‘Full-Body Spirit Materializations: Mediums, Spirits, Séances and Believers in the Nineteenth Century’, paper at Passing Symposium, Research School of Humanities, ANU, February 29, 2008.
In 1878 an enthusiastic Spiritualist from Melbourne assembled a carte-de-visite album, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Spiritualists 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.
The album included photos 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, who is 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 also included a spirit photograph of the Melbourne Spiritualist, Dr Walter Richardson, the first president of the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists (and, incidentally, the basis of the character Richard Mahony in the novel by his daughter Henry Handel Richardson.) 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.
Hudson also made a voluptuous photograph of the young London medium Florence Cook swooning in a trance whilst a solid spirit-figure rose above her. Cook was a ‘materialization medium’, she was supposedly able to physically materialize spirits themselves. Cook had been operating as a medium since 1871, when she was fifteen. At her séances sitters would usually gather round, ‘like a party of grown-up children waiting for the magic lantern’ according to one visitor, while Cook supposedly sat entranced in her cabinet, a curtained off section of the room which supposedly concentrated the psychic energy. Eventually, after some hymn singing, the curtains of the cabinet would part, and a fully materialized spirit called Katie King would step out, swathed in orientalist drapery. Katie was supposedly the daughter of John King, a sixteenth-century pirate. John King was Spiritualism’s most glamorous celebrity spirit. He was materialized by many different mediums, including Charles Williams, who had mentored Cook. In the Melbourne album there are two Frederick Hudson cartes, one a portrait of the Spirit of John King, another of Charles Williams and another Spiritualist with a shrouded spirit-form superimposed on the plate.
In December 1873, Cook’s mediumship became a popular scandal. At a séance, when the supposed spirit of Katie was moving amongst the sitters proffering her hand to be kissed, one of the sitters suddenly grabbed her around the waist, and exclaimed: ‘It’s the medium!’ The low gaslight that lit the séance was immediately extinguished. Cook’s fiancée leapt up and wrestled the spirit free of the sitter’s grasp and back into the medium’s cabinet. When the gaslight came on again it was found that the spirit had somehow managed to tear off some of the sitter’s beard and scratch his face. Some moments elapsed before the cabinet was opened. Cook was found moaning and unconscious, still apparently bound to her chair with knots sealed with wax, and still in her own black dress and boots. She was searched, but no trace of voluminous white drapery could be found.
After this incident, Cook made the bold step of throwing herself at the mercy of the chemist and physicist William Crookes. Crookes was part of an emerging group of psychic investigators who used the experimental methods of modern science, with their basis in accuracy and observation. A significant number of experimental scientists from the 187os through to the 1920s were also Spiritualist believers and psychic researchers. Perhaps this is because in their research physicists and electricians such as Crookes were routinely thinking across different dimensions of space and time, where electrical impulses were transmitted thousands of miles instantaneously through the telegraph machine; and they were also thinking across different states of matter, where energy became matter through such processes as electrolysis. This made the supposed psychic phenomena they were also researching appear relatively familiar to them. Testifying in front of an 1871 Dialectical Society investigation into Spiritualism, one of Crookes’ colleagues perfectly united his physics and his psychics by using a startling image drawn from practical nineteenth-century technology. Trying to explain how previously unknown psychic forces could penetrate our world from the other side via a medium, he used the scientific analogy: ‘An iron wire is to an electrician simply a hole bored through a solid rock of air so that the electricity may pass freely’.
Florence Cook invited William Crookes to establish the facts for himself. At his home he strung a curtain between his laboratory and his library, turning his library into an improvised cabinet. Like all sympathetic investigators Crookes agreed to the usual seanceconditions that spirit and medium should not be touched without permission. However he established ‘test conditions’ to his own satisfaction by sealing the doors and windows with wax and thread, and binding the medium’s hands and feet.
Crookes constructed a lamp out of a jar of phosphorized oil, which gave him a source of light which was faint, but amenable to the spirit. At one séance the spirit Katie invited Crookes into the cabinet itself so that he could establish that she and her medium were two separate entities. Kneeling, Crookes held one of the medium Cook’s hands and passed the lamp along her entranced body as it lay in the cabinet, and then he turned and passed the lamp up and down the standing spirit’s whole figure. He declared himself thoroughly satisfied that it was the veritable Katie King who stood before him, and not a phantasm of a disordered brain. Eventually the desire to touch the spirit became too much for Crookes and he respectfully asked her if he could clasp her in his arms. She agreed, and Crookes was able to establish that, at least temporarily, she had become a material entity, and in addition was not wearing corsets. In subsequent physical examinations of both spirit and medium he established that the spirit materialization was taller and fairer, and had smoother skin and longer fingers than her medium, her ears were unpierced, her luxuriant tresses auburn not black, her pulse a rhythmic 75 not a skitting 90, and her lungs sound, not afflicted with a cough, as were the medium’s.
