A Supernatural Legacy

Beyond its popular place in religion, literature, and the arts, the afterlife has inspired and captivated many of the world's greatest scientists and scholars.  It's in this difficult pursuit that their legacy reaches into the murky realms of mystery. Notable names such as Hans Holzer, Harry Houdini, Thomas Edison, and Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle have all dipped their toes (or jumped headfirst) into the supernatural pool.  In an ongoing series, we'll highlight some of these historical figures below.


Thomas Edison

It seems pretty clear that he does not really differentiate between the natural and supernatural. Everything can be explained in natural terms, but humans are not quite infinite enough in their knowledge to understand it yet.  It's in the next couple of interviews that Edison discloses his extremely interesting thoughts about the afterlife:

 

Scientific American (1920):

"If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical or scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect, other faculties, and knowledge that we acquire on this Earth.  I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter.  If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected, or moved, or manipulated by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something."

One year later, in another interview in the New York Times, the author makes it abundantly clear that Edison has been working on a device to record "personality units" and potentially communicate with the dead.

 

New York Times (Jan. 23 1921):

"When so called "death" appears to drive life from our bodies Mr. Edison thinks that our personality "units" do not die, but continue to to exist as substantial material things."
...
"Life does not cease to exist.  The life units which have formed that man do not die.  They merely pass out of the unimportant mechanism which they have been inhabiting..."
...
"...so Mr. Edison hopes to build a mechanism of exquisite fineness and great power upon which the now impalpable life units of personality will make themselves known, will register.  Does this mean messages from the dead, instructions from the departed as to future instructions..."
...
"What Mr. Edison does say is that should his theories prove correct and should his apparatus succeed in apprehending the stimuli, it will be the first step in a correct understanding of the entire problem of life and death, and will lead the way to the development of concrete communication with the dead."

The interviewer attempts to push Edison into revealing more details about his machine, but Edison remains mum on the subject.  He would only say that he has been engaged for a number of years in the construction of such an apparatus.

 

Edison died 10 years later.  His machine was never completed and the plans are relegated to the trash-bin of history.

 

References:

http://www.paranormal-encyclopedia.com/e/thomas-edison/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Edison
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free

Harry Houdini  

Famed magician and escape artist, Houdini would also make a name for himself attempting to communicate with his deceased mother. After her death, Houdini sought out a medium who would allow him to communicate with her. Met with numerous failures and fraudulent tricksters, Houdini began to expose the mediums as charlatans, preying on peoples grief.

 

It was Houdini’s background as a magician that allowed him to identify the mediums as fakes. For as good as they may have been, Houdini was better. Houdini was so confident in his assessments that he offered a $5,000 cash prize to anyone who could show him true supernatural abilities.  Nobody ever won the award.

 

Despite his relentless exposing of medium hacks, Houdini did not oppose spiritualism. He just hated to see it perverted for peoples personal gain.  In fact, he promised to communicate with the living if and when he made it to the "other side."  His wife Bess held seances for years after his death, hoping that he would make good on his promise.  Her last and unsuccessful attempt came on October 31st, 1936.

 

http://www.paranormal-encyclopedia.com/h/harry-houdini/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houdini
http://www.thegreatharryhoudini.com/occult.html

 

Hans Holzer

A teacher, author, investigator, and TV show host, Hans Holzer was a pioneer in the world of the supernatural. He wrote over 100 books on the subject, hosted a hit ghost hunting show, and was responsible for some of the most famous paranormal investigations ever done.   Born in Vienna, he developed an interest in the supernatural when his uncle captivated him with stories of ghosts and fairies.  Before the advent of modern "ghost hunting" shows, Holzer was considered the world's eminent ghost hunter.


Holzer was a firm believer in the supernatural, ghosts, spirits and what he called “stay behinds.” He viewed ghosts as intelligent imprints left on the world, capable of being interacted with and communicated with by those who were “sensitive.” 

    
In January of 1977, Holzer began his most famous investigation, that of the Amityville Horror in New York. The site of the gruesome murders of a family at the hands of their father, the story of the Amityville Horror would eventually go on to be made into a major motion picture and inspire countless stories and speculation. Holzer brought along psychic Ethel Meyers to join him during the investigation. Meyers claimed that the house had been built on an ancient indian burial ground, and that the spirit of Indian Chief “Rolling Thunder” had possessed the former father of the house, and caused him to commit the murders.


 

Mr. Holzer called himself “a scientific investigator of the paranormal.” He disliked the word “supernatural,” since it implied phenomena beyond the reach of science, and did not believe in the word “belief,” which suggests an irrational adherence to ideas not supported by fact. Nevertheless, he held in contempt electronic gadgetry for detecting cold spots, magnetic anomalies and the like, preferring direct communication through a medium.

