Samuel Soal's investigation on the identity of spirits




Enigmatic character of mediumistic phenomena

As we have seen, the study of mediumistic phenomena poses to our intellect problems – whose solution is anything but simple – that refer, in many ways, to the functioning of the psyche, the ways in which it manifests itself in this world and its connections with the physical and biological organization of living beings, culminating in the human brain. Undoubtedly the ability to deepen our knowledge about psyche and mediumship is limited by the inadequate resources at our disposal, so we are still far from being able to clarify the complexity of existence in all its aspects, although we can do some step forward from time to time. Our ideas about survival are still a legacy of the past, when the human being was seen as the integration of body and soul, attributing to the soul many of the features of what is now better identified as psyche, that is the complex of those products of mental activity that become conscious or that can emerge from the subconscious. It is therefore the plurality of thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations, dreams, fantasies, etc., that determine our human personality, becoming part of our inner world when (and if) we become aware and keep a memory of them. As I have already pointed out several times, when we are not conscious the behavior and actions of our body can be perceived by others, but as regards our inner perception we are like automata, without a conscious Ego and the sense of identity that derives from it.    

Personal identity and survival

The idea that at the death of the body the soul may survive is very old, but today it can no longer be accepted fideistically and naively, since our current knowledge shows a much deeper bond than the ancients suspected between body (with his brain), consciousness and psyche. Moreover the body – not only the human, but also those of the animals – has revealed a complexity and an organizational intelligence (present even in microscopic cellular structures) that represent a real challenge to the comprehension ability of our intellectual faculties. For these reasons any presumed superiority of the soul on the body should at least be verified. On the other hand, as has already been observed, in the current state of our knowledge we can not say with certainty that human psychic phenomena, as a whole, are a product of brain activity, but only that they manifest themselves in this physic dimension and in individual consciousness through brain activity.   

So the terms of the question concerning our existence, in the light of what we are allowed to know, are no longer those of body and soul, but those of human dimension, consciousness and psyche, since the experience we consciously acquire through our body develops itself in this earthly physical dimension, which establishes and determines some particular psychic tunings. What we are interested in knowing is whether the experience of consciousness and some of our human psychic tunings, which form what Myers defined human personality, can transfer into other dimensions once the body to which they were bound in this physical dimension has stopped working. As is known, the spiritualist's answer is: «Yes, of course, because the spirit survives the body», while the answer of those who deny that we have a spiritual component is: «No, because the brain is missing, without which there can not be any individual consciousness». Each one then points out, even in the context of paranormal phenomenology, those cases and examples that seem most appropriate to support and confirm the sustained thesis.    

The powers attributed to the unconscious

As we have seen in the pages dedicated to the unconscious, the concept of unconscious, as a noun, refers to a theoretical elaboration that is anything but clear: we can summarize the position of psychoanalysis by saying that the unconscious includes all events and all psychic contents that we have experienced during our lives, but which can no longer be recalled voluntarily to our memory, while they have the power to influence both our behavior and our inner experiences. With more precision, using the term more appropriately as an adjective and not as a noun, all those effects determined by the brain activity of which we are not conscious can be defined unconscious. It is possible that, occasionally and in very special circumstances, some unconscious memories may re-emerge in consciousness, however the importance of the unconscious effects for psychology lies in the fact that they can influence our behavior, our feelings, our thoughts and our mood, often opposing to conscious orientation. However, as will be shown in the pages on psychical research, several scholars have decided to identifying the unconscious with the psyche, to the point of giving it the power to determine paranormal phenomena.  

This long premise is useful to better frame the development of investigations on mediumistic phenomena by those researchers inclined to reject the spiritual hypothesis in favor of an explanation focused on presumed extraordinary powers attributed to the unconscious of mediums, activated by the mental contribution of the sitters. It can be seen even now that these powers attributed to unconscious (aimed to deny the spiritual hypothesis) end up upholding the existence of a distinct personality, dissociated from the conscious Ego, which may be considered as a spirit connected to him/her. But since our knowledge about the modalities of existence of this spirit and its connections with the body and the brain of the medium are practically nil, we can not exclude that its existence is separate from the body to which it is connected: so what we wanted to keep out the door comes back from the window.     

