During the Victorian era, psychics and mediums were all the rage, enjoying fame and fortune associated with their ability to speak to the spirit world. People of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a morbid obsession with death and were therefore fascinated with the idea of communicating with those who have passed on to the other side. This could be attributed to the high death rates and low life expectancy of the time, forcing people to come to terms with death a lot earlier than we do today.
The Spiritualist movement had so much success that it attracted a wide array of grifters. These con artists came up with complex tricks to convince their attendees that ghosts were interacting with them during their seances. Those attending seances were paying customers, and they expected to get their money's worth of levitating tables, streaming ectoplasm, and accurate messages from the afterlife. Read on to discover the tricks of the trade from the charlatan mediums of the Victorian era.
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Mediums Would Use Spirit Rapping To Communicate With The Spirits
Spirit rapping is the phenomenon of ghostly communication through knocks on walls or furniture. One could ask if a spirit was present with a knock to confirm, or even recite the alphabet, matching the knock to a letter to spell out messages to excited attendees of the demonstration.
When it came to Spirit rappers, there were no greater performers of the trick than the Fox sisters, world-renowned mediums who made their fortune through a complicated set of rapping techniques. The sisters, Kate, Maggie, and Leah would perform their seances in a room of their house in Hydesville, NY, where they had set up a system of apples tied to strings to make thumping sounds on the floor, ceiling, and walls. Eventually, they graduated to the manipulation of their own joints to make cracking and popping noises.
The sisters were at the forefront of the Spiritualist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries for decades. This movement had an estimated 8 million Americans who declared themselves believers. Eventually, their ruse fell apart when the sisters began to argue. Kate delved deeper and more authentically into Spiritualism while Maggie denounced the entire movement, even staging a performance where she revealed all their rapping tricks and blaming Leah for convincing her sisters to carry on with the con throughout the years.
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Mediums Claimed They Could Describe The Items In A Locked Box
This trick was so deceptive and convincing, it fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle not only wrote the famed detective story but was also a renowned paranormal investigator of his time, even believing that his wife Jean was a medium herself.
For this act, each participant of the seance was instructed to bring a small personal object with them, which they placed in a concealed box that was locked. The medium would then reveal what each item was down to the last detail, without ever opening the box. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was in the audience for one of these performances, the medium announced that Doyle had put a ring that belonged to his own deceased son in the box, and she was even able to recite the inscription on the ring.
How did the medium do it? The audience believed they were watching the box the entire time. While the medium was "divining," the assistant dressed as a specter, moving about in the dark and amping up the drama for the spectators. At some point in that time, the assistant switched the original box containing the items with an exact replica of the box. That same assistant then went backstage and listed the items via a wireless radio in the medium's ear.
While radio technology was relatively new, personal wireless radios were invented in 1896, so they did exist in 1925 when this seance took place.
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Spirit Trumpets Would Amplify The Whispers Of The Dead
Spirit trumpets were long cones that would mysteriously float about the room and amplify the voice of spirits during a seance. This mysterious instrument was usually used in tandem with a manifestation cabinet.
Once the medium was inside the cabinet, they had access to a tube that was connected to the trumpet. They could whisper into the tube, which would amplify the seemingly disembodied voices into the crowd. The trumpet would move around via a system of chords and wires operated by assistants backstage. This would create the effect of a disembodied voice floating about and speaking through a trumpet. Having the lights dimmed throughout the performance is essential for this trick to work, and it also adds to the ambience.
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Spirit Photography Claimed To Capture Images Of Ghosts
The birth of the Spiritualism movement happened around the same time that photography was invented, so it's no coincidence that mediums used photography to prove their connection to the paranormal world. Photography was used to capture levitating tables, ectoplasm, and ghosts.
Since photography was such a new art form, people were unaware of how it worked and that manipulating the photographs was possible. This gave con artists the advantage when it came to fabricating spiritual photographs. Often, photographers would use double exposure to make a ghostly image appear in a photograph. Other photographers would cut and reassemble negatives to form an entirely new image, complete with disembodied heads and figures, like the example shown here.
One of the most famous Spiritualist photographers, William Mumler, made a fortune creating photographs in post-Civil War America, many times attempting to create photographs of people's lost loved ones who died in the war. Although Mumler was exposed as a fraud, historians still marvel over some of the haunting photographs.
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Tables Could Be Levitated With The Help Of Spirits
Imagine a casual Friday night seance, when suddenly, the table begins to levitate. This would both scare the participants out of their pants and make them new believers of the paranormal. This was a common occurrence in Victorian Spiritualist seances, but there weren't usually any ghosts behind it.
Con artist mediums had a plethora of tricks for making tables move and float during a seance. Some were as simple as using a kitchen knife in your sleeve to slip into a particularly lightweight table's drawer to lift it, although this seemed a bit dangerous. More advanced grifters built tools just for lifting tables during seances, including wrist cuffs with hooks concealed under the sleeves or a hook strapped to a belt concealed under a vest. The fact that seances always took place in the dark helped tricks like these convince attendees they were experiencing paranormal activity.
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Fire Tests Proved Mediums Were Impervious To Heat
Later in the Spiritualism game, mediums felt that they needed to prove themselves since so many famous mediums had been exposed as frauds. They would take on tests of physical endurance to prove their intense connection with the other side.
Many endured fire tests by holding hot coals or passing their hands through fire. They accomplished this with a recipe for fire-retardant material they wore on their gloves, which, according to the 1903 book Mysteries of the Seance and Tricks and Traps of Bogus Mediums by Edward D. Lunt, consisted of camphor gum, Scotch whisky, quicksilver, and liquid storax. They also used trick photography, like this image of famed con artist Eva Carrière, to make it look like they were able to endure electric shock or fire.