Ghosts & Spirit Communication

Modern spiritualism—the belief in communication with the dead (often through persons known as "mediums")—began at Hydesville, NY in 1848. Two sisters, Maggie and Katie Fox, pretended to receive rapping messages from ghostly entities. Years later they confessed that it was all a trick, but spiritualism had long since begun to flourish as a popular belief.

In dark-room séances, spirits apparently wrote messages on slates, spoke through tin trumpets, and even showed themselves as shimmering "materializations." Magicians such as Harry Houdini exposed numerous séance deceptions, but "mediums" continue to convince many of their ability to talk with the dead, and haunted houses (or at least haunted people) continue to enjoy media attention. Return to Skeptiseum home.

Houdini Photo and Key

Born Ehrich Weiss (1874 – 1926), Harry Houdini is the world's best-known magician, famous for his daring escapes: from a straightjacket while hanging upside down several stories above a busy street; manacled, then nailed into a packing crate and tossed into a river; or searched and locked in a jail cell. One of his posters billed him as "The World's Handcuff King and Prison Breaker."

Houdini was also a famous ghostbuster, using his knowledge of magic to expose such alleged paranormal marvels as "an Egyptian Miracle Man," "the Spaniard with X-ray Eyes," and numerous spiritualist mediums producing bogus séance "materializations."

After his death at the age of 52, on Halloween 1926, Houdini's wife Bess attempted to communicate with Houdini's spirit through mediums, using a secret code the couple had prearranged.

After ten years, and only one pretended contact (by fraudulent medium Arthur Ford), Mrs. Houdini extinguished the "eternal light" she had kept by his portrait, stating: "Houdini hasn't come. I don't believe he will come." Today, séances to reach Houdini continue to be held each Halloween at various locations, including CSICOP's headquarters at the Center for Inquiry – International in Amherst, New York.

Some have thought that Houdini's pact with his wife indicates he was a spiritualist, but a poster for his anti-medium crusade is unequivocal: "Do Spirits Return? Houdini Says No—and Proves It."

Although the legendary magician invariably fails to appear, the séances underscore his skepticism of spirit communication and help keep his important legacy alive.

Shown here with a framed photograph of him in chains is an "Authentic Key from the Personal Collection of the Great Harry Houdini." Stamped "CORBIN. PAT'D. 87.," the key has a provenance that traces back to Houdini through his brother the magician Hardeen, who inherited the collection of locks and keys at Houdini's death.
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Spirit Trumpet and Slates

Spirit trumpets, like the modern three-sectioned tin model shown here, were often present at séances in the heyday of physical mediumship. Typically, the trumpet would "float" about the darkened room (sometimes luminous bands having been affixed to the trumpet so the effect could be visualized), and "spirit" voices would issue from it.

There were many trumpet tricks. If the medium's hands were not controlled (a practice intended to prevent trickery) he or she could simply move the trumpet about, a rubber tube being attached through which the medium spoke. Sometimes, a removable luminous band was employed and moved about at the end of a telescoping rod. In these instances, the whispered voices did not actually emanate from the trumpet; the illusion that they did worked on the ventriloquism principle: it is not easy to locate the source of a sound, especially if misdirection takes place. If controlled, the medium had clever techniques of getting one hand free or could use a secret assistant dressed all in black. (For a discussion of trumpet and other séance trickery, see M. Lamar Keene, Psychic Mafia, Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1997; and Walter Gibson, Secrets of Magic, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1967.)

Slate writing was another popular effect of physical mediumship. Typically a pair of school slates (either separate or hinged) was employed. Placed on a table with a piece of chalk or slate pencil, and the spirits suitably invoked, the slates would in time be discovered with messages on them—purportedly from the spirit realm. (These modern slates show a short version of Houdini's anticipated message to his wife.)

To supposedly preclude trickery, the slates were often bound or even locked. But there were many means of circumventing the intended safeguards, ranging from substituting previously prepared slates to using specially gimmicked ones. (For a discussion, see Harry Houdini, Harry Houdini: A Magician Among the Spirits, 1924; reprinted New York: Arno Press, 1972.)
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P. T. Selbit Presents Spirit Paintings Advertisement

Among the phenomena alleged by physical mediumship was the production of "spirit" paintings, especially portraits of deceased loved ones produced by "spirit guides" (supposed go-betweens in the Other World). Such artworks could be rendered by the medium's supposedly spirit-guided hand, or produced, possibly in stages, as séance "materializations."

Magicians often duplicated the effects in stage exposés of mediumistic deceptions. The 1911 poster illustrated here heralds P.T. Selbit's "demonstration of anti-spiritualism," featuring a painting that "visibly grows before the eyes of the spectators." Selbit (real name Percy Thomas Tibles—"Selbit" spelled backward) is best known for creating the famous illusion of "sawing a woman in half." His spirit paintings trick copied the allegedly genuine feat of two Chicago mediums, the Bangs sisters. For the secrets of such phenomena, see Joe Nickell, "Spirit Painting" ( "Part 1: The Campbell Brothers" and "Part 2: The Bangs Sisters"), in the March and June 2000 issues of Skeptical Briefs.
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Science and Invention Magazine (Featuring Spiritualism)

This May 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine features a brief article by one Edward Merlin, "The Reformed Spiritualist" revealing some of the tricks of séance mediums. The cover illustration depicts a medium whose hands are controlled and whose skin has been painted with luminescent insignias intended to reveal any deceptive moves on her part. Note the two spirit trumpets (see our display above) resting on the floor.
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Spirit Photographs (1870s)

In addition to slate writing, spirit paintings, and other "materializations," "spirit photographs" were also produced by spiritualists. Curiously, the ethereal entities did not appear during the early period of photography (beginning in 1839): there were no spirit daguerreotypes, ambrotypes or early tintypes. Indeed, not until double exposures were made possible by the advent of photographic paper prints from glass-plate negatives, did the spirits choose to make their photographic debut.


