Though not as common today, attempting to channel spirits at a seance was once a popular past time. Small groups of apprehensive men and women would gather around a table and, with the help of a medium who was able to ‘channel’, they would attempt to contact any willing spirits. While the earliest recorded seances took place during the mid-18th century, it was the rise in spiritualism a century later that caused the pursuit to really take off – even Abraham Lincoln and Arthur Conan Doyle took part in the spooky events.
Eventually though, the fascination with spiritualism gave way to more rational thinking, and as a result many mediums were proved to be frauds. While some churches do still practice seances as part of their services today, these ceremonies are far from the grand exhibits of showmanship from the past. Thankfully though, we do still have records of these rituals in the form of vintage photos taken from seances throughout history, and as these 15 examples prove, they still make for seriously creepy viewing…
15. Sven Turck
Sven Turck was a Danish photographer who worked mainly during the 1930s and 1940s. During that time his work mainly centered around capturing scenes from everyday life, as well as ordinary people going about their daily routine. However, during the 1940s he turned his attentions to spiritualism – specifically, trying to capture objects being moved by ghosts on film.
Despite initially being something of a sceptic, he dedicated months of his time to this pursuit, working from his laboratory in Copenhagen. The three cameras he set up during seances soon began picking up pieces of furniture seemingly moving by themselves, reportedly including a large commode that was so heavy it required more than two people to lift it. Even the participants themselves were said to sometimes be thrown from one end of the room to the other. In 1945 Turck published a book of these photos titled I Was Familiar With The Spirits.
14. Helen Duncan
Helen Duncan was a Scottish medium who not only claimed to be able to contact the spirits, but also to be able to produce ectoplasm – a supernatural substance that comes from the body of the medium to form a manifestation of the spirit.
One such spirit was ‘Peggy’, who Duncan referred to as her spirit guide but was actually just a doll made from using papier-mâché and an old sheet. As for that ‘ectoplasm’, it was later found to be nothing but cheesecloth mixed with egg white and toilet paper, which Duncan swallowed some time before a seance then simply regurgitated during the event.
In 1944 Duncan became one of the last people to be sentenced under the Witchcraft Act 1735, which made falsely claiming to procure spirits a crime. After her release nine months later, she promised to stop conducting seances, but clearly the temptation was too great – she was arrested while performing one in 1956.
13. Jack Webber
Jack Webber was a Welsh medium and former miner who was introduced to spiritualism by his wife. He certainly ran with the theme though — he claimed he was able to levitate objects, produce ectoplasm and channel spirits, with the help of his spirit guides ‘Paddy’ and ‘Reuben’. During his seances photographs were often taken using infrared flashlights.
The levitating trumpets were a preferred spectacle of Webber’s, though according to magician Julien Proskauer, this was a simple trick. He alleged that Webber was holding a rod attached to the trumpet, which participants couldn’t see due to the low lighting. This rod would then be covered in ‘ectoplasm’ to hide it.
Researcher Hereward Carrington also believed Webber to be a fraud, stating that the spirit voices heard during the seances were actually Webber himself, having attached a trumpet to the end of a rod or rubber tube.
12. Eusapia Palladino
Eusapia Palladino was an Italian medium who claimed to be able to levitate objects as well as communicating with ghosts through her spirit guide John King. Despite being caught in trickery numerous times throughout her career, for example using a fake hand or foot so she could freely move hers, she managed to convince many people of her supernatural powers.
In 1905 she was investigated by Nobel-laureate physicists Pierre Curie and Marie Curie and Nobel-laureate physiologist Charles Richet in Paris. Pierre Curie later wrote of the experience:
“It was very interesting, and really the phenomena that we saw appeared inexplicable as trickery—tables raised from all four legs, movement of objects from a distance, hands that pinch or caress you, luminous apparitions. All in a [setting] prepared by us with a small number of spectators all known to us and without a possible accomplice. The only trick possible is that which could result from an extraordinary facility of the medium as a magician. But how do you explain the phenomena when one is holding her hands and feet and when the light is sufficient so that one can see everything that happens?”.
11. Colin Evans
Though many mediums throughout history have claimed to be able to levitate inanimate objects, few have professed the ability to make themselves float. 20th-century Welsh medium Colin Evans however said just that – and in 1937 he set out to prove it at a seance in Finsbury Park, London.
