Bookmarks Issue: 
Deborah Blum

William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death

A-Ghost HuntersAt the height of the spiritualism craze that swept Europe and America in the late 19th century, that burgeoning community of spiritualists counted among its devotees such luminaries as David Hume, Alfred Russel Wallace, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and the father of modern American psychology, William James. After the death of his infant son, James sought solace in the apparent supernatural talents of a gifted medium, Leonora Piper. Only with difficulty did James maintain his objectivity about the spiritual world. Blum relates the story of Mrs. Piper and others who baffled researchers in their efforts to discover answers that remain as elusive as ever.
Penguin. 370 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594200904

Ft. Worth Star Telegram 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is not a book for the casual ghost lover, and it is often deep wading. But Blum exposes a noble effort to discover the unknowable, leaving you to make up your own mind about what lurks in the shadows of an old farmhouse." Julie Heaberlin

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The best pages of Ghost Hunters are filled with strange tales of people who seem to know things they should not be able to know. … [The book] is a sympathetic account of researchers who held on to their picture of ‘the messiness of life’ by infusing it with their hope that there was ultimately no such thing as death." Michael S. Roth

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is perilous territory for a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist, but [Blum] covers the researchers’ stories with genuine respect while retaining her skepticism about their efforts. … Reading Ghost Hunters, it’s hard not to reserve some admiration for the handful of academics who gave it the old college try." Mark Athitakis

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Ghost Hunters], skillfully organized and felicitously written, lays out the facts like a good, extended piece of newspaper writing and lets the reader decide. Yet [Blum] cannot suppress a sense of wonderment that makes her say that writing this book ‘changed the way I thought.’" Roger K. Miller

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Most readers will probably come to her book with a mind already made up one way or another on the range of supernatural phenomena. In any case, for believers and agnostics alike, Ghost Hunters contains a wealth of lively and provocative reading." Dennis Drabelle

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Apart from the vague suggestion that it answered a need created by the encroachment of science on religious belief, [Blum] offers very little reflection on the question of why spiritualism suddenly became so popular. And perhaps she tells her tale too even-handedly, since readers may be left with the impression that the Society for Psychical Research was on to something." Anthony Gottlieb

Critical Summary

Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer and professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, tackles a chapter from our past that doubly intrigues—through the search for the afterlife and the number of famous thinkers associated with it. Critics point out that, despite her compelling narrative and her evenhanded history, Blum comes up short in her examination of the reasons behind spiritualism’s rise in popularity. She never wavers, however, in her ability to draw in readers with stories of famous mediums and their ability to deceive. The result is an entertaining look at the ubiquitous séances and spirit-summonings that make a study of spiritualism a worthwhile curiosity to readers more than a century later.