The Schneider Brothers were Austrian physical Mediums, Willi (1903–1971) and Rudi (1908–1957). Rudi, the younger, was one of the most celebrated mediums of his day and was studied by most of the important psychical researchers in continental Europe, England and the United States using some of the most sophisticated instruments then available. As is the rule with great mediums, however, his career did not pass without controversy.
Willi and Rudi’s father was a printer in Braunau-am- Inn, Austria, where both were born. Two of their other four brothers, Hans and Karl, were also psychically gifted, although to a lesser extent than they themselves were.
It all began one night when the Schneider family was playing with a Ouija board (see TALKING BOARD) and discovered that whatever requests they made of the board were carried out—even to the displacement of objects on the far side of the room. At one early Séance, the tablecloth was slowly raised from the table, even though no one was near enough to touch it. Willi at this time was only 14, but he soon developed into a full-fledged medium, with a female Control called “Olga.” His Séances were characterized by a range of phenomena, particularly the movement of objects without contact (see Materialization; Psychokinesis [PK]).
Willi’s fame spread until it came to the attention of the German physician and sexologist, Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, who undertook a study of Willi. Schrenck-Notzing had his first series of Séances with Willi in 1919, when he was 16. The serious work, however, began in 1921, after the boy had finished high school, when he moved to Munich for a year and placed himself in Schrenck-Notzing’s charge. Between December 1921 and July 1922, Willi held 56 Séances for Schrenck-Notzing, witnessed by scientists from various fields.
Schrenck-Notzing was an experienced investigator of physical Mediumship, and he knew how to limit and detect trickery. The Séance room was carefully searched in advance and kept locked during Séances. Willi was stripsearched and required to wear special tights, covered with luminous pins and buttons, so that any movement he made would be visible in the dark. The room was lighted with red light bulbs (white light was widely believed to be harmful to the medium) on the table in the center of the circle of sitters. The sitters joined hands, those closest to Willi holding his arms and legs. The objects he was to influence were on the table with the light bulbs, which was separated from him by a wire screen.
Under these conditions, Schrenck-Notzing and the other sitters heard Rappings, felt cold breezes, and sawLevitationS of objects, as well as Materializations of various sorts. The materializations started out as amorphous blobs, which quickly developed into various shapes, often resembling hands, arms or legs.
Among those who attended Séances in 1922 were Harry Price and Eric Dingwall, who signed statements that they had witnessed genuine phenomena. Dingwall’s endorsement was particularly important, because he had the reputation of being an inveterate skeptic when it came to physical phenomena. Both Dingwall and Price were familiar with conjuring, and both had previously exposed fraudulent mediums.
But Willi wanted to be a dentist. As he concentrated on his apprenticeship, his mediumship began to weaken. Leaving the baron, he moved to Vienna, where he lived with a Dr. Holub, who ran a sanatorium. Late in 1924, after Holub’s death, he traveled to London by invitation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), under the auspices of which he had a series of sittings. The results were disappointing. Willi returned to Braunau and continued to work with Schrenck-Notzing, but his powers were much weaker, and he soon ceased to give regular Séances. He died in 1971.
Rudi Schneider began to manifest similar talents when he was 11, an even younger age than Willi. At a Séance with Willi in the Schneider home, his Control, Olga, declared that the “power” was not strong enough, and that she wanted Rudi to assist. Since he was asleep in bed at that hour, his parents objected. Olga said nothing in reply, but a few minutes later, Rudi, deep in trance, opened the door and joined the circle of sitters. After that night, Olga attached herself to Rudi and never spoke through Willi again. Willi’s control became “Mina,” another female personality.
Rudi’s mediumship began to be widely publicized following a visit by Harry Price in the spring of 1926, when he brought with him a reporter from the London Daily News. As happened so often with Willi, there were mysterious sounds, object movements, cold breezes and materialized limbs. The reporter was impressed and wrote a series of articles describing what he had seen. But more skeptical commentary was soon to follow. The first major controversy erupted following publication in the metaphysical journal Psyche of a hypothesis of fraud that involved a confederate sneaking into the Séance room unobserved. The article was written by an American journalist, W.J. Vinton, who had attended 10 Séances along with Dingwall. Vinton’s hypothesis was supported by Malcolm Bird of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), who attended only a single Séance during which he was supposed to have been guarding the door. Another skeptic was Walter Franklin Prince, who attended 10 sittings and saw only some curtains blowing, which he concluded could have been contrived.
