Spirit Photography and Australia

A Spiritualist’s carte-de-visite album’, paper delivered at  Spiritualism and Technology in Historical and Contemporary Contexts, a AHRC funded conference at the University of Westminster, London, September 26, 2009.

In 1878 by an enthusiastic member of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists assembled a carte-de-visite album, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Victorian Spiritualists, like Spiritualists everywhere at the time, believed that the human personality survived beyond death, and that departed spirits were seeking to communicate with the living via specially endowed people called mediums. In the nineteenth-century they combined this modern religious belief with a progressive social agenda that included new ideas about education, social organization and gender roles.

Like every carte de visite album, this one is a collection of cartes of distant celebrities, social acquaintances and close friends. For instance the album includes a stiffly formal carte of the American A. J. Davis, who wrote one of the foundational texts of the movement. It also included cartes of celebrity mediums, including the most famous medium of all, Kate Fox, who as a girl was the first to apparently hear raps from the Beyond in New York State in 1848. It included cartes of the British trance medium J. J. Morse, as well as his spirit guide, Yun Sen Lie, present in the form of a photographic reproduction of a portrait-drawing based on the detailed self-description of the spirit, who ‘controlled’ and spoke through the medium while he was entranced.

It included portraits of the English slate writing medium, Henry Slade, who visited the Colony in 1878 to demonstrate how spirits were able to write messages on sealed slates in the darkness of a séance. (Although a Sydney surgeon Dr Samuel Knaggs secreted a mirror into one of his séances and by holding it between his knees saw Slade remove his foot from his kid slippers, and write on the slate under the table with a pencil held between his toes.) It included portraits of the well know platform proselytisers, William Denton and James Peebles, who in 1878 also visited Melbourne from the US to lecture to halls packed with Spiritualists.

The album also featured portraits of Melbourne’s own Spiritualists, including William Terry, the founder of the Association, who had arranged and financed the tours. It also included a spirit photograph of another Melbourne Spiritualist, Dr Walter Richardson, the first president of the Victorian Association. The photograph was taken during a visit to London in 1873, when Richardson visited the spirit photographer Frederick Hudson for a photographic séance. Hudson captured the transparent spirit of Richardson’s departed sister on the plate, perhaps by previously coating the plate with another layer of collodion and exposing it with an accomplice before Richardson arrived, or perhaps by double printing two negatives in the darkroom as Richardson waited for his carte-de-visite. (Incidentally, Richardson died of Syphilis back in Melbourne in 1879, and was the basis of the character Richard Mahony in the novel by his daughter Henry Handel Richardson.) At about the same time Hudson had used the same technique to photograph two London Spiritualists, Samuel Guppy and the Medium Charles Williams, with a spirit, which is also in the album.

We can see the same ornate chair as in Richardson’s carte in Hudson’s voluptuous photograph of the young London medium Florence Cook (although this image is not in the Victorian album). Cook was a materializing medium, meaning she would entrance herself in a ‘cabinet’, a curtained off enclosure, and behind the curtain supposedly materialize a fully embodied spirit which would step out from behind the curtain while the medium would supposedly remain entranced in the cabinet. In 1874 the London physicist William Crookes photographed Cook’s spirit, Katie King, by incandescent lights driven by galvanic batteries. This very rare photograph is not in the Victorian album, but an image of Katie King’s spirit father, the 16th century pirate John King, is in the album.

How did these cartes find there way to Melbourne and into the album? Some were probably brought in Melbourne during tours, some exchanged with fellow Spiritualists, and some perhaps purchased through the London magazine The Spiritualist. Georginia Houghton, for instance, who worked with Hudson over an extended series of photographic séances, financed the sittings by retailing his photographs of her though the magazine. (The VAPS also acquired a set of Houghton’s spirit paintings, which she had painted during the mid 1860s in various trance states.)

