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Hodgson, Dr Richard

Category: Scientist

Dr Richard Hodgson (1855–1905) was an Australian-born psychical researcher.   He was born in Melbourne, Australia on 24 September 1855 to ‘Mr. R. Hodgson, leather merchant of Melbourne’. He was raised as a Methodist. He received a doctor of law degree in 1878 [MA and LLD] from the University of Melbourne.  

In the 1880s he moved to England to study moral sciences at St John's College, Cambridge (following William Wordsworth, whose works he admired). There, he studied under Henry Sidgwick, one of the most influential moral philosophers of the age. After taking honors in 1881, Hodgson taught poetry and philosophy and in 1884 accepted a position at Cambridge as lecturer on the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. As a result of his friendship with Henry Sidgwick, his professor at Cambridge, he became a member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1882.

Hodgson also spent six months at the University of Jena in Germany studying under Haeckel.  Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel was a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor, marine biologist, and artist who discovered, described and named thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms, and coined many terms in biology, including anthropogeny, ecology, phylum, phylogeny, and Protista.  Haeckel promoted and popularised Charles Darwin's work in Germany.

Work with the SPR

Hodgson was a University lecturer at Cambridge from around 1882 to1885 specialising in Herbert Spencer’s philosophy, and was also actively engaged in investigations on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research in England from 1882 to 1887.   

Hodgson was sent to Bombay to ascertain if there was any truth in all the stories about the fakirs.  He stayed in Government House and actually employed Hindu conjurors to teach him ‘all their tricks of mystery’.  The end result was that he decided that Madame Blavatsky was a fraud (and probably a Russian spy!) and that Colonel Olcott her associate was ‘either a fool or a knave’.  On his return to England, the society published Dr Hodgson’s lengthy report and ‘expressed its thorough satisfaction with the evidence he had collected’.  His more notable articles published in the "Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research" were

  • Mme Blavatskv's Theosophicál Phenomena
  • Mal-Observation and Lapse of Memory in Connection with Pseudo Spiritualistic Phenomena
  • A Case of Double Consciousness
  • Indian Magic and the Testimony of Conjurors and the
  • Trance Phenomena of Mrs Piper (whom he believed to be genuine).

Hodgson investigated cases of out-of-body experiences, possession, apparitions, and multiple personalities.  Over the years Hodgson was also given the responsibility to investigate a number of mediums and claimed psychics including

  • William Eglinton
  • Eusapia Palladino
  • Henry Slade and
  • Rosina Thompson

As a result of this and other investigations, Hodgson concluded that ‘nearly all the professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters who are more or less in league with one another.’

In 1887, Hodgson accepted the position of executive secretary of the American Branch of the SPR, which had been officially organized in January 1885, at a salary of £300 a year, and moved to Boston, Massachusetts.  He served until his death in 1905, the only full-time paid employee of the ASPR and its chief investigator.  Hodgson, during the latter days of his life, lived in Boston USA although he did visit London frequently. 

Dr Hodgson eventually became an expert in metaphysics, but wrote no books on the subject, ‘he was so keenly interested in the work of the society that he put off writing elaborate works on philosophy until, unfortunately, it was too late’.  He did however, contribute numerous articles to Mind, The Forum, the Contemporary and other journals.  He also did a great deal of public speaking and was described as a ‘capital speaker’ and that ‘halls were packed to hear him speak’.

Dr Hodgson and Leonora Piper

Dr Hodgson developed a fascination with Mrs Leonora Piper in his later years, an ‘illiterate woman’ whom Professor William James of Harvard University had discovered.  Leonora Piper was a Boston trance medium.  Hodgson had heard about Piper before he left London and was confident that he would unmask her. ‘I was compelled to assume in the first instance, that Mrs. Piper was fraudulent and obtained her information previously by ordinary means, such as inquiries by confederates, etc.,’ he wrote.

James arranged for Hodgson’s first (anonymous) sitting with Piper on May 4, 1887. After Piper went into the trance state Dr. Phinuit, her ‘spirit control’, began talking about Hodgson’s family: his mother, father, a deceased brother, a deceased sister, and a deceased cousin named Fred.  Details of Fred’s death during his youth were accurately given.  At a fourth sitting, more information was given about Fred, and mention was made of their schoolmaster in Melbourne.

