Imagine my surprise when they told me he was a she

Take a look at this carte de visite.

Dr Henry Slade

Looks pretty ordinary doesn’t it. This carte of of the spirit medium Dr Henry Slade is from an album of spiritualist photographs compiled in Melbourne in the 1870s and acquired by the National Gallery of Australia about ten years ago. To my knowledge the NGA has never exhibited any of the 36 cartes from this fascinating album.  I used some of its pages in my book Faces of the Living Dead, and wrote about the whole album a while ago. Me and Craig Tuffin and Lisa Clunie even had a crack at reproducing one of its most interesting images, of Dr Richardson (on whom  Henry Handel Richardson’s  The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is based) with a spirt in London.

I thought I knew about Slade, who appears in the album. I thought I knew he  was an American slate writer who placed a piece of chalk between two slates sealed together. As they were held on the underside of the séance table spirits supposedly wrote messages on the slate. He visited London in 1876 when he was exposed by Professor Lankester who paid the usual pound fee for the séance but grabbed the slates from the medium’s hands before the spirits had supposedly commenced writing. Opening the slates he found the writing already there. Slade was sentenced to three months hard labour for obtaining money under false pretences. There was an appeal, the conviction was quashed on a technicality, and Slade fled for the continent and then Australia. In Australia he did slate writing but also levitated his sitters clear off the ground. But Dr Samuel Knaggs from Sydney secreted a mirror into the séance and held it between his knees. He saw Slade remove his foot from his kid slippers and rap on the table and write on the slate with his toes, while his body remained still.

Imagine my surprise when the historian David Waldron from Federation University told me that his student Dr Greg Young had discovered that Slade was a woman! As the Australian newspapers gleefully reported in 1879, after his successful mediumship in the Australian colonies Slade was returning home on a mail steamer to San Francisco. Half way across he was stricken with paralysis and the ships’s doctor was called. As the doctor loosed Slade’s necktie, vest and shirt to restore his circulation he made the discovery that Slade was a woman. When this was reported back in Australia many newspapers gleefully conjectured on what they called ‘The Slade Sensation’, while Australian spiritualists, such as W H Terry, whose carte is also in the NGA album, leapt to his defence.

W H Terry

Looking at the carte again after this revelation it’s easy to see a woman behind the moustache, but where does the moustache come from? According to the Australian newspapers Slade confessed that she had been shaving since she was a girl, and that had induced the facial hair to grow. Sydney’s Evening News of 1 October 1879 countered that scientific men had declared this to be impossible. But all images of Slade sport a magnificent moustache, so if it’s stuck on, she must have done it every day, religiously. But the advantages, in terms of her independence, must have been great, as all the other nineteenth century ‘passers’ attest. Ah the nineteenth century, the century that just keeps on giving! It would be lovely if the NGA could show these cartes some day.

The difficulties of producing a nineteenth century spirit photograph revealed with the help of Craig Tuffin and Lisa Clunie!

Last year I was enjoying watching the participants of the Alchemists Workshop make tintypes and salt prints at the ANU School of Art, which they were doing after having their minds blown by the early photography collection of the National Gallery of Australia. The highly knowledgable and highly generous Craig Tuffin, and the intelligent and light hearted Lisa Clunie, agreed to help me in riffing off a carte de visite of the Melbourne spiritualist Dr Walter Lindsey Richardson and a kneeling spirit, taken by the spirit photographer Frederick Hudson in London in 1873-4, and now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. I have previously written about this very important carte de visite, and its reception back in Australia. And I kind of thought I sort of knew how Hudson had made it. But it is only when you are confronted with the task of creating a similar image, under similar conditions and using wet collodion emulsion, as Hudson did (although he used collodion on glass, not metal as we did) that you realize the complexity of detail and organisation which Hudson needed to command. If the exposure was made on one wet plate, and if Richardson was to remain unaware of the presence of the human model for the incarnate spirit, then, while Richardson was detained, perhaps with chatter from an accomplice, in the small waiting room of Hudson’s suburban backyard glasshouse studio, the spirit must have been exposed, but against some kind of moveable black screen. Then both spirit and screen must have been removed out of sight before Richardson was invited to enter the glasshouse. The alternative is a negative sandwich, but to me the similar sharpness of both Richardson and the spirit does not suggest a sandwich.

Craig Tuffin, Lisa Clunie and Martyn Jolly, response to spirit photograph of Dr Richardson by Frederick Hudson, tintype, 2015

Craig Tuffin, Lisa Clunie and Martyn Jolly, response to spirit photograph of Dr Richardson by Frederick Hudson, tintype, 2015

Frederick Hudson, Spirit photograph of Dr Walter Lindsey Richard, carte de visite, 1873-74

Frederick Hudson, Spirit photograph of Dr Walter Lindsey Richardson, carte de visite, 1873-74. Collection: National Gallery of Australia

An Australian Spiritualist’s personal carte-de-visite album

my chapter from:

Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850 – 1920

Edited by Anne Maxwell and Josephine Croci

Australian Scholarly Publishing

Melbourne 2015

At first glance it’s an unassuming album, barely twelve by fifteen centimetres in size and about six centimetres thick. The anonymous owner purchased the blank album for three shillings in Melbourne in the early 1880s. The thirty-six carte-de-visite portraits that she slipped into it were taken in Australia and overseas from the late 1850s onwards.

So far there is not much to distinguish this album, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, from the hundreds of other carte-de-visite albums that were assembled in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Such albums visually located their owners within widening concentric circles of immediate family, social groups and political classes. They were oral, as well as visual, documents because their owners narrated them as they were shown to family and friends in the parlour. But, although they were domestic objects, the images they contained opened out onto the whole world.

In most nineteenth century albums portraits of intimate friends rubbed shoulders with portraits of famous personages, but in this album these images also rubbed shoulders with portraits of spirits. The album documents one person’s passion for the religion of Modern Spiritualism. Its owner was probably a member of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, and her album uses cartes-de-visite to map the spiritual, social and political world the Victorian Spiritualists created for themselves.

