Hereward Carrington spent his childhood years in Jersey, one of Britain's Channel Islands, and received his early schooling in London. Although he would one day write over one hundred books in the field of psychical research, as a teenager, he was far more interested in becoming a stage magician than exploring the spirit world. If it weren't for a fascination with certain well-documented cases of the paranormal, such as those recorded by Fredric W. H. Myers (1843–1901) and other serious psychical researchers, his only interest in mediums would have been to seek to expose them in the manner of Harry Houdini (1874–1926).
Carrington moved to Boston when he was 20 and remained in the United States for the rest of his life. While at first he earned his living as a journalist, he began to spend more and more time continuing to research the unexplained, and in 1905, he joined the staff of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) as an investigator.
In addition to such famous mediums as Margery Crandon (1888–1941), Eusapia Palladino (1854–1918), and Eileen Garrett (1893–1970), Carrington had a number of impressive sittings with William Cartheuser. Cartheuser appeared to have been representative of some of the many paradoxes with which serious researchers may find themselves confronted in paranormal investigations. The medium had a harelip and a cleft palate which caused a severe impediment in his speaking voice, yet at no time did any of the spirit voices produced by him give any evidence of unclear or unintelligible speech—although most of the visiting entities did speak in whispers. The female voices from beyond seemed obviously to be those of a male speaking in a falsetto. Many of the communicating spirits reflected the same opinions and temperament of the medium, but now and then Carrington felt that the alleged entities did make reference to information and the names of individuals that could only have been gained in some paranormal manner.
In assessing the mediumship of William Cartheuser, Carrington could only theorize that the alleged spirit controls upon which the medium relied to summon the departed were nothing other than the medium speaking in a number of different voices. On occasion, however, Cartheuser's simulated spirit guides enabled him, perhaps by the power of suggestion and a state of light trance, to come up with information that he could only have acquired through an unknown power of mind or through a surviving personality—and to relay those messages in voices free of his usual speech impediments.
Carrington devoted an entire book to his examination of the famous medium Eileen Garrett. In The Case for Psychic Survival (1957) he concluded that even though there existed only slight evidence for the genuinely spiritistic character of spirit guides, the alleged spirit personalities "…nevertheless succeed in bringing through a vast mass of supernormal information which could not be obtained in their absence." The mechanism of believing in a spirit control somehow seemed to act as some sort of psychic catalyst to bring about information acquired through paranormal means.
The psychical researcher went on to theorize that the function of a medium's regular spirit guide seems to be that of an intermediary; and whether the entity is truly a spirit or is a dramatic personification of the medium's subconscious, it is only through the cooperation of the guide that accurate and truthful messages are obtained. In Carrington's opinion, the essential difference between the kind of secondary personality in pathological cases and the spirit control personality in mediumistic cases is that in those instances of multiple personalities, the secondary selves acquire no supernormal information, while in the case of a medium's spirit control it does. "In the pathological cases," he said, "we seem to have a mere splitting of the mind, while in the mediumistic cases we have to deal with a (perhaps fictitious) personality which is nevertheless in touch or contact, in some mysterious way, with another (spiritual) world, from which it derives information, and through which genuine messages often come."
In his conversations with Uvani, Eileen Garrett's spirit control, Carrington learned that the entity claimed to have no control over the medium's conscious mind, nor would he feel that he would have the right to interfere with her normal thinking processes. During the trance state, however, Uvani said that he could work Garrett's subconscious like playing notes on a piano. When Carrington asked why a personality who claimed to have lived a life as an Asian could speak such excellent English through the medium, Uvani
Carrington concluded, as a result of extensive analysis of mediumship techniques, that an intelligently influenced mechanism was somehow involved in producing the physical phenomena of spirit contact in the seance room. In an essay written in 1946, Carrington said that there appears to be a form of "unknown energy" that issues from the body of the medium, "capable of affecting and molding matter in its immediate environment. At times this is invisible; at other times it takes forms and becomes more or less solid, when we have instances of the formation of so-called ectoplasm. It is this semi-material substance which moves matter and even shapes it into different forms."
