At the time of her death in 1918, Eusapia Palladino had been both the most thoroughly investigated physical medium in the history of psychical research and the most controversial and startling personality ever to confront a team of investigators into the unexplained. She could be at once flirtatious and so suggestive in her conversation that some researchers were embarrassed by her frank sexuality; and at the same time, she dominated her husband so completely that the beleaguered man had to take her maiden name as his own when they were married. Palladino could hardly sign her own name and reading was beyond her knowledge, but the world's leading scientists and psychical researchers testified that this enigmatic woman was somehow able to tap into strange powers as yet unnamed by conventional science.
Born in Bari, Italy, in 1854, Palladino's mediumship was discovered by a family who employed her as a maid when she moved to Naples as a young girl. The quality of the phenomena that she produced brought her to the attention of Professor Chiaia, who, in turn, introduced her to the professor Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909). When the great psychologist's initial reports on Eusapia Palladino were published, it was not long before she was sitting with research groups in Paris, St. Petersburg, Turin, Genoa, London, and New York. As far as the audacious Eusapia was concerned, it mattered little where she conducted her seances. Her mysterious talents were not bound by geographical locations. She was able to produce incredible psychic effects whenever and wherever she sat.
In 1908, a special committee was selected by the British Society for Psychical Research (BSPR) for the sole purpose of investigating the claims that had been made by a number of celebrated scientists on behalf of the medium. The committee was especially chosen for their skepticism and was composed of Everard Feilding, Mrs. W. W. Baggally, and Hereward Carrington (1880–1958), each of whom had exposed many fraudulent mediums in the course of their investigations. Previous test results with the medium at Cambridge in the summer of 1895 had been contradictory, with some of the researchers convinced of her abilities, and others equally certain that they had caught her in acts of trickery. Subsequent examinations of Palladino by psychical researchers in Paris in 1898 and various cities in Italy during the years 1901–7 had produced the same mixture of acceptance and doubt.
Between November 21 and December 19, 1908, the team of professional skeptics spent several weeks in the Hotel Victoria in the medium's native city of Naples and were able to observe an incredibly wide range of spiritistic phenomena. Each of the members published lengthy reports on the remarkable Palladino, and each of them came away from the exhaustive series of seances quite convinced that the medium had the ability to release an extremely potent paranormal force. They also noted that Palladino would cheat if she were allowed to do so, but because of their strict controls, she was forced to abandon the easier path of trickery and produce genuine phenomena.
Working under the strictest control the investigators could exert upon her, Palladino allowed the committee to examine both her person and her room as thoroughly as they might wish. She utilized a spirit cabinet that was formed by stretching two black curtains across one of the corners of the room. Inside this makeshift affair, the investigators placed musical instruments and a variety of other small, movable objects. The medium sat directly in front of the closet with at least a foot of space between her chair and the curtains.
After warming up with simple displays of table levitation, Palladino would call for a dimming of the lights. Almost instantly, the medium would summon her spirit control, John King, who would subsequently cause the objects behind the curtain to come floating out. Musical instruments would be played by unseen hands, and the sound would be easily heard by all sitters in the room. The highlight of every seance was the materialization of spirit hands and bodies. These materializations always came last in any seance, as if the woman's inborn sense of the dramatic knew how best to leave an audience wanting more.
Hereward Carrington, who published a great deal of material about the medium, related
Outside the cabinet, the other members of the committee had observed Carrington's difficulty in replacing the small table. One of the psychical investigators crouched under the table and clamped both of his hands around the medium's feet. Two other researchers were stationed at her side. They all assured Carrington that the medium had not moved since she had asked him to replace the table and that they would prevent her from making any moves at all. Once these precautions had been taken, Carrington resolutely tried again to replace the stubborn table behind the curtain of the spirit cabinet—but each time some unknown force repelled his efforts. At last the invisible entity seemed to grow tired of the game, and with a considerable burst of energy, sent both Carrington and the table tumbling out of the cabinet and sprawling to the floor.
In 1909, at a later sitting in New York where Palladino had been brought by great demand on the part of American psychical researchers, the medium capped her usual repertoire of paranormal feats by materializing a small hand in the air. Carrington later reported that the hand appeared white in the dim light of the laboratory and that its arm was visible up to a ghostly elbow. The wrist was encased in a lacy cuff. The hand and forearm were clearly seen by all the researchers in the room, and Palladino's own limbs were tied to two men, one on either side of her. While the investigators watched as if mesmerized, the ghostly hand moved to the medium's bonds and deftly untied the knots. When the spirit had undone the ropes, it threw one of the bonds at an observer and struck him in the chest. The other rope was thrown against the far wall of the sitting room.
The good-natured medium laughed at the antics of the ambitious spirit hand and bade the researchers to bind her once again. The men had no sooner fastened the knots a second time when the spirit hand rematerialized and quickly untied them.
The mystery of Eusapia Palladino's mediumship is a many-faceted one. Carrington wrote, for example, that she was often caught attempting the most crude kind of trickery— pranks that even the most inexperienced psychical researcher would be certain to catch. Her nature was permeated with mischief and guile, and she would try to cheat at card games or even croquet. Carrington felt that she did these things to those who would test her to see how far she might go in taunting them—or because she was basically a lazy person, to see if she could fool them with a few tricks so that she might be spared the effort of going into trance. When she found that she could not deceive the knowledgeable investigators from the various research committees—most of whom were accomplished amateur magicians—Palladino would settle down to producing some of the most remarkable psychic phenomena ever recorded and witnessed by an investigating body of skeptics.