The album also includes a carte of two other materializing mediums Miss Wood and Annie Fairlamb, who came from Newcastle in the north of England. Hudson has photographed them with the spirit of the Indian, Syna. The pair did automatic writing, trance speaking, and materializations. By  1890 the two had quarrelled and Miss Fairlamb was working alone. The Edinburgh photographer J. Stewart Smith photographed her with the partially materialised Cissie, the spirit of a little African girl who was one of her spirit guides. Shortly afterwards, after several embarrassing exposures, Fairlamb left on a tour of New Zealand and Australia, married a J. B. Mellon in Sydney, and set up as a professional medium, charging ten shillings a sitting.

She not only materialized Cissie, but also Josephine, a beautiful young woman, and Geordie, a gruff Scotsman. On her visit to Sydney the prominent Theosophist Annie Bessant was impressed by one of Mellon’s séances at which, Sydney’s Sunday Times reported, she exchanges flowers with Cissie and conversed with Geordie. The Sunday Times participated in a series of experiments with Mellon, which attempted to establish the truth of her materializations by clearly capturing both a spirit and the medium at the same time and on the same photographic plate. The séances were held at the home of the prominent Sydney spiritualist Dr Charles MacCarthy, who had already photographed Josephine by herself in 1894. They were conducted under test conditions, which meant Mellon’s clothing was searched by two lady Spiritualists beforehand; and, rather than wearing white underclothing, she wore coloured flannels which would remain recognisable under a thin drapery of muslin.

Rather than the near-darkness usually required, the séances were conducted in daylight for the camera. Daylight may have been necessary because artificial light was still expensive and experimental in Sydney at the time. Big studios such as Charles Kerry, for instance, had used galvanically driven arc-lights for portraits at a ball, and magnesium flares in Jenolan Caves, but artificial light worked best in large open spaces because of the smoke, and was hard to control. So although twenty years earlier Crookes, as Britain’s leading physicist, was able to construct his own galvanic batteries and incandescent lights for the documentation of Katie King, and 15 years later, in 1909, a materialization at a séance in London was photographed by the light of a burning magnesium ribbon, for the Sydney séances the Sunday Times was compelled to use daylight as illumination

Normally spirit materializations took place in very dim light. The mediums conveniently claimed that anything other than a very brief ruby light damaged the sensitive spirit materializations, and caused them great pain. But because Mellon’s photographic séances for the Sunday Times had to be conducted in daylight for the camera, rather than darkness, the sitters were requested to sit with their back to the cabinet because, Mellon claimed, that in the daylight their direct gaze would bore holes into the spirits. Although the first test was photographically inconclusive, two sitters managed to obtain a clear view of the materialization by surreptitiously using hand mirrors to look over their shoulders. At the second test-séance all the sitters came equipped with mirrors. As a result, two whole hours of hymn singing failed to produce a single spirit, and only the gift of some valuable jewellery mollified the offended medium afterwards. Four days later, on 9 August 1894, while the sitters sat with their eyes tight shut, the camera which had been pre-focussed on the curtains of her cabinet, photographed her standing beside the partially materialized, flat, form of Geordie.

Mellon reported that during materializations she felt a chilling and benumbing sensation as the psychoplasm came out of her left side and from her fingertips. The vapoury mass first fell at her feet in waves and clouds and then slowly assumed a distinct human shape. She became weaker, and as the form reached completion it staggered as though it would fall.