He felt completely at ease with ghosts. “In all my years of ghost hunting I have never been afraid,” he told Leonard Nimoy on the television series “In Search Of” (for which he was a consultant). “After all, a ghost is only a fellow human being in trouble.” Specifically, a human who has died in traumatic circumstances, does not realize he or she is dead and is, as he told the Web site OfSpirit.com in 2003, “confused as to their real status.”

Holzer passed on in 2009 and is surely investigating that great haunted house in the sky.

 

His New York Times obit is particularly revelatory about his stance:

Mr. Holzer called himself “a scientific investigator of the paranormal.” He disliked the word “supernatural,” since it implied phenomena beyond the reach of science, and did not believe in the word “belief,” which suggests an irrational adherence to ideas not supported by fact. Nevertheless, he held in contempt electronic gadgetry for detecting cold spots, magnetic anomalies and the like, preferring direct communication through a medium.

He felt completely at ease with ghosts. “In all my years of ghost hunting I have never been afraid,” he told Leonard Nimoy on the television series “In Search Of” (for which he was a consultant). “After all, a ghost is only a fellow human being in trouble.” Specifically, a human who has died in traumatic circumstances, does not realize he or she is dead and is, as he told the Web site OfSpirit.com in 2003, “confused as to their real status.”

Holzer passed on in 2009 and is surely investigating that great haunted house in the sky.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/books/30holzer.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Holzer


 

 

Harry Price


Considered to be one of the first "ghost hunters", Harry Price was known for mixing spectacle with scientific process. It was an early interest in magic that would bring Price to the world of the supernatural, and that would define his blatant self promotion and ability to entertain the masses.


Shortly after joining London’s Society of Psychical Research in 1920, Price would quickly establish himself as Britain’s premiere ghost hunter and was best known for debunking the fraudulent mediums and spiritualists of the time. One of Price’s first big “gets” was exposing the work of spirit photographer William Hope.


Price’s relationship with the Society of Psychical Research would be strained however, as he grew more and more interested in finding proof of the existence of the supernatural, and not just the debunking of mediums. Price would set up rigorous tests to ensure the mediums he found were indeed genuine, often times inventing devices to ensure their was absolutely no human interference (see: “telekinetoscope”). In one such case, Price would famously go back on his claim that proposed medium Rudi Schneider indeed had supernatural powers, establishing Price as a man with eyes only for what was real.

 

 

 

In 1929 at the Borley Rectory, Price would begin the investigation that would ultimately define him. Spending a year observing and conducting seances, Price believed he had made contact with two spirits. One a young nun who had been murdered on the site, and the second a spirit named “Sunex Amures” who claimed he was going to burn down the Rectory and expose a murder. Some time later the Rectory did indeed catch fire, and in its wake Price conducted a brief dig in the cellar where he found two bones of which he believed belonged to a young woman.

 

Although Price’s claims will forever be questioned, he did set out to discover the truth in a way and at a time when few others did. Price was instrumental in bring supernatural research into the public eye, and his willingness to seek out the truth and expose frauds still inspires many researches to this day.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Price
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borley_Rectory 
http://www.sgha.net/articles/1ghosthunters.html 


 

Charles Fort


An American writer, researcher and journalist, Charles Fort can be thought of as the father of “anomalistics,” or the scientific study of the unexplainable. A man of strong opinion and views, his books remain well respected, and the terms “Fortean” and “Fortena” are often used to describe the many unknowns of our world today.


For over 30 years, Charles Fort would scour and read every magazine, scientific journal and newspaper in the pursuit of unique phenomena. His books tell tales of extreme weirdness: everything from the supernatural, to UFOs, and even stories of frogs falling from the sky.
Fort was considered by many to be quite the satirist, as well as hugely skeptical of humans (particularly scientists). This combo would influence his writing style as well as his outlook on his many theories. A proponent of objectivism, Fort’s work often touched on principles that were considered well ahead of mainstream scientific acceptance of the time.  Some of his more prescient thoughts include:

- The boundaries between science and pseudoscience are “fuzzy” and those boundaries might change over time

- How facts are interpreted may depend on who is interpreting them

- There is a strong sociological influence on what is accepted and rejected in the scientific world

- Underdetermination: sometimes data can be explained by more than one theory

- Controlled scientific experiments often produce varying results - perhaps at the hand of the scientist (the scientific community has since acknowledged the idea of “experimenter effect”)


Although many of the cases Fort presents in his books are indeed extraordinary, it is the application of his principals that allow Fort to make his point. Why are accounts and stories of the misunderstood automatically tossed to the wolves?  Many think that Fort didn’t necessarily believe all the theories he wrote about, but instead was presenting the information that was out there - encouraging the reader to draw their own conclusions.


The work of Charles Fort continues today in the Fortean Times, a monthly magazine dedicated to his ideas and pursuit.

To learn more about Charles Fort, please visit wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fort