Soal's investigations

Let's now examine a very interesting series of direct voice mediumistic communications, which were the subject of an accurate investigation carried out in 1921 and 1922 by Samuel G. Soal (1889-1975), professor of mathematics at London University. The study was published in 1925 on n. 35 of SPR's Proceedings. From 1936 to 1941 Soal, a personality of uncommon intelligence, conducted a series of experiments of precognition and telepathy – with methods similar to those adopted by Joseph B. Rhine (1895-1980) – whose results were negative, so much that Rhine himself used to refer to Soal (whom he later became a friend of) as «one of my most severe and unpleasant critics». Later Soal carried out other experiments – this time with very positive results – whose correctness was however questioned by other researchers. He was also president of the SPR from 1950 to 1952.       

Soal's interest in parapsychology developed after the death at the front, in 1918, of his brother Frank, ten years younger than him. For almost a year he consulted a direct-voice medium, Blanche Cooper, in sittings held once or twice a week in a small room made available at the College of Psychic Science. An interesting aspect of these séances is that, in most of them, the people involved were only two, the medium and Soal himself, sitting on two chairs side by side in a completely darkened room. Soal kept the left hand of the medium in his right hand, while with his left hand he recharged from time to time a carillon on his left. In the center, on the floor, was a classic cardboard trumpet. Due to a war wound, Soal had become ambidextrous, and trained to write perfectly with his left hand even in complete darkness. Being a methodical and very careful researcher, he had prepared a tablet that he kept on his legs, during the sitting, with a notebook on which he wrote word by word all the questions asked by him, and the answers received by the communicating entities: a task not impossible, as he himself noted, since the communications were concise, interspersed with empty times, and usually well intelligible. The medium did not go into a trance, but once in a while Soal had the feeling that she was absorbed in herself, almost absent, even if sometimes she made some observations aloud between one communication and another. The report of the séances, which occupies over a hundred pages, is interesting in all its aspects: here is an abridged version that only deals with the relevant elements regarding the identity of communicating entities.     

Analysis of communications received

First of all, Soal said that he did not conduct any research on the phenomenon of direct voice, since the object of his investigation concerned exclusively the psychological contents of communications. The voice of each communicating entity showed peculiar characteristics in timbre, tone and accent, which allowed the immediate personal identification of that entity. But the voice of Frank, the spirit identified as that of the late brother of Soal, was not recognizable as the one the real Frank had when alive. Soal's orientation towards communications was to highligh all the answers and statements that demonstrated a knowledge of the facts that could not be acquired in an ordinary way. Since he was not inclined to spiritism, but rather to psychism, he always sought a possible explanation to spirits' communications in terms of telepathy. His prudence as a researcher and the diligence of his verifications were exemplary. In summary, Soal classified the events and circumstances reported in spirits' communications in the following four categories:   

  1. Facts of which the medium could have been aware or on which she could have been informed by ordinary means.
  2. Facts of which the medium could not be aware, but that Soal knew and had conscious memories of.
  3. Facts of which Soal was not aware, at least as far as he could consciously remember, and which were later confirmed by subsequent verifications
  4. Facts of which no one could be aware, because they still had to occur.

Communications belonging to the first category could have implied, if not true deception, a personification by the medium's psyche that would, in a certain sense, create the communicating entity. Those in the second category could be caused by a personification of Soal's own psyche through a telepathic communication between his mind and the medium's one. At the time (in the '20s and the following decade) similar interpretative hypotheses were in vogue, in the light of recent discoveries on the possibility of transmitting information at a distance through electromagnetic waves. For example Ernesto Bozzano, in his book Animismo o Spiritismo? (Animism or Spiritism?) written in 1938, so writes verbatim: «the Hertzian waves of wireless telegraphy, through which the two spiritual personalities conversed together, were overwhelmed by other more powerful Hertzian waves...». This attempt at a physical explanation today is no longer standing.

Communications of the third type, that can not be explained on the basis of conscious contents, bring the unconscious into play: the psychists claim that even unconscious memories, although not accessible to the consciousness, can be transmitted telepathically. In this way any spiritual communication can be justified by the hypothesis of the so-called super-PSI, without any explanation about the modalities and instruments that make such telepathic transmission possible. On the other hand also many spiritualists tend to make the spirit coincide with the unconscious, when they attribute to it – in the course of our earthly life – powers and faculties that go beyond human consciousness, escaping the control of the Ego, even though they can manifest their effects on the physical dimension and on our own body. Bozzano, for instance, claimed that the identity of the spirit is maintained so much when we are alive as when we are dead, and that the spirits of the living interact with each other as well as the spirits of the dead: it is a suggestive and in some respects interesting explanation (apart from the physical means by which Bozzano lets the spirits communicate), but it does not take sufficient account of the fact that, if spirits were conscious, then in the course of human life our consciousness would be doubled: on the one hand the spirit's consciousness (of which our Ego is unconscious), on the other that of the Ego. In practice, the spirit would show its own complete alien autonomy with respect to the conscious Ego, with a nature similar to that of Socrates' demon in the description made by Plutarch, on which we read an interesting research by Baudi di Vesme in his Storia dello Spiritismo. About the events of the fourth type, we are instead in the field of precognition, any attempt to explain which requires a re-elaboration of the concept of unidirectional time as we are accustomed to mean and perceive it.    

