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  • Faking in Ninetenth-Century Seances June 26, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Beach has stumbled again into the world of nineteenth-century séances in search of fun. And he’s awfully glad he ended up there. What mummery! What hoaxing! What extraordinary imbecility on the part of intelligent men and women! He brings together here a selection of his favourites. First let’s get into the mood.

    We could detect no fraud, as all opportunity for investigation had been dexterously cut off not withstanding the clumsy expedients resorted to by [an author] as ‘tests’; but that we were in the presence of real spirits we never for once believed. The only persons allowed to take a seat upon the platform were a Mr. Pritchard and a Mrs. Cleveland; dear old gullible souls -who could be readily psychologized into believing that they were eating a piece of the moon in shape of ‘green cheese’. These both touched and conversed with the substantial shadows which stepped cautiously from the door of the cabinet, as if making sure that some investigator were not ready to spring upon them; and occasionally went through the shuffling manoeuvres characterised by (our author) as dancing! While no one of the audience circle was permitted to advance near enough to distinguish their features in the distressingly subdued light of the solitary lamp, acting its part in the fraud upon a distant table. Every evening Mr. P had a visit from his aged mother – attired in a robe de nuit – she, understand, was thus attired, not he. Every evening Mr. P saluted her with a ‘Good evening, mother!’ and she replied in a husky whisper, ‘Good evening, my son!’ Each evening she added, ‘I am glad to see you, my son!’ and then asked, ‘Why didn’t Mary come?’ Every evening she was blandly assured that Mary was not in health, and could not be there; but still the question was renewed, and then the aged spirit shuffled back, and disappeared through the door of the cabinet. I asked this gentleman if he recognised his mother beyond all peradventure in this spirit. He admitted that he did not see much likeness as he remembered her; but he had not seen her for the two or three years before her death, and ‘ no doubt she had altered.’

    This one is more to the point. Beach particularly likes the detail about the ancient Persian prince knowing the correct bus to catch.

    The spirit, materialized with unusual power and strength. He. brought with him his lamp, and remained with us in continued conversation for the space of an hour, if not more. His voice was stronger than ever before, and he spoke in the most solemn and impressive manner regarding certain things he wished his brother to do for him. Kneeling before us upon one knee, with one hand held by each of us, as we leaned over to draw as near to his face as possible, after earnestly enjoining upon his brother the accomplishment of a certain duty which he wished him to undertake, he made a most startling disclosure to us. ‘I have to inform you,’ he said, ‘that my last life on earth was a reincarnation. In a former existence I was a Persian prince, and lived upon this earth some hundreds of years before Christ. In that life I was possessed of a quantity of beautiful and valuable jewels. Strange to say, I have become aware of the existence of some of those jewels in this city of London. They are diamonds of the purest water and brilliancy, and, moreover, they are charmed stones. They are for sale in a shop in this city. I know exactly where they are, and the price, a price much beneath their value. They are five diamonds set in a hoop ring. I can give you the name of the man, the name of the street, and the price. But you must lose no time, for there is a person after them, and if yon do not purchase them by eleven o’clock to-morrow you will lose them.’ He then gave us the most circumstantial directions as to the situation of the shop, the name of the jeweller, the exact position of the ring, in the window, even going so far as to tell me what omnibus I was to take to bring me to the spot, that his brother might have my aid in finding the ring….’Be sure’, he continued, ‘that you say nothing to the man as to the value of those stones – a value beyond all earthly price, indeed, for they have been endowed with rare virtues of a spiritual kind. This ring, my dear brother, I wish you to present to our medium, as a testimonial of my gratitude to him for his services in enabling me to materialize for you. It has given me a  great pleasure to return in this way and confer with you again. You cannot estimate as we.spirits can all that a medium gives up for these materializations, and I feel I cannot thank him enough for giving so unselfishly his life and strength to our service. Therefore I wish him to have the ring. It will be a talisman to protect him; it will increase his power as a medium, and with that ring he can never want for a friend; indeed, he will bear a species of charmed life. I wish you also to make a formal public presentation to him of that ring.’ . . . Much more was said. Our adieux, tender and affecting, as to one we were never to see again (except clairvoyantly), were made, and again and again were Ms solemn injunctions repeated. We were only permitted to kiss his hands, his head he would not allow us to touch, and our dear brother, rising to a standing position, slowly retired from us, repeating in solemn tones ‘Farewell! Farewell! ‘

    Faced with this kind of bloody cheek the punters began to fight back.

