A séance is defined as a meeting where the purpose is to make contact with the souls of the dead. Séances are usually conducted at night, around a table, and most times these meetings, or sittings as they are sometimes known, are led by mediums. Mediums are people who claim to be able to communicate with the deceased and deliver their messages to the living.
People have been fascinated with communicating with the dead since the very beginning of humankind. In Australia, cave paintings showing skulls, bones, spirits and depictions of the afterlife have been found. These are believed to be 28,000 years old. Mediumship became hugely popular in the Victorian era and this meant that many mediums employed fraudulent methods to make themselves more well known.
Investigations into these supernatural occurrences by various individuals, including Harry Houdini, proved that many mediums were, in fact, fakes and the practice lost credibility and popularity.
Today, we are looking deeper in the dark practice of séances, the mediums and the tricks they used. We’ll look at famous practitioners, supporters and those who sought to debunk mediums and phenomena. If you’ve ever wanted to know about ectoplasms, table-tipping, levitation, and direct voice mediumship read on if you dare…
15. Speak To The Dead?
Death is difficult to accept and so, since the dawn of time, people have anxiously tried to communicate with those who have crossed over to the other side. Rituals are practiced all over the world, by a multitude of different cultures all with the same goal in mind: receive and send messages to the dead. Whether or not anyone has actually succeeded in doing so still remains to be seen but practices like this still continue today.
Although the first book on the subject of communication with the deceased was published in 1760, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the religion of Spiritualism was born. Spiritualism is the belief that spirits live on in the afterlife, or spiritual realm and that they continue to evolve. Spiritualists believe that the souls of the dead can communicate with the living, using séances, and help guide them.
14. Séances Have Been Held In The White House
Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, did not take the death of her son, William Wallace, well at all. She was unable to move on because she could not let him go. William was only 11 years old when he died from typhoid fever in 1862. Instead of moving through the grieving process she stagnated and became heavily involved with Spiritualism.
She organized séances together with known spiritual mediums of the time to be conducted at the White House, all in the hope of speaking to her son once again. These séances were also attended by her husband as well as other respected members of society however whether or not Mary Todd was ever able to truly speak to her “Willie”, as he was known, remains a mystery.
13. Tricks Used
During Victorian séances, shocked guests witnessed a number of so-called “supernatural” phenomena but a lot of these have been proven to be of a dubious nature, i.e. fraudulent. In these times successful mediums could make huge amounts of money by conducting séances and the more outrageous their claims, the more money they stood to make.
Mediums have been known to use hooks and wires to move furniture. Sometimes these hooks were even ingeniously sewn into their clothing so their hands could remain on the table. Others swallowed cheesecloth and other material which they would regurgitate later, claiming this to be proof of ectoplasms.
12. The World’s First Recorded Séance
The world’s first recorded séance took place in the 1840s and was performed, oddly enough, by two young sisters. These two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, played a vital role in the history of spiritualism by having their séances recorded in text. The Fox sisters created a unique system which involved tapping on the table, which they called “rapping”. They would use various methods, one of which involved tying an apple to a piece of string and bouncing it on the floor, then asking the “spirit” to recreate the sound. Their older sisters as well as many friends and family were convinced by their performances and helped them build successful careers as mediums. Forty years later the two confessed that the “rapping” was a hoax but recanted their statements later.
Most séances are led by a medium. A medium is a person who claims to have the supernatural ability to facilitate communication between the living and the dead. Some mediums claim to be guided by a spirit guide or familiar. This spirit helps connect them to other spirits that have passed over. Mediumship can take many different forms with the most popular being where the spirit takes over the medium’s body and uses their voice to deliver messages.
Mediums also sometimes produce physical manifestations of spirits using methods such as rapping or tapping, table tipping, telekinesis, and ectoplasms. Some perform feats such as levitation or showcase their ability by reading sealed letters. In Victorian times, spirit photography was also quite popular and practiced by select mediums as was slate-writing, a practice where mediums produce written words without consciously writing, claiming instead to be guided by spirits.
Ectoplasm is believed to be the material manifestation of an inner spiritual energy that mediums can use to help them communicate with spirits. It’s usually excreted as a gauze-like material from the mouth, nose or ear of a medium when they are in a trance state. This was often witnessed by guests at Victorian era séances. Some witness accounts state that the ectoplasm begins as an almost translucent material and then becomes darker the longer it’s exposed. Mediums of this era claimed that they could only produce ectoplasms in darkened rooms as the light conditions would cause the manifestation to disintegrate.
Numerous investigations, some by the Society for Psychical Research, have proven fraudulent methods used by so-called mediums to create ectoplasm. Sometimes mediums would swallow materials such as cheesecloth, paper, egg white, or muslin before a sitting and then regurgitate them during the séance. Disgusting, right?
9. Ouija Boards
If you’ve ever watched a horror movie you’ll be familiar with the Ouija board. These boards, also sometimes known as spirit boards or talking boards, were first produced in 1894 by Hasbro Inc. and were used as a parlor game until Spiritualists discovered that it could be used to speed up and simplify communication with the dead. The board is marked with all the letters of the alphabet as well as the words “yes”, “no”, hello”, and “goodbye”. The boards are often used in séances, where participants place their fingers on the planchette (heart shaped piece of wood or plastic) and it is moved around the board by spirits to spell out messages.
