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Friday, 25 March 2011

“I Felt Invisible Hands Playing With My Hair” Or: At a Victorian Spiritual Séance:

The Victorian fascination with, scepticism of, and attitude toward spiritualism, spiritual mediums and séances is something that I have been meaning to read about and to cover, but it is a subject that I have so far not managed to dip my toe into other than with reading Sarah Waters’ Affinity, John Harwood’s The Séance, and Faye L. Booth’s Cover the Mirrors. A journalistic piece about all things spiritual also lays largely unread at home save for a few chapters, in the shape of by Charles Maurice Davies’ Mystic London, written in 1875.

The séance, with the gas turned down and the woman sitting behind the curtain as onlookers gasp at various feats and ‘spiritual tricks’ is one of the primary images that comes to my mind when I think ‘Victorians’. This was an age of discovery and invention, but also one of freak-shows and con artists, ready to prey on the susceptible and, perhaps more pertinently depending on your beliefs, the gullible. The Victorian age was also one of science versus religion. It was an age when church attendances began to dwindle, and knowledgeable men began to raise a questioning finger at the idea of religion.

These conflicts are what fascinate me about the Victorian attitude to ghosts, séances and mediums, and so I was thrilled to come across the following article in The leisure Hour from August 1877, in which the author describes his attendance at a Spiritual Séance.

What I like about the article is that this was clearly a gentleman whose bias fell down upon the side of science. He has raised his questioning finger against the dubious practices he has seen performed before him and sought a scientific explanation to them. There is a line he writes which I love, because it symbolizes the attitude to religion-based rule in the mid to late 1800’s, in which people began to see church going as a chore, which lead to them eventually staying away. For me, this line encapsulates the entire idea of the Victorians who turned from religion to science. The line is:

“I began to mistrust him, but said nothing.”

Science was now providing the answers, the progress, the wealth and the lifestyle that religion no longer did. Educated gentlemen said nothing, they merely stopped going to church.

Onto the article. Apologies if it is rather long. It may be this, but it is also (I think) quite interesting.

At a Spiritual Séance
By invitation I attended, some time ago, what is called “a spiritual séance.” It was a private and preliminary meeting, confined chiefly to “representatives of the press.”
As this particular exhibition has disappeared from London I feel no hesitation in now publishing the results of my visit, although I refrained from doing so at the time.

The “medium” was a young lady, whose manifestations were described as of a most wonderful and mysterious character. The time was at eight o’clock p.m. I met several gentlemen, whose speech showed them as representing England, Ireland, Scotland and America, all apparently anxious to investigate the marvellous phenomena. They appeared to be men of education and ability. Some of them had witnessed similar exhibitions, while others had never seen anything of the kind.

There were two rooms, separated by folding doors. We were asked to examine the rooms as much as we wished, to see that there were no persons and no machines, electrical or other, concealed in them. We found several musical instruments on the tables and on the piano, to be played upon by the spirits during the séance.
When we had taken our seats in the larger saloon, the doors were locked and the key given to one of the gentlemen. The lady said that we might choose the one who was to keep the key, so as to know that no one could go through the doors in the dark to assist her.
She then asked if one of us would take some strips of cotton cloth, about an inch in breadth, and tie one around each arm a few inches above the wrist. One gentleman tied one with several knots quite fast to the arm, and then another gentleman tied the other piece of cloth fast to the other arm, while we watched them closely. A thread and needle were then taken by a third person, and the knots were firmly sewed together. The four ends, which were about eight inches in length, were now tied together behind the lady’s back, and then fastened securely to an iron ring about two inches in diameter, having a staple attached to it with a thread cut upon it, so that it could be screwed into the woodwork surrounding one of the windows.
Another iron staple was likewise fastened in the wall about two feet above the one to which the arms were tied.

The lady was seated on a stool with her hands securely fastened behind her in the staple, which had been first secured in its place. A piece of cotton cloth, about an inch in diameter, was also placed around her neck and well tied by one of the party to the upper ring. A small cord was next fastened around her ankles, binding them together, and the end was given to one of the gentlemen to hold fast, to show that she did not move her feet. A curtain was held up before her by a gentleman belonging to the house, who assisted her by holding one corner of it in his hands while the other end was fastened to the wall by a nail. The gas-light was now turned down very low, when the manifestations immediately commenced.