Looking through this album now we are missing the owner’s all-important narration, but it is possible to recover some of the knowledge she would have recalled about each subject as she slid their photograph into its pocket. The portraits were inserted into the album in no particular order and most are, in themselves, visually unremarkable. However analysing the album as a complete object is still worthwhile, because, when we know some of the things the album’s original owner knew about each portrait, the disparate images begin to network together into a complex world-view made up of succeeding spheres of the local, the famous, and the disincarnate. Biographical information can be found for all but one of the portraits in the album. Of these only a couple are Melbourne locals. Of the rest, approximately a third are of Spiritualist mediums and lecturers who visited Melbourne on their round-the-world tours, another third are international luminaries of Modern Spiritualism, and a final third are of well known spirits returned from the dead. A description of even a small representative sample of the these four groups gives an indication of the extent of the album’s reach, all the way from Melbourne, to Britain, to the United States, and on to the Beyond.

The Network of Portraits

The album contains a couple of portraits of Melbourne spiritualists who its owner probably would have known personally. Perhaps she even obtained their portraits in exchange for her own. Most significant is a portrait of William H. Terry by the Melbourne photographers Stewart & Co. Terry was Melbourne’s most prominent Spiritualist. A vegetarian teetotaller, Terry was a spiritual healer, diagnosing ailments through what he called a ‘spiritual telegraph’ with the Beyond. Throughout the 1870s, popular interest in Spiritualism and séances continued to grow so that by 1878 a reporter for the Melbourne Age was confessing:

Though I do not profess to being a Spiritualist, I own to having been infected with the fashionable itch for witnessing ‘physical manifestations’ as they are called, and accordingly I have attended several séances with more or less gratification[1]

By 1881, at about the time this album was being compiled, the membership of the VAS had climbed 853 members, at a time when Melbourne’s population was barely 300,000.[2]

The VAS sponsored the visits of many prominent international spiritualists to Melbourne, and their cartes-d-visite were placed into the album. The glamorously bearded American lecturer, Dr J. M. Peebles, who came to Melbourne in 1872 and again in 1878, visited the same Melbourne photographer as Terry, Stewart & Co, to have his portrait made. He lectured to standing-room-only crowds of up to 3000 people every Sunday for three months about progressive vegetarian diet reform.[3]

One of the most high-profile mediums to visit Australia was J. J. Morse. Supposedly an uneducated barman, he suddenly became full of erudition when entranced. He also appeared to be able to withstand fire and physically elongate his body. [4] His carte in the album was taken by the photographer James Bowman of Glasgow. The album also features a Bowman portrait of Morse’s spirit guide, Tien Sien Tie. (Figure 1) Supposedly a Chinese philosopher who had lived on Earth in the reign of the Emperor Kea-Tsing, Tien Sien Tie first ‘controlled’ Morse in 1869. The spirit portrait is in fact a photographic copy made by Bowman of a trance drawing produced by the Glasgow medium David Duguid. Duguid would take a plain card and breathe on it and rub it between his hands in order to ‘magnetize’ it. He would then place it in a sealed envelope in the centre of the séance table, while the sitters placed their hands on the envelope and sang hymns in order to protect the fine mechanisms of the spirits from outside influences as they worked. When the envelope was eventually opened a spirit drawing was found on it.[5] Duguid’s trance drawing is a stilted piece of proto ‘photo-realism’, however it was adapted to being turned into a carte-de-visite, allowing the spirit to take his place amongst the other personages in the album.

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Conventional cartes-de-visite of many of the senior figures of the international movement, who never visited Australia, were also placed in the album. For instance it contains a thoroughly unremarkable portrait of Modern Spiritualism’s first and most famous medium, Kate Fox, who as a young girl in 1848 had first established a code of raps for communicating with a spirit that haunted her house in upstate New York, thus sparking the growing craze for Spiritualism which spread across the world.

These cardinal figures are supported in the album by a range of lesser known writers, proselytisers and investigators for the movement. However without doubt, the highlights of the album are the spirits themselves. The world’s first spirit photographer was William Mumler of Boston, and his photographs were circulated widely throughout the global Spiritualist community as visual testimony to Spiritualist truths. Perhaps the most famous testimony came from Moses A. Dow. The faded, desiccated spirit we see slipped into the Melbourne album today gives the contemporary viewer little indication of the intense emotions and complex interactions that surrounded the photograph. Dow had taken a talented young woman, Mabel Warren, under his wing and eventually came to regard her as a dearly beloved daughter. She was suddenly taken ill and quietly passed into spirit land, leaving Dow grief stricken. The spirit stayed in touch with Dow through several different Boston mediums before announcing that she wished to give Dow her spirit picture via Mumler’s photographic mediumship. Dow described the result of Mumler’s photographic séance with him:

Her right hand passes over my left arm and clasps my hand. Her left hand is seen on my left shoulder, and between the thumb and forefinger of this hand is held an opening rose bud, the exact counterpoint of the one I placed there while she lay in the casket at her funeral.[6]

For three shillings sixpence for a packet of three, spiritualists living in Britain and Australia were able to order copies of these photographic proofs that the dead lived from Spiritualist magazines, such as Boston’s Banner of Light, and London’s Spiritual Magazine. However in this album all traces of that rose bud have finally leached out of the photograph.

The other key photographer in Spiritualism was the London photographer Frederick Hudson. His 1872 group portrait of two mortals and a spirit is inserted into the album’s first page. (Figure 2) The medium Charles Williams, who is seated, could supposedly produce fully materialized spirits while he sat tied up and entranced in a curtained-off cabinet. He benefited from the patronage of Samuel Guppy who is photographed standing beside him. The wealthy Guppy had married the medium Agnes Nichols in1867and they became London Spiritualism’s ‘first couple’. In this portrait the top half of a shrouded spirit appears to be materializing in front of the two men, assertively looking towards the viewer and raising his hand in a biblical gesture.

