Walter Franklin Prince (1863–1934) was an Episcopal minister and psychical researcher, therapist for an early, celebrated case of multiple personality. Only the last 18 years of his life were devoted to psychical research, but during that time he came to be recognized as a leading figure of his day.
Walter Franklin Prince was born on April 22, 1863, in Detroit, Maine. In 1881 he graduated from Maine Wesleyan Seminary and in 1886 he received a B.D. from Drew Theological Seminary. He also attended Yale, receiving a Ph.D. from that institution in 1899.
Prince married Lelia Madora Colman in 1885. The couple had no children, but they later adopted a young woman who had come to Prince for psychological counseling. Prince, then rector of All Saints Church in Pittsburgh, had some knowledge of abnormal psychology, and he recognized in his parishioner the signs of what was then called “secondary personality.” He began what was to become several years of intensive work with the woman, whom he and his wife named Theodosia. She made her greatest improvement after she left her abusive father to live with the Princes, and in 1908 they formally adopted her.
One of Theodosia’s personalities—called Sleeping Margaret—claimed to be a discarnate spirit, and this presented a problem of interpretation for which Prince turned for help to James H. Hyslop at the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). His subsequent correspondence with Hyslop not only helped Prince in his therapy, it also gave him his first direct acquaintance with psychical research. When Prince wrote his account of the case, he gave Theodosia the name “Doris Fischer.” It was published in two volumes of the ASPR’s Proceedings in 1915 and 1916 (see Doris Fisher Case).
In 1916 the Princes moved to New York City, where Prince became director of therapeutics at St. Mark’s Church; the following year he resigned from this position and joined the staff of the ASPR as Hyslop’s assistant. He quickly established himself as a careful, although often critical, investigator. He had a fair knowledge of conjuring techniques, was on good terms with Harry Houdini, and wrote important exposés of Slate-Writing and Spirit Photography.
When Hyslop died in 1920, Prince became the ASPR’s research officer and the editor of its Journal and Proceedings. Hyslop had intended that Prince be his successor, but, perhaps because he was showing signs of age (although only 57 he was already going deaf; and not everyone found him easy to get along with), Prince was not named the society’s director. Control passed instead to the board of trustees, with fateful consequences for Prince as well as for the ASPR.
A central event of this period was the investigation of the medium “Margery” (see Crandon, Mina Stinson). Under the influence of one of its editors, J. Malcolm Bird, Scientific American magazine had announced a $2,500 prize for a Demonstration of physical mediumship deemed genuine by a special committee. Prince was named to this committee, which sat with Crandon throughout 1924.
The Scientific American committee eventually decided against Crandon. Bird, however, believed in the Mediumship, and when the ASPR hired him to take charge of research on physical phenomena (leaving Prince with mental mediumship and other research) in January 1925, Prince resigned and moved to Boston to take up a new position with the Boston Society for Psychic Research.
Prince received another blow in 1925 with the death of his wife. Nevertheless, his years with the Boston Society were to be productive and important.
In 1927, in Europe for the Third International Congress on Psychical Research (he had also attended the first congress in Copenhagen in 1921), he had sittings with the Austrian Medium Rudi Schneider, reaching negative but controversial conclusions about his abilities. (See Schneider Brothers.)
Prince’s enemies, in fact, often accused him of bias against physical phenomena. His supporters considered him to be an especially careful observer whose judgment failed him only when it came to his own adopted daughter— in his book The Psychic in the House (1927), he recorded apparently paranormal phenomena surrounding Theodosia that many have considered dubious.
Prince’s contribution to the study of other phenomena has been less a matter of debate. He was very interested in everyday psychic experiences and conducted a questionnaire survey of 10,000 persons listed in Who’s Who in America. He considered the testimony of this elite population especially valuable, because these persons were well known, and their veracity and sincerity were not usually open to question. For the same reason, he collected celebrity accounts for his book Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences (1928).
He gathered together all the material he could find relating to Patience Worth, published as The Case of Patience Worth (1928), and when Upton Sinclair published his book Mental Radio (1930), describing ESP drawing experiments he had conducted with his wife, Prince obtained the targets and the drawings and wrote an independent evaluation of them for the Boston Society’s Bulletin. Later editions of Sinclair’s book have often included Prince’s report as a supplement.
Prince also supported other researchers and published important work by JOHN F. THOMAS (awarded the first doctorate in parapsychology given by an American university, Duke, in 1933), psychologist George Estabrooks, and J.B. Rhine (see Boston Society for Psychic Research). The Boston Society was, in fact, the first publisher of Rhine’s seminal monograph, Extra-Sensory Perception (1934).
The capstone of Prince’s relatively brief but distinguished career in psychical research came with his election to the presidency of the London-based Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1930 and 1931; he was the first American after William James to be so honored.
Prince died on August 7, 1934 at his home in Hingham, Massachusetts.
In addition to the books mentioned, Prince authored The Enchanted Boundary: A Survey of Negative Reactions to Claims of Psychic Phenomena, 1820–1930 (1930). He also wrote numerous articles and monographs for the ASPR’s Journal and Proceedings of the ASPR and for the Boston Society’s Bulletin.
- Berger, Arthur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988.
- Prince, Walter Franklin (1930). Presidential address. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1930.
- Tietze, T. R. “Ursa Major: An Impressionistic Appreciation of Walter Franklin Prince.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)70 (1976): 1–34.
- Walter Franklin Prince: A Tribute to his Memory. Boston: Boston Society for Psychic Research, 1935.