This occured in 1861 when a Boston photographer named William H. Mumler discovered that "extras" could appear in a photo if the glass plate were a recycled one with a residual image. Spiritualism by then being all the rage, Mumler began to produce "spirit photographs" for credulous sitters, including—after the assassination of her husband—Mary Todd Lincoln. Eventually Mumler was exposed when it was discovered that some of the alleged spirits in his photos were still-living Bostonians!

There were—and are—many ways to produce fake spirit photos in addition to double exposures. One technique was used in earlier times when long exposures were necessary. A suitably garbed assistant would slip from behind a curtain, stand briefly, then disappear again—this taking place behind the unaware sitter who was intent on remaining motionless. The result would be a faint, transparent "spirit" image beside the solid posed figure.

Of the two photographs shown here, the first is a "cabinet" style (a paper print mounted on a card about 4½ by 6½ inches). Penciled on the back in a period handwriting style is "Spirit photograph/Taken April 1879."

Also shown is a carte de visite photo (a paper print on a card about the size of a visiting card, hence its name). It probably dates from the 1860s or 1870s.

Note that in the cabinet card the sitter is posed to one side and in the carte de visite the subject is posed low, in each case room having been allowed for "spirit" entities—a strong indication that the photos, like others of the genre, are bogus.
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Spirit Precipitations

Spirit precipitations originally referred to paintings which the spirits supposedly materialized or "precipitated" onto paper or canvas. Later the term was applied to photograph- like productions like the ones shown here.

The top swatch of cloth bears images produced at a séance in Lexington, Kentucky, 1985. The medium came from Camp Chesterfield , a spiritualist colony in Indiana. He showed those attending the séance some blank squares of cloth and opened a bottle of ink that he sat on a table. He told the sitters that their very own "spirit guides" would come and use the ink to "precipitate" the guides' self-portraits onto the cloth. Indeed, after the swatches were handed out in the dark and the lights subsequently turned on again, people were amazed to see them imprinted with pictures.

One sitter later realized she had probably been flim-flammed and eventually got in touch with paranormal investigator Joe Nickell. Subsequently, forensic analyst John F. Fischer demonstrated that there were solvent rings around each small portrait, consistent with a technique (using a solvent and pressing with a hot iron or burnishing with the back of a spoon) for transferring newspaper or magazine pictures onto cloth. (See M. Lamar Keene, Psychic Mafia, Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1997.) The bottom cloth was produced by Joe Nickell as a demonstration for possible use in court.

On the basis of the evidence, Joe Nickell persuaded police to obtain warrants against the medium on charges that included theft by deception. Unfortunately, although he had obtained $800 from the séance, he had only only taken $40 from each person—an amount that made the charge a misdemeanor rather than a felony. As a consequence he could not be extradited, and ultimately evaded prosecution. However the message showed—then as now—that phony mediumship was not without risk.



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Spirit Writings (1870s)

Although now largely a thing of the past, so-called trance writing was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as an alleged form of spirit communication. Also known as "automatic writing" it involved the medium's hand being guided, supposedly, by those who had passed into the Afterlife.

As shown by these examples—writings and drawings from about the 1870s—the productions could be quite elaborate. One reads:

"Oh my Brother—I am so glad to be able to come here with you and hold sweet communion[,] for it has been a long time since I have controlled this medium, but I remember how well used I had become to her magnetism.... I want to assure you that we are all here with you this afternoon[—]father[,] mother[,] little Alice[—] and so glad to find it so well with you...."

And so on, in elaborate rhetorical style—quite unlike modern readings in which the alleged spirits seem to mumble, suffer from poor memory, and have other inadequacies in communicating.
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Spiritualist Newspaper

As spiritualism flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century, spiritualist groups and publications devoted to the topic proliferated.

Here is an issue of The Medium and Daybreak: A Weekly Journal Devoted to the History, Phenomena, Philosophy, and Teachings of Spiritualism. Dated August 13, 1875, it was published at London and "Registered as a Newspaper for Transmission in the United Kingdom and Abroad."

It contains a lengthy oration delivered by a medium "under the influence of 'Judge Edmonds.'" It also has news items, letters to the editor, and advertisements, including one promising "Medical Diagnosis by Lock of Hair." Another ad offers to teach by correspondence the wonders of "Mesmerism" (i.e., hypnosis), and others herald one or another "Clairvoyant," "Spiritualist Photographer," "Inspirational Trance Speaker," "Physical Medium," "Electro-Magnetic Healer," etc.
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