History and heritage: medium James Hyslop
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.
Most of us know that there are things in life that we don’t understand. The universe contains secrets that are beyond our comprehension. However, most of us don’t actually believe in ghosts and spooks, although we don’t entirely disbelieve in them either.
Especially at this time of year, the Eve of All Hallows, we tend to avoid scary situations. We try not to be in old houses all by ourselves or let black cats cross our paths. We whistle as we walk by graveyards.
Some people welcome the spirits into their lives. One Montclairian in particular made “discarnate spirits” his life’s work. James Hervey Hyslop (1854-1920), who convalesced at 20 Glenwood Road during the last summer of his life, was born in Ohio to devout Presbyterian parents in 1854. His twin sister died shortly after they were born; an older sister died a few years later. When he was 10 he lost another sister and a brother to scarlet fever.
He is on record saying that these losses began his obsession with death and life beyond death.
In college Hyslop suffered a crisis of faith that eventually caused him to give up Christianity. His parents had wanted him to become a minister. HeInstead of becoming a priest, he entered the seminary at Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, but switched tostudied the brand new field of psychology.
He graduated from Wooster with a degree in psychology and continued his studies under Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig, Germany. He taught for a while, then obtained a doctorate in psychology from Johns Hopkins University. Hyslop came east to teach logic and ethics at Columbia University.
He didn’t have much involvement in the psychic world until he was introduced to the psychic researcher Richard Hodgson, who was influential in both the British Society for Psychical Research and the American Society for Psychical Research.
Hodgson introduced Hyslop to the American medium Leonora Piper. While attending séances conducted by Piper, he became convinced that he was in communication with his dead father. He joined the American Society for Psychical Research, which faltered when Hodgson died. Hyslop reorganized the American Society in 1906 and remained the secretary/treasurer until his death.
DOCTOR OF THE SUPERNATURAL
He was fascinated by patient casework. If his patients were troubled by the supernatural, he would try to calm them, as he calmed a New Jersey coachman who was starting to act erratically when, according to him, a fluid in his stomach rose to his brain and caused him to have out-of-body experiences.
The coachman felt he was going insane. Hyslop met with him on and off for several years and successfully hypnotized him; he stopped having the experiences and returned to normal behavior. Hyslop attributed these experiences to spirit possession.
More often, Hyslop tried to convince subjects to take advantage of benefits the spirits offered them. A budding opera singer named Ida Marie Rodgers (aka Ida Ritchie) with little formal training was terrified by visits from the spirit of the great soprano Emma Abbott, who died in 1891. Hyslop brought Ida Marie to various séances, where they both came to believe that spirits, especially the spirit of her deceased mother, were trying to help her career from the great beyond. She became a somewhat successful singer, although she never attained the fame that her muse, Emma Abbott, had.
Hyslop’s most famous case was that of Frederic Thompson, a metal worker who was certain he was being possessed by the spirit of R. Swain Gifford, a well-known landscape artist. Even though he had never painted before, Thompson started to paint like Gifford and started to know things about Gifford’s paintings that only Gifford could know. Hyslop worked with Thompson, who stopped painting as Gifford did but gave up metalwork to become a moderately successful painter with his own style.
In 1919 Hyslop tried to exorcise a spirit in a series of sessions in Boston. He said that the spirit threatened him. Perhaps it was coincidence, but Hyslop suffered a stroke in December 1919 and passed away on June 17, 1920.
Rumors circulated that Hyslop had made a pact with his associates to reach out to them after his death. Dr. Walter F. Prince, who worked with Hyslop at the American Society for Psychical Research and who also came to live in Montclair, pooh-poohed stories of a pact, but, according to The New York Times, Prince claimed that “he who lies there [pointing to Hyslop’s coffin] will manifest himself to us in his own good time.”
Hyslop’s longtime assistant, Gertrude Tubby, lived in Montclair and continued his work. She claimed that Hyslop spoke to her through a medium, supposedly saying, “I find it difficult to assume that I am dead.” Another associate, William van der Weyde, claimed to have a photograph of Hyslop’s ghost taken at a séance.
People have all kinds of opinions about his work and about the paranormal. It’s all part of our whistling act as we sometimes race past the graveyard.