Gladys Osborne Leonard (1882–1968) was one of the world’s great Mediums, who worked closely with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) throughout her career, and produced a substantial body of evidence for Survival After Death.
Gladys Osborne Leonard was born on May 28, 1882, at Lytham, Lancashire, England. Her parents kept the fact of death from her as a young child, and she afterward attributed the impulse of her Mediumship to the realization of mortality at age eight. Her father was in the habit of taking her with him on Sunday afternoon visits to one of his friends. When they arrived at this man’s house one week, they found the shades drawn, and the parlor maid told them he had gone. Gladys asked where he had gone, but was told not to ask questions. Later the maid told her he had been buried, which she learned meant he had turned “from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust.”
The awareness of death affected her deeply, but it was tempered by her blissful visions of a “Happy Valley.” Her surroundings would suddenly be transformed into scenes of gentle slopes and banks covered with flowers, with radiantly happy people walking around. Although she did not consider these visions unusual, by some instinct she refrained from mentioning them to her parents, until one morning when her father was about to set off on a trip. She commented on the scene she was seeing on the wall. What scene? he wanted to know. She described it, and he forbade her to look upon her Happy Valley ever again. After this, the visions became less frequent, until the young Gladys stopped seeing them altogether.
When in her teens, Leonard saw an advertisement for a spiritualist meeting, and went. She returned home delighted. She thought her parents would be equally happy to hear that the dead still lived, but they were horrified. Leonard trained to be a professional singer, and had hopes of entering the opera. Unfortunately she contracted diphtheria, which affected her voice. She turned to performing with a touring theatrical company instead.
One morning while on the road, Leonard awoke at 2:00 A.M. to see her mother standing in her room, smiling at her. Mrs. Osborne was surrounded by a bright light, looking years younger than she actually was. The next day, Leonard received a telegram which stated that her mother had died at 2:00 A.M. Leonard had no doubts that her mother’s spirit had visited her in her room that night.
She decided to try to develop her Mediumship and began Table-Tilting exercises with friends backstage between acts. After some 26 futile attempts, a long name which they could not pronounce was spelled out. They asked whether they might contract this name to “Feda,” and the communicator assented. From this point on, Feda was to be Leonard’s principal Control. Feda sounded and behaved like a child, and claimed to be the spirit of one of Leonard’s great-great-grandmothers, young a woman of India who had died in childbirth at age 14, around 1800. Feda made her first appearance in 1913, and the following year she began to urge Leonard to hold sittings for the public. “Something big and awful is going to happen to the world,” Feda insisted, and Leonard must be ready to provide comfort.
By this time, Gladys Osborne had married Frederick Leonard, a fellow actor. He too was interested in psychic phenomena, and he gave up his career to assist her in her professional mediumship. Mrs. Leonard, as she was to be known, made every effort to provide a clear “channel” for discarnate communicators. She gave up smoking and drinking and became a vegetarian. Her first Séances were given to small groups of sitters, but after the outbreak of World War I, she was besieged by such large crowds that she began to hold private sittings.
A major turning point in Leonard’s life came when she gave a sitting to a widow who had lost two sons in the fighting. This woman was so impressed with Leonard’s exact descriptions of the young men that she mentioned them to a friend of hers, Lady Lodge, wife of physicist Sir Oliver Lodge. When the Lodges lost their son, Raymond, in 1915, Lady Lodge made an appointment with Leonard. What she heard so impressed her that she persuaded her husband to attend a sitting, which he did under an assumed name. He in turn was so impressed that he continued the sittings. During this series, Raymond described a photograph which had been taken shortly before his death.
The Lodges were not then aware of such a photograph, but when one finally came to their attention, Raymond’s pose was found to be exactly as described. Lodge gave an account of his sittings with Leonard in his book, Raymond or Life and Death (1916). This caused a great sensation, and brought Leonard even more publicity and sitters. At Lodge’s suggestion, she raised her fee to a pound per sitting, providing an increased income that allowed the Leonards to rise above the poverty in which they had been living up until this time.
