Category: psychical research

The Legacy

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.

Hamilton family around 1934, left to right, top Glen, Jim; bottom Margaret, T.G., Lillian

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.”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. 

See also:

“Arthur’s Baby Book,” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 29, 2017,

Five Brothers,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Dec. 1, 2018,

“A Musician in the Family,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Dec. 15, 2018,

“Jim Hamilton: A Life,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Sept. 30, 2015,

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Janice Hamilton, “Bring on Your Ghosts”, Paranormal Review, London: The Society for Paranormal Research, issue 77, Winter 2016.
  2. 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.
  3. James B. Nickels. “Psychic Research in a Winnipeg Family: Reminiscences of Dr. Glen F. Hamilton.” Manitoba History, no 55, June 2007, p. 53.
  4. 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.
  5. “Hamilton Fonds” University of Manitoba Libraries, (accessed Jan. 3, 2019)

Arthur’s Baby Book

The night before three-year-old Arthur Hamilton became ill, he was reciting a rhyme and joking about lisps and kisses and mistletoe with a family friend who was helping put the children to bed. Someone – his mother or the friend – recorded those words in his baby book.  

The following day, Arthur came down influenza. In fact, everyone in the house – his parents, his twin brother and his two older siblings – got sick. The others recovered, but Arthur did not.  

When the influenza pandemic reached the Hamiltons’ Winnipeg home in January 1919, it was at its deadly peak. Arthur was among more than 1,200 Winnipeg residents and 50,000 Canadians killed by the pandemic, which was brought to Canada by troops returning from the trenches of World War I.Some 21 million people died from the virus worldwide.

The last page of Arthur’s baby book

Today, Arthur’s baby book, and that of his twin (my father,) is in the University of Manitoba Archives as part of the Hamilton Family collection. These cheerfully illustrated booklets include important milestones, such as the twins’ first steps. Arthur’s book is especially moving because of the entry about the jokes he made just before he became ill.2

Archivist Shelley Sweeney has used Arthur’s baby book in the classroom many times. For example, she took it to a religious studies class that was exploring how people react to death by expressing regret and memorializing the person who has passed.

“It strikes people as so unbearably sad,” she says. “There are always sympathetic expressions and murmurs when I talk about it.”3

The death of a young child like Arthur seems especially sad, but the influenza pandemic traumatized whole communities. Some people lost family members to the flu after having already lost sons and brothers in the war. Many of those who died were between 20 and 40 years old, in the prime of their lives. Children were left without parents, families without income earners, businesses without customers, and manufacturers without workers. Poor neighbourhoods had the highest death rates.

Some people compared the pandemic to the Black Death of medieval times. The government banned large public gatherings to try to control the spread of the virus. Hospitals and physicians were overwhelmed. My grandfather was a physician and my grandmother had trained as a nurse, but they couldn’t save their son. They tried everything they knew, but there were no effective treatments in 1919.

Their older son, Glen, a future a physician himself, later recalled being taken in to see Arthur’s body. He said, “I can remember on the floor beside his crib there was an enamel basin with boiling water in it – Friars Balsam [eucalyptus oil] – that aromatic stuff you put into body rub, and a little tank of oxygen. And those were the weapons to fight the flu. That was all!”4

My grandfather, Thomas Glendenning (T.G.) Hamilton, was devastated by his son’s death. Not only had he failed as a physician, but, as Glen Hamilton suggested in an interview, T.G. may have felt that he had been too attached to Arthur. “Dad was a very strict Calvinist Presbyterian and he felt that in some way, because he was so fond Arthur …. that he was being punished by the Lord ….” 5

Arthur and Jim, 1918 (I am not sure which is which)

Arthur’s death was a pivotal event for the Hamiltons in a way that seems surprising today, but was typical for the time. Many people were deeply religious and believed in personal survival after death. Grieving families wanted to communicate with loved ones who had passed, so they turned to mediums and séances. Between the two world wars, a strong spiritualist movement developed in Canada and elsewhere.6 Glen suggested that Arthur’s death stimulated his parents’ interest in the psychic field.

What made the Hamiltons unusual was the effort they put into exploring psychic phenomena. For more than 10 years, until T.G.’s death in 1935, they held almost weekly séances with a small group of regular participants.7T.G. became known across Canada, the United States and England for his psychic research, while Lillian played a key organizing role in the background. T.G. emphasized the “scientific” nature of his enquiry, but his grief must have coloured these experiences. 

Around 1980, Margaret (Hamilton) Bach donated her parents’ research notes, speeches and photographs to the University of Manitoba Archives, and a few years ago I added a few items, including the twins’ baby books. Today, many people consult the Hamilton Family fonds. Some are interested in psychics, several have used the collection as inspiration for plays and visual art, and other researchers are using the collection to explore how people cope with trauma.

Although many people, including myself, are skeptical about the authenticity of their experiments, it is wonderful to see that T.G.’s and Lillian’s passion is still contagious in so many different ways.

This story is also posted on

Notes and Sources

T.G. Hamilton and Lillian (Forrrester) Hamilton had four children: Margaret Lillian (1909-1986), Glen Forrester (1911-1988), and twins James Drummond (1915-1980) – my father — and Arthur Lamont (1915-1919). To read more about the Hamilton Family fonds, see

  1. Janice Dickin, Patricia G. Bailey, “Influenza”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, March 20, 2017).
  2. Baby book of Arthur Lamont Hamilton. University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections (UMASC), Hamilton Family fond, A10-01, Winnipeg.
  3. Personal email communication with Shelley Sweeney, March 23, 2017.
  4. James B. Nickels. “Psychic Research in a Winnipeg Family: Reminiscences of Dr. Glen F. Hamilton”, Manitoba History, June 2007, p. 53.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Esyllt Jones, “Spectral Influenza: Winnipeg’s Hamilton Family, Interwar Spiritualism and Pandemic Disease,” in Magda Fahrni and Esyllt W. Jones, editors, Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society and Culture in Canada, 1918-20, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012, p. 195.
  7. Janice Hamilton “Bring on Your Ghosts!” Paranormal Review, winter 2016, p. 6. This magazine is published by The Society for Psychical Research in England. This edition is entirely devoted to the psychic research carried out by the Hamiltons.