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Amy Eliza Tanner (1870-1956)

“The real tendencies of women cannot be known until they are free to choose, any more than those of a tied-up dog can be.”--Amy Tanner

Amy Eliza TannerAmy Tanner earned her doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1898. She graduated magna cum laude, but was unable to secure a research or teaching position elsewhere. She stayed on as an associate of the university's philosophy department for the next four years.

The final decade of the 19th century, when Tanner entered graduate school at Chicago and attempted to secure an academic position, was a tumultuous one for American women. This era witnessed the creation of a new social type, the “New Woman”: a college-educated, middle-class female who sought personal fulfillment in the form of public philanthropy or salaried work....

Founded in 1892, the University of Chicago served as a major locus for the manifestation of the New Woman as it became an important center for women’s higher education, especially in the social sciences. Unlike many peer institutions that refused to grant doctoral degrees even when they permitted exceptional women to enroll in their courses and conduct research in their laboratories, Chicago not only admitted women but nourished their pedagogical development. Although women found it difficult to secure permanent faculty appointments there, in terms of the day’s standards, the university offered rather unique opportunities.*

The photo of Tanner above was cropped from an 1896 photo of the University of Chicago's philosophy club. Others in the photo include John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, as well as four other women (out of a total of 17 in the photo). Though Tanner's degree was in philosophy, her work was in psychology and social psychology. "Throughout her career, her research was almost exclusively published and reviewed within psychology journals."* Psychology as a distinct discipline with its own university department offering degrees emerged in the late 19th century from philosophy and physiology departments. (For an overview of the history of psychology, click here.)

In 1902, Dr. Tanner was appointed professor of philosophy at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In 1904, she published The Child: His Thinking, Feeling, and Doing. In addition to her work in developmental psychology, Tanner also did studies on the waitressing profession and the living and working conditions in the coal fields of Pennsylvania. In both cases, her main interest was in how those occupations affect the mind and the body. She became an advocate for labor reform, but her social advocacy work came to an abrupt halt when she publicly accused the director of the project she was working on of plagiarism.

Concerned that her career was going nowhere despite her brilliant G. Stanley Hallacademic record and her publications, in 1907 Tanner wrote a letter to G. Stanley Hall (right), president of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, asking about a paid fellowship in psychology.* She did not pick Hall's name out of a hat. Hall had studied under Wilhelm Wundt, who opened the first experimental laboratory in psychology in 1879 at the University of Leipzig, Germany. In 1883, Hall established the first U.S. experimental psychology laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. The first doctorate in psychology at an American University went to one of Hall's students, Joseph Jastrow. In 1892, Hall founded the American Psychological Association (APA) and served as its first president. He also founded the American Journal of Psychology (1887) and the Journal of Applied Psychology (1917). Hall also became the first president of Clark University, which was founded in 1887 and is the oldest American educational institution founded as an all-graduate university. Along with Harvard and Yale, Clark is one of only three New England universities to be a founding member of the Association of American Universities.

Hall was suitably impressed with Tanner's credentials and academic work. Tanner took a leave of absence from Wilson, rather than quitting outright, and accepted the position of "Honorary University Fellow" at Clark. Two years later, Tanner was appointed head of the experimental pedagogy department at Clark's Children's Institute. While at Clark, she became a frequent book reviewer for Hall’s American Journal of Psychology, focusing on ethics and critical reviews of psychical research. She also published articles in the journal, e.g., “Spinoza and Modern Psychology” (1907) and “Certain Social Aspects of Invention” (1915). * In 1911, she was appointed to a position of research assistant at the Children's Institute. Tanner frequently lectured to community groups about the moral ideas of children.* Unable to secure a permanent position, Tanner left Clark, psychology, and academia in 1918. She purchased the Majestic Cinema in Worcester and operated it for several years.

