Richard Hodgson (1855–1905) was a psychical researcher, best known for his investigation of the controversial Theosophist Helena P. Blavatsky and for managing the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) from shortly after its formation in 1885 until his death in 1905.
Richard Hodgson was born in Melbourne, Australia, on September 24, 1885. He was interested in psychic phenomena as a youth, but there was not yet an organized effort to study them, and other interests took precedence for some years. He attended the University of Melbourne and received an LL.D. (doctor of law) degree from that institution in 1878. Finding the legal field less congenial than he had supposed, he moved to England and enrolled in St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1881, in order to study poetry. His major professor was Henry Sidgwick, who was about to become the first president of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). When the SPR came into being in 1882, Hodgson joined at once.
Hodgson was 29 in 1884 when the SPR sent him to India to look into the claims of Blavatsky, the colorful leader of the Theosophical movement, that she was in supernatural contact with a group of Tibetan adepts. These adepts, called Mahatmas, were said to be able to astrally project themselves to the Theosophists, to whom they appeared as Apparitions. They also were said to deliver letters or to cause letters to be written on previously blank sheets of paper (see Slate-Writing). But shortly before Hodgson left England, another set of letters was published in India, purportedly written by Blavatsky to a trusted couple, the Coulombs. The Coulomb letters, if genuine, made it clear that the Mahatma incidents were fraudulent, but Blavatsky claimed that the letters were forgeries. The Coulombs published the letters after a falling- out with Blavatsky.
Hodgson spent three months in India interviewing various people involved in the case, inspecting the Coulomb letters, and searching the room in which the Mahatma incidents were said to occur. In the room he discovered sliding and hinged panels that reinforced the conclusion he was reaching from his interviews, namely, that the Coulomb letters were genuine. This conclusion was later supported by British handwriting experts, and the SPR committee charged with looking into the Mahatma phenomena concluded that they were staged by Blavatsky.
The Theosophical Society objected; they accused Hodgson of bias, and broke off relations with the SPR. The controversy continues to this day, although in 1986 the SPR made an effort to patch things up by publishing the report of another handwriting expert, who concluded that the Coulomb letters were forgeries after all.
The Blavatsky investigation had interested Hodgson in conjuring, and he soon made a name for himself as one of the SPR’s most knowledgeable members in that area. His work with S.J. Davey to duplicate the slate-writing of the medium William Eglinton continues to be cited as a study of misperception. Davey had worked with Eglinton for a while, then had branched out on his own, finding that he had no trouble fooling his audience into thinking his tricks were paranormal events. He and Hodgson made a systematic study, comparing what Davey did to what sitters at his Séances reported having seen. They were able to show how unreliable such testimony can be. William James considered their report “the most damaging document concerning eye-witness evidence that has ever been produced.”
James, himself keenly interested in psychic phenomena, was at the center of the SPR’s sister society, the ASPR, which had been launched in Boston in 1885. The ASPR, however, in contrast to the SPR, wanted for members and money, and James was forced to appeal to the SPR for help. In 1887 Hodgson was sent to see what he could do, and he soon made himself invaluable as secretary.
Hodgson took over from James responsibility for managing research with the extraordinary mental Medium Leonora Piper. He began the regular recording of Séances, and hired private detectives to have her shadowed (she was never caught in any suspicious behavior).
Hodgson’s two reports on Piper for the SPR Proceedings are classics. In the second report, published in 1897, he stated his conviction that Survival After Death was the most reasonable interpretation of the results obtained from her Séances. The conclusion astonished many of his friends, who had expected him to unmask Piper, as he had earlier unmasked Blavatsky and Eglinton. However, Hodgson was only one of a long list of psychical researchers to become convinced of survival on the basis of Piper’s mediumship.
In 1897 Hodgson returned to England to become an SPR Council member and editor of the SPR Journal and Proceedings, but he did not stay long. A year later, he was back in Boston at the ASPR, again working with Piper.
Hodgson died December 20, 1905, at the age of 50, of a heart attack while playing handball at the Union Boat Club in Boston. There is some evidence that in the last year of his life he began to experiment with Automatic Writing.
Soon after his death, Piper began to be controlled by a communicator calling itself Richard Hodgson. Reception to these communications was mixed; James thought the deceased Hodgson might be behind them, but Hodgson’s British friends were less convinced.
Although Hodgson contributed several important papers to the SPR Proceedings, he wrote no books. He did, however, coedit FREDERIC WILLIAM HENRY MYERS’ great work, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). Myers had died in 1900, asking that Hodgson together with the SPR’s Gertrude Johnson complete the book if he should not live to finish it himself.
- Berger, Arthur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850–1987.
- Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988. Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.
- Harrison, Vernon. “J’accuse: An examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885.” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)53 (1986): 286–310.
- Hodgson, Richard. “Mr. Davey’s Imitations by Conjuring of Phenomena Sometimes Attributed to Spirit Agency.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)8 (1892): 253–310.
- “Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with the Theosophical Society.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)3 (1885): 201–380.