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.

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."

It's tempting to argue that Stanford was wrong to abandon psychical research. There are certainly people who believe that ESP is a scientifically valid field of study. Some cite the work done by Duke University psychologist J.B. Rhine in the 1940s and 1950s—experiments that seemed to show something odd was happening in the laboratory, whether or not you wanted to call it ESP. Rhine's methods were faulty, and his results are probably meaningless, but recent work done at Princeton and elsewhere suggests that the human mind has other powers: It can, for instance, influence electronic random-number generators. Although the effect of mental influence is tiny—the results deviate from chance by only a few parts in 10,000—it is statistically significant, and largely inexplicable.

If Stanford had stayed in the game, this argument goes, it might be at the forefront of a new understanding of the relation between the mind and the physical world. It may be more useful, however, to take Thomas Stanford's story, along with these recent developments in psychical research, as a reminder that bodies of knowledge—even when they have been enshrined on respectable campuses—are provisional, that even rich men sometimes place poor bets on the future, and that even poor bets may sometimes, in the very long run, pay off.

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