The 350-seat theater had been opened by a machinist in 1909 and quickly became a popular haunt of the city’s immigrant, laboring populace. At the time she acquired the Majestic, the movie theater as a social institution was expanding from a primarily working-class form of leisure to one that included a broader audience. Tanner’s theater still catered to a rough, male audience, a fact she emphasized in a profile published in a local paper as part of a series on “Worcester Women Who Work.” She reminded the reader how hers was “a distinctly man’s theater” and that she organized the programming accordingly. Yet, she was also convinced that such a clientele was in fact better served by her, citing how boisterous drinkers in the audience would respond more politely to a woman manager asking for silence. In her experience, when a man fulfilled such role, it had traditionally provoked violence. She concluded on a note about how she remained a psychologist even though she had formally given up her former vocation. The cinema provided “a chance to study people and to work out one’s own ideas to some extent.” In this sense, Tanner had returned to her ethnographic mode, although she did not publish anything further based on her experiences with the cinema. As Tanner entered the 1920s, the management of the movie theater had replaced the observation of psychological life as her chief pursuit.*

In 1909, Hall was given the opportunity to attend six séances with Mrs. Leonora Piper (1859-1950), the most famous medium of that time. Dr. Tanner also attended the sessions as Hall's special assistant. Their investigation was published in 1910 as Studies in Spiritism with Amy Tanner as the sole author. Hall limited himself to writing an introduction to the work and one chapter with his notes and comments. The work remains a classic in the literature of scientific skepticism regarding mediums. Unlike a number of others who had become convinced by Mrs. Piper's performances of her psychic abilities, neither Hall nor Tanner found it necessary to hypothesize spirit communication or telepathy to explain what Mrs. Piper was doing. In fact, Hall and Tanner saw their work as representing a step forward out of the darkness of superstition into the light of science.

the Piper sittings

Leonora PiperFor more than twenty-five years Mrs. Leonora Piper had been investigated by many of the "keenest men of science in England" and the U.S. Mrs. Piper was famous for her séances, which typically involved her going into a trance and channeling a spirit through her writing hand or her voice. She found supporters in William James (1842-1910), Richard Hodgson (1855-1905), Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), and Dr. James Hyslop (1854-1920).

James had his first encounter with Mrs. Piper in 1885, soon after the death of his son. His mother-in-law recommended her and James was impressed enough to believe for a while that Mrs. Piper was genuinely in touch with the spirit world. As time went on, his enthusiasm waned. As with many who wax poetic about the powers of a medium, James was taken in by what he considered to be Mrs. Piper's knowledge of things about his wife's family. He called Mrs. Piper the "white crow" that proves the claim that "all crows are black" is false. What he meant was that while it is true that most mediums are frauds, all it takes is one genuine medium to disprove the claim that all mediums are frauds. The problem with this reasoning, it turns out, is in the assumption that mediums are either frauds or suffer from some sort of mental disorder or they are the real thing. Many are frauds and many suffer from mental disorders, but many others are neither frauds nor psychologically disturbed, yet their apparent accuracy in readings can be explained without recourse to positing actual communication with spirits. Our understanding of cold reading and subjective validation can help us understand how many men with scientific and other intellectual credentials could be duped by someone like Mrs. Piper without her being either a fraud, psychologically dissociated, or in contact with spirits..

Hodgson was one of the first members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and was involved in exposing several fraudulent mediums, including Madame Blavatsky. He developed a very low opinion of mediums, writing that "nearly all professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters who are more or less in league with one another." In 1887, Hodgson moved to Boston and became executive secretary of the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). He took over the investigation of Mrs. Piper from James. Hodgson was skeptical of her paranormal powers for the first few years he visited her, but then made a sudden conversion. He wrote:

I had but one object, to discover fraud and trickery…of unmasking her. Today, I am prepared to say that I believe in the possibility of receiving messages from what is called the world of spirits. I entered the house profoundly materialistic, not believing in the continuance of life after death; today I say I believe. The truth has been given to me in such a way as to remove from me the possibility of a doubt.

