Thompson-Gifford Case A case of apparent spirit obsession, and the most famous case investigated by James H. Hyslop, psychical researcher and an early president of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). Hyslop considered the case proof of the reality of spirit obsession.
Frederic L. Thompson, then a 39-year-old metalworker and weekend artist, first visited Hyslop in January 1907. Thompson claimed he was under the influence of the late R. Swain Gifford, a noted landscape painter in the late 1800s, experiencing tremendous urges to paint and sketch trees and rocky coasts that he had never seen before. Although Thompson had met Gifford one summer in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and had contacted him in 1898 to ask for a recommendation to the Tiffany Glass Company, the two men were hardly acquaintances, much less friends. Thompson moved to New York in 1900, where he was employed in metal and jewelry work. He did not know that Gifford died on January 15, 1905.
By the late summer and fall of that year, Thompson was overcome with strong impulses to paint. He did not understand these urges, but he began to visualize pictures he knew Gifford had painted on the New Bedford coast. He referred to his artist alter ego as “Mr. Gifford,” a fact confirmed to Hyslop by Thompson’s wife, Carrie.
But in January 1906, Thompson saw an exhibition of the works of “the late R. Swain Gifford” and realized for the first time that Gifford was dead. Fascinated by the similarities between Gifford’s paintings and his own recent efforts, he could almost feel the fresh sea breezes. Then a voice came to him, saying “You see what I have done. Go on with the work,” and he blacked out.
Thompson continued painting, as his private life and finances deteriorated under the ever-increasing compulsions. He believed he was going insane—two physicians diagnosed him as a paranoid—and finally visited Hyslop after hearing of the doctor’s work in psychical research. Hyslop was intrigued, but at first believed Thompson was suffering from personality disintegration. But if there were any truth to Thompson’s claims, Hyslop believed consulting a medium would shed light on the situation. So he and Thompson met with Margaret Gaule on January 18, 1907.
Gaule immediately sensed the presence of an artist, although Hyslop had given her no information about Thompson, even introducing him as “Mr. Smith.” She described landscape scenes, much as Thompson had detailed them to Hyslop two days earlier. On March 16, Hyslop took Thompson to Boston, to sit with Minnie Meserve Soule (referred to in Hyslop’s papers as “Mrs. Chenoweth”), who was judged the most talented medium of her day. Her spirit communicator, Sunbeam, gave her information about Gifford’s personal habits, even his clothing and rugs—items later confirmed by Gifford’s widow—and vividly described a certain scene of gnarled trees overlooking the water that had haunted Thompson for days. Such communications convinced Thompson he was not going insane, and he left for the New England coast to try to find the pictures in his mind.
Throughout the summer and autumn of 1907, Thompson traveled over Gifford’s favourite island haunts, recognizing scenes he had been compelled to paint, hearing music and even the voice he had heard at the Gifford exhibition. On one of the trees Thompson sought, Gifford had carved his initials, “R.S.G., 1902.” By early 1908, Thompson was completing large paintings and selling them. Prominent art critics who viewed the works agreed they bore uncanny resemblances to Gifford’s works. Hyslop still harbored suspicions that Thompson was merely cultivating long-harbored desires to be an artist, and that his association with Gifford had influenced him more than he realized.
To prove whether Thompson was obsessed with the spirit of Gifford or had merely incorporated the memory of Gifford into his work, Hyslop decided to establish contact with the dead artist. After an initial sitting with Gaule, Hyslop brought Soule down to New York from Boston so that he and Thompson could meet with her regularly. During the Séance of June 4, 1908, Soule appeared to be receiving communications from Gifford, and she finally revealed that the artist was elated over his power to return and finish his work through Thompson. Later Séances revealed hundreds of evidential communications about scenes and colors that indicated Gifford’s influence.
Back in Boston, Soule met with Hyslop alone on July 15. During the Séance, the supposed spirit of Gifford revealed he had sent a DREAM of the Angel of death to Thompson. When Hyslop returned to New York, Mrs. Thompson visited Hyslop, worried about a dream of death her husband had recently experienced and then sketched. Hyslop felt he was close to establishing real contact with Gifford’s spirit, which had yet to positively identify himself. Hyslop attended no more Séances on the Thompson case until December 1908, and this time he consulted Mrs. Willis M. Cleaveland as the Medium. Cleaveland’s first sessions were disappointing, but on the morning of December 9, she sat with Thompson alone. Her communicator addressed Thompson, telling him that he had given his work to him and not to neglect it. Through Automatic Writing, Cleaveland first tried to write initials, then began sketching scenes of the Massachusetts coast that Thompson had visited the summer before. The spirit reminisced about his childhood and early paintings, then admonished Thompson to continue with the work, and not to forget him. Finally, the spirit told Thompson he had to go, and scrawled “R.S.G.” using Cleaveland’s hand.
Hyslop firmly believed that he had found a true case of spirit obsession in Frederic Thompson/R. Swain Gifford. Later investigations, some alleging fraud or supertelepathy, never quite refuted Hyslop’s earlier conclusions. Gifford’s spirit reportedly never bothered Thompson again, but he left his metalworking career and became a full-time painter, joining the then-prestigious Salmagundi Club for professional painters in 1912. He worked out of New York for a few years, then moved to Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of New Bedford. Returning to New York in the 1920s, Thompson continued to paint and sculpt, showing his works in various exhibitions and apparently making a good living. He worked out of Miami in the late 1920s, and probably died about 1927.
- Hyslop, James H. Contact with the Other World. New York: The Century Co., 1919.
- Rogo, D. Scott. The Infi nite Boundary. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987.