According to Carrington's observations, this ectoplasm issues from various parts of the medium's body—from the fingertips, the solar plexus, and the genitals. "It represents a psychic force," he claimed, "as yet unknown to science, but now being studied by scientific men as part and parcel of supernormal biology." Carrington was certain that this energy had a biological basis and was dependent upon the physical body of the medium for its production, regardless of whether it was directed by the subconscious mind of the medium or by the mind of an unseen, disembodied personality.
Although few psychical researchers had as much firsthand experience investigating instances of spirit contact and hauntings as Hereward Carrington, there were times when even he found himself dealing with something that affected him in a very primal, frightening way. It was on the night of August 13, 1937, that Carrington, his wife, Marie Sweet Smith, and a party of five others obtained permission to spend a night in a haunted house located some 50 miles from New York City. As he referred to the incident in his Essays in the Occult (1958), the summer tenant had been forced to move back to the city in the middle of July because neither he nor his wife could sleep uninterrupted and their servants had all left their employ because of the haunting.
Carrington insisted that he be told nothing of the history of the house until he had first had an opportunity to explore the place from cellar to attic. The house was lighted from top to bottom, and the party began its safari into the unknown. On the second floor, two or three of the group commented that they had sensed "something strange" in one of the middle bedrooms, especially in the area next to an old bureau. The tenant, whom Carrington identified only as "Mr. X," told the party that he and his wife had heard noises coming from that particular bedroom.
The group proceeded down a hallway until they came to the door that led to the servants' quarters. Carrington opened the door, glanced up, and saw that the top floor was brightly illuminated and that a steep flight of stairs lay just ahead of the investigators. With Carrington in the lead, the party ascended the stairs until they found themselves confronted by a series of small rooms. Carrington made a sharp turn to the right, and the moment he did so, he felt as though a sudden blow that been delivered to his solar plexus. His forehead broke out into profuse perspiration, his head swam, and he had difficulty swallowing. "It was an extraordinary sensation," he said, "definitely physiological, and unlike anything I had ever experienced before."
The veteran investigator was gripped by terror and panic and only through a firm exercise of will was he able to stop himself from fleeing in horror. His wife, who was only a step or two behind him, had just finished commenting on the "cute little rooms," when she suddenly uttered a frightened cry, turned, and ran down the stairs. Two unemotional, hard-nosed psychical researchers, completely accustomed to psychic manifestations of all kinds, had experienced "distinctly a bodily and emotional reaction—accompanied…by a momentary mental panic and sensation of terror" such as neither of them had ever known before.
Carrington saw to his wife, whom he found outside on the porch, breathing deeply of the fresh air; then he returned to the remainder of the group. Each of them had experienced identical sensations and had retreated to the lower floor, where they sat sprawled in chairs or leaned against walls, tears streaming down their cheeks.
Carrington made special note of the fact that two highly skeptical friends of the tenant had accompanied the group to the house out of boredom. Both of these skeptics experienced the same sensations as the other members of the group—a difficulty in swallowing, tears streaming from the eyes, and cold perspiration on the forehead.
A dog, belonging to a member of the party, resisted all manner of coaxing designed to lure it upstairs. It growled, planted its feet stubbornly, and the hair raised on its back. In short, Carrington commented, the dog behaved "very much as dogs are supposed to behave in the presence of ghostly phenomena."
Much later that evening, Carrington led another expedition up the stairs to the servants' quarters. This time, the atmosphere seemed to have purged itself of the poisonous influence, and no member of the party experienced any sensations similar to their previous excursion. The dog bounded up the stairs, poked its nose into all the corners, and behaved as if prowling around such a house were the most natural thing in the world. Carrington later sought to return to the house with a spirit medium and special apparatus for recording and testing sounds and atmosphere. He was denied permission to continue his investigation, because one of the friends of the tenant had given the story to the papers, and the owner of the house did not wish additional publicity about his haunted house.
Carrington broke with the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) over a disagreement concerning the mediumship of Mina "Margery" Stinson Crandon (1888–1941), and he formed his American Psychical Institute in 1933. His wife served as the institute's secretary, and their principal research area focused upon the testing of such spirit mediums as Eileen Garrett. Sometime in 1938, the Carringtons moved the institute to Southern California, where they continued to investigate claims of hauntings and spirit contact. Among his many books are such titles as The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism (1907); Your Psychic Powers and How to Develop Them (1920); and Psychic Science and Survival (1947). Hereward Carrington died on December 26, 1958, in Los Angeles.