Soal's psychic orientation: questions and answers

Soal's attitude during the sittings was anything but indulgent or inclined to sentimentalism: he asked direct and clear questions to the self-styled spirit of his brother, trying to obtain precise answers, and Frank showed himself willing to collaborate with this experimental activity. Soal tried to refer to episodes of his brother's childhood and adolescence known exclusively to them, and on which the medium could not have obtained any information from third parties. For example, at Soal's question: «Frank, can you remember the day you and I rode to Chelmsford?» Frank answered: «Yes, yes. Father was very angry». Soal notes that the two brothers had actually taken a trip to Chelmsford in the summer of 1911 (Soal was then 21 and Frank 12) and the day after Soal's father was angry with him, though for reasons that had nothing to do with the trip, so that even in Soal's memory the trip to Chelmsford and the father's anger had remained associated.

On another occasion Soal asked: «Now Frank, do you remember the hut we had at the top of the big field? Can you tell me what we used to do at the hut?» And Frank: «We built a fire and sat telling stories», which was quite right. Then Soal asked: «Can you remember anything about the inside of the hut?» «Twelve bricks» was Frank's correct answer, referring to the bricks that surrounded the fire area. To ascertain whether it was possible to guess at the answers, and with what success, Soal did a simple experiment, asking a dozen persons this question: «Imagine yourself to be a fraudulent medium who is impersonating my dead brother. I say to you: Do you remember the hut we had at the top of the big field? Tell me what we used to do there. Now you must make a guess in not more than eight or nine words». All the answers obtained, ranging from «Play Indians» to «Bury treasures» did not correspond to the truth. In these cases the answer to the question was always present in the mind of the person who posed it, that is Soal himself (2nd category). But on several occasions, especially when asked to remember a name, Frank's correct answer came after some time, or in the next sitting. Frank justified himself by saying that he could hardly remember names when he felt under pressure, and then, when he was more relaxed, they came back to his memory spontaneously. Soal observed that if it were simply a matter of transmitting thought from himself to the medium, there would not have been a need for such a long interval of time, since he already knew the answer at the very moment he asked the question. 

The starlings episode

Of greater interest are the facts included in the third category, those for which Soal did not know the answer or did not keep a conscious memory. For example, this dialogue took place during a sitting:
Frank: «In the barn. Set fire alight. Starbobs flew  out. Sam, this is important. Starbobs».
Soal: «What sort of a fire was it?»
F: «With bricks».
S: «Was it outside the barn or inside?»
F: «Outside, near the... (inarticulate word)».
S: «Were the starbobs burnt?»
F: «None of them were hurt».
S: «Was I there?»
F: «No you could not come».
S: «Who was with you that day?»
F: «Percy».
S: «Were the starbobs old or young?»
F: « Some old and some young».

Although Soal did not consciously remember that episode, he was able to bring it back to 1909, when they lived in the countryside, in a house near a large dilapidated outbuilding, weather boarded and thatched – known to his family as the barn – under the roof of which hundreds of starlings nested, that in the evening filled the air with their cries. Referring to starlings, Frank did not use the correct English word, but a term (starbobs) in fairly common use among boys in the Rochford district, the place where they lived at that time. Percy had been a regular Frank playmate as a boy, and when Soal went to see him to check the incident he said he did not remember. But another Frank playmate, Walter, and Soal's sister, Lottie, remembered well that Frank would light the fire in front of the barn, inside a brick hearth, to see the starlings fly away. Soal adds that he himself had probably witnessed the episode, even if he no longer kept a conscious memory of it, but what struck him most was Frank's use of the term starbobs, which he himself had completely forgotten.   

