In Search of the Fur Bat

The True Story of Psychical Research at Stanford University

Stanford University's Spanish Revival campus sprawls between Palo Alto and the foothills of the coastal mountains like a training center for Taco Bell franchise owners, a gigantic testament to the incompatibility of money and taste. It's hard to walk around Stanford without thinking about rich men: Alumni Jerry Yang and David Filo, Yahoo!'s cofounders, have already become a part of the local mythology, alongside Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who graduated from Stanford in 1934. Even Bill Gates, who never attended Stanford, has left his mark on the university, in the form of the new William Gates Computer Science Building, a yellow sandstone box with smoked glass windows. Its name offers a disconcerting glimpse of the time when people will remember Gates only as a kind old man whose name is on lots of buildings, a sort of Andrew Carnegie of the computer age.

In these forward-thinking days, no one, or practically no one, who visits Stanford thinks of a benefactor whose name was on the library here a hundred years ago, a captain of industry who tried to advance the university into the future as he saw it. His name was Thomas Welton Stanford, and he believed that the dominant science of the 20th century would be spiritualism: the science of ghosts, turning tables, knocking spirits, and crystal balls. For 25 years, Stanford University agreed with him.

Thomas Stanford was the younger brother of the university's founder, railroad baron Leland Stanford. He was born near Albany, New York, in 1832, and his parents hoped that he would become a doctor. Instead he dropped out of medical school, moved to California, and joined Leland in the railroad business. Eight years later, he moved again, this time to Australia. Stanford settled in Melbourne and married, but his wife died in childbirth a year later. Moved by grief, he visited various mediums who claimed that they could put him in touch with his wife's spirit. Some of the communications he received from the spirits survive in the Stanford University archives: They are written in chalk on slates about the size of a laptop computer screen. Their content is often cryptic, and occasionally seems blatantly fraudulent: "We must take care of the medium's earthly wants," writes one spirit "guide." While moving in Melbourne spiritualist circles, Stanford met a medium named Charles Bailey, who specialized in "apports," objects magically transported into the séance from far away. Stanford was impressed. For 12 years he paid Bailey to give weekly séances in his office, in the company of wealthy Melbourne businessmen—despite the fact that Bailey had been in trouble with the law several times, in Australia and abroad, for obtaining money under false pretenses.

Thomas Stanford, benefactor and man of séance
photo: Stanford University Archives
Thomas Stanford, benefactor and man of séance

To reward Stanford for his trust, Bailey brought him a remarkable collection of objects. They are preserved in the university's library, in 26 of the gray, pH-neutral cardboard boxes used to store manuscripts and other valuable documents. One box contains thousands of small, red seeds; another holds fish lures; and another contains a cigarette case with a Japanese design, a lock of woman's hair, and a handful of .22-caliber shell casings. Each of the apports is neatly labeled in calligraphic script: "Russian 3 copeck," reads the tag on a tarnished coin. "Dropped by Materialised Hand in the dark about 12 feet from the cabinet of 1856." Whatever the spirit world was trying to say (beware Japanese women? Invest in Russia?), Stanford and his colleagues were listening carefully. Bailey also conjured artifacts from the distant past: a "Roman Lamp," which looks like half a coconut shell bound with twine; a collection of "Egyptian" papyri, with shakily drawn profiles of birds in what looks like fountain-pen ink; and an item listed in the catalog as "Fur Bat (implement of death)," which appears, unfortunately, to have been lost.

Despite their dubious appearance—the papyri, for example, don't even seem to have been written on papyrus—Thomas Stanford had absolute faith that the articles were genuine. He sent them back to his brother's university, and, because he was a Stanford, the university put them on display in its museum. "Let me tell you how pleased I am to possess the tablets you sent me," Leland Stanford's wife, Jane, wrote to her brother-in-law. "They have been placed in the center of the Egyptian room in the Museum in a black wood case with glass cover. Those that were translated and numbered have cards with printed versions, and can easily be read by visitors." What the visitors made of these objects is not recorded, but Stanford's president, David Starr Jordan, was nonplussed by the apports. He arranged for a psychology professor named John Edgar Coover to travel to Australia, where he was supposed to test Bailey's powers in a controlled setting.

Coover was a remarkable figure in his own right. One of the first psychology professors at Stanford University, he was remembered by his colleagues as "owl-wise," willing to solve intractable logical problems for anyone who would put up with his long-winded explanations. He was also among the first psychologists to use control groups in his experiments. The need to compare the group that receives an experimental treatment (the "subjects") with another group that doesn't receive it, but is identical in all other respects (the "control") seems self-evident to modern psychologists: Without this comparison, there would be no way to isolate the effects of the treatment. In the early 20th century, however, psychology was only beginning to distinguish itself as a social science, as opposed to a philosophical or clinical study of the mind. By advocating the necessity of control groups, Coover pushed the field in a new direction, toward the intellectual rigor of the natural sciences. It is worth noting that, although Coover has by and large been forgotten, experimental psychology has followed his lead for the last century.

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