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Some Spirits were known by name. The best-known spirit of the day was John King, who spoke in direct voice through a floating trumpet and said he was Henry Owen Morgan, the buccaneer. Many mediums claimed to be able to materialize him, including Charles Williams, and with his trademark turban King frequently appeared at séances in London. He even posed behind some studio scenery in substantial form (though with suspiciously similar facial features to Charles Williams himself) for his carte-de-visite, which is in this album. (Figure 3)

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Hudson’s fame quickly grew amongst Spiritualists and he began to accept many clients into his studio, producing draped spirits on the plates for them as well. However his most important collaborator was Miss Georgiana Houghton, an accomplished upper class women who in 1859 found her true passion in Spiritualism and ebulliently developed her own amateur mediumship.

She had read the first reports of William Mumler’s spirit photographs in the Spiritual Magazine of December 1862. She at once believed, and purchased one of the packets of Mumler photographs that the magazine offered to its readers. Ten years later the Guppys introduced her to Frederick Hudson. She recounted her subsequent four years of experimentation with him in a book illustrated with fifty-four miniaturised cartes-de-visite called Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. In the preface to the book Houghton granted her photographs a privileged role in proving Spiritualism’s truths:

I send them forth in full assurance that they carry a weight of evidence as to the substantiality of spirit being far transcending any other forms of mediumship.[7]

Houghton travelled across London every Thursday to Hudson’s backyard glasshouse studio, meeting Mrs Guppy for a regular appointment at which Hudson would coat, sensitise and expose three plates of her. Hudson wholesaled his photographs of Houghton back to her, and she retailed them to her Spiritualist correspondents around the world, thus increasing his clientele as well as making enough profit for Houghton to cover her own costs. Miss Houghton and Mrs Guppy took turns to be photographed after mesmerizing the other in a ‘cabinet’ — a curtained-off part of a room which supposedly collected and concentrated the psychic energy of entranced mediums. The mesmerized women acted as batteries of stored-up spirit-power which could be drawn upon by the spirits to supplement their own spirit-power as they materalised themselves. To Houghton the draped figures could not possibly be Hudson’s collaborators dressed-up, they were too flat and unfilled-out. Their draped appearance was the result of the spirits using the women’s spiritual power with wise economy. Spirits told the lady experimenters to preserve their magnetism by wearing clothes that they had had about their person for a considerable time, and to avoid wearing clothes that had just been laundered. Houghton went a step further, using one of her black satin petticoats to construct her own dark-cloth for Hudson to cover and uncover the lens of his camera.

For Houghton, what was most genuine about the shrouded figures in her photographs was the simple, unassuming modesty of their attitudes (poses we would now see as stilted eschatological theatrics). In contrast, she noted, living people usually wanted their portraits taken in order to exhibit their ego, and photographers were paid to make the most of any good feature. For her, the hundreds of cartes-de-visite displayed in shop windows, where the sitters were full of self-consciousness and had an air of self-gratification, contrasted badly with the air of peaceful repose of the spirits that she saw in Hudson’s photographs.

In a photograph taken in May 1872 a spirit appeared whom she recognised as her Aunt Helen who had died thirty years before of heart disease brought on by grief at the loss of her husband. Aunt Helen had left half her fortune to Houghton who had gratefully spent it all on her Spiritualist enthusiasms. She appeared now standing right behind Houghton to indicate that she continuing to support her from beyond the grave. The Melbourne compiler of this album purchased this double portrait for her album. (Figure 4)

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

A key Hudson portrait from the album is of Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson, father of the future famous Australian author Henry Handel Richardson who based her book The Fortunes of Richard Mahony on him. Richardson was a successful doctor in Ballarat and became the first president of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, while also holding other eminent posts in colonial society such as on the Senate of Melbourne University. He was so successful in business he was able to return to Britain for a tour of the Continent with his family in 1873 and 1874. Whilst there, he wowed British Spiritualists with an address that connected progressive Spiritualism to the manifest destiny of the colonies. He said:

I come from a far country where […] the Teuton and the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon are founding a new republic and […] the great wave of modern Spiritualism is spreading over the length and breadth of the land. It is sapping the foundations of ecclesiastical Christianity; it is splitting asunder corporations based on self-interest and human greed […] It is, amid much ridicule and denunciation, proclaiming the brotherhood of the human race and the absolute and unconditional freedom of each immortal soul.[8]

When in London Richardson also attended séances with London’s leading mediums including Charles Williams, Mrs Guppy and Miss Houghton. He witnessed the materialization of London’s most celebrated spirits as well, including John King. In early 1874 he visited Frederick Hudson, as so many others were doing. After cleaning the plates himself and followed every stage of the process through to development, he received spirits on three out of the four plates, sending prints back to William H. Terry in Melbourne. The most remarkable of the three successes is in the album. (Figure 5) Terry, writing in his magazine the Harbinger of Light, tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

…a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form.[9]

So, Terry reasoned, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization…..

As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium, and but few Media (sic) have the necessary emanation to enable the spirits to complete the process.[10]

Richardson also sat in on several séances with the leading matron of London Spiritualism, Mrs MacDougall Gregory, who was also the widow of his old Chemistry professor. Hudson’s carte-de-visite of Mrs Gregory is also in the album. (Figure 6) The shrouded spirit who has joined her, identified in the caption as the sister of her departed husband, has eschewed the self-conscious formal poses of the standard carte-de-visite, and instead sits comfortably cross-legged on the floor beside her, imitating the sitting conventions of the American Indians and Orientals who were often Spirit Controls for British mediums.