What changed his mind was a reading by Mrs. Piper in 1892 following the death of George Pellew (George Pelham), an associate of the ASPR. Pellew was a member of a prominent New York family and had published six books, including one of poetry, at the time of death at age 32. When Hodgson took over from James, Piper was channeling a French physician named “Finny” (Phinuit). William James was impressed with the details Finny could come up with for each stranger getting a reading from Mrs. Piper and Finny. James did not seem to be bothered by the facts that this French physician knew no French and his existence as a real person at one time could not be verified. Hodgson, on the other hand, attributed Finny to a "secondary personality" dwelling in her subconscious. Hodgson knew Pellew had existed and, like James, he was impressed with the details Mrs. Piper produced when channeling Pellew. Both James and Hodgson may have underestimated Mrs. Piper's knowledge, memory, and intellectual capacity. When she was not in a trance, she apparently was the model of polite sedateness and reticence. It is also obvious that neither James nor Hodgson had a clue about subjective validation as essential to understanding the medium-sitter relationship.

James HyslopAfter Hodgson's death, Hyslop took over the arrangements of sitters for Mrs. Piper. Hyslop was a philosophy professor at Columbia University and the author of Life After Death (1918), in which he left little doubt of how he felt about the subject and those who were skeptical of mediumship:

I regard the existence of discarnate spirits as scientifically proved and I no longer refer to the sceptic as having any right to speak on the subject. Any man who does not accept the existence of discarnate spirits and the proof of it is either ignorant or a moral coward. I give him short shrift, and do not propose any longer to argue with him on the supposition that he knows anything about the subject.

Amy Tanner's assessment of Mrs. Piper was not to Hyslop's liking. Tanner and Hall both considered the secondary personality hypothesis the best explanation for Piper's performances. They figured that Piper was unconsciously processing information from various sources and feeding it back during readings as if it were coming from various spirits (called "controls"). Tanner and Hall agreed that most of the time Piper was not a fraud, though she might stoop to an occasional deception here and there. What convinced Tanner and Hall that Piper was not in contact with spirits was that she could be easily manipulated by feeding her false information which her spirits would then report back.

There were some who thought that the secondary personalities had the power of telepathy and that when in control they could read other people's minds. But Tanner and Hall ruled out telepathy as the source of Piper's communications by feeding her false information that she would regurgitate. Hall was especially critical of the way Piper assumed a close relationship between Hall and Hodgson based on the falsehoods Hall fed her. Both Tanner and Hall say they entered the investigation with an open mind. Tanner writes that she entered the work "in a spirit of doubt that inclined toward belief." She left finding it "incomprehensible...that men should be willing to stake their professional reputations upon the inaccuracies and rubbish that pass for 'scientific' fact in these matters." Hall wrote that "to invoke the aid of spirits to explain such cases is itself insanity on our part...." Hall became so repulsed by the incompetence and sloppiness of those in the ASPR doing investigations of mediums that he admitted that it had become "an utter psychological impossibility for me to treat this subject seriously."

"Spiritism," wrote Hall, "is the ruck and muck of modern culture, the common enemy of true science and of true religion...." Both Hall and Tanner hoped that her book would turn the tide in favor of science and skepticism and away from superstition. Obviously, no such thing has happened. Our age is as superstitious as any before it, despite our science being light years ahead of all previous ages. It doesn't seem to matter how much scientific knowledge we gain about our universe, there remains a universal appeal to belief in spirits and communication with them. Today's mediums provide their customers with the same kind of trivial, useless, and often blatantly false claims as that of mediums in Tanner's day. The content of the messages seems unimportant to those who yearn for a continued connection with those who have died. All that matters is that their faith in an afterlife be given something, no matter how thin a thread, to cling to.

Tanner could explain all the published work by and about mediums by the theory of secondary personality as long as she assumed that those that could not be so explained were imperfectly reported. Today, psychologists might find that one need not posit a subconscious dwelling place for "spirits." Explanations of mediumship in terms of cold reading, hot reading, and subjective validation, seem sufficient to account for the many successful mediums and their satisfied customers. What remains for science in this arena, in my opinion, is to discover the psychological mechanisms that render so many people incapable of shedding the skin of superstition in favor of the cloak of science. Tanner thought the answer is in the will to live. This idea at least has the merit of fitting nicely with the fact that many believers in spirits also believe that life would be meaningless if there were no afterlife.

