Boston Society for Psychic Research Important Psychical Research organization from 1925 to 1941.
The Boston Society for Psychic Research was brought into being as a result of internal strife at the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). The ASPR had been established in Boston in 1885, under the management of William James and Richard Hodgson, who modelled it on the prestigious Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London. With the death of Hodgson in 1905, the ASPR had been reconstituted in New York by James H. Hyslop, who sought to maintain the same high standards. Following Hyslop’s death in 1920, however, liberal and conservative factions within the ASPR became evident.
The spiritualist Frederick Edwards was elected to the presidency in December 1923 and introduced a series of populist policies that did not sit well with the Society’s more academically oriented members, including psychologists William McDougall and Gardner Murphy and the Reverend Elwood Worcester. When Edwards was elected to a second term in January 1925, they stepped up their pressure on Walter Franklin Prince, the ASPR’s renowned research officer, to leave and head up a rival society in Boston.
Prince at first was reluctant to give up on the ASPR, but his responsibilities were gradually reduced. Edwards took over editorship of the ASPR’s Journal and then, in March 1925, hired J. Malcolm Bird to be research officer in charge of physical phenomena, leaving Prince in charge of mental phenomena only. With Bird’s appointment, Prince submitted his resignation and moved to Boston. The Boston Society was officially organized in May 1925 “in order to conduct psychic research according to strictly Scientific principles, thus maintaining the standards set by Hodgson and Hyslop.”
Despite its name, the Boston Society aspired to be a national and international organization along the lines of the SPR and the old ASPR. However, because it did not actively seek members and eschewed quantity in favour of quality in research and publication, it never attained the public prominence of its sister societies. Within psychical research it was very well regarded, and it published an irregular series of bulletins and books, many of lasting interest.
Among the more important bulletins were a report in the 1920s by G. H. Estabrooks of ESP experiments conducted at Harvard University, a reanalysis by Prince of the drawing experiments reported by Upton Sinclair in his book Mental Radio (1932), and a paper entitled, “Towards a Method of Evaluating Mediumistic Material,” by J. G. Pratt (1936). The bulletins also included the first exposures of the fraudulent thumbprints produced by the Boston medium “Margery” (see Mina Stinson Crandon). Up until their publication (1934), the Boston Society had kept up an official silence on this mediumship, which was being heavily promoted by the ASPR.
Besides Prince’s books, the Boston Society published Leonard and Soule Experiments in Psychical Research by Lydia Allison (1929) and Case Studies Bearing on Survival (1929) and Beyond Normal Cognition (1937) by John F. Thomas. Thomas’ books were groundbreaking studies of Mediumship. The Boston Society was also the original publisher of J.B. Rhine’s seminal monograph Extra-Sensory Perception (1934), which described laboratory experiments carried out at Duke University.
Prince was the Boston Society’s main worker, and with his death in 1934 its activities largely came to a halt. These were also the years of the Great Depression, and with its small membership base (the Society never had more than 200 members), it was not in good financial shape. Fortunately the situation at the ASPR changed in 1941, when the liberal faction was swept off the board in a “palace revolution.” The Boston Society’s leaders— including Gardner Murphy and Lydia Allison—became involved in the rejuvenated ASPR, and the two organizations were formally merged in June 1941.
- Berger, Arthur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850–1987.
- Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988. Matlock, J. G. “Cat’s paw: Margery and the Rhines, 1926.” Journal of Parapsychology 51 (1987): 229–47.
- Mauskopf, Seymour, and Michael McVaugh. The Elusive Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980.