The first thing that the spirit did was to tie a knot in the strip of cotton cloth that had been tied around the lady’s neck by one of the party. It required but a moment, when the light was turned on, the curtain drawn aside, we found the lady securely tied to the rings.
A guitar was now placed on her lap, the room partly darkened, and the curtain again drawn up in front of her. Immediately we heard the sounding of the guitar, as though someone was playing upon it. We could also see the instrument pushed against the curtain, and then heard it thrown upon the floor, where the spirit continued to play upon it until the lady called “light,” which was again turned on, when we were requested to examine the fastenings. This we did, finding them all perfect.
Two small bells were now placed in her lap, and the curtain arranged as before, when the bells were taken, rung, and thrown upon the floor.

A small, square piece of board, about six inches across, was placed on a chair by her side, while a hammer and a nail were put into her lap. We soon heard the spirit driving the nail into the board, and when the curtain was drawn aside we examined the board, and found the nail well driven into it, while the hammer was lying on the floor.
A violin was next placed upon he lap, when we heard some one performing upon it very distinctly for a few minutes, when upon dropping the curtain we found the instrument lying on the chair by her side.
A pair of scissors and a folded paper were put in her lap, when a piece was, in a short time, cut out in the shape of a heart. A tambourine was now placed in her lap, with a glass of water on the top of it, when in a moment the glass was empty, - the spirit of the boy having drank the water, she said.
The mouth organ, tambourine and violin were all placed together on her lap, when we heard them all sound at one time. A circle or hoop was laid on her lap, which was afterwards found around her neck. A large wooden pail was put on her lap, and in a few seconds we saw it turned upside down over her head. 

After each experiment the room was lighted, and we were all invited to examine the bands and the rings, which apparently remained the same as when we securely tied them. A knife was now placed in the lady’s lap, and the bands were cut open by the spirit, so the medium stated.

Having examined the knots we found that they had not been untied. The gentlemen who were present said that it was beyond their comprehension, and really a great mystery.
The lady, after a few minutes conversation, seated herself in the centre of the parlour, and we all formed a complete circle around her by joining our hands. Before beginning the manifestations which were now to take place, she asked us to observe that, during this séance, she would continually strike her hands together so that we could hear them, that we might know that she did not use them while the spirits were performing their work.
The room was then darkened by turning down the gas. Soon an English gentleman felt the spirit unbutton his vest and take his watch out of his pocket. The Scotchman had his nose pulled and his spectacles taken off. I felt the spirit fanning my face, and invisible hands playing with my hair, and gently tapping my arms and legs.

After we had all felt the mysterious manifestations several times, the lady asked for someone to hold her hands firmly within theirs. The Scotchman volunteered to secure her hands, while a guitar was placed upon her head. The gentleman who held the curtain and turned off the gas each time was seated on my left. I observed that he placed my left hand into his left hand, so that his right hand was free.
I began to mistrust him, but said nothing.

We now heard music on the guitar for a short time. Then the Irishman on my right was hit on the head with the instrument, which, after touching some of the other gentlemen, returned over the lady’s head.
While the guitar was sounding sweetly, I leaned my head towards it, when I came into contact with an arm which drew back so suddenly that it threw the instrument on the floor. I had accidentally and unintentionally put an end to the wondrous manifestations.
None but the gentleman on my left, whose arm my head had touched, and myself, knew why the spirits had so very unceremoniously left the room.

The lady asked “what had happened,” and appeared rather surprised, while the gentleman on my left appeared somewhat confused. The room was now lighted. The lady explained that the spirits were sometimes suddenly called away to other scenes and other séances. The “gentlemen of the press” seemed however, quite contented with what they had seen, promising to give a good report of it to their friends.

After the others left, I remained, although my presence was probably not very acceptable after what had occurred. I examined the rings, and found how they might easily be taken from the wall if the lady could not free her hands by stretching the cotton bands sufficiently to withdraw them. It is quite a clever trick, as much so, perhaps, as the feats of the Davenport Brothers. Should the bands be so well ties that the lady cannot get her hands out of them or unscrew the ring, she is provided with a knife with which she can cut the bands from the arms after she has broken loose from the ring, and then substitute new bands concealed in her pocket, already tied and sewn together similar to those placed upon her by the party, with an extra ring.
Or she can use the same ring, quickly making the ends of the cotton fast to it, as gentlemen do not desire to scrutinize the fastenings very closely, and have not the least idea how the trick is performed.
It is one by which the credulous could easily be deceived.

