The Mediumship of Willy Schneider
The Schneider family became interested in Spiritualism after hearing about soldiers at the nearby garrison in Braunau, experimenting with spirit communication; when the Schneider family attempted this, it was discovered that Willy, only sixteen years old at the time, was a physical medium. According to the record made by Willy’s father’s, on 17 January 1919, the boy attempted table turning and messages were conveyed in writing through a pencil fastened to the table. The communicator gave her name as Olga and from thereon, the family continued to obtain communications; this developed to the stage when the table moved without Willy having to have any physical contact with it. Further development occurred when ‘the clapping of two tiny hands was heard and finally there was a materialised hand…Willy being visible…and enjoying the fun all the time’.
In fact, his mediumistic abilities had become apparent two years earlier when, after returning from the funeral of his older brother, Willy saw the brother; when he told his parents about this, he said that they ‘laughed’. Almost apologetically, he explained, ‘I was quite young and didn’t understand what that was supposed to mean’.
In time, news of Willy’s mediumship reached those living in Braunau, and one person who became interested was Fritz Kogelnik, a retired naval commander. Believing it was nothing more than ignorant superstition, he nevertheless attended one of Willy’s séances. In this, he saw the young Willy, who ‘was a little fellow, and in sitting on the sofa, his feet did not reach the floor’, and the phenomena that the boy was able to produce: the table moved in response to questions asked and was followed by the movement of objects in the room. Gregory cites Kogelnik’s statement that he then ‘saw a very small hand, which touched and caressed mine’, and notes, ‘Kogelnik reports that he left the Schneider house that day entirely convinced that he had witnessed genuine “paranormal” phenomena’.
However, as so often happens in such cases, Kogelnik began to doubt his own senses and attended further séances: in fact he returned ‘time and time again’, but ‘his first experience was followed by hundreds of others’. In view of what he had encountered, and despite his scepticism, Kogelnik was forced to concede the phenomena were genuine. These were not only genuine, but spectacular: he recounted how on one occasion a hand ‘well visible [that] looked like that of a baby, and very well developed in every detail’, materialized and attempted to play a zither that had been left on the floor. One amusing incident that occurred was when a woman was having difficulty in trimming her hat; Olga requested the necessary implements, e.g. ribbon, needles, etc., and these were placed in front of the table in the séance room. Olga’s ‘hand drew them under the table. A few minutes later a very tastefully trimmed bonnet was returned to the surprised owner’.
The noteworthy feature was that in the Schneider séances, there was an atmosphere of enjoyment and warmth, and it is possible this assisted in the phenomena that occurred. Olga was a warm, albeit fiery character, and apparently enjoyed the gatherings: on one occasion at his own home, Kogelnik recorded how she appeared, ‘standing amongst us’ and then proceeded to dance among the sitters. He reported, ‘It was a most impressive sight…At the last note of the music, the phantom disappeared like lightning, just as it had come’.
Despite the doubts about Olga, she appeared to be a character in her own right: she requested certain music to be played, preferably of a military marching type, and before phenomena were produced, she demanded that the sitters sang a song that she liked. As Tabori humorously notes, this resulted in ‘the spectacle of philosophers and physicists, psychical researchers and eminent writers singing unharmoniously together’.
As time went on, Willy’s mediumship was becoming well-known, although the mediumship of Rudi, his younger brother, was also becoming the subject of attention. When Olga ceased to be Willy’s control and took on this role with Rudi, she was replaced by Mina, in addition to others who worked through Willy as controls, e.g. Otto. There was some experimentation with the séance room environment, i.e. changing from the use of a white light to a red one and using a dark cabinet. After events such as object movement and writing were produced by communicators, Willy developed trance through which Olga could speak directly to the sitters.
In view of what he had witnessed, Kogelnik notified Baron Schrenck-Notzing, one of most active researchers at the time, about Willy’s mediumship; Schrenck-Notzing then undertook an investigation with the young medium. After Willy finished school and an apprenticeship, he was employed by a dentist in Munich and was regularly tested there by Schrenck-Notzing in his laboratory. Over a hundred séances were conducted, many of which were attended by university professors, doctors, and other academics.
Before a séance, Willy was searched and put in luminous clothing, and during the séance itself, there was a red light that enabled the sitters to monitor his movements. Willy would sit outside the cabinet and had two persons holding each of his hands with a third sitting in front of him; they were all separated by a gauze screen from the objects that were to be moved: nonetheless, ‘the severity of the control did not prevent the phenomena’, e.g. ‘the table soon began to tilt and was then completely levitated to the height of about a foot’.