Although a spooky photograph taken at the event does seem to show him floating off the ground, all is not what it seems. Evans insisted on conducting the seance in the dark, and the cord leading from his hand reveals that he triggered the flash-photo himself, so all he had actually done was jump from his chair and snap a picture at the right time. Sceptics later pointed out that his blurred feet are also evidence that he was not floating but had jumped.
Evans tried the trick again at a seance in Regent’s Park a year later, but this time his audience weren’t quite so forgiving – they demanded their money back and he was forced to cough up his earnings.
10. Mina Crandon
Though most mediums accused of fraud have financial motives, the same can’t be said for Mina “Margery” Crandon. Born in 1888, she was married to a wealthy surgeon and socialite, which endeared her to the middle and upper classes who refused to believe that someone of her standing could be a fake.
During seances Crandon claimed to be able to channel the ghost of her dead brother Walter. Her seances were something of a spectacle in themselves; she would often strip naked, sprinkle luminous powder on her breasts and throw herself into the laps of her male audience. She is also believed to have had several affairs with those investigating her supernatural claims.
One person who wasn’t taken in by her charms was magician Harry Houdini, who accused her of freeing a foot during a seance in order to ring a bell, and he even gave a demonstration of exactly how she had done it to the Scientific American prize committee. Despite this, her allure was clearly just too strong and the Scientific American published an article praising her supernatural powers.
9. Ethel Post-Parrish
Ethel Post-Parrish was an American medium who proved just how profitable the career could be; in 1932 she set up a Spiritualist summer camp in Pennsylvania that took in up to a million dollars a year during its peak. The camp was named Silver Belle, after her spirit guide, an Indian girl who would supposedly materialize from a cloud of ectoplasm during Parrish’s seances.
In one seance in Pennsylvania in 1953, photographer Jack Edwards took pictures purportedly showing Silver Belle while Parrish sat in a curtained cabinet. However, the photos were later revealed to be a hoax; ‘Silver Belle’ was actually just a figure made out of cardboard, and the ‘ectoplasm’ was a photograph of smoke that has simply been added by double exposure. The lady standing next to the cabinet in the photo would also have been in on the hoax.
8. William Hope
William Hope was a paranormal investigator from Crewe, England who was also a pioneer of ‘spirit photography’. He rose to prominence after his first image in 1906, taken of William Crookes and supposedly the ghost of his dead wife. Physicist Oliver Lodge pointed out that there was clear evidence of double exposure; the photo of Lady Crookes had obviously been copied from a wedding anniversary photograph, but Crookes himself was convinced and declared it proof of the possibility of spirit photography.
After years of scamming the public by charging for photos apparently with their dead loved ones, Hope’s downfall came in 1920 when Edward Bush set up a trap for him. Under the fake name ‘Wood’, Bush wrote a letter to Hope pretending to be a grieving father whose son had recently died. He included a photo of a boy which he pretended was his son. After attending a sitting with Hope, he was given a photo that depicted his ‘dead son’ next to him – and was exactly the same as the picture he had sent in his letter.
7. Franek Kluski
Born in 1873, Franek Kluski was a Polish medium who was said to be able to manifest animals and human limbs during his seances, as well as human spirits themselves like the one in the picture. One of his more unusual ‘powers’ however, was his ability to apparently bring forth a prehistoric man, who appeared at a number of seances during 1919. One participant, a Dr. Okolowicz, said of the mysterious being:
“When told off, it would hide for a time under the table or sit at the feet of the participants, lightly scratching their legs. It took a lot of effort to break it out of the habit of trying to lick the faces of the participants (and the medium) with an enormous salivating tongue, with participants protesting and requesting it should be dismissed! When staying longer, it would produce a very unpleasant smell, like a dirty cage of a wild animal”.
6. Marthe Béraud
Marthe Béraud was a well-known French medium born in 1886. She began performing seances in 1905, during which she seemingly materialized a 300-year-old Brahmin Hindu named Bien Boa. However, it was discovered a year later that the ‘spirit’ was actually an Arab coachman who had been paid to play the part, dressing up in a cloak, helmet and beard in the process. After admitting to the hoax, Béraud changed her name to Eva Carrière and embarked on a new, more successful career as a medium.