    Mrs M., a medium of extraordinary powers, undertook to exhibit a company of select and first-class ghosts to a Rochester audience a few nights since. Mrs. M was assisted by Mr. M , who acted as master of ceremonies and introduced the ghosts with brief and complimentary biographical sketches. The medium was tied with the usual ropes in the usual cabinet, and the audience sang hymns, in accordance with Mr. M’s request, doubtless in order to prevent the ghosts from cherishing any longing to permanently return to a world where people who can’t sing are always ready to try to sing. After the spirit of Daniel Webster had thrust his head out of the window of the cabinet, and made the astonishing revelation that there was a Mr. Smith in the audience, and that he rather thought he had met a Mr. Smith while in the body, the ghost of ‘Sarah’ walked out upon the platform, clad in while, materialized to the apparent extent of a hundred and fifty pounds. This was the moment for which Mr. C. had waited. He leaped on the platform and seized Sarah in his arms. The ghost, regarding this as a liberty, shrieked loudly; Mr. M caught up a chair and knocked the investigator down, and Sarah, escaping into the cabinet, was seen no more. There was, of course, a tremendous uproar. My. M. loudly proposed to destroy Mr. C. on the spot, as a villain who had laid his hand on a female ghost in other than a spirit of kindness. Mr. C. argued that his destruction was unnecessary and undesirable; and the audience was divided in opinion as to whether C or M was the person who stood in need of immediate destruction. The presence of mind of Daniel Webster happily restored order. That eminent ghost yelled out of the cabinet window that the medium would die if the audience didn’t everlastingly sing something, and some sympathetic spiritualist suddenly striking up that pathetic hymn beginning ‘Tramp, tramp, tramp,’ the audience joined in, and Mr. M. postponed his bloody resolution. With the singing of the hymn the exhibition ended. Mrs. M was found in the cabinet still tightly bound, and with her face covered with blood, which, as Mr. M explained, was in some vague way the result of Sarah’s hasty de-materialization of herself. At any rate, no wound could be found upon her person, and though Mr. M , with great liberality, offered to put a bullet through Mr. C., or to provide him with an additional and obviously superfluous head, he finally decided that his first duty was to wash Mrs. M, and to send Daniel Webster to inquire whether Sarah had sustained any serious injury.

    Here the fideles could perhaps have kept their faith, like fanatical Marxists c. 1990. But in the instance below exposure was total.

    Near the cabinet sat ‘a strange man in spectacles’. The occurrences of the evening were varied: ‘Poor Old Joe’, and the ‘ John Brown chorus’, brought forth ‘a baby-spirit’, believed by the sceptical to be nothing more than a newspaper sheet. Shortly afterwards a trifling discord marred the harmony of the circle. ‘Some one having tampered with the gas, manifestations were interrupted for a time, but harmony was restored, and the baby-spirit came again.’ The end, however, approached. ‘A tube of paper was handed out, presumably by a spirit, and then came the form of ‘John King’; first, as if tentatively selecting his position, and eventually appearing full at the aperture in the curtains. This was the critical moment; the strange man in spectacles bounded like a panther towards the cabinet, and made a grab at the spirit. The white drapery, or whatever it might be, was seen to shrivel up, as if vanishing away. ‘Gracious heavens! Could it be a spirit after all?’ was the question that overwhelmed for a moment the minds of the spectators. But, at the same instant, the brawny person, already described as a master-carter, sprang from his seat, and seized the medium on the left-hand side; so that the hapless impostor was thus caught in a vice. A howl of terror escaped his lips, and, as the gas was being turned on, another conspirator against the spirits made a dash at the cabinet and brought the whole arrangement to the floor. The medium was handed out, and disclosed a most ludicrous make-up. About two yards of tarlatan was arranged round his head turban-wise, and covered him in front down to the thighs. On each leg was tied loose a newspaper – both copies of the Daily Courier – and these served as the spirit’s pantaloons; in the full blaze of the gaslight they reminded one of the top-boots of a brigand in a melodrama. When dragged into the light the terrified medium was still clutching one end of the strip of tarlatan, doubtless thinking his spirit-dress would be some protection to him against the violence of the sceptics.’

    And here is another exposure.

    We sat as usual at eight o’clock, commencing with a hymn from  the “Spiritual Lyre.” ‘James Lombard’ was the first presentation, who, after calling several of the sitters some very objectionable names,  retired to make way for the manifestation of John King. When this gentleman was announced, he beckoned the sitters one by one, and  touched their hands and faces. My friend, Miss X, having previously  resolved on her course of action, requested to be touched on the  hand, and was touched accordingly. She then asked the spirit to be allowed to shake hands. The request was granted; but she was told not to come too near, or she would melt him. She grasped the offered hand tightly, and lifted the curtain: the light (which at all the  materialization seances was allowed to burn dimly) was immediately turned up, and Mr. R stood discovered, with one hand held by Miss, the other engaged in taking from his head and face a pair of false whiskers a la John King, and some white muslin which had  served as a head-dress. Not even being entranced, he entreated the  persons present not to expose him When counselled by us to give  over his nefarious practices, he replied that he should do no such thing.  Did we think he was going to work while a living could be got so easily by this means?

    The medium has a point. However, if you are tiring of the brazen lies of this folk note that it could at time be dangerous to be a medium.