In order to make the sound as though the lady was striking the back of her right hand into the palm of her left, she could strike on the cheek or forehead, or she could use two pieces of wood or other material fastened to the inside of each knee, so that she could beat them together. Sometimes ladies attach small cymbals to their knees and strike them together during their spiritual séances. The continual knocking is to make parties believe that both hands are occupied and therefore could not be otherwise engaged in pulling peoples noses, boxing their ears or playing other pranks which the spirits seem to take much delight in.
One hand is free, and with this hand, a fan or bell or other instrument can be putinto the mouth of an accomplice in the circle.

Sometimes spirit hands are seen as well as spirit faces in the dark. A mask is rubbed over with phosphorus, which is concealed by the medium until she desires to have it appear in the dark. Sometimes ladies’ and children’s gloves are covered with phosphorus and cleverly connected with a rubber tube, by blowing into which the hands of spirits are made to appear. The Davenport Brothers used to put them through the holes in their cabinet, sometimes a dozen at once, and then let out the air and conceal the gloves in their pockets.
In the performance I witnessed, of course the gentleman who sat on my left was the spirit who played the guitar and struck the Irishman over the head while the Scotchman was holding the hands of the medium. The Englishman found the Scotchman’s spectacles in his vest pocket after the séance was finished. I believe that at least two of the gentlemen present were in collusion with the lady.

The modus operandi may be varied. Sometimes a person enters the room to assist, using a false key. At other times the person is concealed in a wardrobe fitted up as the Proteus at the Polytechnic Institution, or in the mysterious cabinet of Messrs. Maskelyne and Cooke, with looking glasses or spacious mirrors which reflect the sides or the top of the cabinet, giving it the appearance of the back part of the cabinet, while the person or persons are concealed behind the mirrors.
Other “spiritual” rooms have the marvellous trunk with a person placed inside of it, and when the room is darkened, the person easily gets out or in by means of a secret spring, which allows the end, side or bottom to open inwardly, although it may have several locks upon it, and a dozen cords wound around it, and different seals placed upon the knots.

Mr Maskelyne says “by special request of many who are desirous of entirely stamping out the superstitious doctrine falsely called spiritualism,” he gives his famous light and dark séances. I went to see the séances at the Egyptian Hall, and amidst various performances making up a really interesting “entertainment,” I saw the old Proteus cabinet used many years ago by Professor Pepper at the Royal Polytechnic, slightly altered.
Instead of having two mirrors to reflect the two sides of the cabinet, giving it the appearance of the back part of the box, there is substituted one mirror fixed on hinges at the top of the cabinet, by which the top of the box is reflected while the person is concealed behind the glass on a shelf which the mirror closes upon, giving the impression to the spectators that they are looking at the back of the cabinet, when they only see the top of the cabinet reflected in the mirror.

Psycho, which Mr. Maskelyne claims to be the “greatest wonder” of the nineteenth century, I take to be a clever repetition of the automaton chess-player. Having played chess with the famous “automaton,” I will give my explanation of how it is performed. The figure is first opened so that you can look through it near the middle of it, so as to allow you to examine a portion of it, and show you that there is no person concealed within. The little door is now closed, and the exhibitor commences to wind, or assumes to wind, up the machinery by turning a handle near the figure, which passes into the floor. This winding-up is simply to deceive, and to make a noise while the boy climbs through the floor beneath the figure, so that you cannot hear him. In the Psycho it is not necessary to have so intelligent a lad, and consequently Mr. Maskelyne has made his mask for the boy much smaller than that used for the chess player.

Mr. Maskelyne keeps his boy but a little while confined, while Mr. Hooper is obliged to keep his lad sometimes for several hours. Some may think Mr. Hooper’s boy too young to play chess so well, and to pass the knight over the chess-board so rapidly without missing a square, as he is able to, commencing from any square on the board.
I would remind them that Mr. Paul Morphy was one of the best chess-players in New Orleans when only ten or twelve years of age, and at the age of twenty-one he beat the best chess-players of Europe. When he came over the Atlantic and challenged Mr. Staunton, the acknowledged English champion of chess, Mr. Staunton refused to play with him, asking for several months’ time to prepare himself, although he had been preparing for twenty years constantly in playing and writing books on chess.

