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The First Society for Psychical Research: Lady Conway’s investigation of the Faith Healer Valentine

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

We often think of mediumship as a nineteenth-century phenomena. Usually, spiritualists attribute the origins of their movement to the Fox sisters. On the evening of March 31st 1848 in the small village of Hydesville, New York, Kate and Maggie Fox claimed to have discovered that they had the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead. News about the Fox sisters’ amazing abilities quickly spread across North America and Europe, and the girls became the first modern celebrity mediums.

SOURCE: Portrait of the Fox Sisters

The story of the Fox sisters has been retold countless times, but did you know that mediumship (even in the modern period) predates the story of the Fox sisters? One earlier example of a professed medium prior to the 1840s was the Irish faith healer Valentine Greatrakes, who first came to prominence in the 1660s. The Victorian polymath Andrew Lang, who wrote extensively on the topic of modern spiritualism, recounted some of Greatrakes incredible feats in his largely forgotten book, Cock Lane and Common-Sense (1894).

SOURCE: Portrait of Valentine Greatrakes

In 1665 a group of friends were invited to a small soiree at Ragley Hall, the home of Lady Anne Conway and her husband Lord Edward Conway. Throughout her life, Lady Conway had suffered from headaches and recently she started receiving treatment from a relatively unknown Irish faith healer named Valentine Greatrakes. While the treatment was overall unsuccessful in stopping her headaches from occurring, Lady Conway was amazed by how Greatrakes and his endorsers seemed to believe that the medium could heal ailments through touch alone, without the use of any medicine.

Portrait of Lady Anne Conway

It was an astounding claim, and Lady Conway was keen to introduce her friends to Greatrakes. One of Conway’s friends to meet the Irish healer was the physician, Henry Stubbe. He too was astonished by the unbelievable practices used by Greatrakes to treat his patients. In a letter to the famous natural philosopher Robert Boyle, Stubbe’s stated that while he did not believe that Greatrakes could actually heal anyone suffering from a genuine ailment, the ‘Irish Stroker,’ as Greatrakes came to be known, was ‘most successful with hypochondriacal and hysterical patients.’ Therefore, so far as Stubbe’s was concern, Greatrakes was most likely a fraud.

However, the soiree organized by Lady Conway in 1665 at Ragley Hall was historically significant for other reasons. It was, to a certain extent, one of the earliest instances leading into the modern period, where a group of professed experts came together to investigate whether a supposed medium was legitimate. As Lang remarked in his book Cock Lane and Common Sense, 'at Ragley there was convened the nucleus of an unofficial but active Society for Psychical Research.’ The meeting was, according to Lang, one of the earliest known (and recorded) examples of an organised psychic investigation. Along with Stubbe, Lady Conway put together an impressive group of researchers, including the clergyman Joseph Glanvill, the philosopher Henry More, and the esotericist Ezechiel Foxcroft.

It would be another two hundred years before the official Society for Psychical Research would form in England, but many of the investigatory interests that would dominate Victorian researchers in the centuries that followed were already underway in the 1600s. Mediumship’s modern history, therefore, stems back into the early modern period.

SOURCE: Logo of the Society for Psychical Research (UK)

Further Readings

Lang, Andrew. Cock Lane and Common Sense. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894.

Elmer, Peter. The Miraculous Conformist: Valentine Greatrakes, the Body Politic, and the Politics of Healing in Restoration Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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