Mediation between the living and the deceased enjoyed a long period of historic popularity, until it was bombarded by scientists and Harry Houdini.
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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spiritualism — a belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living — was all the rage. Little was trendier than holding a séance led by a medium, who would mediate between the living and the dead. The medium not only delivered messages from the dearly departed, but also demonstrated the presence of spirits in the room by levitating objects, ringing bells, and producing a substance from their body known as ectoplasm.
Engaging as the tricks were, mediums were often shown to be frauds. “Exposures are of frequent occurrence, many of them highly sensational in character,” wrote The New York Times in a November 21, 1909 article titled “Notable Charlatans Exposed In The Past: A Weird History That Leaves Spiritualism Undaunted.” As it notes, “Slate writing, spirit pictures, table tipping, rapping, and other features of Spiritualism have been exposed time and again. The exposures mount into the hundreds.”
Mediums often asked spirits to demonstrate their power by levitating or moving a table.
1870: The medium would hold hands with the other participants to show that he could not be manipulating any objects himself.
The two photos above, courtesy of the Library of Congress, also appear in the New York Times article noted above. The séance pictured took place in 1909 at the Rome, Italy studio of Baron von Erhardt, who set up a test for the medium (the article states that the medium is a man named Eusapia Paladino, but Eusapia Palladino was actually a famous female medium; the lone woman of the group might be her). Whenever the medium was giving a demonstration, the Baron would press a button, which activated both the camera and the flashlight behind it, illuminating Paladino and snapping a picture. “Thus he pictures tables suspended in the air, the medium with his coat removed, apparently by ‘spirit’ hands, and flung against the screen of the cabinet, and a mandolin in the air,” the New York Times said.
This medium, at a 1950 séance, got sloppy: a photographer caught her using her knee to tip the levitating table.
The two photos above, circa 1910, show medium Marthe Beraud (also known as Eva C. and Eva Carrière) excreting ectoplasm — her specialty — during a séance. In the top photo, a strange face appears on the ectoplasm. The material was said to be formed when mediums were in a trance state; it could only be created in near darkness (light, mediums said, would make it disintegrate), and it was emitted from orifices on the medium’s body (Beraud’s usually came from her mouth, nose or ears). But rather than being some spiritual substance, the so-called ectoplasm was usually gauze, muslin, chiffon or, in the case of Mina “Margery” Crandon, sheep’s lung. Beraud was the first medium to perform the ectoplasm trick, and one of her outspoken supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
At left is another photo of Beraud, this one taken in 1912, apparently showing a light manifestation between her hands and a materialization on her head. In 1922, scientists sat in on 15 of Beraud’s séances, and thoroughly debunked her.
Mediums had no greater opponent than magician Harry Houdini, who denounced them as frauds. In fact, he had almost a secondary career debunking the methods of famous mediums during séances and performing their tricks as part of his stage show. He even asked his wife to help him show how mediums pull off certain tricks.
In 1924, Houdini was part of a committee investigating Boston medium Mina “Margery” Crandon, the wife of a respected surgeon and Harvard faculty member. Crandon had entered herself in a contest of sorts, run by Scientific American, that offered a monetary prize to the medium able to produce a “visual psychic manifestation.” Here, Houdini is shown in the “Margie Box,” which was intended to limit the medium’s physical movements within the séance room and contain her suspected manipulations; Houdini built the box himself. The committee sat in on 20 séances, and the debate about Crandon’s abilities lasted for a year, but ultimately, Scientific American opted not to award her the money.
1920: A musical instrument rises in the air at a séance.
National Media Museum/Flickr
This seance, captured by renowned spirit photographer William Hope around 1920, supposedly shows a ghostly arm levitating the table. The arm was actually superimposed during a double exposure.
This photo from September 10, 1931, shows medium Meurig Morris holding an onstage séance at the Fortune Theatre in London. Morris was more of a mental medium than a physical one: She would go into a trance and supposedly channel a spirit that called itself Power. Her body would stiffen, and her voice changed from soprano to baritone. She would preach on philosophical and religious matters for up to 45 minutes at a time.
This post originally appeared on Mental Floss, an Atlantic partner site.