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Science

For us, merely knowing bare facts such as these about the subjects of the portraits may have only succeeded in filling the album with bewildering chatter from the procession of grifters, hucksters, naifs and idealists who crowd its pages. But, if we could hear how its owner would have narrated it in the 1880s, this silent collection of now-faded cartes-de-visite would become full of the urgent discourse, the very presence, of all of the key protagonists in the Spiritualists’ world. These personages formed themselves into series of conceptual concentric circles around her: local campaigners such as Terry and Richardson; celebrity proselytizers and mediums who had visited and performed in Melbourne such as Morse; famous mediums and writers from overseas who she had only read of or heard about; and finally, in the outer circle, the spirits themselves, such as Charles Williams’ tall and turbaned John King or Georgiana Houghton’s stalwart Aunt Helen.

This structure of progressive elevation and etherealization was also how, in a cross-pollination of their Swedenborgian and Copernican cosmologies with progressive ideas of political progress and social evolution, the Spiritualists conceived of this life and the afterlife — as a series of concentric spheres through which mortals and spirits gained more knowledge as they continued their ascent towards God.

Not only were developments in politics and social philosophy shaping the movement’s progressive social agenda, but developments in science were also structuring its metaphysical imagination. Nineteenth century advances in evolutionary biology, geology, physics and chemistry, which emphasised that matter and being changed incrementally over time, were crucial to Spiritualism. The new technologies arising from these sciences not only provided tangible evidence that science was progressing and opening up hitherto unknown worlds of knowledge, which the Spiritualists were confident already contained confirmed examples of spirit communication, but they also provided enabling metaphors and analogies which were joyfully inhabited and extrapolated upon by the Spiritualist imagination — an imagination which had the capacity to stretch far beyond the breaking point of incredulity other people had.

The reigning metaphors were electricity and the telegraph, the wonders of the age, which allowed communication over vast distances. For instance in the 1850s two separate magazines called themselves The Spiritual Telegraph. Spiritualism was therefore a theory of communication as much as it was a conventional religion. It was not a faith in a deferred redemption, but an active belief in the current opportunities provided by supposed communication with those who already had higher knowledge — the spirits.

Mediated Intimacy

If Spiritualism was a theory of technological communication, can contemporary theories of the media cast any light on the activity of this anonymous compiler of carte-de-visites? In his 1995 book The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, John Thompson argues that, because of today’s new technologies such as TV and the internet, our social relationships and sense of ourselves are increasingly characterised by what he calls ‘mediated intimacy’, an intimacy exemplified by the real sense of closeness many fans feel with the stars they idolize. He says:

It is this new form of mediated, non-reciprocal intimacy, stretched across time and space, which underlies, for example, the relationship between fan and star. It can be exhilarating, precisely because it is freed from the reciprocal obligations characteristic of face-to-face interaction. But it can also become a form of dependence in which individuals come to rely on others whose very absence and inaccessibility turn them into an object of veneration.[11]

Fans create their own customised worlds by taking up, transforming and incorporating media products into a structured symbolic universe inhabited only by themselves. Because of media technologies, Thompson says, we are all living in a mediated world in which we are increasingly unconstrained by our location or our time, but only at the cost of the displacement of immediate ‘lived’ experience:

If we compare our lives today with the lives of individuals who lived two or three centuries ago, it seems clear that the structure of experience has changed in significant ways. […] While lived experience remains fundamental, it is increasingly supplemented by, and in some respects displaced by, mediated experience, which assumes a greater and greater role in the project of self-formation.[12]

Perhaps we can see the owner of this album, who lived a mere one hundred and thirty years or so ago, as a pioneer of both the pleasures, and the pitfalls, of this use of mediated experience for a project of self formation. She probably never left Melbourne, but through the global interchange of cartes-de-visite, and through the global reach of Spiritualist networks, she assembled a coherent world for herself out of fragments of photographically mediated experience.

She probably did this by sending money overseas to spiritualist magazines, as well as to individuals like James Bowman from Glasgow, and Georgiana Houghton from London. In addition she brought cartes-de-visite off visitors to Melbourne, and probably exchanged her own image for cartes-de-visite of her fellow Melbourne Spiritualists. They all come together in her little parlour album — from Melbourne, from London, and from Boston — all assembled in the ready-made pockets of her album.

These cartes-de-visite constructed an entire world, with the compiler’s firm place at the centre of it implied, but never stated. Some of the images were drawn from lived experience in the colony of Victoria, and some were drawn from the higher planes of the spirit world, where celebrity spirits such as John King perpetually hovered, intimately near, but yet always out of reach — very much like a contemporary fan’s relationship to their favourite celebrity. As media objects they were all flattened, delocalised and mobilised by the globalised conventions of the various photographic studios around the world, which produced cartes-de-visite in a standardised format, in standardised glass-house studios, with standardised photographic conventions. (The Glasgow photographer Bowman even transduced trance drawing of supposed spirits into conventional cartes-de-visite.) They were all brought together into the compacted space of the album, where they were available for instant retrieval and sharing. In many respects they are like a page on a contemporary social networking site such as Facebook. In these virtual spaces close intimates, social acquaintances and favourite celebrities are all similarly flattened into ‘friends’, which orbit around the empty centre of us, constructing what we now call our ‘profile’ through our connections, rather than our innate selves.

Conclusion

Thompson warns us that there are both strengths and dangers in mediated intimacy, both pleasures and pitfalls. Did our compiler experience any of these pitfalls? Was this album, and the extraordinarily intimate, yet mediated, world it constructed simply the product of a passing enthusiasm? Did the owner, perhaps with too much money and time on her hands, simply jump on the bandwagon at the height of the fad, collecting cartes-de-visite indiscriminately before eventually getting bored with Spiritualism’s breathless rhetoric of progress and revelation, or perhaps disillusioned with its charlatans? Did the interpenetrating spheres she built up in her album all suddenly collapse in on her like a house of cards? Or, did she remain one of the social, spiritual and technological pioneers of Australia, expanding on the conventions of the portrait album to describe both the palpable and the evanescent world she lived in. Did she seriously manage to incorporate the worlds she constructed in her album, although they were ultimately built only within her imagination, into a sustained, and sustaining, personal commitment to her new religion?

We will never know.

