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Eric Burns
When the Dead Talked … and the Smartest Minds in the World Listened
Eric Burns, author
Men and women who dedicated themselves to the possibility of communication with the dead included William James, perhaps the greatest American intellect of all time. He was the father of empiricism and the first man to teach a college-level course (at Harvard) on psychology. Nineteenth-century believers also included Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain, as well as dons from Oxford and Cambridge, and presidents, deans, leading scholars, and scientists from Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and other prestigious institutions. For a time, the reigning Pope considered the validity of Spiritualism, and various members of British, French and Russian royalty were also believers to one extent or another. A startling array of geniuses here. Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, and Queen Victoria all attended séances. And now veteran and Emmy-winning broadcaster turned prolific author, Eric Burns, has thoroughly explored the topic with his well-researched When the Dead Talked … and the Smartest Minds in the World Listened, published by Story Merchant Books. Burns has retained The Blaine Group to implement a national public relations campaign to support this book’s launch.
Historian Burns (author of 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar) illuminates the story of psychics, seances, and the scientists who researched them in When the Dead Talked. Roughly covering the 1840s to the 1920s, Burns puts his talents as a researcher to use to recount the history of spiritualism, from the famous Fox sisters—entrepreneurial spiritualists whose late-in-life claims to have been deceptive Burns doesn’t quite buy—to Thomas Edison’s attempts to build a machine for communicating with the dead. Burns dives deeply into two scientific societies which attempted to prove the truth or fallacy of claims of communication with the dead, the Society for Psychical Research in England and its American counterpart.

Burns concludes that their efforts, which ascribed validity to some psychic phenomena, deserve to be taken seriously today, arguing “To accept the notion that the smartest minds in the world, thousands of them, engaged in a conspiracy to delude lesser minds is a more preposterous assumption than accepting the veracity of the feats” of the spiritualists. Readers may not be as convinced as Burns of the validity of several of the phenomena that he recounts, even as he attempts to disprove common objections and appeals to the scientific probity of the investigators. But his expertise and skill as a historical storyteller is clear throughout. When the Dead Talked… is extensively researched, with helpful bibliography and glossary, plus photos of his principal subjects, the psychics and skeptics who investigated them.

Burns’s deep research is combined with a familiar tone which welcomes the reader to participate in the same journey that he himself did from skepticism to openness to the reality of psychic phenomena. Readers fascinated by how scientists in the last half of the 19th century thought about psychic phenomena will appreciate Burns’s exploration of this fascinating history.

Takeaway: Fascinating study of spiritualism and the scientists who found it credible.

Comparable Titles: Barbara Weisberg’s Talking to the Dead, Lisa Morton’s Calling the Spirits.

Production grades
Cover: C
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: B