8. Voices Of The Dead
Leslie Flint had a unique talent as a medium. While other mediums received messages and repeated them, Flint claimed that through his spirit guide he was able to let the spirits speak for themselves, in their own voices. This is called direct-voice mediumship. He often performed at séances bound and gagged to demonstrate his skill but always in the dark. He would even on occasion perform from inside a cupboard.
He was famous for his claims that he could contact dead celebrities including Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, and even the Greek mathematician Archimedes.
Leslie conducted his first séance when he was seventeen years old and claimed that his spirit guide, or familiar, was that of a child named Mickey who had died in 1910. He claimed to have seen his first spirit (a dead uncle) when he was just seven years old.
7. Table Tipping
Before Ouija boards became available, Spiritualists would often use table tipping as a method of communicating with the dead. At table turning séances they would all sit around a table and put their hands flat on the tabletop. The letters of the alphabet would then be called out and the spirits could spell out messages by moving the table at certain letters. Sometimes the table would only show small movements and other times tables were recorded to have spun or lifted off the ground entirely.
The problem with this method was that it left plenty of room for trickery and deception. Just like the Ouija board the table could have been moved by participants without them even realizing it. Fraudulent mediums were also known to use hooks inserted into their sleeves to induce tipping or a ring which was connected to a nail in the table with fishing wire.
6. Did Sherlock Holmes Believe In Séances?
The pipe toting sleuth may have been all about sound methods of detection but his creator sure wasn’t. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was raised as a Catholic but rejected this faith in early adult life and became agnostic. This was partly due to his interest in mysticism and spiritualism. Doyle was involved with psychic investigations which included séances and claims of poltergeists and other supernatural activity. Doyle was one of the founding members of the Hampshire Society for Psychical Research in 1889 and he also joined the London-based Society for Psychical Research in 1893.
Doyle was a true believer. Many believe that the war-related deaths that he witnessed, including that of his own son, influenced his beliefs and that he allowed himself to be fooled by medium trickery.
5. Ghostly Art
William Hope was a paranormal investigator who is considered to be one of the leading pioneers in “spirit photography”. He produced his first “spirit” photograph in 1905, claiming to have captured the image of a person who had crossed over to the other side.
Although there were rampant claims of forgery and plate switching on the camera, Hope amassed quite a following, even becoming the leader of his own Spiritualist group. He attended many séances, even joining Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle on more than one occasion.
Spirit photography was discovered by a man named William Mumler in the 1860s, who uncovered the technique by accident. He saw that by using double exposure he could “insert” other people into photographs and realized that he could sell such pictures to people who had lost a loved one. He was finally exposed as a fraud when the people he used for the ghostly images were identified as living persons.
4. Society For Psychical Research
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 and believe it or not, still continues to operate today– 135 years later! The Society (SPR) was formed by a small group of well-respected, highly educated men with the intention of studying paranormal events and their effects on humans in a scientific way. Today we refer to this field of study as parapsychology.
During the early days of the SPR most of their work and research centered around investigating and exposing fraudulent claims of paranormal events. Sometimes the men would also try to recreate certain phenomena to discredit them. In the late 19th century they also sent members into séances to expose bent mediums and investigated claims of spirit photography.
3. Spiritualism And AA?
Bill Wilson was a strange man. He had a taste for liquor and the supernatural. He loved all things paranormal and even went so far as to devote an entire room of his house to mystical items. He affectionately referred to this room as the “spook room” and believed that while spending time in this room he was able to communicate with passed over spirits. Kind of like a one-man séance.
In his autobiography, Wilson claimed that one of the spirits he encountered through using his Ouija board was that of a monk named Boniface who had lived in the 15th century. He said that Boniface not only helped him overcome his own alcoholism but also helped him create the famous Alcoholics Anonymous and the tried and tested Twelve Step program.
2. Levitation Wonder
Levitating in a darkened room is one thing. There it’s easy to employ all kinds of trickery but what about doing it in a large well lit room? Numerous times? And never be revealed as a fraud? There was a man who did it and his name was Daniel Dunglas Home.
Home made a name for himself in the séance scene with his incredible, gravity-defying feats for almost 40 years. One of his most famous performances occurred during a séance in 1857 when five people witnessed him rise five feet out of his chair and this was recorded by Arthur Conan Doyle in his book A History of Spiritualism. Another well-known levitation occurred at a sitting in 1871 and this was witnessed by a man named Sir William Crookes who later became the president of the British Society for the Advancement of Science.
It may surprise you to know that the legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini actually made a living conducting rigged séances before he found fame. In fact, Houdini was heavily involved with Spiritualism until his beloved mother passed away. He searched for a true medium to help communicate once more with her but failed. Houdini switched sides and went on a mission to try and expose as many mediums as he could, attending over a hundred sittings.
Strangely enough, he left instructions for his widow Bess to try and contact him after he passed away, which she did. She held annual séances for him and when she died his loyal fans took over. So far the famous escapologist hasn’t reappeared. Is this the proof he spent his life searching for?