Martyn Jolly

[1] Emma Hardinge Britten, Nineteenth Century Miracles: or Spirits and their work in every country of the earth: A complete historical compendium of the great movement known as ‘Modern Spiritualism’ (New York: William Britten, 1884), 238.

[2] Alfred J. Gabay, Messages from Beyond, Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age, 1870-1890, ( Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001), 70.

[3] Ibid, 83-86

[4] Nandor Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, (London: Arthurs Press, 1933), 246.

[5] ibid, 97.

[6] Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography, (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006), 19.

[7] Georgiana Houghton, Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye, Interblended with Personal Narrative, (London: E. W. Allen, 1882), np.

[8] Dorothy Green, ‘Walter Lindesay Richardson: the Man, the Portrait and the Artist’, Meanjin Quarterly 29.2 (March 1970): 5.

[9] William H. Terry, Harbinger of Light, 1 July 1874, 651.

[10] ibid, 651.

[11] John Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 208.

[12] ibid, 233.

Ghost of Gallipoli formed on Wall at Australian War Memorial

I’m Canberra’s ‘ghost guy’, so when staff from the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Canberra wanted somebody to open their exhibition Traces and Hauntings at Belconnen Arts Centre who were they going to call? I was delighted to, of course. When thinking about which angle on their work I could take I was pleased to come across this photograph in the Sun Herald (02/08/2015).  The shot was taken by Phillip Gordon of Newcastle, who observed and photographed figures with rifles and their kit by their sides who appeared on the Memorial wall in light rain. Spookily, the person Mr Gordon had come to pay his respects to, Bert Keepence, who had been killed at Lone Pine 100 years before almost to the week, had worked for the Water Board! A spokesperson for the War Memorial said it was just water stains on the sandstone, but as Mr Gordon said, “It blew me away for a bit”. Magical images persist, and are still reported on in our newspapers.

Ghosts of Gallipoli formed on the wall of the Australian War memorial, Sun Herald, 2 August 2015

Ghosts of Gallipoli formed on the wall of the Australian War Memorial, Sun Herald, 2 August 2015

Famous people in spirit photographs

In the last couple of weeks colleagues have sent me two spirit photographs of famous, and perhaps unexpected people. The first is the Tasmanian landscape photographer John Watt Beattie, who must have visited the London spirit photographer Richard Boursnell around 1900. The second is the poet W B Yeats, who visited William Hope, again in London, around 1923. For more information on these spirit photographers see my book Faces of the Living Dead. I’d be interested in more information on either of these sittings, particularly Beattie’s.

John Watt Beattie in what I identify as a Richard Boursnell spirit photograph. As far as i know Boursnell worked in the UK around 1900

John Watt Beattie in what I identify as a Richard Boursnell spirit photograph. As far as I know Boursnell worked in the UK around 1900

W B Yeats in what I identify to be a William Hope photograph. Hope worked at the British College of Psychic Science in the 1920s, Yeats visited there in 1923.

W B Yeats in what I identify to be a William Hope photograph. Hope worked at the British College of Psychic Science in the 1920s, Yeats visited there in 1923.

A Melbourne Spiritualist’s carte-de-visite album

‘A Melbourne Spiritualist’s carte-de-visite album’,

 

 Migration and Exchange Symposium, Potter Gallery, Melbourne University, 29- 30 November, 2012.

 

At first glance it’s an unassuming album, barely twelve by fifteen centimetres in size and about six centimetres thick. It’s made up of only eighteen cardboard leaves between morocco covers, and each page has a pre-cut pocket so the owner could slide in a carte-de-visite photograph. The anonymous owner purchased the blank album for three shillings in Melbourne, Australia, in the early 1880s, and the thirty-six cartes-de-visite she slipped into it were originally taken in Australia, Britain and the US from the late 1850s onwards.

 

So far there is not much to distinguish this album, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, from the hundreds of other carte-de-visite albums which were assembled in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Cartes-de-visite were portrait photographs, mounted onto pieces of card of about six by ten centimetres, which were used as the visual currency for extended networks of social exchange. Thousands of photographic studios around the world printed them in multiples of eight and sold them cheaply. Album owners would fill their albums by exchanging cartes of themselves with their friends and families, as well as buying cartes of celebrities such as politicians, actors and royalty. Carte albums visually located their owners within widening concentric circles of immediate family, social groups and political classes. Carte albums were oral objects as well as visual objects, they were narrated by their owners as they showed them to their family and friends in the parlour. Although they were domestic objects, the images they contained opened out onto the whole world.

 

In most carte albums portraits of intimate friends rubbed shoulders with portraits of famous personages, but in this album these images also rubbed shoulders with portraits of spirits. The album documents one person’s passion for the religion of Modern Spiritualism. Its owner was probably a member of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, and her album uses photographic portraits to map the spiritual, social and political world the Victorian Spiritualists created for themselves. Recently, photographic historians have become increasingly fascinated by spirit photography. (For instance see my book Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography) However hitherto our focus has tended to be on the mysterious ‘extras’ which appeared within the emulsion of the image, which seemed to hyperbolize the indexicality of the photograph; or our focus has been on the moment of the photographic séance, where a thaumaturgic medium-photographer photographed the sitter in the act of channelling their lost loved ones, which seemed to hyperbolize the ritual of portrait photography; or our focus has been on the body of the medium, which in its ability to manifest phantoms and extrude ectoplasm seemed to hyperbolize the fertile power of the female body. But this album, full of its faded carte-de-visite portraits, enables us to expand our focus to the ordinary Spiritualist herself, and the personal, social and metaphysical world she constructed for herself. The world she constructed may, in fact, even share some characteristics with the mediated worlds we construct for ourselves in contemporary media spaces such a social networking sites.