    One by one the others followed. In spite of darkness, in spite of solemn promises extracted from sitters not to break the circle or seize the ghost, the materializers were all exposed. One man shot a ghost with ink, and the ink was found on the medium. Stuart Cumberland squirted cochineal on a ghost, and the medium could not wash it away. One American with a gun had a shot at a ghost [wth!!]. At another place tin-tacks were strewn on the floor, and the spirit’s language was painful to hear… Spiritualists were getting a little nervous, though as a rule they accepted every excuse. The medium had acted unconsciously, or under the influence of evil spirits.

    Other fun fakery: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    30 June 2013: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes ‘A quick note on Spiritualist fraud. This reminded me of the recent incident where ‘psychic’ Sylvia Browne told the parents of the missing Amanda Berry that she was dead. She was, of course, found alive and released from that house of horrors in Cleveland. Browne also told the parents of Shawn Hornbeck that he also was dead; he was found alive with his abductor. Here is 19 century equivalent FLIMSY SPOOK It Deceives a Sorrowing Mother for a Long Time. A Missing Son Comes Home. He Declares That the Ghost Which Had Passed Itself as His Immaterial Segment is a Fraud—The Mediums Must Have Made a Mistake This Time—John Declares He Was Never Dead. Columbus, Nov. 25 Spiritualistic circles are considerably agitated and scoffers at that belief are in high feather because of the unexpected return of a long lost son, who had been mourned as dead. Twenty years ago Johnny Gault, then fifteen years of age, suddenly disappeared from his home in this city. Nothing was heard of him and his parents mourned him as dead. Of late his sorrowing mother has sought the consolation of Spiritualist mediums, through whose supernatural powers, she said, she was enabled to converse with her son. The mediums apparently did not have any trouble in calling up the son’s spirit and the mother’s grief was greatly assuaged by the frequent conversations through the instrumentality of a medium.  A few days ago a stranger called at the Gault residence and was soon identified by the family as the long lost son. John insists that he has never been dead at all, the Spiritualistic mediums to the contrary notwithstanding. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 26 November 1894: p. 1 The Count meanwhile has strong feelings: Fraudulent mediums? It’s much, much quicker to list the ones who weren’t fakes! Let’s see now: Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886), still cited as the greatest medium of all time because, despite questionable behavior (such as marrying a dotty old lady for her money), he was never unequivocally caught cheating. And, er… actually, of the well-known mediums, that’s it! Oh, and one time he levitated out of a high window and in through another one in front of three witnesses. They were all friends of his, the light was bad, they didn’t actually see him levitating at any point, and there was a 19-inch ledge connecting the two windows onto which he had climbed a couple of days earlier from sheer bravado, but this is still frequently discussed (with varying degrees of accuracy) as the most awesome and best-attested feat a medium ever achieved! In other words, it’s a total crock. See also Kate and Margaret Fox, the two teenage girls who in 1841 invented “spirit rapping”. They much later admitted that it was a prank which got out of hand, and demonstrated how it was done (cracking the joints of their big toes, mostly), though they subsequently recanted the confession. And Eusapia Palladino, who fooled a great many very intelligent people, including Pierre Curie, but when properly supervised was caught cheating time and time again. And the sad tale of Sir William Crookes, cathode ray tube pioneer, discoverer of thallium, and all-round incredibly smart but incredibly gullible guy, who was taken in over an extended period by the rather pretty medium Florence Cook (who may have been his mistress). Her claim to fame was materialising a surprisingly solid “spirit” called Katie King, who, needless to say, only manifested herself when Florence was hidden from sight in a special cabinet, and as far as anyone could tell in the very dim light, looked surprisingly like Florence Cook draped in a sheet. And of course Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, as a result of multiple bereavements over a very short space of time, turned to Spiritualism as an escape from deep depression, and came to believe the most ludicrous things, many of which are described in his later books, some of which had to be self-published and dented his fortune severely (you can read some of this stuff here). He famously fell out with Harry Houdini over his absolute refusal to accept that arch-skeptic Houdini wasn’t an exceptionally powerful medium who achieved his tricks by using actual magic but wouldn’t admit it. Houdini was an interesting chap. His bitter hatred of fake mediums came about when his beloved mother died, and Spiritualism being all the rage, he tried to get in touch with her. The thing was, most people assumed that he was an American, and by default a Christian, whose name really was Houdini. Whereas in actual fact he was a Hungariam Jew called Erik Weisz. So when the medium relayed a message from his mother revealing that she was happy to be with Jesus, and moreover, she had suddenly learned to speak English, but had forgotten all the languages she actually spoke in life – the Houdini family conversed amongst themselves in a mixture of German, Hungarian and Yiddish that would have been impossible to fake even if the medium had known she was meant to – he was deeply hurt and outraged by this cruel imposture. So there you go – Houdini had a motive that we can all understand. I have never heard the slightest whisper of a motive of this nature or any other for the obsessive activities of The Appalling Randi – presumably he just likes being right. And let’s not forget Helen Duncan, defendant in one of the silliest Old Bailey trials ever (she lost, by the way). I leave you with Robert Browning’s 1864 poem about a certain “Mister Sludge”, actually D. D. Home, in whom his wife was a great believer. Browning was, as you can see, of a more skeptical bent… Thanks Count and Chris!