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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Leonora Piper, Turn-of-the-Century Medium 

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

When Leonora Evelina Piper (née Symonds) was 8 years old, she was out playing in the garden when she was overcome by a sudden and mysterious blow to the side of her head, accompanied by a hiss, which eventually became words and a message. In utter hysterics, the girl bolted for the house, where she told her mother: “Something hit me on the ear and Aunt Sara said she wasn’t dead but with you still.” A few days later a letter arrived. Sara had indeed died—on the same day, and around the same time the little girl had gone into a fit.

According to her parents, it wasn’t the only time in her childhood that Piper would show possible psychic predilections. But for the most part, the family set that aside. A daughter who might have the ability to commune with the afterlife isn’t necessarily something you want to advertise to the neighbors.

Leonora eventually grew up, married a shopkeeper named William Piper, and moved from New Hampshire to Boston. The pair had a daughter named Alta in 1884, who, despite bringing much joy to the couple, also aggravated a longtime injury in Piper. As a child, Piper had been involved in an ice-sledding accident that led to internal abdominal bleeding. Following Alta’s birth the pain was so bad Piper sought the help of a clairvoyant—an elderly blind man who purported to have the ability to contact healing spirits. When they touched, it ended up being Piper who experienced something otherworldly.

The young woman reportedly entered a trance-like state. She became dizzy and said she heard a myriad of voices, one of which came through clearly enough that she was able to write down a message. As soon as she was finished, Piper handed the dispatch to a man who was also at the parlor that day, a local judge, who said it was a message from his deceased son. As Deborah Blum writes in Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, Piper returned to the blind clairvoyant a few more times, but retreated after she found herself becoming the focus of attention. She was pregnant with her second daughter, and said she didn’t want to practice as a medium.

Despite that resistance, the budding mystic relented in 1885, agreeing to meet with a widow named Eliza Gibbens. According to Gibbens, Piper was able to relay personal details “the knowledge of which on her part was incomprehensible without supernormal powers.” Gibbens then sent her daughter, Margaret, to further test Piper. Margaret brought a sealed envelope with a letter penned in Italian, and the reluctant clairvoyant had no trouble reciting details about the person who had written it. Margaret and Eliza then decided to take the news to their sister and daughter, Alice, who had recently been quarantined with scarlet fever, and whose illness led to the death of her 1-year-old son, Herman. (After her quarantine, the child had been returned to Alice although she hadn't fully regained her strength; she developed whooping cough, and the infection soon spread to the child, where it turned into fatal pneumonia.)

Alice, and her husband William James—a Harvard professor, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and skeptic who helped discredit several popular mediums in Boston—went to see Piper. With little knowledge about the couple or their recent circumstances, she successfully conjured the name of their deceased little boy (or at least James felt she did; the name Piper spoke was Herrin, not Herman).

"If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black … it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My white crow is Mrs. Piper,” James would later say in his 1896 presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research. Not everyone was so convinced, however, and James himself would later express skepticism of his own.

For years Piper held private readings at her home and allowed members from the British and American Societies for Psychical Research (SPR) to attend. She was reportedly completely cooperative when it came to inquiring minds, permitting researchers to frequently sit in on her séances. She was likely the most thoroughly scrutinized medium of her day: SPR members also sent test subjects and even hired private detectives to follow Piper and her husband around to see if they exhibited any behavior that might indicate information-gathering regarding potential clients. Their quests proved fruitless—no sign of fraud was ever found. According to Amy Tanner's 1910 book Studies in Spiritism, Piper charged $20 per séance (about $580 today), enough to help support her family.

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While in her trances, Piper used so-called “controls”—spirits that spoke through her. “Dr. Phinuit”—a Frenchman—served as the primary control in Piper's early mediumship, but she went on to become a supposed vessel for a number of spirits who would then communicate through voice or automatic writing. She also employed psychometry, a method in which the medium uses material objects to do readings, and was taken on several trips to Britain to demonstrate her supposed abilities there.

Despite her many believers—she was among the most famous of mediums in the age of Spiritualism—many others called Piper's supposed abilities a hoax, and not even a good one at that. She often failed to provide accurate details about her clients or their dearly departed, and persistent inaccuracies regarding her controls befuddled those who were studying her. (Dr. Phinuit for example, didn’t seem to know much about the French language or medicine, his two defining characteristics.) Another investigator tested Piper by concocting a story of a dead relative named Bessie Beale, and the medium went on to relay messages from the nonexistent spirit.

Some said Piper had multiple personalities, others believed her to be savvy mentalist with a knack for cold reading and “fishing,” and others still said she had a talent for surreptitiously learning details about guests before they sat down for a session. Even William James didn’t believe Piper was communicating with ghosts, but rather using telepathy, and drawing on memories and other information from her clients as well as others, perhaps even subliminally. The scholar could find no "independent evidence" to back the possibility of of spirit control.

Oddly enough, Piper herself would prove to be conflicted about the nature of her abilities. In a 1901 “confession” in the New York Herald [PDF], Piper announced her separation from the Society for Psychical Research and was quoted as saying, “I have always maintained that these phenomena could be explained in other ways than by the intervention of disembodied spirit forces … I am inclined to accept the telepathic explanation of all the so-called psychic phenomena, but beyond this I remain a student with the rest of the world.” She also described the spirit controls as "an unconscious expression of my subliminal self," and if all that wasn’t definitive enough: "I must truthfully say that I do not believe that spirits of the dead have spoken through me when I have been in the trance state …”

Needless to say the piece caused an uproar, and even caused SPR member Richard Hodgson, an avid believer, to write an open letter claiming she had been misunderstood. He also released a statement to the Boston Advertiser from Piper, which read: "I did not make any such statement as that published in the New York Herald to the effect that spirits of the departed do not control me. … My opinion is to-day as it was 18 years ago. Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know. I have not changed.”

Ultimately, all the press likely only served to fuel the interest in Piper and her clairvoyant services. And while we may never know what she truly believed, it didn’t matter when it came to the business of mediumship: She found fame and fortune in her séances, though she reportedly never sought much attention beyond continuing to meet with sitters and allowing herself to be repeatedly, almost obsessively observed for science.

In the early 1900s, Piper's trance abilities reportedly began to fade. She gave her last séance in 1911, and officially retired some years later. She lived to be 93 years old, dying on July 3, 1950 from bronchopneumonia at her home in Brookline, Massachusetts. She is buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Arlington, Massachusetts. History remembers her as a conflicted character—and as William James's one "white crow."

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Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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iStock

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.

1. THE MELBOURNE DART RIOT

The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).

2. THE LEICESTER BALLOON RIOT

In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.

3. THE TORONTO CLOWN AND FIREFIGHTER RIOT

Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.

4. THE BELGIAN NIGHT AT THE OPERA RIOT

A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.

5. THE NEW YORK DOCTORS' RIOT

Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.

6. THE BROWN DOG RIOTS

Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.

7. THE EEL-PULLING RIOT

Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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