The Curies and Spiritualism

As a researcher into the cultural history of radioactivity, I am fascinated by the idea of invisible rays – and one of the more curious parts of these is how they changed the study of the supernatural in the nineteenth century.

The belief that there were other, unknown, worlds beyond our own was not new or even particularly contentious in late nineteenth-century Britain. However, a series of revelatory scientific discoveries – magnetic fields, radio waves, the telegraph, electrical currents and radiations such as radioactivity – began to change the understanding of what these hidden worlds could contain and how researchers could explore, understand, and communicate with them. So many of the scientists who were associated with the emerging science of radioactivity and those who were developing telecommunication technologies, were also intimately involved with the resurgence of occultism in the late nineteenth century it, therefore, took on a distinctly scientific bent with researchers such as J.J. Thomson, Oliver Lodge, William Crookes all being involved in different capacities [see box below].[1]

But the primary emphasis of this blog post today is to focus on the experience and beliefs of the most well-known pair of radioactive researchers – Marie Skłodowska and Pierre Curie.

 

Photograph of Jules Courtier at a seance with Palladino in 1907

Figure 2 Photograph of Jules Courtier at a séance with Eusapia Palladino in 1907- 1908 [Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Howard Gilman Foundation Gift, 2001]

Caricature of the Curies published in Vanity Fair 22 December 1904

Figure 1 Caricature of Pierre and Marie Curie published in Vanity Fair on 22 December 1904. (Julius Mendes Price, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Pierre’s interest in spiritualism appears to date back to the early 1890s, and the first recorded evidence of it is in 1894 when, in a letter to his future wife Marie Skłodowska (they married in July 1895), he wrote that his brother Jacques, a respected scientist in his own right was: “very much occupied with spiritualism at the moment”, and he continues, “these spirit phenomena also intrigued me a great deal”.[2]

That Pierre’s intrigue continued to his death (April 19, 1906) is well documented in letters, initially to Marie and then to his great friend the French physicist (and evident spiritual sceptic) Louis Georges Gouy.[3]

Richet is one of our eyewitnesses for the séance with Palladino that the Curies attended. We know that it was a small gathering and that the only people present, other than Eusapia, were Richet, the Curies, an unnamed friend of Marie’s from Poland, and M.J. Courtier, the secretary of the Institute.

Writing about the séances later, Richet noted: “We saw the curtain [of a nearby window] swell out as if pushed by some larger object”. When Richet reached out to grab the fabric he recorded that he felt a hand, larger than Palladino’s and with nothing beyond the wrist. He noted that he looked down to see that her hands were still secured and that Madame Curie, who was sitting the other side of the medium, assured him that she had kept an unbreakable clasp on her fingers at all times.[4]

In this diary, her thoughts and feelings about their relationship, her work, and his death come tumbling out, but the revealing part is that she writes most of it as if she is talking to Pierre as if he were present.

Of course, the idea that you could use a diary to work through your emotions was not new or unique but, coupled with the knowledge that his death coincided with their investigations into occult phenomena, gives it a slightly different context. And, of course, she knew that Pierre passionately believed in the ability of those who had passed over to communicate with the living (and vice versa).

In her diary, she addresses him directly and assures him that she kept his funeral intimate and straightforward avoiding the “noise and ceremonies you hated”. [5]  She continued:

I put my head against [the coffin.] … I spoke to you. I told you that I loved you and that I had always loved you with all my heart … It seemed to me that from this cold contact of my forehead with the casket something came to me, something like a calm and an intuition that I would yet find the courage to live. Was this an illusion or was this an accumulation of energy coming from you and condensing in the closed casket which came to me … as an act of charity on your part?[6]

 

She expresses guilt that “the last sentence that I spoke to you was not a sentence of love and tenderness … Nothing has troubled my tranquillity more”.[7] However, one of the most heartbreaking entries was after she had taken over his position at the Sorbonne with her first lecture on the 5 November 1906. Hundreds of people were in attendance, and she slipped in unnoticed and began speaking. Significantly, although most people present were oblivious to this, she started the speech at the exact place that Pierre’s final address had finished only a few months earlier. [8]

 