The big tree

More than once it was Frank himself who proposed tests. For example:
Frank: «So glad you've come again, Sam. I've thought of a good test».
Soal: «Then let us have it, Frank».
F: «It's about the big tree, Sam. Do you understand?»
S: «I know what you used to call the big tree».
F: «Built hut right at the top. Do you know what I mean?»
S: «I know very well, Frank. Can you tell me where the big tree was?»
F: «Near Grove gate, Sam. Where wood-cock used to be».
S: «That's excellent. The woodcock is not there now, is it?»
F: «Gone long ago».
S: «Tell me what you could see from the top of the big tree».
F: «Could see River – riv – Couch».
S: «Are you sure you could see the River Crouch from the top of that tree?»
F: «Quite sure, Sam. We often saw  it».

In a note Soal added that there was a particularly tall elm which stood close by a gate leading into a copse about two hundred yards from the Rectory they lived in. This copse was christened by the family the grove, and the wooden gate the grove gate. At the top of this tall tree Frank and another boy, Walter Valentine, in the summer of 1914 constructed a kind of nest or eyrie in which they would sit for hours. Soal's mother remembered this hut very well, as she was in fear that the boys would break their necks. The reference to the woodcock is very remarkable. The bole of this elm which Frank always called the big tree was somewhat hollow and rotten at the base and had projecting from it a curious piece of timber which bore a rough semblance to a large bird or cock, so that for several years Charley – Soal's eldest brother – always spoke of it as the wooden cock. This piece of rotten wood had disappeared somewhere about the year 1907 or 1908, but Frank must have heard his brothers talk about it often and have seen it himself when a small boy. Perhaps the most interesting feature is Frank's statement that he could see the River Crouch from the top of the big tree. Soal had never  climbed to the nest or eyrie and at the time of the sitting, so he had no idea that the Crouch would be visible from such a comparatively low altitude. When he asked the question at the séance he expected Frank to reply, «You can see Prittlewell Church», or «You look down on the grove». To satisfy his curiosity on this point, some days later he actually climbed to the topmost branches of the elm – no easy feat owing to the slenderness of the higher boughs. To his surprise he could plainly see the silver streak of the Crouch over the top of a gentle rise to the north. It was, of course, just possible that Frank might have mentioned seeing the Crouch and that he had heard it at the time and forgotten it. Later, it occurred to Soal to put to Walter Valentine without any warning the same question that he had previously asked Frank at the séance. He asked suddenly: «Do you remember the hut at the top of the big tree?» Walter answered «Yes, very well». «What could you see from the top?» Without the slightest hesitation Valentine replied: «The white sails of the yachts on the River Crouch».  

The buried lead medal

A test of special significance was that relating to a buried medallion, since – as Soal pointed out – there was the possibility that the facts were known only to the communicating entity. In the course of a séance, Frank told how he had buried in the hut a heavy medal that had been given him by a classmate. He also specified that he had buried it near the bricks of the fireplace on the left side, and that he had never revealed this secret to anyone. No description was given of the medal except the statements that it was heavy, and had a piece of chain attached. Soal showed the report of the sitting to his brother Charley, who did not remember ever hearing anything about it. A couple of days later Soal and his brother Charley went to the place where the hut had been built, rather skeptical that they could find something. Over time the hut had fallen in and its floor was overgrown with brambles and undergrowth of various kinds. The two brothers borrowed a spade and a pick from the resident of the rectory where they had lived with their family, and began to clear the ground.   

They soon found the remains of the old brick fireplace, and delved around it with the pick as the ground was iron hard. They were able to remove some clods with the spade, but at first found nothing. On prising out a large clod on the left-hand side of the fireplace, Charley detected something metallic sticking out of the underside of the piece of earth. The object was firmly bedded in and from the state of the ground it could not have been put there at all recently, i.e. not during the present hard condition of the earth. It was found at about the depth of three quarters of a spade depth (Frank said he had not used a spade, but a stick to make a hole in the ground). When extracted it proved to be a disc of lead of about two inches in diameter and nearly a quarter of an inch in thickness. At about half an inch from the circumference a hole had been bored through the. disc, probably for the purpose of inserting a chain or string. No chain was however found. The edge of the disc looked as if it had been cut by a chisel from a sheet of lead. The surface of the lead showed evidence of severe oxidization, but there was no signs of iron rust near the hole where a chain might once have been and have rusted away. There was no inscription or any sign of machine work on the disc, and Soal could not conceive for what purpose it could have been used unless as a lad's plaything to be whirled about at the end of a chain or piece of string. Neither Soal nor his brother could recall ever having seen the object before. The other two friends of Frank who used to sit in the hut, Percy Paternoster and Walter Valentine, could remember nothing about it.     

