Eleanor M. Sidgwick (1845-1936)

By Alvarado, Carlos S. | The Journal of Parapsychology, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Eleanor M. Sidgwick (1845-1936)


Alvarado, Carlos S., The Journal of Parapsychology


Mrs. Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick was one of the most productive psychical researchers of the early Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Born Eleanor Mildred Balfour in 1845, at East Lothian, Scotland, she was part of the influential Balfour family. In addition to the psychical research work, which is the topic of this note, Sidgwick participated in some of the physical experiments of her brother-in-law, John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh (e.g., Rayleigh & Sidgwick, 1883), and was very active in the university education of women. She was Treasurer, Vice-Principal, and Principal at Newnham College. Sidgwick married Henry Sidgwick in 1876, and shared with him deep interests in women's education and in psychical research (for biographical information see Johnson, 1936; E. Sidgwick, 1938).

Sidgwick was involved in psychical investigations before the SPR was founded. Together with some close associates, among them Edmund Gurney, Walter Leaf, Frederic W. H. Myers, and Henry Sidgwick, she had seances with several physical mediums during the 1870s (Sidgwick, 1886b). They included Annie Fairlamb, Anna Eva Fay, Kate Fox (then Mrs. Jencken), Mary Rosina Showers, and Catherine Wood. But the results of the seances were not in favor of the genuineness of the phenomena and led the group to a general feeling of skepticism. Sidgwick commented at the end of the article:

I feel bound ... to admit that by far the larger part of the testimony put forward as affording solid ground for a belief in them, which I have been able to examine, is of such a nature as to justify the contempt with which scientific men generally regard it; and though it is to be regretted, it is hardly under the circumstances to be wondered at, that this contempt is hastily extended to the whole of the testimony. If what I have written should contribute, in however small a degree, to the improvement of the evidence on this subject in the future, I shall feel that it has not been written in vain. (Sidgwick, 1886b, p. 74)

In her article about Spiritualism for the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica Sidgwick returned to the issue of physical mediumship and stated that most witnesses "do not seem to have duly appreciated the possibilities of conjuring, nor to have taken sufficient precautions to exclude it" (Sidgwick, 1887, p. 406). She continued to present such views in evaluations of the phenomena of spirit photography and the performances of William Eglinton (Sidgwick, 1886a, 1891b), the cause of several internal SPR controversies (Gauld, 1968).

In later years Sidgwick continued her critiques of physical mediumship, representing the skepticism of many about physical phenomena, and upholding accurate reporting of the conditions of research. Two examples are her reviews of the investigations of Enrico Morselli with Eusapia Palladino (Sidgwick, 1909) and of W J. Crawford with the Goligher Circle (Sidgwick, 1917). Some of her book reviews also represented a conservative and sometimes necessary reminder of ambiguities in popular publications (Sidgwick, 1918).

Many of Sidgwick's main contributions showed what Alan Gauld (2018) has referred to as her "gift for subduing and organizing large quantities of refractory material." An initial one was her evaluation of about 370 cases the SPR had collected about apparitions of the dead, some of which were haunting cases (Sidgwick, 1885). This included: 1) an examination of conventional explanations; 2) an evaluation of patterns in the cases or lack of them; and 3) a consideration of ideas to explain genuine apparitions. The amount of detail and critical analysis presented by Sidgwick had no precedent in the previous literature examining apparitions of the dead, a situation similar to her later analyses of cases of premonitions (Sidgwick, 1888) and clairvoyance (Sidgwick, 1891a).

She also showed great care in her analyses of published cases of "phantasms of the living" (Sidgwick, 1923), and of the psychological aspects of Mrs. …

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