The telepathist, clairvoyant and mesmerist Thomas Shekleton Henry had been working with the editor of the Sunday Times in the photographic tests. He was initially a devotee of Mellon’s, writing an ode to Josephine’s beauty and becoming possessed himself by Geordie’s spirit as he held the spirit’s photograph in his hand. He said he was planning to write a pamphlet about Mellon’s abilities to be called Mysteries in our Midst. However he began to become suspicious of the constrained movements the spirits made, the doll-like appearance of their faces, the sewn hems visible in their psychoplasmic drapery, and the fact that they could not leave footprints on the sooted slates he placed under them. At a séance in Mellon’s own house, after the singing of hymns, a form appeared and nodded when it was asked if it was the deceased niece of Mrs Gale, one of the sitters. Sobbing with great emotion Mrs Gale came forward and kissed the spirit on its forehead. Later, after more singing and more apparitions, the form of the child-spirit Cissie appeared between the curtains of the cabinet. Henry suddenly got up and seized Cissie, crying: “light up!” An accomplice immediately struck three matches. Henry had hold of Mellon who was on her knees with muslin over her head and shoulders, black material over her face, and her skirt turned up over her stockingless legs. The matches were blown out. The accomplice struck another, which was also blown out. Finally, struggling against several male Spiritualists, he managed to light the gas jets above his head. Henry was set upon by several other spiritualists in the audience, and Mellon’s husband, who at all of her séances was always at the back of the room regulating the gaslight, rushed forward and grabbed him by the throat. Mellon hid what she could under her petticoats, though some more muslin, a false beard, and a flat black bag with tapes attached to it was glimpsed insider her cabinet. She scrambled back into the cabinet and squatted on top of her properties. Surrounded by three female Spiritualists who drew the cabinet’s curtains, she pushed the beard down between her breasts and pinned something up between her legs, under her petticoats.

In a subsequent interview with the Sunday Times Mellon explained that as the delicate spirit form had been interfered with, the science of materialization dictated that either the spirit form must be reabsorbed back into the medium, or the medium be absorbed by the form. As the form was held fast by Henry, her remaining matter had to be pulled forward off her chair and had shot into the spirit form. The spirit drapery then rapidly dissolved in a steam off her. Since the psychoplasmic matter had been drawn from the lower part of her body her legs had shrunk, which had caused her shoes and stockings to fall off. The black bag was a duster for her music box.

In the kafuffle Mellon’s husband hastily agreed to give a test séance in the offices of the Sunday Telegraph under the paper’s own conditions. The paper built a wire cage in their offices. Mellon was searched and seated herself on a chair inside the cage, which was then padlocked and the curtains drawn. After half an hour of hymn singing had produced no manifestations Mellon was discovered prostrated in a swoon.

Henry’s planned paean to Mellon became the triumphal record of his exposure, the pamphlet: Spookland ! A record of research and experiment in a much-talked-of realm of mystery, with a review and criticism of so called Spirit Materialisation, and hints and illustrations as to the possibility of artificiality producing the same.

The Spiritualists quickly replied with A Counterblast to Spookland, or Glimpses of the Marvellous which ridiculed the erratic and volatile nature of his Henry’s own mediumship, lampooned him as a snake in the grass, and produced voluminous counter-testimony from Spiritualist adherents.

However Mellon continued to practice well into the twentieth century. At a Melbourne séance a doctor from Darwin called Dr Haworth saw “a spot of mist on the carpet which rose into a column out of which stepped a completely embodied human being who was recognized.” (Fodor 239)

Thus in these two Australian instances — an 1878 carte-de-visite album and a 1894 pamphlet — we have photography being used in three ways by spiritualists:

  • The international exchange and circulation of carte-de-vistes bound Spiritualism together as a global movement, and expanded the role of the personal album as a keeping place where friends, peers and celebrities all surrounded and supported the album’s unknown compiler, only in this case some were living and some were dead.
  • We also see photography become a kind of performance, a way of expanding on the ritual of the séance and providing an emulsive arena where the living and dead can be re-united once more.
  • Finally, we have the photograph’s veracity used forensically, satisfying a public curiosity about mysterious phenomena, and providing supposedly incontrovertible truth that the dead live.

Alfred J. Gabay, Messages from Beyond: Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age, Melbourne University Press, 2001.

T. S. Henry, Spookland ! A record of research and experiment in a much-talked-of realm of mystery, with a review and criticism of so called Spirit Materialisation, and hints and illustrations as to the possibility of artificiality producing the same, (Sydney: W. M. Maclardy and Co, 1894)

Psyche, A Counterblast to Spookland, or Glimpses of the Marvellous, (Sydney: W. M. Maclardly & Co., 1895)

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