According to mediums during the heyday of the Spiritualist movement, séances were the most productive way to get in touch with spirit world. A typical séance, which was presided over by a physical medium, could boast all sorts of strange activity, from the movement of objects, to eerie music, glowing lights, levitating furniture, the production of ectoplasm and even the materialization of spirits. Each séance was conducted in a dark or nearly dark room. The mediums claimed that the sittings were held under such conditions because it made it easier for the spirits to manifest -- however critics charged that such conditions made it much easier to conceal the practice of fraud!
Unfortunately, the height of the Spiritualist movement was riddled with cases of fraud. The legitimate mediums and believers were often overshadowed by the crooks and con artists who preyed on those who wanted to communicate with their deceased loved ones. In this types of cases, the so-called "mediums" involved had no paranormal abilities whatsoever and were only looking to see how much money they could bilk out of their unwitting clients. This was not the case with every medium, but as mentioned, the phony exploits of these unscrupulous practitioners often portrayed the entire movement in a bad light.
Thanks to the obvious fraud that was taking place, committees of scientists and laypersons formed to investigate the claims of the mediums. These groups, and individuals, became the first paranormal investigators and essentially founded what would go on to become the ghost research field of today. In addition to scientists, there were many magicians who got involved in exposing the fake mediums, thanks to the fact they easily recognized the slight of hand tricks and illusions that were being advertised as the work of "spirits".
In this section, we'll take a closer look at how phony séances were staged and what sorts of tricks were used by the phony mediums to dupe their sitters. Of course, the idea here is not to provide information on how to give a fraudulent séance yourself, but rather the methods that were used to dupe the public. Some of these methods were blatantly simple but clever when used in a darkened room and under conditions where the sitters were primed for the unexplainable to occur.
If this all sounds too simple, it was in many instances. More sophisticated sitters would demand that the mediums be restrained in some way, perhaps by ropes or in their cabinets, so that there would be no chance of them wandering about the séance room in the darkness. Of course, many mediums were known to be adept escape artists and so restraints were seldom effective but they often offered the sitters to remain "hands on" with them during the séance to "prove" that could not have caused the phenomena that occurred. This method would take place around a large séance table with the medium's and the sitter's chairs surrounding it. The sitters were placed around the table with male and female alternating and the person sitting on the medium's right would grasp her right wrist in their left hand, while there own right wrist was held by the sitter on their right side. This is, of course, carried out in complete darkness and repeated around the circle. This made each sitter hold the right wrist of their left hand neighbor in their left hand, while their own right hand is held in the wrist of their neighbor on the left. None of the sitters could have the use of his or her hands without one or the other of their neighbors knowing about it. Every person's hands were secured and engaged, including the mediums -- or so it was thought.
Soon, music would play and lights would flit about and all sorts of spirit phenomena would occur but when the lights would be turned back on at the end of the evening, everything would be just as it was and the medium would still be securely held by the sitters to her right and left. So, if this was fraud -- how was it accomplished. Once again, the methods were deceptively simple and as wild as the phenomena might have been , it never needed an accomplice and every bit of it could be done with one hand. But how -- when both hands were secured?? The medium took her place before the light was turned out and those holding onto her stated that she did not let go for an instant during the séance.
Or did she? After the light was turned out, the medium did request to be released for just a moment to get a handkerchief. Moments later, the sitters were again asked to take her wrists, which was done, but this time, both sitters were actually holding one hand instead of two. By shifting slightly, the medium is being held by the hand by one sitter and around the wrist by the other. Although each was holding the same hand, each believed they were holding the one on his or her side of the medium. The rest of the "séance" was easily managed by the medium with one free hand.
Other tricks that were carried out seem just as silly to us now, but they were still amazingly effective under the heightened conditions of the séance. For instance, a table that would rock and jump about during the séance would seem like the work of the spirits, even after the lights were turned back on and the sitters discovered no ropes or wires that could make it behave in such a way. What the sitters did not realize is that a table can be tipped with uncanny effect using a hook that is attached to a medium's belt or even the medium's foot, which is easily extended to lift the center of the table.
Levitations of the medium by apparent "spirit forces" were also easily accomplished in the dark rooms. The medium would sometimes stand on his chair and then gently press the sole of his shoe onto the hand or shoulder of one of the sitters, making it seem as if he were floating around the room. He might also stand on the chair and then take his shoes off. By holding them with his hands, he could move them about and even as one of the sitters to hold on tightly to the heels to keep him from floating away.
And so on ... there were so many tricks employed to dupe the credulous that it would be impossible to chronicle them all. In other sections of the Haunted Museum, you'll find other exposures of fraud and accounts of the men who did the debunking. It is unfortunate that those who were attempting to bring credibility to Spiritualism were so hampered by the frauds in their midst. Many good-hearted and well-meaning people played a major part in the rise of the movement but it would be the frauds and fakers who brought about its decline.
© Copyright 2003 - 2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.