Frank Podmore(1856–1910) was a civil servant and psychical researcher, an early member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Podmore is best remembered for his extremely critical stance on the phenomena of Spiritualism and Psychical Research.
Frank Podmore was born February 5, 1856 in Elstree, Hertfordshire, England. He attended Elstree High School and Haileybury College before receiving a scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford. As an undergraduate, he became an ardent spiritualist and contributed many articles to spiritualist periodicals.
He was particularly impressed by the American slate-writing Medium HENRY SLADE, but when Slade and several of the other mediums in which he believed were exposed as frauds, Podmore turned skeptical. Some have suggested that his aggressive skepticism was a response to his earlier naive belief.
Upon graduation, Podmore went to work for the General Post Offi ce in London. He served on the SPR’s first council, and although he never was one of its inner circle, he became one of the society’s most active members. After the death of Edmund Gurney in 1888, Podmore became secretary jointly with Frederic W.H. Myers; he kept the position until 1896.
Podmore did much of the extensive legwork involved in investigating the 753 cases of telepathy and crisis apparitions included in Phantasms of the Living (1886), and he was given credit (along with Gurney and Myers) as one of the book’s authors. He was also involved in investigating cases for the subsequent Census of Hallucinations, designed to try to verify the main findings of Phantasms.
Podmore had already established himself as a strong critic by the time his own Apparitions and Thought Transference appeared in 1892. The book included some original cases, but in organization and theoretical orientation it was reminiscent of Phantasms.
Podmore reviewed the evidence for telepathy and Apparitions and argued that the latter were to be explained as hallucinations by the precipitants in response to information received via telepathy from the agents. He dismissed or discounted the evidence for Survival After Death, holding that apparitions seen around the time of death (crisis apparitions) were based on impressions conveyed before the agent’s demise.
Modern Spiritualism (1902), a two-volume critical survey of 19th-century mediumship, is probably Podmore’s best-known work. In it he discusses and discredits the various mediums of the day, sometimes in ways more imaginative than fair. The only medium to pass Podmore’s scrutiny was Leonora Piper, who—significantly—produced mental rather than physical phenomena.
Podmore believed, however, that her success was to be explained by an exercise of telepathy (see Extrasensory Perception [ESP]) rather than communication with spirits. In his last book, The Newer Spiritualism (1910), Podmore took the position that only telepathy, of the variety of psychic abilities, had been shown to exist. Clairvoyance and precognition he considered chimeras, and he was unalterably opposed to a survival interpretation of apparitions, Poltergeists, and mediumistic phenomena.
He was unable to explain how D.D. Home operated but concluded that “to say that because we cannot understand some of the feats, therefore they must have been due to spirits or psychic force, is merely an opiate for the uneasiness of suspended judgement, a refuge from the trouble of thinking.” Nevertheless, according to Eleanor Sidgwick, who wrote his obituary, he was genuinely open-minded.
Podmore retired from the Post Office in 1906 and resigned from the SPR council in 1909. He died on August 14, 1910, at the age of 54. His body was found lying face down in the New Pool at Malvern, Worcester, in what may have been a SUICIDE; what exactly occurred in his last hours has never been clear.
Podmore’s other books include Studies in Psychical Research (1897); Modern Spiritualism (1902), reprinted in 1963 under the title Mediums of the Nineteenth Century; The Naturalisation of the Supernatural (1908); and Mesmerism and Christian Science (1909), reprinted in 1964 under the title From Mesmer to Christian Science. He also published several papers in the SPR Proceedings.
- Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.
- Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964. Sidgwick, Mrs. Henry. “Frank Podmore and Psychical Research.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)25 (1911): 5–10.
The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007
Podmore, Frank (1856–1910) As one of the first members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), postal official Frank Podmore became a major opponent of spiritualism. In fact, in many of the SPR’s early investigations, Podmore was the person who took it upon himself to dissuade other members from declaring a medium genuine without a careful scientific examination of that medium’s claims. Podmore’s skepticism was based on the fact that, prior to joining the SPR, he himself had been tricked by a prominent medium. At that time, Podmore believed that spirit communication was possible—until he was disillusioned by American medium Henry Slade. Slade would conduct séances (for a fee, usually of one pound) during which a variety of physical effects were evident—for example, tables would levitate, musical instruments would be played by unseen hands, and séance participants would feel pinches and shoves—but he was most famous for the fact that at these sessions, spirit messages would appear on writing slates that had been apparently sealed so that no one could tamper with them. Podmore was one of many people who witnessed these phenomena, and afterward he announced that Slade had erased all of his doubts about whether people could communicate with the dead. Then, in 1876, a prominent skeptic, Professor Lankester, managed to grab and look at one of Slade’s slates before a spirit had supposedly written on it, and he found writing already there. Later Slade insisted that Lankester had grabbed the slate just as Slade heard a spirit begin writing on it, but few people believed this, and on October 1, 1876, Slade was put on trial for fraud, found guilty, and sentenced to three months of hard labor. Faced with such credible evidence that the medium he had believed in was a fake, Podmore changed his view on spirit communication completely. In his later years Podmore wrote extensively on mediumship and other aspects of spiritualism. His works include Apparitions and Thought-Transference (1892), Studies in Psychical Research (1897), Modern Spiritualism (1902), Telepathic Hallucination: The New View of Ghosts (1909), and The Newer Spiritualism (1910). Modern Spiritualism is considered one of the most thorough works on Victorian era spiritualism. SEE ALSO: Physical and Mental Mediums Society for Psychical Research
The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning