When the Fox sisters first told the world in 1848 that they could communicate with dead, the world listened. So began the birth of spiritualism, a religious movement based on the belief that spirits could communicate with the living through mediums. Soon, in darkened parlors and drawing rooms across America and Europe, séances were taking place as mediums attempted to summon the dead, delivering messages verbally or through table tipping, levitation, the ringing of bells and by emitting a substance known as ectoplasm. But was spiritualism everything as it appeared to be? After years of gathering fame and fortune the Fox sisters came forward in 1888 and admitted their supernatural gifts were nothing more than mere parlor tricks.
Among spiritualism’s most ardent believers were Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes novels) and magician Harry Houdini. The latter turned his magician’s mind to unmasking the fakes and frauds that plagued the movement. It was in many ways the beginning of the end for spiritualism. As more and more mediums were debunked and their methods made public, belief in the movement had waned substantially by the mid-twentieth century.
Today, spiritualism has been imprinted on our collective consciousness as a time when the veil between life and death seemed impossibly thin. The following photographs are a fascinating glimpse into this extraordinary time in our history.
Photograph of table tipping during a séance taken in the late 19th century. Participants would sit around a table, place their hands on it, and wait for rotations which would serve as a means of communicating with the spirits.
A séance conducted by Eusapia Palladino, a well-known medium who was said to be able to communicate with spirits, levitate tables and move objects without ever touching them. In reality she was unmasked as a fraud on more than one occasion, which surprisingly did nothing to dent her growing popularity among believers, allowing her to tour the world showcasing her seemingly other worldly gifts.
The séance pictured above took place in 1909 in Rome, Italy, in the studio of Baron von Erhardt. At the time Erhart was testing medium Eusapia Palladino. During her demonstration Erhardt would activate a camera and the flashlight behind it, illuminating Paladino and capturing this picture.
Albert von Schrenck-Notzing psychiatrist and physician became fascinated with the phenomena of ectoplasm. He studied the medium Marthe Beraud also known as Eva C. and Eva Carrière (pictured above) for more than decade, documenting her otherworldly manifestations. However, in 1922 scientists thoroughly debunked Beraud’s after sitting in on her séances.
Mary Ann Marshall was a Canadian medium who gained notoriety for this photo depicting ectoplasm streaming from her nose which featured a likeness of Arthur Conan Doyle’s face in it. She was eventually exposed as a fraud that made her fake ectoplasm from cloth, tissue, and magazine cut-outs of people.
Taken in 1924, the photo depicts Mina “Margery” Crandon mid trance exuding ectoplasm from her ear. A firm favourite of Arthur Conan Doyle who regularly voiced his support for her telekinetic ability, she was debunked by Harry Houdini who exposed the mechanics of her deception during a séance.
Devastated by the death of his mother magician Harry Houdini was drawn to spiritualism, however it wasn’t long before he realized it was nothing more than smoke and mirrors. He then mounted a campaign he maintained for the rest of his life to expose spiritualists anywhere he could. Here he is pictured demonstrating how phoney mediums are able to make bells ring during a séance.
Bess Houdini presides over a séance to contact Harry Houdini October 31, 1936. Following his death, Bess had tried to contact her late husband by means of a séances every year on the anniversary of his death. After ten years without success, this was to be her final try. She ended the proceedings by saying, “Ten years was long enough to wait for any man.”
Spiritualist Colin Evans levitating during a spiritualist meeting in London, the photograph was taken in complete darkness with an infra-red flashgun system.
Taken by Danish photographer Sven Türck, who had become interested in spiritualism and decided to try to document the activities he was seeing at the séances by conducting a series of them in a controlled environment. The above photograph is just one of many taken during the séances and appears to show a chair levitating seemingly of its own accord.
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