Yesterday I gave the first class replacing my Pierre. What grief and what despair! You would have been happy to see me as a professor at the Sorbonne, and I myself would have so willingly done it for you, but to do it in your place, my Pierre, could one dream of a thing more cruel. And how I suffered with it, and how depressed I am. I feel very much that all my will to live is dead in me, and I have nothing left but the duty to raise my children and also the will to continue the work I have agreed to. Maybe also the desire to prove to the world, and above all to myself, that that which you loved so much has some real value. I also have a vague hope, very weak alas, that you perhaps know about my sad life and the effort and that you would be grateful and also that I will find you perhaps more easily in the other world if there is one … That is now the only preoccupation of my life. I can no longer think of living for myself, I don’t have the desire nor the faculty, I don’t feel at all alive any more nor young, I no longer know what joy is or even pleasure. Tomorrow I will be 39.[9]

Marie’s last séance

I have found no proof that Marie attended any more séances after Pierre’s death in 1906 – with the exception of one. There is a recording of Marie participating in a séance held by the British medium Leslie Flint –50 years after she died.

In this ten-minute-long special appearance (four minutes of it is taken up by Flint’s cheeky cockney control Mickey), Marie is apparently to be heard ruminating about her life and her work.  Leslie Flint was a direct voice medium- so the voice comes out of him sounding like the person would have done in life.

*Marie* is heard to say

I think to myself as I look back on my life I realize now that what I had to do I did.  It was not just by myself, you know.  A lot of things, you know, we call inspiration, you know — which in a way is so but we don’t know — I did not know then that I was to some extent being used by people from this side of life.  A lot of the things that we sometimes think come from ourselves do not necessarily come that way but they are impri — impression, you know — guidance from people on this side of life who help us, you know.

This is one of the hundreds of recordings in this fascinating archive, digitised and made available online by the Leslie Flint Educational Trust, [10] and whilst it doesn’t shed any light on the beliefs of Marie with regards to spiritualism during her lifetime it certainly is a fascinating listen.

References

[1] This so-called revival was not just amongst scientists; many ordinary men and women were part of this movement. By the second half of the nineteenth century, there were more than 200 spiritualist societies in Britain alone.

[2] Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995), p206

[3] Anna Hurwic, Pierre Curie (Flammarion, 1998), p248

[4] Deborah Blum, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (London: Penguin, 2007),p193

[5] Barbara GoldsmithObsessive Genius. The Inner World of Marie Curie (Atlas Books Norton, 2004), p139

[6] Barbara Goldsmith, p139

[7] Barbara Goldsmith, p140

[8] Barbara Goldsmith, p143[9] Barbara Goldsmith, p143[10] http://adcguides.com/librarynames.htm [Accessed 21.10.2017] The recording of Marie Curie is dated 30 November 1984.

Reading List

 

Deborah Blum, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (London: Penguin, 2007)
Eve Curie, Madame Curie: A Biography (Pocket Books, 1965)
Sarah Dry, Curie (Haus, 2003)
Barbara Goldsmith, Obsessive Genius. The Inner World of Marie Curie (Atlas Books Norton, 2004)
Shelley Emling, Marie Curie and her Daughters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Anna Hurwic, Pierre Curie (Flammarion, 1998)
Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

Photograph of JJ Thomson

Figure 3  Sir Joseph John (J.J) Thomson, Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge; discoverer of the electron; discoverer of radioactive gases in water; the discovery of the first subatomic particle and Nobel laureate in Physics; he attended many séances.

Photograph of Sir Oliver Lodge

Figure 4 Sir Oliver Lodge, British physicist, even went as far as proposing that both telepathy and ghostly appearances were achieved through energy transmissions connecting living minds to one another and perhaps also to the dead.

Photograph of William Crookes

Figure 5 William Crookes, an analytical chemist who discovered the element thallium and pioneered the Crookes tube began researching spiritualism in 1867. His championing of the medium Daniel Dunglas Home in the 1870s caused a backlash with some of his more traditional colleagues questioning his intellect and suggesting that his prized Fellowship of the Royal Society had been granted hesitantly (it wasn’t, it was awarded unanimously).

Photograph of Robert John Strutt

Figure 6 Robert John Strutt, the 4th Baron Rayleigh, was a Fellow of Trinity College; wrote one of the first books on radium (1904), and found traces of radium in the waters of Bath. He went on to become the President of the British Society for Psychical Research in the late 1930s.

 

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