Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Richard Hodgson (1855–1905)

by F. B. Smith

This article was published:

Richard Hodgson (1855-1905), psychical researcher, was born on 24 September 1855 at Melbourne, son of Richard Hodgson, importer and later unsuccessful mining speculator, and his wife Margaret, née Hyde. He attended the Central Common School and in 1871 matriculated to the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1874; M.A., 1876; LL.D., 1878). He was intended for the law but his interest fixed on philosophy. While an undergraduate Hodgson became interested in the contemporary debate about immortality and supernatural phenomena: his student crony, Alfred Deakin, introduced him to spiritualist literature and took him to his first seance. Hodgson abandoned the Wesleyan Methodism of his upbringing. His backsliding distressed his parents and, he believed, helped in 1875 to break his romance with his cousin Jessie D—, who was to die four years later. Hodgson never married.

In 1878 he entered St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1882; M.A., 1893). Preoccupied with the relations between physical manifestations and impalpable forces, he sought a physical foundation for psychical beliefs in Herbert Spencer's doctrine that beyond all everyday experience there lay an unknowable of which man has an indefinite consciousness. When T. H. Green exposed the holes in this argument Hodgson published a wild defence and was in turn drubbed by Green (Contemporary Review, December 1880, January 1881).

Hodgson's rash onslaught was characteristic of him. He was privately tenacious of his search for unseen powers and publicly boisterous and independent. He nearly failed to graduate from Cambridge in 1882 because the ceremony involved kneeling to the vice-chancellor and Hodgson avowed that he would kneel to no man; but his friends persuaded him. He also asserted himself by wearing brown evening dress. Hodgson was a genial hearty, excelling in boxing and swimming. He was muscular, 5 ft 8 ins (172 cm) tall and moved with distinctive grace. None the less his Cambridge mentors in philosophy thought their loud-voiced Australian student 'inconveniently' forthright. After graduating he spent six months at the University of Jena and in 1883-84 was Cambridge University Extension lecturer in philosophy and English literature in the north of England. In 1884 he was appointed to lecture on Herbert Spencer at Cambridge.

Meanwhile the supernatural had become his trade. Since 1879 he had participated in the seances arranged by the Sidgwicks, F. W. H. Myers and other Cambridge investigators and in 1882 he had become an early member of the Society for Psychical Research. His supernatural experiences began in September 1884 with the touch of disembodied hands in the dark in his room at St John's. About this time too he was experimenting with hallucinatory drugs. He afterwards became convinced that he had received premonitions of the deaths of three friends and of his mother.

The S.P.R. in 1884 was intensely curious about the occult transactions associated with Madame Blavatsky in India. In November Hodgson was sent to investigate. After fours months at Adyar, the Theosophists' headquarters, he made three chief findings. He determined that the Coulombs, two disreputable apostates from Adyar who claimed to have helped fake the phenomena, were telling the truth. He demonstrated how the Mahatma letters, missives purported to have arrived from gurus in Tibet, were composed in Madame Blavatsky's inimitable slapdash English and that several were in her handwriting; and he concluded that the letters, rather than having travelled the astral plane, had been conveyed in the mails and were 'precipitated' from the ceiling at Adyar through a trapdoor manipulated by string from Madame's bedroom. Finally Hodgson established that the altar cavity at the Adyar shrine, in which Mahatma letters and a china pin-tray had materialized, had backed on to a wall with an opening through to Madame Blavatsky's boudoir. His report is a monumental examination of credulity and the ease of crude deception (Procs, S.P.R., vol. 3).

His Indian experience deepened Hodgson's passionate interest in legerdemain and puzzles. His yearning to believe and his own psychic experiences made him the hammer of cheats. Among the luminaries of the S.P.R. he was almost alone in devising worthwhile experiments: he had a genius for detecting the mechanics of fraud. In 1886-87 Hodgson and S. J. Davey exposed mediumistic slate-writing as bogus, virtually ending it as a spiritualist technique. Also with Davey he produced classic papers on malobservation and lapse of memory among participants in psychical research (Procs, S.P.R., vols 2, 4, 6, 8). In 1894 he began the unmasking of Eusapia Palladino, the physical medium who for years had convinced the leading investigators of Europe.

In 1887 Hodgson became secretary of the newly-founded American Society for Psychical Research. Henceforth in Boston, on a meagre salary, he lived in a single room to which no one was admitted, working obsessively at the supernatural. He was introduced by William James to the trance medium, Mrs Leonore Piper, and became absorbed in studying her. Hodgson was sceptical of her earlier communications but at last in 1896-97 he found solace by accepting her 'control's' utterances as empirical evidence of the survival of personalities after death and of their power to communicate with the living (Procs, S.P.R., vols 8, 13). He was now convinced of the goodness and unity of the cosmos. He had 'not a mere consciousness of something there; [but] fused in the central happiness of it … a startling awareness of some ineffable Love and Wisdom' amounting to 'the one perception of Reality'. Mrs Piper's 'controls' gave him news of his mother and Jessie D—, and of Madame Blavatsky, whose 'spirit was in the deepest part of Hell'. Hodgson's conversion is celebrated by spiritualists as a milestone in the science. However, his memoranda of his later transactions with Mrs Piper remain undecipherable and unpublished. After his conversion Hodgson himself developed mediumistic powers and, alone in his room, received communications which again are unpublished. But he retained his scepticism about other mediums and, as joint editor of F. W. H. Myers's posthumous Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), he probably caused the deletion of references to Myers's sittings with Mrs Thompson.

Socially Hodgson remained ebullient and clubbable. Yet he was restless to explore the other side, remarking in mid-1905, 'I can hardly wait to die'. On 20 December he suffered heart failure while playing handball. In accord with a longstanding promise messages from Hodgman arrived through Mrs Piper, but after William James pronounced them inconclusive, communication ceased.

Select Bibliography

  • A. L. Piper, The Life and Work of Mrs. Piper (Lond, 1929)
  • A. T. Baird, Richard Hodgson (Lond, 1949)
  • Hodgson letters, in William James papers (Harvard University)
  • Society for Psychical Research Archives (London).

Citation details

F. B. Smith, 'Hodgson, Richard (1855–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 September, 1855
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


20 December, 1905 (aged 50)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.