No one can contemplate with composure the certain prospect that some day he will be snuffed out into the darkness like a candle, and so deep is the horror of such a fate that, if we believed it to be certain, we should convict the universe and its Maker of the grossest injustice. We must believe that our individual attainments and striving and personality have a permanent place in the universe or we should have not the heart to continue striving. (Tanner: 1910, p. 382)

Everything that lives might possess the will to live, but we alone among living things want to live well and forever.

Tanner saw her times much as we see ours: we have witnessed "the amazing spectacle of unprecedented advances in invention and science going on simultaneously with the spread of gross superstitions...." In her day, the superstitions were Mormonism, occultism, Dowieism, Christian Science, and Spiritism. Today, the superstitions are the same, Dowieism being replaced by various unltra-fundamentalist Protestant sects desiring a theocratic government in accord with their peculiar beliefs. Tanner didn't mention homeopathy, but that and a few other energy medicines should be added to our current plethora of superstitious beliefs and practices.

Tanner saw the rise in the kind of superstition represented by spiritism as due to the collapse and failure of Protestantism to satisfy the needs of its adherents. The main need, she thought, that people in her day had was for some comfort and encouragement in the face of the overpowering forces daily life was throwing at them. People who are unable to cope with life turn to religion, but if religion can't help they'll turn to the fortune teller or the medium for aid. If Tanner is right, then the success of characters like Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh, John Edward, and Allison Dubois is due in part to their being able to provide comfort and encouragement to people who aren't getting what they need from traditional sources like religion. It's not that religion had any answers to life's problems that have been co-opted by mediums. Rather, religion no longer affords people the opportunity to find deep meaning in drivel. The medium gives those who can't bear to deal with theology or convoluted Bible study a chance to find significance in being reminded of a dog's favorite dish or a reminder of a loved one's preference for roses over lilies.

Tanner noted that just as religion doesn't heal anyone or make them stronger, but rather makes them more dependent on the faith healer, the minister, the evangelist, ad nauseam, so too, spiritism doesn't send the sitter back to the world full of courage and strength to overcome life's obstacles. The sitter becomes more and more dependent on the medium.

He is brought back again and again for business advice, for health diagnoses, and for any pretext that will secure more sittings. Instead of having his religious faith broadened and developed, his sense of law heightened, and his whole nature deepened by large and ennobling conceptions, he is given grotesque, belittling, and useless ideas of all things spiritual. His ideas of law and order are hopelessly broken up, and his moral and intellectual world-view becomes very similar to that of the Dark Ages. (386)

Though written a century ago, Tanner's words ring true today. The popularity of mediums continues to wax. Religious fanatics rise to popularity in part by rejecting science. Medicine continues to draw together the scientific and the superstitious into a hodgepodge it calls "integrative medicine." And, the scientific study of the paranormal is still characterized by a deep rift. On the one side are those who say there's nothing there. On the other are those who say with Hyslop that the skeptics don't know what they're talking about, the evidence is in, and we have proved the reality of all forms of psi.

Tanner's Studies in Spiritism is a blunt force reminder that science, critical thinking, and the rejection of ancient superstitions go against the grain of our nature.

See also A Short History of Psi Research, my review of Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, my review of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Proof of Psychic Phenomena, my review of Dean Radin's Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality, and my review of Charles Tart's The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.

further reading

books and articles

Pettit, Michael. (2008). The new woman as "tied-up dog": Amy E. Tanner's situated knowledges. History of Psychology, 11(3), 145-163.

Tanner, A. (1896). The community of ideas of men and women. Psychological Review, 3(5), 548-550.

Tanner, A. E. (1900). Association of Ideas: A Preliminary Study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, Chicago.

Tanner, A. (1904). The Child: His Thinking, Feeling, and Doing. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Tanner, A. E. (1907). Glimpses at the mind of a waitress. The American Journal of Sociology, 13(1), 48-55.

Tanner, Amy. Studies in Spiritism (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994).


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