29 November 2023

WOMEN OF THE PARANORMAL

Alex Matsuo. Women of the Paranormal. Privately published, 2023.

Writers exploring the history of the paranormal have often noted the prominence of women in the field, most particularly such individuals as Catharine Crowe, Helena Blavatsky, Eleanor Sidgwick, and mediums such as Florence Cook and Eusapia Palladino and the Fox sisters. 
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But there were many other woman psychics and researchers who are now virtually forgotten, or whose importance has been overshadowed by husbands, co-workers, or academics.

Alex Matsuo gives brief lives of thirty-three such women. The prominent figures like Crowe and Sidgwick are here, but also figures who will be less familiar to most readers. There is Helen Nosworthy, who is credited with suggesting the name 'Ouija' for what had previous been called the 'talking board', Matsuo suggests that rather then simply being a combination of the French and German words for 'yes' she may also have intended it as an homage to the English writer 'Ouida' (Maria Louise Ramé), whose name she wore on a silver locket.

Spiritualism in the Victorian era was strongly associated with progressive political ideals, and a number of the women described here, such as Annie Besant were active in feminist and abolitionist movements along with lesser known figures like Ascha White Sprague, who campaigned for prison reform and the abolition of slavery, seeming to be inspired by spiritual messages.

Matsuo does not shy away from exploring the more dubious sides of some of her subjects. In her account of the life of Ada Goodrich-Freer, one of the earliest women members of the Society for Psychical Research. While describing her career as an early 'ghost hunter' and her contribution to the SPR, she is also at pains to point out that Goodrich-Freer plagiarised the work of other researchers and was caught committing fraud at a séance. Nevertheless she concludes that “her writings tell us a lot about the perception of the paranormal in the 19th century”.

A particularly interesting figure is Rosina Despard, who investigated a haunting in her own home in Cheltenham, in the 1880s. She was the eldest daughter of her father William and his second wife Harriet, and oddly was named after her father's first wife.

The haunting was the figure of a woman in black which was mostly seen by Rosina, although other members of the household reported similar apparitions. Rosina, who was studying medicine at the time, kept meticulous notes of the phenomena, and experimented by stretching cords across places where the ghost was seen, which remained undisturbed. She recorded these in letters to a friend Catherine Campbell, which came to the notice of the prominent SPR member Frederic Myers.

Rosina published an account of her investigations, under the name 'Morton' in the SPR Proceedings, but the full contents of the letters to Campbell were never released, because they contained because they contained ‘matters of a private nature’. It has been suggested that this may have referred to a lesbian relationship between the two women.

After this Rosina had no further involvement in psychic research, and continued her career in medicine, making her publication in the SPR Proceedings as a young woman in her twenties all the more remarkable in the nineteenth century. Peter Rogerson has written an account of the haunting, looking as some of the social and psychological issues, which has been published in Magonia here:

Not all the women described here conducted their research into the paranormal in the comfort of English suburbia, small town America, or the psychical research laboratory. One notable individual who life took her well away from these surroundings, was Alexandra David-Neel. Her adventurous and sometimes dangerous travels through Tibet and Central Asia, and her writings, including translations of obscure Buddhist texts introduced many Western readers to Buddhism and Oriental mysticism, and influenced writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg.

Interestingly, Matsuo gives an account of Mary Hyre, who will probably be unfamiliar to most paranormal researchers, but will be familiar to Magonians. She was the reporter who first publicised the Mothman stories in her columns for the Athens Messenger, Point Pleasant's local paper. With her local knowledge and contacts she was a vital collaborator with John Keel in his investigations, which Keel fully acknowledged.

Inevitably, in any collection like this there will always be people who we would like to have seen included but weren't. This book is described as 'Volume I', I hope a Volume II might include Mary Rose Barrington, the scion of the SPR for many years. I was saddened to learn, through her appearance here, of the death last year of Linda Godfrey, author of The Beast of Bray Road and many other titles, whose investigations into phenomena such as the Goatman and American werewolf reports widened the range of serious research into 'actually experienced' Fortean creatures and phenomena.

Each chapter has a list of useful sources, many available on-line, for readers wishing to learn more. Like many self-published books this would have benefitted from the oversight of an editor, but it provides an interesting reminder of many individuals who may have faded from the historical memory, although it is probably fair to say that the history of paranormal study has been kinder to the memory of its female pioneers than many other fields of research.
  • John Rimmer


Linda Godfrey's books have been reviewed in Magonia here:

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