 

Looking through this album, 130 years after it was compiled, we are missing the all-important narration its owner would have provided, but it is possible to recover some of the knowledge she would have recalled about each subject as she slid their photograph into its pocket. The portraits were inserted into the album in no particular order and most are, in themselves, visually unremarkable. However analysing the album as a complete, integral object is still worthwhile, because when we know the things the album’s original owner knew about each portrait the disparate images begin to network together into a complex world-view made up of succeeding spheres of the local, the famous, and the disincarnate. A description of even a small representative sample of the thirty-six portraits in the album still gives an indication of the extent of the album’s reach, all the way from Melbourne, to Britain, to the US, and on to the Beyond.

 

The Network of Portraits

The album contains portraits of Melbourne spiritualists who its owner probably would have known personally. Perhaps she even obtained their portraits in exchange for her own. Most significant is a portrait of William H. Terry by the Melbourne photographers Stewart & Co. Terry was Melbourne’s most prominent Spiritualist. In 1859 at a Melbourne séance he received evidence that his brother had survived death. He wrote:

 

Never shall I forget the eventful night when I realized the grand truth of man’s continuous sensuous existence after death. I felt the presence of my brother, and it was indeed a happy reunion. (Gabay, p31)

 

A vegetarian teetotaller, Terry became a spiritual healer, diagnosing ailments through what he called a ‘spiritual telegraph’ with the Beyond. He opened a bookshop and herbal emporium, importing some of his herbs from the Banner of Light organization in Boston. In 1870 he set up the Victorian Association of Spiritualists and established the long-running Spiritualist magazine the Harbinger of Light. The magazine’s title came from a vision a young medium had, when she saw a spirit holding a scroll inscribed with the words ‘Harbinger of Light’ and the motto:

 

Dawn Approaches, error is passing away; men arising shall hail the day

 

Throughout the 1870s, popular interest in Spiritualism and séances continued to grow so that by 1878 a reporter for the Melbourne Age was confessing:

 

Though I do not profess to being a Spiritualist, I own to having been infected with the fashionable itch for witnessing ‘physical manifestations’ as they are called, and accordingly I have attended several séances with more or less gratification. (Britten, p238)

 

By 1881, at about the time this album was being compiled, the membership of the VAS had climbed 853 members, at a time when Melbourne’s population was barely 300,000.

 

The VAS sponsored the visits of many prominent international spiritualists to Melbourne, and their cartes-de-visite were placed into the album. The glamorously bearded American lecturer, Dr J M Peebles, who came to Melbourne in 1872 and again in 1878, visited the same Melbourne photographer Terry had, Stewart & Co, to have his carte-de-visite made.  He lectured to standing-room-only crowds of up to 3000 people every Sunday for three months. His greatest enthusiasm was for progressive vegetarian diet reform. He styled himself as a ‘Professor of Ontology and Biodynamics’ from the Eclectic Medical College of Battle Creek, Michigan, where he had previously been pastor at a Free Church. The small town of Battle Creek, with its strong Freethought and Seventh Day Adventist culture, was world famous amongst progressives. For example it was where John Harvey Kellogg was born, and where, from 1875, he ran the Battle Creek Health Reform Sanitarium, which eventually led, by the late 1890s, to Kellogg and his brother inventing the corn flake. (Gabay pp83-86)

 

One of the most high-profile mediums to visit Australia was J J Morse. Supposedly an uneducated barman, he suddenly became full of erudition when entranced. An investigator put to him the most difficult questions in psychology, and received wise and eloquent answers, however when released from the trance he appeared to be at a loss for sufficient language in which to express a commonplace idea. He also appeared to be able to withstand fire and physically elongate his body. (Fodor p246) His carte in the album was taken by the photographer James Bowman of Glasgow. The album also features a Bowman portrait of Morse’s spirit guide, Tien Sien Tie. Tien Sien Tie, supposedly a Chinese philosopher who had lived on Earth in the reign of the Emperor Kea-Tsing, first ‘controlled’ Morse in 1869.  The spirit portrait is in fact a photographic copy made by Bowman of a trance drawing produced by the Glasgow medium David Duguid. Duguid would take a plain card, previously identified by a sitter, and breathe on it and rub it between his hands in order to ‘magnetize’ it. He would then place it in a sealed envelope in the centre of the séance table, while the sitters placed their hands on the envelope and sang hymns in order to protect the fine mechanisms of the spirits from outside influences as they worked. When the envelope was eventually opened a spirit drawing was found on it. Duguid’s trance drawing is not the swirling abstract vortexes of energy produced by other trance drawers of the period, rather it is a stilted piece of proto ‘photo-realism’. However as a drawing it is adapted to being turned into a carte-de-visite, allowing the spirit to take his place amongst the other personages in the album.

 

Conventional cartes-de-visite of many of the senior figures of the international movement were also placed in the album. For instance it contains a thoroughly unremarkable portrait of Modern Spiritualism’s first and most famous medium Kate Fox, who, as a young girl in 1848, had first established a code of raps for communicating with a spirit that haunted her house in upstate New York, thus sparking the growing craze for Spiritualism which spread across the world. She held many séance sittings, but by1888 had confessed to making the noises with her toe joints. (Fodor, pp146-148)

 

These cardinal figures are supported by a range of lesser known writers, proselytisers and investigators for the movement such as the industrial chemist Professor James J Mapes who had set down the three basic principles of modern Spiritualism:

 

First, there is a future state of existence, which is but a continuation of our present state of being…Second, that the great aim of nature, as shown through a great variety of spiritual existences, is progression, extending beyond the limits of this mundane sphere…Third, that spirits can and do communicate with mortals, and in all cases evince a desire to elevate and advance those they commune with. (Fodor p,215 and http://www.aspsi.org/feat/life_after/tymn/testimonials.htm#Mapes)

 

