PROFESSOR HYSLOP VS. "THE GAP BETWEEN TIME AND ETERNITY"
In June 1920, Professor James H. Hyslop died from thrombosis. In their remembrances, Hyslop's peers at the ASPR blamed his demise on overwork and stress.
Two days later, an anonymous member of the society leaked to the press that a medium had made contact with the deceased professor, saying, “He seemingly has found it easy to make himself understood clearly across the gap between time and eternity.”
One year after Hyslop's death, the New York Times published a story about how the popularity of spiritualism and psychic research was on the rise due to endorsements from influential men like inventor Sir Oliver Lodge and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There is but one brief, inglorious mention of Hyslop in the article:
"Dr. Hyslop is not one of the great names with the professionals or members of the Spiritualist Church because he frequently attacked the professional or commercial spiritualists."
Hyslop followed the course we demand of our intellectual heroes, the path of the stubborn genius who bucks conventional wisdom and works ceaselessly against the grain. But for every Conan Doyle or Oliver Lodge, there is a James Hervey Hyslop whose tireless efforts wind up being forgotten.
This makes for a rather dire conclusion, one that is probably fair given the frustrating life that preceded it. However, there is a counter-argument, and because his life was full of ironies, it's only fitting that this rebuttal comes from James H. Hyslop himself. In 1908, before his many impassioned battles turned him bitter for good, Hyslop reminded his colleagues about the role levity should play in their otherwise serious work. Paraphrased, the message works as a suitable epitaph for the man who wrote it but eventually forgot its meaning:
"Life is not a tragedy. I wish it were. We might then hope that man would get his deserts. It is merely a comedy in which idealism has no functions. When the psychical researcher realizes this he will laugh at the humorous helplessness of his own situation."
He has a point. From a ghost's perspective, life really must look pretty funny.