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Henry James' Brother William:
Did He Speak from the Grave?

© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved

William James
Author Henry James' brother William.

The James family was respected and privileged. William, the eldest son, attended Harvard Medical School. James entered Harvard Law School but soon realized he had no passion for a legal career. Instead, he pursued a literary life.

In 1898 Henry James published one of his most famous works, The Turn of the Screw. It has been read by generations of lovers of ghost stories, and likely seen by millions of moviegoers in one of its various incarnations. Although he did not share brother William's fascination with Spiritualism, the novella centers around the attempts of a governess to protect her young charges from the evil spirits of dead servants. It capitalized on the Victorian obsession with proving life after death.

William James' views on this debate were clear: he needed scientific proof of the ability of the living to speak with the deceased. He was, after all, a man of reason. Along with Charles Sanders Pierce, William James founded the philosophical school of pragmatism. He was the first to teach a psychology class in America. And, he was a founding member of the American Society of Psychical Research, an organization of which he was vice president until his death.

Like many interested in the Spiritualist movement, William had lost a loved one. Soon after the death of his young son, William consulted famed medium Leonora Piper. He publicly stated that Piper knew things an ordinary human being could not. It was later discovered that Piper likely got her information from the gossip of servants rather than her "spirit guide."

In the 1880s, William James took up the investigation of mediumship in earnest. Along with friend Professor G. H. Palmer, James attended "cabinet seances" (such as those performed by Katie King) every Saturday for months. He, by his own admission, observed nothing he couldn't chalk off to fraud.

William James
Title page for the two-story volume containing Henry James' classic novella The Turn of the Screw.

William James passed away on August 26, 1910. Before his death, he made a pact with several members of the American Society of Psychical Research that, if it was possible, he would send a message from beyond the grave. A week after he died, newspapers reported that no such communication had yet been received.

Just days after newspapers ran this story, however, a medium in Washington state - described by reporters as "not professional" - claimed to be in touch with William James. She said he had left a letter in a place only a few friends knew, and it would corroborate her story. James' good friend James H. Hyslop said he knew of no such letter. Furthermore, the writings the medium supposedly transcribed from James' conversations with her, according to Hyslop, exhibited no similarities to the writings James created while alive.

In 1913, Hyslop himself said that William James had contacted him via a 15-year-old boy. The child, the son of a minister, would fall into trances where James supposedly took control of his body. According to Hyslop, the young psychic delivered a message from James warning him of an evil poltergeist who left razor blades and matches where they could be found and used to do harm. James also cautioned Hyslop about a "shade" which, in the middle of the night, hurled inkstands and stones at the heads of Spiritualists. These communications continued for a year before James stopped speaking through the child, said Hyslop.



But Hyslop made his most amazing claims in 1918, in the midst of World War I. According to the Columbia University ethics and logic professor, he had been sitting with a medium who was dictating a posthumous Mark Twain book when another spirit broke through. It was Hyslop's old friend, Hugo Münsterberg, predicting the fall of Pottsdam, Germany. Just days later, during an automatic writing session with this same medium, Hyslop asserted that William James' writing appeared, confirming the prophecy. Unfortunately for anyone seeking scientific proof, however, this would hardly have been a surprising guess. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who reigned from Pottsdam, had lost nearly all support over the prior two years. His 1918 abdication was expected not only by Germans but the world at large.

William's brother Henry died in 1916. There were no promises to send messages after death; no claims that Henry had spoken through mediums. Whether the two brothers met in the afterlife no one can say. If they did, it is a secret they presumably share for eternity.