First Forensic Paranormalists

Part I: Some early scientists sought empirical evidence of the supernatural.

Posted Oct 18, 2020

Photo by K. Ramsland
From a "Dead Dinner"
Source: Photo by K. Ramsland

It's time for a tale appropriate for Halloween. When I wrote Paranormal Forensic Investigations, I researched the era when spiritualists and scientists clashed over the need for empirical proof for claims spiritualists made. I came across the research societies during the late 19th century to which several prominent figures belonged. What follows is an excerpt about a renowned anthropologist’s reported experience in a book he wrote about the spirit world just before he died.

The 19th-century scientific establishment generally denounced “ignorant” spiritualists who claimed there existed paranormal forces all around us. However, a few scientists decided that science demanded an open mind, so they decided to attend and observe some spiritualist sessions.

Among them were American psychologist William James, British philosopher Henry Sidgwick, and Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso.

In 1876, Lombroso had published a book about his work in criminal anthropology, which grew through successive editions into the classic multi-volume study L'uomo Delinquent (The Criminal Man). He’d made systematic measurements of numerous body parts of offenders to develop his notion that criminality was inherited, its propensity apparent in the physiology. In essence, the “born criminal” was genetically defective. This notion was well-received throughout Europe and the U.S.

Lombroso founded the Italian School of Positivist Criminology, worked on a rudimentary lie detector, and advocated for a cautious approach to the death penalty. He even established one of the earliest professional museums dedicated to crime. When he became a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pavia, his publications attracted professionals across Europe to follow his work.

Criminologists at this time believed they had a talent for perceiving the invisible forces of personality. Lombroso turned his attention to the paranormal. “If ever there was an individual in the world opposed to spiritism by virtue of scientific education, “ he wrote, “I was that person.”

The year 1891 began his shift. Having steadfastly believed everything was reducible to physical matter, Lombroso set out to observe a séance. He learned about a reportedly talented medium, Eusapia Palladino. With professional colleagues, Lombroso attended her sessions. They took precautions, such as searching her, changing her garments, holding her hands and feet during the ritual, and taking charge of the light on her table that tended to move. Even under these conditions, surprising things happened. She would write on a tablet, and while no writing appeared on the surface, they’d find it deeper inside. Or she'd make a hand appear that grasped things and touched people. It even made physical imprints in soft clay. She could also form the facial features of known decedents by placing clay wrapped in linen inside a box and calling on the person’s spirit to appear.

During one séance, Lombroso was shocked to see a short ghostly figure that resembled his deceased mother. It spoke to him, removed a veil, and kissed him. He wrote that he saw this figure over a dozen times. It made him feel ashamed at having so firmly opposed the possibility of psychic phenomena. Against the recommendations of his colleagues, he published his book about spirit mediums After Death, What? in which he accepted the reality. His death from angina shortly thereafter spared him from the professional backlash.

In the book, Lombroso recounts the types of paranormalists he studied as typtological mediums who communicate by table tapping; motor mediums who cause furniture to move; painter mediums, speaking mediums, rhabdomancists who locate metals in the earth, pneumatographers who manifest writing without a writing implement, dematerializers who attract objects to come through air from some other place, and photfors who “bring out gleams of light.” The list goes on, always with the same idea: with the invisible assistance of spirits, a person can perform seemingly impossible physical feats.

Lombroso also relates spooky tales, such as one from Boccaccio, who penned The Life of Dante. It seems that after Dante Alighieri died, his sons found some of his unfinished works. They decided to try to complete the task, but the items were missing. Jacopo had a dream of his father in white garments, surrounded by light. Jacopo asked the figure about the location of the missing part of his work. The phantom led him by the hand into his former sleeping chambers and touched a spot on the wall.

Jacopo woke up, sought out a friend of his father’s to serve as a witness, and went into his father’s former bedroom. They discovered a small window behind a blind, and when they opened it they located several moldy manuscripts. On these fragile pages, Dante had penned thirteen cantos. They were able to complete the work. (Lombroso doesn’t consider the possibility they’d made up this story.)

Among the tales verified over a period of three years by a number of “the most eminent English experimenters” was the case of Katie King, a spirit that possessed the medium, Florence Cook. (By other accounts, she was Annie Owen Morgan, daughter of a pirate and killer of her own children.) Supposedly, it was possible to photograph Katie’s blond-haired image near Cook and even measure her heartbeat (five beats per minute less than Florence’s heart).

Lombroso believed he’d found sufficient evidence from his and his colleagues’ observations to say “there exists an immense series of psychical phenomena that completely elude the laws of psycho-physiology.” Paranormal activity worked best, he concluded, through “the actions of the unconscious.” The entities relied on the brainpower of the living, which explained why their own intelligence was fragmentary and confused. It had to be filtered through someone else’s thinking patterns.

Lombroso’s affirmation of spirit manifestations seems remarkably naïve, but at least he thought it was important to experience the phenomena for himself and to dismiss nothing outright. He'd tried to bracket a naturalist framework that defined reality to learn something it disavowed. His approach, at least, was earnest and honest.


Lombroso, C. (1909). After Death, What? Kessinger Publishing (reprint).