However without doubt, the highlights of the album are the spirits themselves. The world’s first spirit photographer was William Mumler of Boston, and his photographs were circulated widely throughout the global Spiritualist community as visual testimony to Spiritualist truths. Perhaps the most famous testimony associated with Mumler’s photographic mediumship came from Moses A. Dow. The faded, desiccated spirit we see slipped into the album today gives the contemporary viewer little indication of the intense emotions and complex interactions that surrounded the photograph. Dow had taken a talented young woman, Mabel Warren, under his wing and eventually came to regard her as a dearly beloved daughter. She was suddenly taken ill and quietly passed into spirit land, leaving Dow grief stricken. The spirit stayed in touch with Dow through several different Boston mediums before announcing that she wished to give Dow her spirit picture. At the studio Dow sat for five minutes before the camera, while Mumler stood with his back to him with his left hand resting on the camera. As the exposure was finishing Mumler’s wife, who was also a medium, came into the room and, immediately falling into a trance under the control of Mabel said: ‘Now I will give you my picture, it will be here in a few minutes. … I put into it all the magnetism I possess.’ As Mrs Mumler came to herself, Mumler re-entered the room with the developed plate. Dow took the plate and looked at it:

 

Mabel stands partially behind my right shoulder, dressed in a white well fitting robe. Her hair is combed back, and her head is encircled by a wreath of white lilies. Her head inclines forward so as to lay her cheek on my right temple, from which my hair is always parted. Her right hand passes over my left arm and clasps my hand. Her left hand is seen on my left shoulder, and between the thumb and forefinger of this hand is held an opening rose bud, the exact counterpoint of the one I placed there while she lay in the casket at her funeral. (Jolly p19)

 

For three shillings sixpence for a packet of three, spiritualists living in Britain and Australia were able to order copies of these photographic proofs that the dead lived.  However in this album all traces of that rose bud have finally leached out of the photograph.

 

The other key photographer in Spiritualism was the London photographer Frederick Hudson. His 1872 group portrait of two mortals and a spirit is inserted into the album’s first page. The medium Charles Williams, who is seated, could supposedly produce fully materialized spirits while he sat tied up and entranced in a curtained-off cabinet. He benefited from the patronage of Samuel Guppy who is photographed standing beside him. The wealthy Guppy had married the medium Agnes Nichols in1867and they became London Spiritualism’s ‘first couple’. The Guppys had reportedly discovered Hudson’s powers of spirit photography when they received, supposedly by chance, an extra image of a draped figure on the plate when they visited him for a photograph on a whim in March 1872. In this portrait the top half of a shrouded spirit appears to be materializing in front of the two men, assertively looking towards the viewer and raising his hand in a biblical gesture.

 

Some Spirits were known by name. The best-known spirit of the day was John King, who spoke in direct voice through a floating trumpet and said he was Henry Owen Morgan, the buccaneer. Many mediums claimed to be able to materialize him, including Charles Williams, and with his trademark turban King frequently appeared at séances in London. He even posed behind some studio scenery in substantial form (though with suspiciously similar facial features to Charles Williams himself) for his carte-de-visite, which is in this album.

 

Hudson’s fame quickly grew amongst Spiritualists and he began to accept many clients into his studio, producing draped spirits on the plates for them as well. However his most important collaborator was Miss Georgiana Houghton, an accomplished upper class women who in 1859 found her true passion in Spiritualism and ebulliently developed her own amateur mediumship. In the 1860s she produced vertiginous abstract spirit paintings and drawings, quite unlike Duguid’s stiff portraits, which were exhibited in Melbourne.

 

She had read the first reports of William Mumler’s spirit photographs in the Spiritual Magazine of December 1862. She at once believed, and purchased one of the packets of Mumler photographs that the magazine offered to its readers. Ten years later the Guppys introduced her to Frederick Hudson. She recounted her subsequent four years of experimentation with him in a book illustrated with fifty-four miniaturised cartes-de-visite called Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye, which joined her previous work Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance. In the preface to the book Houghton granted her photographs a privileged role in proving Spiritualism’s truths:

 

I send them forth in full assurance that they carry a weight of evidence as to the substantiality of spirit being far transcending any other forms of mediumship.

 

Houghton travelled across London every Thursday to Hudson’s backyard glasshouse studio, meeting Mrs Guppy for a regular appointment at which Hudson would coat, sensitise and expose three plates of her. Hudson wholesaled his photographs of Houghton back to her, and she retailed them to her Spiritualist correspondents around the world, thus increasing his clientele as well as making enough profit for Houghton to cover her own costs. Miss Houghton and Mrs Guppy took turns to be photographed after mesmerizing the other in a ‘cabinet’ — a curtained-off part of a room which supposedly collected and concentrated the psychic energy of entranced mediums. The mesmerized women acted as batteries of stored-up spirit-power which could be drawn upon by the spirits to supplement their own spirit-power as they externalised themselves. To Houghton the draped figures could not possibly be collaborators dressed-up, they were too flat and unfilled-out. Their draped appearance was the result of the spirits using her reserve spiritual power with wise economy. Spirits told the lady experimenters to wear clothes that they had had about their person for a considerable time, and to avoid wearing clothes that had just been laundered. Houghton went a step further, used one of her black satin petticoats to construct her own dark-cloth for Hudson to cover and uncover the lens of his camera.

 

What, for Houghton, was most genuine about the shrouded figures in her photographs was the simple, unassuming modesty of their attitudes (poses we would now see as stilted eschatological theatrics). In contrast, she noted, living people usually wanted their portraits taken in order to exhibit their ego, and photographers were paid to make the most of any good feature. For her, the hundreds of cartes-de-visite displayed in shop windows, where the sitters were full of self-consciousness and had an air of self-gratification, contrasted badly with the air of peaceful repose of the spirits which she she saw in Hudson’s photographs.

 

In a photograph taken in May 1872 a spirit appeared standing very close to Houghton. She thought she recognised who it was, but since they had passed away over thirty years previously she couldn’t be sure. Her sister, however, confirmed her recognition. It was her Aunt Helen who had died of heart disease brought on by grief at the loss of her husband. She had left half her fortune to Houghton who had gratefully spent it all on her Spiritualist enthusiasms. She appeared now standing right behind Houghton to indicate that she continuing to support her from beyond the grave. The compiler of this album purchased this double portrait for her album.