Tests referring to memories of events unknown to Soal

Soal also carried out a test to get answers from Frank to questions relating to circumstances of which he himself was certainly not aware. He then asked Walter, Frank's friend, to write down three questions to be submitted to Frank entity during the séance, concerning events that only Walter and Frank could know and remember, and to write the right answers to the questions on a separate sheet. Soal would take note of Frank's answers, so that he could compare them with those written by Walter without the latter being influenced by the answers given by the entity. Then Soal regretted not having asked Walter to enclose the questions in an envelope to be opened only at the séance: he just copied them into his pocket book at Walter's dictation. There was therefore the possibility of rapport being established in the interval preceding the séance between Valentine's and Soal's mind. The questions propounded by Valentine read as follows:

  1. What did we have to eat on the day when you and me and Pat walked from Fambridge Ferry to Creeksea Ferry?
  2. When you and I went to bathe at the Mill one day what happened to our boots?
  3. One day when you and me and Pat were sitting in the hut I did something that made Pat very angry, what was it?

To the first question Frank answered: «Remember it very well, Sam. Were tired to death». Then added: «Sam – samfer – samfer – samphire». Samphire (glasswort) is a halophyte plant, with a sour but edible taste, which grows along the coasts. Moreover Frank said: «Think that's the right answer, Sam, but there was something else. Something to eat – it was in a field – s – sw – sweet – sweet – swede. Think it was swedes, Sam». Swedes (Brassica napus) are a kind of edible turnips. On the second question Frank could not give any answer. Regarding the third question, after some uncertainties and complaining about not being able to remember the episode, Frank said: «It might be when Pat was sitting over the fire and... (pause) Walter knocked the tin of water on the fire».    

When Soal met Valentine, he showed him the paper on which he had written «samphire and swedes». Valentine produced his piece of paper on which was written, «we ate swedes». As for samphire, Walter said he was quite sure that none of them ate samphire on that day. In fact, the excursion took place on a Good Friday (as Soal could also ascertain from other sources, including his mother), and at that time of year the glasswort has not begun to thrust its shoots through the mud; at anyrate they were just beginning to appear and could not be eaten. The answer samphire, although definitely wrong, was very interesting to Soal. From the way in which the question was put Mrs. Cooper, or her subconscious mind, could scarcely have guessed that the walk was by the side of a tidal river on whose saltings the glasswort (locally called samphire) bloomed in profusion during the month of September. SoalI, however, was quite familiar with the plant from which a sort of pickle could be made and the stems of which even in the raw state were not unpalatable. Samphire, however, does not suggest edibility to the majority of people, and Soal very much doubted if Mrs. Cooper even knew that it grew in Essex. The getting of the word samphire suggested therefore either transference from Soal's own mind or the emergence of an associated memory in the mind of the communicator. The third question, according to Walter, concerned an episode in which he had thrown a pointed stick at Pat, hitting him on the cheek and making it bleed. However, Walter admitted that he had thrown water on the fire several times, for fun, and he could have done it even when Pat was sitting by the fire: so the episode remembered by Frank could have actually happened, even though it was not the one which Walter was referring to.  

From these and many other similar episodes, reported by Soal in his long article, we get the impression that Frank was really an entity whose memories coincided with those of the late brother of Soal. Only in a couple of cases did Frank give wrong answers to questions to which, according to Soal, his brother would doubtless have answered correctly. For example, when Soal asked Frank: «Where did Pat hide his money?», hoping for an answer like: «In a hollow willow tree where we found his hoard one day» (an episode that had always remained well impressed in Frank's memory), Frank, however, merely muttered: «In drawer – drawer», and then lapsed into silence when told that the answer was wrong.

It was only on a specific occasion that Soal felt he was really in touch with his brother's personality, that is when Frank told him about how he had been wounded on the battlefield. «Such a big flash, Sam, such a big flash. They found me lying – I saw a beautiful mist all round me – the first thing I thought of was: Mother...». Although there was no way to verify if Frank's statements matched the reality of facts, Soal remembered that the atmosphere of that sitting was really full of emotion. However, along with these elements of spiritual identification of the personality of a deceased, in the same cycle of séances there were others that lead us to reflect cautiously and hypothesize a certainly more complex picture on the identity of the spirits, as will be seen on the following page about Gordon Davis.    


Hodgson's research
Medium Etta Wriedt
Victor G. Duncan
Materialized ghosts
Robert G. Bolton
Experiments & spirits
Harry Price's case
Samuel G. Soal
Gordon Davis case
The alien spirit
The end of an era?
A  new interest
A  medium's life story