Can someone really levitate a table? In my new novel “The Witch of Napoli,” Spiritualist medium Alessandra Poverelli pulls it off. Pure fiction, right? All séance table levitations involved clever trickery, correct? Maybe not.
Italian medium Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) was the real-life inspiration for my novel’s feisty heroine Alessandra. The permanently controversial Palladino floated tables and conjured up discarnate spirits in dimly-lit séance rooms all across Europe at the end of the 19th century. I fell in love with her while researching my first (non-fiction) book, Best Evidence. She was a social scofflaw – fiery-tempered, erotic, vulgar, confident – in a Victorian age where respectable matrons were insipid saints on a pedestal, stunted socially, sexually, intellectually, economically. She allowed strange men to sit with her in a darkened room holding her hands and knees and legs (“proper” women would have fainted, or thrown themselves off a precipice). She flirted with her male sitters, argued loudly, sparred with aristocrats who insulted her, flew at skeptics who accused her of cheating. She was also extremely kind and generous to those in trouble, loved animals, helped the unfortunate. Her heart was large. She died famous enough to merit an obit in the New York Times. I knew she’d make a hell of a heroine. Besides, I like underdogs.
Scientists today still heatedly debate whether Palladino was genuine or a complete fraud. She was caught cheating multiple times, yet she also produced under extremely strict scientific controls some of the most baffling and impressive feats of psychokinesis ever observed or photographed.
As the default online encyclopedia, Wikipedia owns the bully pulpit on Palladino, but serves up a disappointing, simplistic dismissal of the best evidence for her genuineness, promoting instead a carefully curated collection of predominately skeptical experts and quotes. If there’s an afterlife, you can bet Palladino is fuming, fists raised. Fortunately, if you’re looking for “the other side” to the scrap, you’re in luck. Mediumship researcher and author Michael Tymn has posted on Amazon.com a meaty, extended book review of “The Witch of Napoli” which includes a vigorous defense of Palladino.
My own conclusions, based on my research?
One, Palladino was a serial cheat – it’s indisputable. She was caught red-handed multiple times.
Two, Palladino was a serious flirt. I had fun with that, playing what-if when I was creating “The Witch of Napoli.” But did she do more than merely flirt – bewitching investigators to the point of compromising their judgment? Wikipedia reports as fact the allegation that Palladino slept her way to the top, seducing her most vocal champions. It cites William Kalush and Larry Sloman, co-authors who penned the fascinating book “The Secret Life of Houdini.” In their book, the duo simply declare, sans footnote or elaboration, that “Palladino had no qualms about sleeping with her sitters: among them were the eminent criminologist Lombroso, and the Nobel Prize-winning French physiologist Charles Richet.” Serious charges. Where did they get this potentially libelous information? Unless I missed it, they don’t say. Perhaps from Houdini’s papers? If so, what’s Houdini’s source, other than gossip? Everybody speculated about the outrageous Signora Palladino’s sex life. But until I see the damning documentation, I file that allegation in the “affronted Victorian, put-this woman-in-her place” category.
Three, Palladino during her long career produced some genuine telekinetic (though not necessarily supernatural) effects. What do I base my opinion on? Primarily on parapsychological experiments confirming the reality of psychokinesis (the modern term for telekinesis), plus the exhaustive, 283-page, “Feilding Report” published by England’s Society for Psychical Research, documenting ten baffling sittings with Palladino in 1908 in Napoli. Wikipedia whips up a whirlwind of speculation – from armchair critics who weren’t there – as to how Palladino might have cheated; I prefer the conclusion penned by the three veteran investigators who were actually there:
“With great intellectual reluctance, though without much personal doubt as to its justice...we are of opinion that we have witnessed in the presence of Eusapia Palladino the action of some kinetic force, the nature and origin of which we cannot attempt to specify, through which, without the introduction of either accomplices, apparatus, or mere manual dexterity, she is able to produce the movement of ...objects at a distance from her and unconnected to her in any apparent physical manner...”
Somewhere, Eusapia is smiling.
About the book
Publication Date: January 15, 2015
Formats: eBook, Paperback
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Italy 1899: Fiery-tempered, erotic medium Alessandra Poverelli levitates a table at a Spiritualist séance in Naples. A reporter photographs the miracle, and wealthy, skeptical, Jewish psychiatrist Camillo Lombardi arrives in Naples to investigate. When she materializes the ghost of his dead mother, he risks his reputation and fortune to finance a tour of the Continent, challenging the scientific and academic elite of Europe to test Alessandra’s mysterious powers. She will help him rewrite Science. His fee will help her escape her sadistic husband Pigotti and start a new life in Rome. Newspapers across Europe trumpet her Cinderella story and baffling successes, and the public demands to know – does the “Queen of Spirits” really have supernatural powers?
Nigel Huxley is convinced she’s simply another vulgar, Italian trickster. The icy, aristocratic detective for England’s Society for the Investigation of Mediums launches a plot to trap and expose her. The Vatican is quietly digging up her childhood secrets, desperate to discredit her supernatural powers; her abusive husband Pigotti is coming to kill her; and the tarot cards predict catastrophe.
Praised by Kirkus Reviews as an “enchanting and graceful narrative” that absorbs readers from the very first page, The Witch of Napoli masterfully resurrects the bitter 19th century battle between Science and religion over the possibility of an afterlife.
Praise for The Witch of Napoli
“Impressive…an enchanting, graceful narrative that absorbs readers from the first page.” -Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Michael Schmicker is an investigative journalist and nationally-known writer on the paranormal. He’s been a featured guest on national broadcast radio talk shows, including twice on Coast to Coast AM (560 stations in North America, with 3 million weekly listeners). He also shares his investigations through popular paranormal webcasts including Skeptiko, hosted by Alex Tsakiris; Speaking of Strange with Joshua Warren; the X-Zone, with Rob McConnell (Canada); and he even spent an hour chatting with spoon-bending celebrity Uri Geller on his program Parascience and Beyond (England). He is the co-author of The Gift, ESP: The Extraordinary Experiences of Ordinary People (St. Martin’s Press). The Witch of Napoli is his debut novel. Michael began his writing career as a crime reporter for a suburban Dow-Jones newspaper in Connecticut, and worked as a freelance reporter in Southeast Asia for three years. He has also worked as a stringer for Forbes magazine, and Op-Ed contributor to The Wall Street Journal Asia. His interest in investigating the paranormal began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand where he first encountered a non-Western culture which readily accepts the reality of ghosts and spirits, reincarnation, psychics, mediums, divination,and other persistently reported phenomena unexplainable by current Science. He lives and writes in Honolulu, Hawaii, on a mountaintop overlooking Waikiki and Diamond Head.
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