Stung by Vinton’s suggestions, which of course implied the inadequacy of his experimental methods, Schrenck- Notzing arranged for a series of sittings to be conducted under a newly devised system partly of electrical and partly of tactile control. Unfortunately, before these experiments could be carried out (they were planned for 1929), Schrenck-Notzing died.
Price was quick to invite Rudi to visit his National Laboratory for Psychical Research in London. Two series of experiments were conducted there in 1929 and 1930. These employed the electrical controls planned by Schrenck- Notzing, which Price extended to include the entire circle of sitters. The hands and feet of the medium and all of the sitters were thus joined in a single circuit, so that it would have been impossible for any of them to have helped out the phenomena without all knowing about it.
The experiments were highly successful, with the now familiar Schneider family effects. There were cold breezes, falls in temperature, violent movements of curtains, Levitations of a waste paper basket and table, as well as materializations of arms and hands. Price, always quick to capitalize on publicity, offered a 1,000-pound award to any conjurer who could do what Rudi had done, under the same conditions. There were no takers.
Rudi’s next major experimental series was arranged by Eugene Osty at the Institut Metapsychique International (IMI) in Paris in October and November 1930. This series incorporated an infrared beam which crossed the room between Rudi and a table on which were placed objects that he was to move. At first the beam was connected to a battery of cameras, which went off automatically when the beam was crossed. This occurred quite often, but Rudi was always caught hunched in his chair, deep in trance. The cameras were then replaced by a bell, which would sometimes sound for 30 seconds or longer. Later experiments designed to measure the deflection of the beam found that it was never absorbed as completely as it would have been if it were interrupted by a material object. Whatever was crossing the infrared beam, causing the bells to ring, and at the same time sometimes moving objects on the table, was only quasi-material.
In the spring of 1932, Rudi returned for a third series at Price’s lab. He was now 28 and was distracted by his fiancee, Mitzi Mangl, whom he insisted upon bringing with him. Out of 27 Séances, little or nothing happened at 18 of them. At the remaining nine, however, the usual phenomena were observed, under conditions similar to those imposed by Osty at the IMI. Rudi’s powers seemed to be on the wane, but they were still strong enough to confirm the earlier findings. A series of sittings arranged by the British psychologist Sir Charles Hope were even weaker in terms of observable phenomena, but once again the infrared apparatus recorded occlusions; in 27 sittings, there were a total of 84 movements of objects, but no fewer than 275 partial occlusions of the infrared beam. It was hoped to capture the occlusions on an infrared plate through a process of silhouette photography invented by the physicist John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh), but this was unsuccessful, possibly for technical reasons. Further experiments with modifications to the apparatus probably would have been carried out, had Price not dropped a bombshell into the proceedings, just as Hope was reporting his results.
Price claimed to have photographic evidence that Rudi had managed to free an arm and move a handkerchief at sittings held at the National Institute for Psychical Research in March 1932. Although the probability that the fraud was not Rudi but Price himself was suspected at the time, a good Demonstration of this was not to come for many years. Anita Gregory reviews the sequence of events in detail in her book The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider (1985) and shows how Price’s vanity and hunger for publicity drove him to sacrifice his own later work with Rudi in order to compromise that of his colleagues. The damage to the public’s perception of Rudi was severe, and in Gregory’s opinion. Price’s “exposure,” coming as it did after so much publicity, was the greatest setback psychical research has ever suffered.
Rudi married Mitzi and gave up Mediumship. He became a successful automobile mechanic, eventually owning his own garage. He died on April 28, 1957, at Weyer, Austria.
- Gregory, Anita. The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985.
- Inglis, Brian. Science and Parascience: A History of the Paranormal, 1914–1939. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
- Osty, Eugene. Supernormal Aspects of Energy and Matter. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1933.
- Price, Harry. Rudi Schneider. London: Methuen, 1930.
- Tabori, Paul. Companions of the Unseen. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1968.