A Woman to Know: Eleanor Mildred Sigwick

We might possibly be communicating with beings belonging to another world. — Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick

(image via University of Cambridge)


Eleanor made her name as a feminist academic: she fought for women to be admitted in all disciplines to University of Cambridge; she made history as one of Cambridge's first female deans; she joined Victorian suffragettes in protest; she campaigned for feminist causes. But her true passion wasn't social justice or academic influence: she became obsessed with studying "human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models." In the late 1800s, she began a series of experiments that would lay the foundation for one of today's most controversial fields: "paranormal research."

As esteemed academics and fixtures of Cambridge society, Eleanor and her husband Henry were in the unique position to martial serious money around their paranormal activities -- and Victorians at the time were obsessed with all things ghostly. When they founded the Society for Psychical Research in 1875, scores of macabre-minded Britons joined them for lessons in haunt detection. Eleanor in particular became oam expert in the math and electric engineering, since both were required for a "true assessment" of paranormal activity. Many of her texts from the time include tips, equipment lists and more for the amateur ghosthunter. She even pioneered the use of cameras in "spirit photography," designed to capture shadows, apparitions and more on film, as concrete "evidence" of the beyond.

Later in life, Eleanor dedicated her time to discrediting fraudulent psychics. She traveled from medium to palm reader to clairvoyant, writing reviews that would either make or break a fortune teller's career. Watching one woman claiming to possess powers of telekinesis, Eleanor studied the wall behind her, noting the almost-invisible strings and ropes that were moving tables and fluttering curtains. But despite her years of ghostbusting, Eleanor retained a stalwart belief in the supernatural: as she wrote in some of her final texts, "I think that the evidence before us does constitute a reasonable prima facie case for belief in clairvoyance."

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