The subject then changed to Hodgson’s first and only love, a woman named ‘Jessie’, although Phinuit could get only the ‘sie’ at the end of her name.  He accurately described Jessie, mentioning a birthmark and a book of poems that Hodgson had once given Jessie, also the fact that he had heard about her death from Jessie’s sister – all confirmed as true by Hodgson.  Hodgson's lover, Jessie D., had died in 1879.

PSI Encyclopaedia - Michael Tymn

Although much impressed, and convinced that Piper was not a charlatan, Hodgson, like James, first favoured telepathy as the explanation for these feats. As he initially saw it, Phinuit was a ‘secondary personality’ that was buried in Piper’s subconscious and possessed the ability to read the minds of the sitters, even on occasion to tap into minds not present at the sitting, or into some ‘cosmic reservoir’. At this time, Hodgson was not prepared to accept the idea of spirit survival, viewing this as a return to the follies and superstitions of religion [sic], and an impossibility for scholars and scientists.

Hodgson nevertheless wondered how telepathy could explain Piper’s ability to tell him things that pertained to him of which he was as yet unaware. In one sitting, Phinuit informed him that his sister in Australia would soon be giving birth to a fourth child, a boy.  This proved to be true, but Hodgson did not know at this time that his sister was pregnant. He also noted that most of the details mentioned by Phinuit were not things he had been thinking about.

Hodgson eventually believed the evidence was very strong that Piper was entirely genuine  and he took to testing her over a period of some 15 years ‘in the most elaborate fashion’. 

Every word she spoke in the trance condition was written down in shorthand and then carefully studied.  She was told to remote view the house of Professor Sedgwick's wife in Cambridge [never having been in England before], and was also tested by interviews with people to whom she could, by no possibility be known.

All this involved an enormous quantity of work, and the result certainly seemed to indicate that information she gave in hundreds of sittings could not have been obtained by her from any known source. “The curious fact is that the woman disbelieves in her own power”.

PSI Encyclopaedia - Michael Tymn

Hodgson’s attitude began to change in 1892, following the death by accident of George Pellew, a 32-year-old lawyer and journalist an associate member of the ASPR with whom Hodgson had been well acquainted.   Within a month, a new communicator claiming to be the deceased Pellew began communicating regularly in Piper’s sittings, to the extent of taking over from ‘Phinuit’ as the control.   Over a period, these communications proved so detailed and convincing that Hodgson fully embraced the explanation of spirit survival. He wrote:

At the present time I cannot profess to have any doubt but that the chief communicators . . . are veritably the personages they claim to be, that they have survived the change we call death, and that they have directly communicated with us, whom we call living, through Mrs. Piper’s organism.

Hodgson buried himself in his Charles Street (Boston) apartment, reading and working into the small hours.  Hereward Carrington, another psychical researcher and Hodgson’s close friend, stated that during his last years he would allow no one to enter it, concerned that this would upset the ‘magnetic atmosphere’. According to Carrington, Hodgson had begun receiving direct communications from the spirit controls who had succeeded Phinuit and Pellew.  Hodgson kept this secret, fearing it would affect his standing as an objective researcher.   

In a letter to a friend, Hodgson wrote:

It adds a great deal to life, of course, to be assured of the nearness and help of particular discarnate spirits, but, apart from this, there is no necessity for anyone who believes in God doubting the absolute persistence of the moral order throughout the whole of existence


Hodgson died on December 20, 1905, of a heart attack after a game of handball. Eight days later a personality claiming Hodgson’s identity communicated through Piper’s hand in a sitting, explaining with difficulty that he was too ‘choked’ to write. These communications became increasingly frequent, ‘Hodgson’ apparently striving to convince sitters who had known him of his continuing existence, and complaining of the obstacles, which he had known of in theory, but now was experiencing at first hand.  In a sitting on July 23, 1906, ‘Hodgson’ wrote in Piper’s hand:

Holt, Henry (1914). - On the Cosmic Relations

I find now difficulties such as a blind man would experience in trying to find his hat. And I am not wholly conscious of my own utterances because they come out automatically, impressed upon the machine (Piper’s body) . . . I impress my thoughts on the machine which registers them at random, and which are at times doubtless difficult to understand.  I understand so much better the modus operandi than I did when I was in your world.


Alex Baird -  (1949). The Life of Richard Hodgson. Psychic Press Limited, London.  - this is the only biography of Hodgson

The paintings are by Katherine Jones.


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