The Mysterious Deaths in the SPR

One unexplained death at the heart of an organisation is unusual, but three inexplicable deaths within a small group of friends seems more like the plot of a murder mystery novel. Yet that is what happened to Edmund Gurney, Arthur Myers and Frank Podmore, each of whom held important positions within the Society for Psychical Research.   

Edmund Gurney was first to die in 1888 and his death, covered in a previous blog post, was caused by an overdose of chloroform.  Gurney had dined with MP Cyril Flower the evening before and was described by his friend as ‘in good health and with brilliant conversation.”  Flower detected nothing abnormal or untoward in his behaviour. 

Next to die was Arthur Thomas Myers, brother of Frederick William Henry Myers who was President of the Society for Psychical Research from 1900 until his death in 1901.  Doctor Arthur Myers, a close friend of Edmund Gurney, died of asphyxia caused by an overdose of Chloral Hydrate in January 1894.  Mr G W Protheroe of King’s College, Cambridge dined with Myers on the Monday before his death.  He described the doctor as ‘very cheerful’ and said that he had spoken about a journey he was due to undertake to visit a relative. Once again, there was no indication of low spirits. 

The following years were quieter.  Frederick Myers died a natural death from Bright’s disease in 1901. Then, on 14th August 1910, Frank Podmore went missing from his home in Malvern.  

Podmore, who had been staying with Mr and Mrs Cross at 2 Ivy Cottages, The Wyche near Malvern Wells, disappeared on a rainy Sunday evening.  A thunderstorm in the early hours of the morning had disturbed Mr Cross who noticed that Frank Podmore was once again absent from the home, having already left the property several times that day.  The alarm was raised the following morning, and a search party organised but to no avail. Then, on Friday, Podmore’s body was found in a large pool adjoining the Malvern Golf Links.  There were no marks of external injury, and the body was removed to the mortuary. 

Frank Podmore had been composing a letter to his mother before leaving Ivy Cottages for the final time.  It was never completed.  His watch stopped at 11.23 pm precisely, and there is little evidence to suggest that he slipped and fell during the storm.  The jury at the inquest returned an open verdict of “found drowned.”  Mr George Podmore, brother of Frank, said that his brother was always of a particularly cheerful disposition and had been enjoying his holiday in Malvern.  He further added that his brother had always upheld the sacredness of human life. 

Three men, all members of the same organisation were reported as in good spirits at the time of their demise.  So, what happened?  In his book, ‘The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney’, Trevor H Hall speculated that Gurney had committed suicide on discovering that the Brighton telepathists had deceived him.  Though the theory has merit, and mesmerist Douglas Blackburn later confessed to trickery, there is no proof that Gurney was aware of it or that the knowledge might push him into ending his life.  After all, Edmund Gurney’s interests went much further than telepathy and hypnotism, and he was still working on other projects including a paper on “Apparitions occurring soon after death,” which he read during an SPR meeting early in 1888. 

And what of Arthur Myers?  His health had been poor for most of his life, and he also suffered from Bright’s disease, which claimed the life of his brother Frederick. Arthur Myers had recently retired, and it is not inconceivable that illness and a lack of purpose caused him to kill himself.  Yet he was a highly experienced doctor, and the overdose of narcotics left him lingering for two days.  He frequently self-medicated as an aid to sleep.  It is hard to imagine an accidental overdose even in the grip of a seizure, and equally unlikely that a serious attempt at suicide would not result in instant death. 

Frank Podmore’s final years were complicated.  The Lake Herald of 14th June 1907 reported that Podmore had severed his ties with The Post Office where he had been employed as a Higher Division Clerk in the Secretary’s Office since 1879.  His biographer later suggested that he had been compelled to resign from the Post Office due to alleged homosexual involvements.   During 1907 he moved to Broughton, near Kettering to live with his brother Claude leaving his wife alone in London. At the time of his death, Frank Podmore was virtually penniless, and it would be easy to conclude that he may have seen suicide as a way out of his problems.  But were they problems?  The Rugby Advertiser is one of the many papers to report that Frank Podmore returned to Ivy Cottage accompanied by a younger man – a causal acquaintance he had met during his walk and who had supper with him.  He had left his wife, and the split was permanent and bitter. She did not attend his funeral, nor did she send a wreath.  And she was not alone.  Several members of his close family failed to attend. But Podmore enjoyed a close relationship with his mother.  Both Frederick Myers and Henry Sidgwick had reputedly dabbled in homosexuality, and therefore his friends within the SPR were most likely tolerant of his lifestyle.  He had escaped what must have been a restrictive and unhappy marriage, and it may well be the case that in leaving London and his career with the Post Office, Frank Podmore had found the opportunity to be himself.  There is no evidence that he was worried or unhappy. 

So, were these deaths suicides, accidental deaths or something else?  We will probably never know.  Psychic researchers who believe in life after death, are introspective by their very nature and perhaps more prone to suicide.  And although Frederick Myers died naturally, suicide stalked his family beginning with the suicide by drowning of his lover Annie Hill Marshall in 1876 and ending with the overdose of his son Leopold Myers in 1944.  It is ironic that Myers, who died naturally and embraced his demise with enthusiasm, was a common denominator in the other mysterious deaths. 

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