Mr Bennett, of the “New York Herald,” and many other wealthy men of America, were ready to back their countryman to any amount. Mr. Paul Morphy did not play for money, but for honour. He could easily have won his millions of dollars if he had played for them, and if that had been his ambition and aim.
When Mr. Maskelyne says that Psycho is only a “mechanical figure twenty-two inches high,” he does not include the box upon which it sits, and to which it is attached, wishing to make us believe that there is no space for a small human being to work the mask which is placed around the person. He could not make a small window or door in the in the body of Psycho without exposing the boy, and consequently the trick.

Opening the box below the figure does not in the least interfere with the boy inside the figure. Having no trap-door to pass through, as in the case with the chess-player, the boy must sit caged up like a monkey or a mummy during the examination of the box. The boy “Psycho” could perform just as well suspended by a cord, or seated on top of Maskelyne’s head, as while on the glass cylinder, provided another person could take the place that Mr. Maskelyne usually fills during the performance.

When it is stated in the public newspapers that “Psycho can play a game of whist, and perform a series of conjuring tricks without the aid of confederates or the assistance of Mr. Maskelyne,” the public must remember that the profession and trade of a magician is to deceive the people, and it is not expected that they will let the world know their secrets.
Those who believe that an automaton or mere mechanical figure can be made to multiply, add, or subtract any four numbers which any person in the audience may request, and in a few moments give a correct result, or, like the new marvel, Zoe, can make various drawings with skill and intelligence, such people are – well, we shall merely say that they quite misunderstand the object of such “entertainments.”

In justice to Messrs. Maskelyne and Cooke I must add that they have the least “humbug” about them of any “professors” of the art, and in calling themselves “illusionists and anti-spiritualists” they candidly tell the public that they are deceiving them for their amusement, as well as for their own profit.

I was introduced some years ago to a family of Jews in Constantinople, and in their house witnessed far more feats in open daylight than I have seen performed in London by Dr. Lynn, Messrs. Maskelyne and Cooke, Professor Peopper, or by any pretended spiritual medium. One of the younger Jewish maidens could cause a heavy table to rise several feet in the air while a dozen person were watching her closely, apparently by placing her fingers to the top of it.
She could keep it suspended but a short time in the air, when it would fall to the floor. It had fallen so heavily on many occasions that the legs were broken off, and when I witnessed the experiments there were several pieces of iron fastened to the legs in order to strengthen them.
She performed it twice the same day; the second time, however, required several minutes more than the first. She not only performed this experiment in her father’s house, but many times with another table at the residence of Mr. John P. Brown, Secretary of the American Legation. She did not profess to know how or why she was able to perform this and many other curious experiments, unless it was throught the assistance of some supernatural power.

There was no doubt some scientific and natural explanation; but I never heard it, nor ascertained the cause of the wonderful exhibitions. I am more puzzled by them now than by all that I have since witnessed in London or in America.


  1. Thanks for this. Modern spiritualism is a major interest of mine,I do believe in mediumship,and even though the Victorian seances were obviously fraudulent, they still fascinate me. Some of the photographs taken in the parlour room are outrageous lol.

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  2. Found this blog via the Virtual Victorian. Fascinating article - I shall enjoy reading more from you!

  3. Victorian fiction, check back over the coming weeks, there will be more on spiritualism, mediums and seances! Thanks for the comment!

  4. womagwriter, thanks very much, I shall thank the V V for bringing me to your attention! Comment appreciated, hope you enjoy past and future posts too!

  5. I have always been fascinated with this obsession of the Victorians for contacting the 'other side' and undertook some research into the inter-war period as well when it all came back into the public eye. Look forward to reading more!

    Suzie @keatsbabe

  6. There are plenty of stories of frauds being detected, but I find it very interesting that many scientifically-minded men believed in things like mediums and spirits.

    I suppose it comes from the fact that everyone, at some level of their consciousness 'wants' to believe in such things, not just then, but today also.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. Have just had a screenplay optioned about this very subject. Love this blog. May I set a link to it on my Victorian website? Chills.

  8. Of course, let me know what your Victorian website is, too, and I'll have a look and put a link to it on here.

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