Piper: The White Crow of American Spiritualism

Leonora Piper was one of the most acclaimed mediums of her era. She made believers of famous thinkers, but her detractors were numerous — and adamant.

Leonora Piper

By Jake Cordero

Leonora Piper was one of the most famous spirit mediums of the 19th Century. She made believers of important scientists and thinkers, including William James, father of American psychology, and Oliver Lodge, the British physicist who contributed to the invention of the radio.

But her detractors were passionate as well, and some accused her of self-delusion … or worse.

Did Leonora Piper truly speak to the spirits or was the “White Crow” of American spiritualism just another clever charlatan? There’s been plenty written about Piper over the years — both by supporters and detractors. As a service to our readers, we set forth here some of the highlights.

Leonora Piper (then Simonds) was born on June 27, 1857 and raised in Nashua, New Hampshire. It was there, in her family garden, that she supposedly had her first encounter with the supernatural. She later recounted the experience of something very odd — it was as if someone or something had struck her on the side of the head. This phantom blow was accompanied by a weird hissing noise, and then the hiss gradually took the form of whispered words.

Just 8 years old and terrified, Leonora ran immediately inside to report the incident. This is what she supposedly told her mother:  “Something hit me on the ear and Aunt Sara said she wasn’t dead but with you still.”

Word arrived soon afterward that Aunt Sara had indeed died — and that the unexpected demise came shortly after Leonora received her weird message. Upon hearing this dreadful news, Leonora fell into an epileptic-like fit.

Leonora grew to adulthood and at age 22 married a Boston shopkeeper named William Piper. The couple settled in the respectable Beacon Hill area where young Leonora seemed destined to live out an utterly unremarkable life. But then in 1885, after the birth of her second daughter, the voices returned. Leonora also began exhibiting automatic writing skills.

William James

Leonora spent much of her middle years working as a professional medium, and became so successful that she eventually commanded $20 a sitting (about $500 in today’s dollars). She attracted famous clients that included professional scientists and intellectuals. William James, a lion in both American philosophy and psychology, was left utterly dumbfounded by her abilities. “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black … it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white — my white crow is Mrs. Piper,” he famously wrote. Likewise, Sir Oliver Lodge, the noted British physicist who helped develop radio, became a staunch supporter.

She also convinced a number of psychic researchers, including Hereward Carrington who declared her to be the very greatest spirit medium of her age. But others were less impressed. Physiologist Ivor Lloyd Tuckett wrote that her mediumship could be explained by “muscle-reading, fishing, guessing, hints obtained in the sitting, knowledge surreptitiously obtained, knowledge acquired in the interval between sittings and lastly, facts already within Mrs. Piper’s knowledge.” Psychologists G. Stanley Hall and Amy Tanner believed that Piper was neither a fraud nor a medium, but rather a woman with buried personalities.

And what did Ms. Piper herself believe? Speaking to the Boston Advertiser in 1901, she said: “Spirits of the departed may have controlled me and they may not. I confess that I do not know.”

Leonora Piper died in 1950, at the age 92. She is buried in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, in Massachusetts.


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