I was left with a rather unusual legacy by my grandfather on my father’s side, Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton. He was a well-known psychical researcher in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 1920s and early 1930s, so for me, the question of whether it is possible to communicate with the dead is personal.
T.G. Hamilton, as he was known to his friends, was born in Ontario in 1873 and died in Winnipeg in 1935, many years before I was born, but his research left a complex legacy for me and my cousins,1 and it continues to influence many people.
In its most common definition, a legacy is an amount of money or property inherited following someone’s death. In broader terms, it is something that is a part of your history. A family legacy can include pride in an ancestor’s accomplishments, or shame, bitterness and secrecy stemming from an ancestor’s misdeeds.
T.G. was active and respected in his community as a physician, and he was president of the Manitoba Medical Association. He served on the local school board and, as a member of the provincial legislature, he helped introduce votes for women and a mothers’ allowance. He did not drink, was a strict Presbyterian and an elder in the church.
He became interested in psychical phenomena when he and his wife, Lillian, received a message while table-tipping with friends one evening in 1920. Then another friend demonstrated powerful telekinetic abilities (telekinesis is the unexplained movement of objects) and they began experimenting in their living room. After a while, T.G. stopped the experiments. He was intrigued, but extremely skeptical. But in 1923, he received another message that he thought might be paranormal in origin, and he restarted his investigation under more controlled conditions.
They began holding weekly séances with a small group of friends, collaborating with two different mediums over a period of 15 years. T.G. tried to bring a scientific approach to his enquiries, photographing the séances, taking notes and keeping the séance room locked at all times to prevent fraud. Eventually, he overcame his initial skepticism and he began speaking publicly about psychical phenomena, giving lectures in Winnipeg, New York, London and other cities.
In a paper written shortly before he died, T.G. stated, “I used to the fullest extent my critical faculties in the examination and evaluation of results, and held above all a fixed determination to repeat productive séances over and over again until the phenomena were established not once but many times.… Of still another thing I am certain: this standard of workmanship I maintained throughout. We started with facts and with facts we have ended.”2 For T.G. this was all about the science, although his experiments do not meet the standards of today’s scientific method.
His interest in whether some aspect of human consciousness survives bodily death also needs to be seen in the light of his personal life, and of post-World War I society. In early 1919, a year before they started the experiments with telekinesis, T.G.’s and Lillian’s three-year-old son Arthur died during the great influenza epidemic. This devastating loss may have kindled T.G.’s interest in psychic phenomena. In addition, many people had lost loved ones in the war or from the flu, and interest in this field was common. As a result, and because of his personal reputation for integrity, T.G.’s professional standing as a physician did not suffer because of these experiments.
So what has been the legacy of his enquiries for me? First, ambivalence. One day I think that my grandfather and his séance collaborators (including several doctors and lawyers) would not have met so frequently over such a long time period if they had believed their results were fraudulent. The next day, I suspect the table levitations, bell ringing and long conversations with a variety of deceased personalities were fake.
I also feel a mixture of pride and embarrassment: pride in the fact that he was so well known, and embarrassment when people roll their eyes. At one time, this topic also elicited fear. When I was a child, the séance photos of images of the dead mysteriously appearing in ectoplasm (a white substance that looks suspiciously like cheesecloth) terrified me.
I often wonder what impact these séances had on the Hamilton family. Psychical research so distracted T.G. from his medical practice that, when he died of a heart attack, Lillian had no money and son Glen, by then a physician himself, had to support her. Lillian herself seems to have been the driving force behind these séances and was deeply involved in the research. All three of T.G.’s surviving children believed that what happened at those séances was authentic, and they no doubt paid a price for it. Glen later said that, when he was a child, his classmates teased him about living in a house full of ghosts.3
My father, the youngest of the Hamilton children, started attending the séances at age 15 and, in his 20s, he edited Intention and Survival, a book about his father’s work.4These experiences must have had a deep impact on my father’s life, but he seldom talked about it. As a physician in Montreal in the 1960s and 1970s, he was afraid this would harm his career.
As for daughter Margaret, she revered her father. She re-edited Intention and Survival and eventually wrote her own book about psychical research called Is Survival a Fact? Her legacy includes the collection of documents and photos from T.G.’s research that now belongs to the University of Manitoba Archives.5 This material is used in courses on religion and social history, and it has inspired books, plays and works of art. Meanwhile, thousands of people have viewed the séance photos on the Internet.
Finally, my grandparent’s research has made me more curious than I might otherwise have been about the possibility of life after death. We all wonder about these things, but these questions have become part of my family history.
Updated April 29, 2019 to add more information.
“Arthur’s Baby Book,” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 29, 2017, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2017/03/arthurs-baby-book.html “
Five Brothers,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Dec. 1, 2018, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2018/12/five-brothers.html
“A Musician in the Family,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Dec. 15, 2018, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2018/12/a-musician-in-family.html
“Jim Hamilton: A Life,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Sept. 30, 2015, https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2015/09/jim-hamilton-life.html
Sources and Further Reading
- Janice Hamilton, “Bring on Your Ghosts”, Paranormal Review, London: The Society for Paranormal Research, issue 77, Winter 2016.
- Margaret Lillian Hamilton, Is Survival a Fact? Studies of Deep-Trance Automatic Scripts and the Bearing of Intentional Actions by the Trance Personalities on the Question of Human Survival, London: Psychic Press Ltd., 1969, p. 47.
- James B. Nickels. “Psychic Research in a Winnipeg Family: Reminiscences of Dr. Glen F. Hamilton.” Manitoba History, no 55, June 2007, p. 53.
- T. Glen Hamilton, Intention and Survival: Psychical Research Studies and the Bearing of Intentional Actions by Trance Personalities on the Problem of Human Survival, edited by James D. Hamilton, Toronto: the MacMillan Company of Canada, 1942.
- “Hamilton Fonds” University of Manitoba Libraries, (accessed Jan. 3, 2019) http://umanitoba.ca/libraries/units/archives/digital/hamilton/index.html.