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.