A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology

By Paul Kurtz | Go to book overview

26
Detective Work in Parapsychology
DENYS PARSONS

If I were invited to talk to a group of young people in the hope of interesting them in parapsychology, I would explain to them that research in parapsychology is very similar to research in any other subject, whether literary, historical, or scientific. I would assure them that much of its fascination lies in attention to detail—following up every trail, however unpromising—and that much of its satisfaction comes either when a long-shot pays off or when a painstaking assembly of fine detail leads to the resolution of a point at issue.

Indeed, research in parapsychology is akin to research in criminology and forensic medicine. Series on television, both fictional and documentary, have displayed ample evidence of the need for meticulously detailed investigation in those fields. There has been no comparable exposition of the back-room detective grind that goes into the exploration of parapsychology, so let me venture to portray something of the flavor of it through an account of some of my own research.

Fifty years ago, Mrs. Helen Duncan, the Scottish "materializing" medium, was at the height of her powers. Her specialty was the production of "ectoplasm," allegedly emanating from her own body. In the darkened séance room the ectoplasm assumed the form of the spirits of departed relatives, friends, and even animal pets of the sitters. The late Harry Price ( 1931), a well-known British investigator, conducted a series of sittings with Mrs. Duncan in 1931 and took a number of photographs. Inspection of these photographs gives the overwhelming impression that the ectoplasm and the spirit forms were of mundane origin. What appear to be the warp, weft, and selvedge of butter muslin can be clearly identified, as can rents and folds in the material. In other photographs we can discern a rubber glove, a safety pin, and dolls' heads or masks.

At a séance in Edinburgh in 1933, the "spirit of a little girl" was seized by one of the "sitters" and proved to be a woman's undervest. Mrs. Duncan was arrested and convicted of fraud. Eleven years later, in 1944, the police intervened at a séance at Portsmouth.This resulted in Mrs. Duncan's being brought to trial at the Old Bailey, the famous criminal court in London.The prosecution

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