In 1916, Lodge arranged for Radclyffe Hall (author of The Well of Loneliness) and her friend, Una Troubridge, to sit with Leonard, in hopes of contacting Hall’s deceased friend, Mabel Batten. When the first sittings showed promise, he trained them in Séance procedure. Troubridge and Hall continued to have weekly sittings with Leonard over a period of eight years. They published a report on the first year of their work in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. Not only did the Batten communicator (called “A. V. B.” in the report) refer to many private moments with Hall, she showed a good knowledge of events in Hall’s life since Batten’s death, and commented on some things (later shown to be correct) unknown to either Hall or Troubridge at the time. A striking feature of the sittings was the way Batten’s personality came through.
This would be manifested in the choice of subjects and words, characteristic gestures, and an overall attitude toward life. Perhaps because of her experience with her parents, Leonard understood the importance of strict Séance procedures, aimed at obtaining the best possible evidence of survival. In 1918, she agreed to give sittings arranged by the SPR exclusively for three months. As a condition of employment, she promised never to read an SPR publication, a promise she kept to the end of her life. Although Leonard returned to professional mediumship after this engagement, she continued to make herself available to the SPR.
The researcher who worked most closely with Leonard was Charles Drayton Thomas, who had more than 500 sittings with her. It was with Thomas that Feda first suggested an experiment which came to be called the book test (see Survival Tests). A communicator would instruct a sitter to go to a certain room, and take a book from a certain shelf on a bookcase there; on such-andsuch a page would be a passage of interest to the sitter. Later on, newspaper tests were introduced. In these, a communicator would predict in advance of printing what would appear in a newspaper.
Many of the sittings with Leonard scheduled through the SPR over the years were not attended by the persons interested in contacting deceased loved ones, but by proxies who knew nothing about the people or subjects involved in the communications. Such “proxy sittings” came to be standard methodology in psychical research, because they minimized the possibility of the medium getting information directly from the sitter, via either “fishing” or ESP. Many Leonard proxy sittings were highly successful. Feda would sometimes have trouble understanding what a communicator was trying to say to her.
On these occasions, sitters would sometimes hear a voice, different from Feda’s, from a point elsewhere in the room, a phenomenon known as Direct Voice Mediumship. Sometimes Feda and the direct voice would talk to each other. This might happen when Feda stumbled on a word, as in the following instance. Feda said, “He says you must have a good working . . . What? Hippopotamus?” “Hypothesis,” said the direct voice. “Hippopotamus?” Feda said somewhat louder. “Hypothesis,” the direct voice said again. “And don’t shout.” “I’m not shouting,” replied Feda. “I’m only speaking plainly.”
Leonard’s mediumship was of such a superior quality that it led to a number of attempts to explore the nature of mediumistic trance and trance communication. The philosopher C.D. Broad made a major contribution to this subject in his Lectures on Psychical Research (1962). He and others judged Feda to be a facet of Leonard’s personality, rather like what occurs in cases of multiple personality, rather than the independent entity she claimed to be. In the mid-1950s, Feda instructed Leonard to take no new sitters, and to reduce the number of those she had. Leonard died on March 10, 1968 of cerebral thrombosis, at her home in Tankerton, Kent. She was 85.
- Gauld, Alan. Mediumship and Survival. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1982.
- Heywood, Rosalind. “Mrs. Gladys Osborne Leonard: A Biographical Tribute.” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)45 (1969): 95–104.
- Leonard, Gladys Osborne. My Life in Two Worlds. London: Two Worlds Publishing Co., 1931.
- Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.
- Radclyffe Hall, [Marguerite], and Troubridge, Lady Una. “On a Series of Sittings with Mrs. Osborne Leonard.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)30 (1919): 339–554.
- Smith Susy. The Mediumship of Mrs. Leonard. Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1964.