Carrière’s seances were known to be erotically charged; she would often perform naked and initiate sexual activities with her audience. Her assistant, Juliette Bisson, who took part in the seances and would reportedly insert her finger into Carrière’s V, supposedly to check that no ‘ectoplasm’ had been stored there to trick the audience. Though the pair were in a relationship it’s thought that they purposely made the seance erotic to please their mainly male audience.
5. Harry Houdini’s ‘Margie Box’
Remember the medium Mina “Margery” Crandon mentioned earlier? She was investigated by famed magician Harry Houdini, during the mid-1920s. Houdini was a staunch opponent of fake mediums, and spent a great deal of time and effort in his attempts at exposing them. Though not against spiritualism itself, he took great offense to those cheating people out of money with tricks and scams.
As part of his investigation into Mina Crandon, Houdini himself built a special cabinet-type box, which became known as the ‘Margie Box’. This was designed so that when performing a seance the supposed medium would not be able to freely move her arms and legs. During the seance, a bell was put on top of a table in front of Crandon, which rang quickly during the event. However, when the lights were turned on the lid on the ‘Margie box’ was found to have been forced open, leading Houdini to allege that Crandon had cheated and rung the bell herself under the cover of darkness.
4. Stanisława Tomczyk
Stanisława Tomczyk was a Polish medium who rose to prominence during the early 20th century. She claimed to be controlled by a spirit known as “Little Stasia”, as well as allegedly having the ability to levitate objects and stop the movement of a clock in a glass case.
In 1910 Tomczyk’s apparent levitation of a glass cup was replicated by magician William S. Marriott, leading others to suspect her of trickery. In 1914 she was investigated by the Society for Psychical Research in England, where during one seance she managed to levitate a celluloid ball about 9 inches above a table. As the tests were performed in a more informal setting without strict controls the outcome was ‘inconclusive’, though researchers later suspected that Tomczyk was actually making the objects float using a fine thread; this theory was supported by several audience members who reported seeing a black thread between her hands during a seance.
3. Kathleen Goligher
Kathleen Goligher was an Irish medium who conducted seances at her home with seven members of her family. During this time, researcher and engineer William Jackson Crawford investigated her alleged powers, and ultimately was convinced; he claimed that she was able to levitate tables and produce ectoplasm (which would often appear from her V), and took photos during the seances using a flashlight. After six years of investigations at the Goligher home, Crawford committed suicide for unknown reasons.
After Crawford died physicist Edmund Edward Fournier d’Albe took over the investigations, and was much less complimentary of Goligher. He found her to be a fraud, alleging she had been simply moving the table with her foot, and the ‘ectoplasm’ was actually noting more than muslin. In 1922 d’Albe published his findings in a book, and as a result Goligher retired from mediumship soon after.
2. Mary Ann Marshall
Mary Ann Marshall (also known as Mary M) was a Canadian medium born in 1880. Little is known about her compared to other mediums from the same period, and as a result she is often confused with a British medium of the same name who died in 1884.
Marshall claimed to have been able to communicate with spirits from an early age, and joined the Hamilton mediumship group as a result. There is a now-famous photo of her allegedly producing ectoplasm from her nose which manifested into the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle – who was a known advocate of spiritualism throughout his lifetime.
A series of photographs were taken between 1928 and 1933 while Marshall was conducting seances by surgeon, parapsychologist Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, who, as a staunch believer in spiritualism believed the pictures to be evidence of mediumship. However, looking at the photos with a modern eye it’s not hard to see that the ectoplasm was actually made of cloth, with magazine cut-outs of people, such as Arthur Conan Doyle.
1. Linda Gazzera
Linda Gazzera was an Italian spiritualist medium born in 1890 who claimed to be able to bring forth spirits using the infamous ectoplasm, as well as the power to move objects by the power of thought with the help of her mysterious spirit guides. One such ‘materialization’ can be seen in the picture above.
She was investigated in a series of tests between 1908 and 1910, by spiritualist Enrico Imoda, who ultimately concluded that her abilities were the real deal. However, author Joseph McCabe has since stated that Gazerra was actually exposed as a fraud in 1911; a year after her death. McCabe wrote:
“Her materializations and tricks were simple. She brought her birds and flowers and muslin and masks (or pictures) in her hair (which was largely false, and never examined) and her under-clothing, and she, by a common trick, released her hands and feet from control to manipulate them.”