“THE RISKS OF SKEPTICISM”

Misinformed people tend to believe that in the Society for Psychical Research everybody was very naïve and willing to believe in anything. That you could tell them that you were a vampire about to transform into a bat and they ran to close the windows for fear that you would fly away. And well, I will not deny that there was someone who was very credulous (talking about vampires, a certain member wore several strings of garlic as necklaces). But it was the exception. As a rule, they were eminent personalities from various fields of science with a high degree of skepticism. There were even one who carried his skepticism to the point of fanaticism, which caused him to end up very badly. I will omit his name for delicacy and call him Mr. Skeptic. When they tested the mediums with whom they collaborated, the members of the Society set traps to find out if they were being cheated. But Mr. Skeptic took this tactic to the extreme. At the end of the summer season of 1879, Mr. Skeptic returned from a well-deserved vacation when, upon rejoining his post in the SPR, he was informed of the discovery that the Society had made in his absence. It was a medium with a high level of trustworthiness. As Mr. Skeptic was incredulous, they immediately organized a séance to show it to him. With the help of another renowned skeptic, whom I will call Karl H., Mr. Skeptic elaborated a stratagem to catch the medium in flagrant contradiction. He published a news in the newspapers announcing the sudden death of his friend and collaborator Karl H. (who consented to stay hidden in his office until the day of the séance) and made sure that the news reached the ears of the medium. The afternoon of the experiment arrived, and right at the start Mr. Skeptic asked the medium to communicate with the spirit of his recently deceased friend. The medium entered the customary trance but came back out of it immediately to announce that his friend was not dead. But Mr. Skeptic was not a man who surrendered easily: he asked for a break and ran to Karl H.’s office. He told him what had happened and they agreed that it had to be a trick and in the need to unmask the fraud. So, at the request of Mr. Skeptic, Karl H. consented to take a deadly dose of cyanide to catch the medium in flagrant contradiction. When after half an hour the séance resumed, Mr Skeptic insisted to the medium that his friend had died and that she tried to communicate with his spirit. The medium went back into a trance and upon returning it was reiterated that his friend was alive and well. Faced with this affirmation, Mr. Skeptic gave a loud laugh that made his colleagues shudder. He requested another recess and asked everyone present to go to Karl H.’s office while he waited for them there, savoring a brandy. When they returned, they told him in relief that the news in the newspapers was false and that his friend was indeed alive and well. Mr. Skeptic requested a new recess and ran to his friend’s office, where, ignoring his excuses (he had falter and faked the ingestion of cyanide), he rushed at his friend and strangled him with his own hands. Then he triumphantly returned to the hall where the séance was being held and, among the comments of displeasure of his colleagues, asked the medium to try again. This time, the medium was able to contact the spirit of the deceased, who accused Mr. Skeptic of being the cause of his death. In a fit of rage, Mr. Skeptic tried to escape, but his colleagues held him by force until the arrival of the police. During the trial, he claimed that it was only a scientific experiment. But that pretext did not serve him to avoid a twenty years sentence in Sing Sing.

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