Sir William Crookes, a physicist and chemist of international reputation, was a professor at the University of London, editor of the Quarterly Journal of Science, president of the British Chemical Society, discoverer of the element thallium, and inventor of the radiometer and the Crookes tube, which made the later development of X-rays possible. In addition to these accomplishments, Crookes was one of the most thorough and exacting scientific investigators of spirit contact. After many years of painstaking research and experimentation with dozens of well-known mediums, he became convinced that a great deal of spiritistic phenomena was real and indicated proof of an afterlife.
Born in London on June 17, 1832, Crookes was one of 16 children of a well-known and prosperous tailor and his second wife. William also had five stepbrothers and stepsisters from his father's first wife. Although the young man had little formal education, his keen mind and natural abilities allowed him to enroll in the Royal College of Chemistry when he was only 16. Upon graduation in 1854, Crookes became superintendent of the Meteorological Department at Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford. A year later, he gained a post at the College of Science in Chester, Cheshire.
In 1856, when he was 24, he married Ellen Humphrey, and because of the large fortune he had inherited from his father, Crookes was able to establish a private laboratory and devote himself entirely to scientific work of his own choosing. Three years later, in 1861, Crookes discovered the element thallium and the correct measurement of its atomic weight. In 1863, when he was only 31, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
Just when it seemed Crookes faced only a life of one triumph after another, he was grief-stricken when his youngest brother, Phillip, died in 1867. Cromwell Varley, a close friend and fellow physicist who was also a practicing Spiritualist, convinced William and Ellen to attend a seance and attempt to communicate with Phillip. Whatever spirit messages Crookes and his wife received during a series of seances in 1867, it appears that they were convincing enough to inspire the brilliant physicist to turn his genius toward the exploration of spiritistic phenomena.
Some scholars of the psychic field have declared the series of experiments that Crookes conducted with the famous medium Daniel Dunglas Home (1833–1886) to be the first strictly scientific tests of mediumistic ability. Of one such test, Crookes stated that Home went to the fireplace and after stirring the hot coals around with his bare hands, took out a red-hot piece nearly as large as an orange, and "putting it on his right hand, so as to almost completely enclose it, he then blew
Crookes no doubt created quite a stir among his more orthodox scientific colleagues when he told them that he had walked with a ghost, talked with a ghost, and taken more than 40 flashlight photographs of the specter. And when he went on to describe the spirit as a "perfect beauty" with a "brilliant purity of complexion that photography could not hope to capture," tongues began to wag that the great scientist had lost all form of objectivity and had grown much too attached to the spirit that he was supposed to be investigating. When such a man of stature as Crookes announced that he had judged medium Florence Cook's (1856–1904) materializations of the spirit Katie King to be genuine, it was bound to spark controversy. Whether or not the "perfect beauty" with whom Sir William chatted and strolled about the seance room was a ghost or a hoax is a question that is still being debated to this day.
Florence Cook, the medium through whom Katie King materialized, first met the spirit in seances which she conducted when she was only 15. Katie promised to be Florence's spirit control for a period of three years and assist her in producing many types of remarkable phenomena. In April of 1872, Katie appeared only as a deathlike face between the gauze curtains of a seance cabinet, but as her control of the medium became more advanced, she could at last step out of the cabinet and show herself in full body to those sitters assembled for Cook's seances.
It has been said that the spirit of Katie King became almost as if she were a full-time boarder at the Cook household. When Florence Cook married, her husband complained that it was like being married to two women. Katie began to materialize at unexpected moments, and some nights she even went to bed with the medium and her long-suffering spouse.
Many people became thoroughly convinced of the validity of Katie King's existence because of Crookes' testimony. Others whispered scandal and made much of the many hours the physicist had spent alone with Florence Cook and her alleged spirit friend. Crookes, however, stood firm in his convictions that he had not been duped and summed up his investigations by stating that it was unimaginable to suggest that "an innocent schoolgirl of fifteen" should be able to devise and to carry out such a "gigantic imposture" so successfully for a period of three years. Crookes pointed out to his critics that in those same three years the fact that she submitted to any test that might be imposed upon her, was willing to be searched at any time, either before or after a seance, and visited his laboratory for the express object of submitting to the strictest scientific tests, certainly demonstrated her integrity. To insist further that the spirit Katie King was the result of deceit did more "violence to one's reason and common sense than to believe her to be what she herself affirms."
William Crookes's experiments in psychical research did little to prevent his receiving the Royal Medal from the Royal Society in 1875 or from being knighted in 1897. He supported the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) when it was founded in 1882 and even served as its president in 1886, but he conducted no tests of mediumship or any other paranormal phenomena after 1875. As a kind of summation of his views on the subject, Crookes once said: "The phenomena I am prepared to attest to are extraordinary and so directly oppose the most firmly rooted articles of scientific belief—amongst others, the ubiquity and invariable action of the force of gravitation—that even now, on recalling the details of what I witnessed, there is an antagonism in my mind between reason which pronounces it to be scientifically impossible, and the consciousness of my senses, both of touch and sight.…It is absolutely true that connections have been set up between this world and the next!"
After Lady Crookes died in 1916, Sir William immediately began attempts to communicate with her. According to some sources, he did receive messages from her spirit that he felt constituted proof of contact with the other side. Others say that an alleged spirit photograph of Lady Crookes appeared to have been manipulated in the developing process. Crookes died on April 4, 1919, survived by four of his eight children.