James Hervey Hyslop (1854–1920) was an American philosopher, psychologist, educator, and professor of ethics, whose interest in survival after death led him to conduct some of the finest studies of Possession and Obsession.
James Hervey Hyslop was born on August 18, 1854, to devout Presbyterians in Xenia, Ohio. His parents expected him to enter the ministry, but instead he studied philosophy and the emerging field of psychology, receiving a bachelor of arts in 1877 from Wooster College, Wooster, Ohio. Despite his religious upbringing, Hyslop professed scepticism about the divinity of Christ by the time he reached college and, after some study, decided to reject the New Testament.
After graduation, Hyslop enrolled at the University of Leipzig, Germany, to study with Wilhelm Wundt, who founded the first formal psychology laboratory in 1879. In Leipzig, he met his wife-to-be, Mary F. Hall, a student of music from Philadelphia. Hyslop returned to the United States two years later, teaching first at Lake Forest University, outside Chicago, then at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He continued his own education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, completing a doctorate in psychology in 1887, and published several books about logic, ethics, education, and philosophy. From 1889 to 1902, he was a professor of logic and ethics at Columbia University in New York City. As was typical of other educated men of the period, Hyslop exhibited eclectic tastes, also exploring geology and biology.
He knew nothing about the psychic until 1886, when an article on telepathy in Nation caught his attention. The article concerned a young boy who reportedly saw an apparition of his father and his team of horses going over a bank into a stream some 25 miles away. Hyslop suspected the story was “some illusion of memory or error in judgment as to the facts.” He wrote to the author of the article and received answers to his questions that convinced him the phenomenon might be genuine.
At Columbia Hyslop, through his colleagues, became acquainted with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England and the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) (founded in 1882 and 1885, respectively) and with the research concerning the British medium Leonora Piper conducted by Richard Hodgson. In 1888, he began a series of sittings with Piper. Initially sceptical, he was astonished when Piper began relaying personal messages from his dead father and various relatives. By his 12th sitting, he was convinced he had communicated with the spirits of his family.
In 1889, the ASPR became a branch of the SPR out of financial need and remained so until the death of Hodgson in 1905. In 1906, the ASPR reorganized as an independent organization, and Hyslop became its president, a position he held until his death in 1920. Hyslop’s most famous case was the THOMPSON/GIFFORD Obsession in 1907, in which a metalworker, Frederic L. Thompson, claimed to been taken over by a deceased painter, R. Swain Gifford. After the Thompson/Gifford case, Hyslop continued to work extensively with various mediums, principally Minnie Soule, and ran the operations of the ASPR. He also wrote all the society’s papers, as well as magazine and journal articles.
Casework fascinated Hyslop. He investigated the story of S. Henry, a coachman in New Jersey who was tormented by the death of his wife and his increasingly frightening psychical experiences. Henry described feelings of a strange fluid in his stomach, which forced him to breathe in a certain way, then rose to his brain and made him insane. He also wrote that he felt he could leave his body through an opening in the back of his head. Hyslop did not recognize Henry’s symptoms as those of kundalini and out-of-body experiences. By 1908, almost two years after Hyslop had first met him, Henry was suffering from delusions and had become insane. Hyslop took Henry to the ASPR in New York, where he hypnotized him and tried to encourage him to forget his troubles. The simple treatment worked. Never having confronted out-of-body experiences before, Hyslop attributed Henry’s problems to spirit possession.
In 1909, Hyslop, met Etta De Camp, a medium currently living in New York City who had been psychic since her childhood in Ohio. She was an editor and proofreader for Broadway magazine who had never written anything besides letters until 1908. After reading about spirit communications received by W. T. Stead through automatic writing, De Camp decided to try. She reported a tingling in her arm, like an electric shock, and after two or three days began writing copiously.
De Camp experienced terrible headaches and earaches at this time, usually if she tried to resist the writing. She found some relief while in trance but refused to lose conscious control. The scripts made little sense to her, and she complained to the spirits that if they could not write well, they should take someone to her who could. From that point on, the scripts became more coherent. Her first communicator was an Indian brave, who reported that he would hear from a dead man, a writer who wanted someone to finish the stories he left when he died. Soon, her pencil wrote that the spirit of Frank R. Stockton had arrived and wished to communicate. She felt intense pain, but once Stockton took control of her, the pain subsided.
De Camp began writing short stories in Stockton’s style, and she showed them to her employer, George Duysters, who introduced her to Hyslop. Stockton had been popular in the late 19th century, writing whimsical stories for children. His most famous, “The Lady or the Tiger,” is still popular. He had a distinctive style, full of humor, cynicism, and bizarre situations. Duysters showed some of the De Camp transcriptions to the late author’s editor at Harper’s, who found them quite real. De Camp also began hearing from her dead father. De Camp continued to write in Stockton’s style, and Hyslop lost contact with her from 1910 to 1912 while he investigated other matters.
In 1912, De Camp was near a complete breakdown, and Hyslop agreed to participate in sittings, which would finally reveal Stockton’s presence. Through a series of Séances with Soule, both Stockton and the recently deceased Duysters revealed themselves, proving again to Hyslop the reality of spirit possession and survival. De Camp wrote of her experiences in The Return of Frank R. Stockton in 1913, including all of the transcribed Stockton stories. After initial publicity, De Camp later married and settled down to a private life, hearing no more from Stockton.
A third case involved a woman identified as Ida Ritchie, really Ida Marie Rogers. Rogers claimed to be receiving communications from the great opera singer Emma Abbott, who had died in 1891. Rogers was a budding singer herself and had made remarkable progress for a person with little formal training. When she contacted Hyslop, Rogers said Emma Abbott, her mother, and the late William James, a Harvard philosopher and psychologist and friend of Hyslop’s, were all talking to her through automatic writing. Again through sittings with Soule, Hyslop contacted Abbott and Rogers’ mother. Their communication indicated great efforts by the spirits to help Rogers’ singing career, but she never became a great star. Hyslop’s last major case was the DORIS FISCHER Obsession, begun in 1914.
Hyslop reportedly believed his health had been threatened in 1919 by a spirit he was trying to exorcize through sessions in Boston with Soule, and he was ill for several months. He believed firmly that the existence of discarnate spirits had been proved scientifically and dismissed those who did not agree. Hyslop suffered a stroke at the end of 1919 and died June 17, 1920.
- Anderson, Roger I., ed. “Autobiographical Fragment of James Hervey Hyslop.” Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 9, no. 2 (April 1986): 81–92.
- ———, ed. “Autobiographical Fragment of James Hervey Hyslop Part III.” Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 9, no. 3 (July 1986): 145–160.
- ———. “The Life and Work of James H. Hyslop.” The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)79 (April 1985): 167–200.
- Rogo D. Scott. The Infinite Boundary. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1987.