Crookes had begun the test séances with a professed commitment to the objective scientific recording of observable phenomena. But within the crepuscular hush of the séance he was as beguiled by the spirit’s ethereal, yet palpable, beauty as everyone else. It was clear that a strong current of seduction had begun to flow through the seances:
[P]hotography is as inadequate to depict the perfect beauty of Katie’s face as words are powerless to describe her charms of manner. Photography may, indeed, give a map of her countenance; but how can it reproduce the brilliant purity of her complexion, or the ever-varying expression of her mobile features…
Rumours started to flow that Crookes, whose wife was expecting their tenth child, was having an affair with Cook — described at the time as a ‘trim little lady of sweet sixteen’. Sitters also continued to remark on the dissimilarity between Katie and her medium at some séances, and their similarity at others. Some started to ask why simpler and more explicit methods couldn’t be used to establish that Katie was really a separate entity to Cook, such as marking Cook’s forehead with indian ink. Others remarked that it would indeed be easy for the medium to smuggle a long white muslin veil into the cabinet secreted in her underwear, and under cover of the hymn singing remove her outer garments and arrange them over some cushions to look like a supine form, then drop the veil over her white underclothes ready to emerge from between the curtains.
Amidst all this damaging speculation the spirit Katie suddenly let it be known that she only had energy to manifest on the material plane for three years, due to expire on 21 May 1874. After Katie’s last farewell Crookes’ experiments with Cook petered out, but he publicly acknowledged his debt to her:
I do not believe she could carry on a deception if she were to try, and if she did she would certainly be found out very quickly, for such a line of action is altogether foreign to her nature. And to imagine that an innocent school-girl of fifteen should be able to conceive and then successfully carry out for three years so gigantic an imposture as this, and in that time should submit to any test which might be imposed upon her [and] should bear the strictest scrutiny … to imagine, I say, the Katie King of the last three years to be the result of imposture does more violence to one’s reason and common sense than to believe her to be what she herself affirms.
Crookes now channelled his energies into more orthodox researches. He began to experiment with the cathode-ray tube, a vacuum tube with an electrical terminal at one end. If an electrical current was run into the terminal a faintly luminous ethereal glow resulted. In another experiment a wheel suspended inside the tube slowly turned, although nothing visible touched it. Crookes concluded that these uncanny effects were produced by the cathode terminal emitting rays of electrified ‘radiant matter’, a fourth state of matter, neither solid, liquid or gaseous. It was up to later physicists to establish that the rays were not of material particles as Crookes had supposed, but of electrons ionising residual gas in the tube. But nonetheless his work eventually directly led to the discovery and use of x-rays, television picture-tubes and fluorescent lighting. In his report on these electrical experiments to the science journal Nature in 1879 he made claims that could just as easily be applied to his psychic research of 1873 when he said, ‘we have actually touched the borderland where matter and force seem to merge into one another, the shadowy realm between the Known and the Unknown which for me has always had peculiar temptations.’
The carte-de-visite 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.
Now working under the name of Mrs Mellon, 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 exchanged 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.
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, 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, Henry 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 the confusing scene thus: she said 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. Because 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 initially 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.
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.
The theory of spirit photography, like the Spiritualist imagination generally, was very much part of contemporary developments in technology and science, particularly physics and biology. What force was it that was able to form the inchoate yolk of an egg into the claws, feathers and beak of a chicken? Could an analogous force to this ‘life force’, a ‘psychic force’, pass through the labile body of the medium and form it into a spirit entity. Simiarly, it was proposed that spirits who normally have a kind of etheric or radiant body could, like molluscs that extract the material for their shells from water, be able to temporarily utilize the terrestrial molecules that surround them for the purpose of building up a material body capable of manifesting itself to our senses.
To other scientific Spiritualists this combination of biology and chemistry even provided a possible scientific explanation for the elaborate classical drapery the spirits wore, to augment the usual eschatological explanation. Alfred Russell Wallace, the prominent Spiritualist, naturalist, and co-developer, along with Charles Darwin, of the theory of evolution, mused that drapery must be easierand more economical to materialize than the complete human form. The copious drapery in which spirits were almost always enveloped was there to show only just what was necessary for the recognition of the spirit’s face and figure. ‘The conventional ‘white-sheeted ghost’ was not then all fancy’, Wallace said, ‘but had a foundation in fact— a fact, too, of deep significance, dependent on the laws of yet unknown chemistry.’
At the cusp of the twentieth century, nobody could predict what was going to be a scientific dead-end and what wasn’t. For Crookes and Wallace it was impossible to disentangle their physical and psychical research. Identical analogies and metaphors structured their thought in both areas. And identical passions and lusts, for prestige, power and discovery, drove them. During this period of radical change in the fundamental underpinnings of physics, a certain amount of credulity was necessary for every scientist, to loosen the bounds of his pre-suppositions. And the inevitable incredulity of the public and their colleagues was to be expected, and had to be overcome, before any new idea was accepted, in either psychics or physics. The only clue to the future was that physics was progressing but psychics, which subscribed to the same modern ideology of progress, wasn’t — although it did continue to pile up mountains of tantalizing evidence.
The circuit of desire in Spiritualist investigation— to see, to know, to believe — was closed when the young ingénue medium gave the eminent investigator the phenomena he craved. This generated an intense emotional energy that suspended conventional scepticism, propriety and objectivity, and induced all kinds of extraordinary visions to appear. These visions shifted and slipped between the hermetic theatre of the darkened séance room and the minds and imaginations of the excited sitters. And, in a scientific period where entirely new and extraordinary physical phenomena seemed to be manifesting themselves everywhere, some of those visions even appeared to be able to slip themselves onto the photographic plates of the spirit photographer.