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Investigating the Supernatural

From Spiritism and Occultism to Psychical Research and Metapsychics in France, 1853–1931

Sofie Lachapelle

Publication Year: 2011

Séances were wildly popular in France between 1850 and 1930, when members of the general public and scholars alike turned to the wondrous as a means of understanding and explaining the world. Sofie Lachapelle explores how five distinct groups attempted to use and legitimize séances: spiritists, who tried to create a new “science” concerned with the spiritual realm and the afterlife; occultists, who hoped to connect ancient revelations with contemporary science; physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists, who developed a pathology of supernatural experiences; psychical researchers, who drew on the unexplained experiences of the public to create a new field of research; and metapsychists, who attempted to develop a new science of yet-to-be understood natural forces. Lachapelle examines the practices, aims, and level of success of these five disciplines, paying special attention to how they interacted with each other and with the world of mainstream science. Their practitioners regarded mystical phenomena worthy of serious study; most devotees—with notable exceptions of physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists—also meant to challenge conventional science in general and French science in particular. Through these stories, Lachapelle illuminates the lively relationship between science and the supernatural in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France and relates why this relationship ultimately led to the marginalization of psychical research and metapsychics. An enlightening and entertaining narrative that includes colorful people like "Allan Kardec"—a pseudonymous former mathematics teacher from Lyon who wrote successful works on the science of the séance and what happened after death—Investigating the Supernatural reveals the rich and vibrant diversity of unorthodox beliefs and practices that existed at the borders of the French scientific culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. 1-6

Between 1859 and 1862, the popular science writer Louis Figuier, a former professor at the Paris

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1 From Turning Tables to Spiritism

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pp. 7-33

One evening in May 1853, about twenty people gathered at the home of M. Delamarre, a Parisian banker, to witness an exciting and mysterious new phenomenon. Forming a chain, hands resting on a table, the participants waited patiently for unprovoked movements of the table or sounds of rapping to occur.1 The Parisians had discovered a new game: turning tables. In many salons that season, evenings would be spent in a similar manner, waiting for tables to turn of their own ...

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2 Occult Wisdoms, Astral Bodies, and Human Fluids

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pp. 34-58

In September 1889, as many as forty thousand participants came to Paris for the first meeting of the Congr

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3 Pathologies of the Supernatural

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pp. 59-85

The city of Lyon was in danger, Dr. Philibert Burlet warned in a lecture at the Société des sciences médicales at the end of 1862 in which he reported on the cases of six patients at the Antiquaille hospital who he thought were exhibiting signs of mental illness directly related to the practice of spiritism. Moreover, this situation was not unique, Burlet told his audience—every physician in the region dealing ...

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4 Witnessing Psychical Phenomena

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pp. 86-112

Psychical research officially began in France with the founding of the Annales des sciences psychiques in 1891. In the opening pages of the first issue, the physiologist Charles Richet declared: “We are of the firm conviction that, alongside the known and described forces, there are forces that we do not know; that ordinary, simple mechanical explanations do not suffice to explain all that is happening ...

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5 The Rise and Fall of Metapsychics

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pp. 113-141

In October 1918, Dr. Rocco Santoliquido, a public health official, informed numerous friends and colleagues of his intention to create an international institute of metapsychics in Paris. Far from eclipsing national and regional societies, he wrote, the new institution would allow better communication and collaboration across the discipline.1 Santoliquido had obtained funding for his institute from the French industrialist Jean Meyer, a committed spiritist, who had proposed to ...

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pp. 142-148

The 1930s opened with dark clouds hovering over the Institut m

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pp. 149-150

I am very grateful for the support I received from numerous corners for this project. For their financial and institutional support, I am indebted to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the University of Notre Dame, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and the University of Guelph. For the generous use of their archives, I want to thank Jacques Pernet and Patrick Fuentes at the Observatoire Flammarion, and Mario Varvoglis at the Institut m


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pp. 151-178

Bibliographic Essay

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pp. 179-186


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pp. 187-198

E-ISBN-13: 9781421401171
E-ISBN-10: 1421401177
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421400136
Print-ISBN-10: 1421400138

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 7 halftones
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700369
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Investigating the Supernatural

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Parapsychology -- France -- History -- 19th century.
  • Supernatural -- France -- History -- 20th century.
  • Occultism -- France -- History -- 19th century.
  • Occultism -- France -- History -- 20th century.
  • Parapsychology -- France -- History -- 20th century.
  • Supernatural -- France -- History -- 19th century.
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