In Search of the Fur Bat

The True Story of Psychical Research at Stanford University

Charles Bailey must have known what was in store; he "happened" to leave Australia before Coover showed up, and the tests were called off. The Roman Lamp and the Fur Bat remained in the Stanford museum until 1938, when there was no one left alive to claim that they came from the Beyond; then they were transferred to the archives.

By then, however, the university was already involved in its own investigation of the spirit world. In 1911, Thomas Stanford gave the university $50,000 to create the T.W. Stanford Fellowship in Psychical Research. The university seems to have accepted his gift without hesitation. This was a gamble for an institution that had just turned 20 years old: Spiritualism had been officially discredited in America as early as the 1880s, when the University of Pennsylvania's Seybert Commission studied mediums and found the various phenomena they produced to be fraudulent. On the other hand, not everyone in academia believed that the commission was right, or that its findings were applicable to all branches of psychical research. Psychology already owed a considerable debt to spiritualism: Two of its techniques for exploring the uncharted regions of the mind, hypnosis and automatic writing, had been developed or refined by the mediums of the mid 19th century. Psychologists had studied mediums and they had found, in the spiritualists' varied accounts of the Beyond, material from which to shape their own understanding of the here and now. Toward the end of the 19th century, psychology went one way, and psychical research went another (the term "psychical" did not have its special meaning of "paranormal"—what we would today call "psychic"—until 1882). Still, some people believed that the study of telepathy, clairvoyance, and communication with the spirits might bear some real, scientific fruit. In 1909, William James, brother of Henry James and author of the classic Principles of Psychology, wrote, "I believe psychical research will achieve the greatest scientific conquests of the coming generation."

If the university embraced spiritualism too enthusiastically, it risked ridicule; if it refused to engage in psychical research at all, it risked missing the boat. Forced to choose between these alternatives, Stanford did the only prudent thing: It took Thomas Stanford's money, but appointed a skeptic—J. Edgar Coover, the psychology professor who was supposed to unmask Bailey—to be the first Fellow. A laboratory was built, and stocked with the most modern equipment the era had to offer. It contained some "occult" instruments, including a gazing crystal (i.e., a crystal ball) and writing slates on which spirits could leave messages for the living, but also instruments that still seem "scientific" today: a kymograph, to record fluctuations in the medium's blood pressure; a tachistoscope, a device for flashing an image for a tiny fraction of a second; and also a Dicta-phone, typewriters, and adding machines to tabulate the data collected.

For five years, Coover experimented with extrasensory perception. His subjects, mostly Stanford undergraduates, tried to guess the numbers written on wooden blocks; they used the power of their minds to see hidden playing cards, and they sat still while an experimenter gazed at the back of their necks, trying to give them the "feeling of being stared at." Not surprisingly, none of his experiments produced a positive result. His 1917 report, Experiments in Psychical Research at Stanford University, was used as ammunition in the argument against spiritualism, and in 1927 Coover himself published an article arguing that psychical research was without value. Thomas Stanford was, fortunately, not around to protest the uses to which his money had been put. He died in 1918, at the age of 86, in Melbourne. He had never returned to the United States, apparently because the ocean voyage had made him so seasick that he would not repeat it for any reason. (The study of automatic writing and hypnosis, meanwhile, had given rise to psychoanalysis, which in turn inspired modernism, surrealism, and much of the literary and artistic culture of the 20th century. In this sense, at least, Thomas Stanford's and William James's hopes for psychical research were fulfilled, albeit in ways they could never have imagined.)

In his will, Stanford left the university an additional $526,000 for "psychical or psychological research." He probably meant the two terms synonymously—as they had been used in America in the 19th century—but the university took him at his word, and the money was used for general psychology. The T.W. Stanford Fellowship, which was more strictly defined, has remained an embarrassment to the university. After Coover retired in 1937, the university announced that "psychic phenomena" included hypnosis, dreams, subliminal perception, the unconscious, and other nonoccult areas of mental life. Ironically, when one Fellow, a psychologist named Charles Stuart, ran tests in the early 1940s that suggested there really was such a thing as ESP, Stanford University covered up his findings and declared that his experiments had been a failure. Ashamed of its venture into the Beyond, the university was covering its tracks. After Stuart, the university has been hesitant to award the T.W. Stanford Fellowship to anyone who might use it for anything Thomas Stanford would have approved of, or understood. Of late, recipients have investigated subjects including "Resting EEG Alpha and Asymmetry of Relative Lateral Eye Movements" and "Studies in Olfactory Acuity III. Relative Detectability of n-Aliphatic Acetates by the Rat."

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