Psychical researcher Hereward Carrington (1880–1958) considered Leonora E. Piper to be the greatest psychical medium of her time. Piper was a resident of Boston, as was Margery Crandon (1888–1941), but her mediumship had already won the endorsement of such luminaries as William James (1842–1910), Dr. Richard Hodgson (1855–1905), and Sir Oliver Lodge (1851–1940) before Crandon had really begun her psychic career. Piper was a direct-voice medium, who while entranced, would allow her body to be taken over by spirits who would use her voice to speak and, on occasion, to write messages to those persons assembled for her seances.
Eight-year-old Leonora (often spelled Leonore) had been playing in the family garden when she suddenly felt a stinging blow on her right ear and heard a kind of hissing sound that gradually became a voice repeating the letter "S." Once this had been resolved, Leonora clearly heard the same voice tell her that her Aunt Sara had died, but her spirit remained near. Leonora's mother made note of the day and the hour in which she had received the spirit communication, and a few days later the family learned that Sara had died at the very hour on the very day that Leonora received the message.
Although this event signaled the advent of Leonora's mediumship, her mother wisely insisted on the young girl enjoying a normal childhood and the dramatic impact of any subsequent paranormal phenomena was underplayed. When Leonora was 22, she married William Piper of Boston, and shortly thereafter developed a friendship with a blind clairvoyant named Dr. J. R. Cocke, who had been attracting a substantial following as a result of his accurate medical diagnoses and cures. At their first meeting, Leonora Piper had fallen into a trance, walked in such a state across the room, where she sat at a table, picked up pencil and paper, and began to write messages from spirit entities. Prominent Bostonians were often seated in the seance circle at Cocke's home, the remarkable accuracy of Piper's trance communications soon spread throughout the city, and she was soon being pursued by men and women who wished to sit with her in her own seances.
At the beginning of her mediumship, Piper's spirit control claimed to be a young Native American girl, but within a short time, Cocke's guide, Phinuit, a French doctor, had switched his allegiance to Piper. Phinuit remained the medium's principal spirit control from 1884 to 1892, although other entities spoke or wrote through her, notably the spirit of George Pelham, a friend of the well-known psychical researcher Dr. Richard Hodgson. Pelham communicated through automatic writing until sometime in 1897 when both he and Phinuit essentially retreated back into the spirit world upon the arrival of a powerful control known simply as the Imperator.
Harvard University psychologist William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, was brought to Piper's seance room by some rather astonishing reports which he had heard from his mother-in-law and his sister-in-law. The elder woman had heard the medium give the names, both first and last, of distant relatives. Later, James's sister-in-law had approached Piper with a letter written in Italian that had been sent to her by a writer who was known only to two people in the entire United States. The medium placed the letter to her forehead and gave details of its contents and described the physical appearance of the writer.
As he entered Piper's seance room, James identified himself with a false name in order not to provide the medium with even the slightest clue on which to work. In spite of his precautions, the psychologist came away from the sitting completely baffled as to how Piper had been able to give accurate information on all of the subjects about which he had queried.
James soon returned to Leonora Piper's seance room. He was uninterested in the spirit hypothesis, but he was convinced that the woman could only be obtaining her information through some paranormal means. Piper became William James's "one white raven." In a well-known passage from his works, James writes that the phenomena that he witnessed through the mediumship of Piper had weakened his orthodox beliefs. "To use the language of logic," he states, "I will say that a universal supposition may become false because of one particular example. If you are taught that all crows are black, and you wish to destroy this belief, it is sufficient to you to present to your teacher one white raven. My only white raven is Mrs. Piper."
It became the psychologist's conviction that, while in the state of trance, Piper was able to reveal knowledge that she could not have acquired through the normal sensory channels. "Science, like life, feeds itself on its own ruins," James said. "New facts break old rules."
Sir Oliver Lodge, after a series of experiments with Piper, told how the medium from Boston had completely convinced him "…not only of human survival but also of the faculty possessed by disembodied spirits to communicate with people on earth."
Hereward Carrington related that Piper's procedure during a seance was to make herself comfortable on a pile of cushions, then gradually pass into the trance state. Once entranced, the medium was impervious to pain and oblivious to everything that happened around her. After a few moments of trance, her right hand would reach out and accept the pencil that a sitter would place in her hand. At this point, automatic writing was produced and spirit communications were relayed to the members of the seance circle.
Professor James Hervey Hyslop (1854–1920) wished to observe this remarkable woman for himself and contacted Richard Hodgson, who at that time was conducting extensive tests with Piper, to make arrangements for his attendance at a seance. Hyslop was a stickler for taking extreme precautions. He drove up to the medium's house in a closed carriage, wearing a black mask which completely covered his face. After Piper had entered into the trance state, Hodgson motioned for Hyslop to take his place in a chair behind the medium.
From the time he entered the seance room until the moment the sitting was completed and he was out the door and back in his closed carriage, Hyslop did not utter a word. Even if the medium had not been in a trance state, she would not have been able to determine the identity of the silent man who sat behind her with his face completely covered. But in spite of these extreme precautions, Piper had mentioned Professor Hyslop's name several times during the course of the seance and had given the names of so many of his family members that it took him more than six months of correspondence with his kin back in the small Ohio town where he was born to verify all the information told him during the sitting.
Piper died on July 3, 1950. The majority of researchers who sat with Leonora Piper were more than willing to agree with William James when he said of her: "I wish to certify here and now the presence of a supernatural knowledge; a knowledge the origin of which cannot be attributed to ordinary sources of information, that is, to our physical senses."