Other phenomena were noted by Schrenck-Notzing, e.g. materializations that were ‘flowing, changing and fantastic shapes’. After over fifty séances by mid-1922, Schrenck-Notzing stated, ‘No single participant noticed the slightest suspicious manipulation by the medium or anybody present and the collective impression of all witnesses can be summed up by saying that Willy Sch. could not have produced the phenomena through the known mechanical means’.
Dr Dingwall, who was present during some of the séances in Braunau, attended one in Munich in 1922, and carried out a thorough search of the séance room, and found nothing untoward; during the séance, he conducted tests to determine the force being exerted by the unseen visitors. After trying to unsuccessfully prevent a table from levitating, he held a board whereupon he reported, ‘Within a few seconds I felt sharp thumps and blows against the surface…it was if a small hand within a boxing glove were delivering the blows’. Dingwall stated that he believed the phenomena produced by both Rudi and Willy were genuine and in 1922, wrote an account in the American Society of Psychical Research’s Journal of what he had seen, and also said that accusation of fraud was untenable.
However, after this, and surely demonstrating how the process of mediums submitting to researchers can sometimes be valueless, Dingwall apparently changed his mind about what he had witnessed and seemed to think that Schrenck-Notzing might be inept, or involved in fraud himself. Despite his earlier positive statements, Gregory notes how Dingwall ‘kept alternating between the hypotheses of fraud and genuineness, and qualifying his assertions…in such a manner that no one could pin him down to anything beyond a general half-qualified irate hovering’. And yet this was the man who had written that he regarded Willy Schneider as ‘the king of the mediums’.
This is a excellent example of what often occurred in such cases: if a researcher was convinced that any supposed paranormal phenomena had to have a ‘normal’ cause, he was therefore faced with having to embark upon making extraordinary allegations and accusations; in this case, suggesting that a fellow-researcher might have been involved in fraud. At this point, those who read the account of Rudi’s Schneider’s mediumship will recognize similarities in the lives of both Schneider mediums in respect of those who investigated them.
When Thomas Mann, an author and Nobel Prize winner, attended a séance with Willy at the home of Schrenck-Notzing, he stated that in view of what he saw, the suggestion of fraud was absurd. However, by this stage, it clearly becomes evident that once Willy had placed himself in the hands of Schrenck-Notzing and others, tests were not related to survival or evidential communications, but rather, the providing of repeated performances of telekinesis.
After a disagreement with Schrenck-Notzing, Willy worked with Dr Holub in Vienna and during this time materializations were manifested in addition to the usual phenomena and levitation. However, this only lasted for a short period due to Holub’s sudden death and Willy then continued to demonstrate his abilities to various university professors. In 1924, Willy came to London with Mrs Holub and gave demonstrations to members of the SPR; some phenomena were produced, and Dingwall admitted in the SPR’s Proceedings (XXXVI), that ‘the only reasonable hypothesis which covers the facts is that some supernatural agency produced the results’.
In 1925, Harry Price attended a number of séances in Vienna with Willy, and in one of these, saw a sequence of events that convinced him that he had witnessed genuine phenomena. He had in fact seen what Willy could produce on other occasions, e.g. in Munich in 1922 and at the Schneider home; in the latter, he was accompanied by two professors and recorded how, during the séance, there were breezes, the movement of numerous objects and partial materializations. Of the séance, Price said that he and the two other witnesses, ‘agreed was the best the medium had ever given under test conditions’.
Willy visited Britain again in 1926, but his powers were clearly weaker than ever before. In 1928, Schrenck-Notzing invited a number of SPR members to Munich to observe both Willy and Rudi; while Willy’s powers had clearly diminished, there were some phenomena apparent to the observers. However, as his powers were by this time so limited, Gregory rightly asks, ‘One may well ask why, in the circumstances, Schrenck-Notzing attempted to give a demonstration’. In fact it appears that it was because he had just discovered that a medium he was to show the SPR members was actually fraudulent, and he therefore decided to use the Schneider brothers instead. In sum, mediums could be used as demonstration tools, particularly if it avoided embarrassment.
After submitting to the researchers mentioned above, and aware that his mediumistic powers were no longer present, Willy retired from this activity. Nonetheless, what is possibly relevant is Beloff’s comment that during the period, Willy became ‘bored with the endless repetitions that were demanded of him’. This observation says a great deal; as detailed in the article concerning Rudi, tremendous opportunities were surely lost through the antics of the researchers involved. It was not so much simply the factor of ‘research’ that effected the problems, but the type of researchers involved and their goal(s), that were apparently not related to the matter of survival but something quite different.
The difficulties created were primarily through a craving for repeat performances of certain phenomena that could only be fairly described as mundane, and certainly so when compared with what might have been available with a different approach. Hopefully, the obvious lesson of the Schneider brothers has been learned and will not be repeated. Time will tell…..
P. Tabori, Companions of the Unseen
J. Beloff, Parapsychology: A Concise History