 

A key Hudson portrait for the album is of Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson, who was a successful doctor in Ballarat and became the first president of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, while also holding other eminent posts in colonial society such as the Senate of Melbourne University. He was so successful in business he was able to return to Britain for a tour of the Continent with his family in 1873 and 1874. Whilst there he wowed British Spiritualists with an address that connected progressive Spiritualism to the manifest destiny of the colonies. He said:

 

I come from a far country where […] the Teuton and the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon are founding a new republic and […] the great wave of modern Spiritualism is spreading over the length and breadth of the land. It is sapping the foundations of ecclesiastical Christianity; it is splitting asunder corporations based on self-interest and human greed […] It is, amid much ridicule and denunciation, proclaiming the brotherhood of the human race and the absolute and unconditional freedom of each immortal soul. (Green, p5)

 

When in London Richardson also attended séances with London’s leading mediums including Charles Williams, Mrs Guppy and Miss Houghton. He witnessed the materialization of London’s most celebrated spirits as well, including John King. In early 1874 he visited Frederick Hudson, as so many others were doing. After cleaning the plates himself and followed every stage of the process through to development, he received spirits on three out of the four plates, sending prints back to William H Terry in Melbourne. The most remarkable of the three successes is in the album. Terry, writing in the Harbinger of Light, tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

 

…a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form. (HoL July 1st 1874, p651)

 

So, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization…..

 

As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium, and but few Media (sic) have the necessary emanation to enable the spirits to complete the process. (HoL July 1st 1874, p651)

 

Richardson also sat in on several séances with the leading matron of London Spiritualism Mrs MacDougall Gregory, who was also the widow of his old Chemistry professor. Hudson’s carte of Mrs Gregory is also in the album. The shrouded spirit who has joined her, identified in the caption as the sister of her departed husband, has eschewed the self-conscious formal poses of the standard carte, and instead sits comfortably cross-legged on the floor beside her, imitating the sitting conventions of the American Indians and Orientals who were often Spirit Controls for British mediums.

 

Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Science

For us, one hundred and thirty years later, merely knowing bare facts such as these about the subjects of the cartes may have only succeeded in filling the album with bewildering chatter from the procession of grifters, hucksters, naifs and idealists who crowd its pages. But, if we could hear how it would have been narrated by its owner in the 1880s, this silent collection of now-faded cartes-de-visite would become full of the urgent discourse, the very presence, of all of the key protagonists in the Spiritualists’ world. These personages formed themselves into series of conceptual concentric circles around her: local campaigners such as Terry and Richardson; foundational elder members of the movement; celebrity propagandists and mediums who had visited and performed in Melbourne such as Morse; famous mediums and writers from overseas who she had only read of or heard about; and finally, in the outer circle, the spirits themselves, such as Charles Williams’ tall and turbaned John King or Georgiana Houghton’s stalwart Aunt Helen.

 

This structure of progressive elevation and etherealization was also how, in a cross-pollination of their Swedenborgian and Copernican cosmologies with progressive ideas of political progress and social evolution, the Spiritualists conceived of this life and the afterlife — as a series of concentric spheres through which mortals and spirits gained more knowledge as they continued their ascent towards God.

 

Not only were developments in politics and social philosophy shaping the movement’s progressive social agenda, but developments in science were also structuring its metaphysical imagination. Nineteenth century advances in evolutionary biology, geology, physics and chemistry, which emphasised that matter and being changed incrementally over time, were crucial to Spiritualism. The new technologies arising from these sciences also formed a specific context for Spiritualism. They not only provided tangible evidence that science was progressing and opening up hitherto unknown worlds of knowledge, which the Spiritualists were confident already contained confirmed examples of spirit communication, they also provided enabling metaphors and analogies which were joyfully inhabited and extrapolated upon by the Spiritualist imagination — an imagination which had the capacity to stretch far beyond the breaking point of incredulity other people had.

 

Nineteenth century spirits were much more chaste and eschatological than the bizarre bodily eruptions of ectoplasm through which they manifested themselves in the twentieth century. The reigning metaphor was the telegraph, the electrical wonder of the age, which allowed communication over vast distances. For instance in the 1850s two separate magazines called themselves The Spiritual Telegraph. In the faraway Australia of the 1870s the telegraph was a particularly potent piece of technology. Australia was finally connected to the outside world via telegraph in 1871, when a cable from Java was pulled ashore at Darwin and subsequently connected via the overland telegraph line to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. In 1880 a home séance circle, which included employees of the New South Wales Magnetic Telegraph Office, began to use a disconnected telegraph key as the means of communication with the Beyond. They would place it in the middle of the séance table and it would automatically begin to tap, transmitting from the Other Side in Morse Code while ‘spirit lights’ hovered around the key.  (Britten, p254-255) Spiritualism was therefore a theory of communication as much as it was a conventional religion. It was not so much a faith in a deferred redemption, as an active belief in the current opportunities provided by supposed communication with those who already had higher knowledge — the spirits.

 

Mediated Intimacy

If Spiritualism was a theory of technological communication, can contemporary theories of the media cast any light on the activity of this anonymous compiler of carte-de-visites? In his 1995 book The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, John Thompson argues that, because of today’s new technologies such as TV and the internet, our social relationships and sense of ourselves are increasingly characterised by what he calls ‘mediated intimacy’, an intimacy exemplified by the real sense of closeness many fans feel with the stars they idolize. He says:

 

It is this new form of mediated, non-reciprocal intimacy, stretched across time and space, which underlies, for example, the relationship between fan and star. It can be exhilarating, precisely because it is freed from the reciprocal obligations characteristic of face-to-face interaction. But it can also become a form of dependence in which individuals come to rely on others whose very absence and inaccessibility turn them into an object of veneration. p208

 

Within modernity the sense of ‘self’ is regarded less as something innate to the individual, and more as the product of an ongoing symbolic project that the individual actively constructs. In one sense the availability of media products enriches this reflexive organization of narratives of the self, because it gives individuals more choice over the sort of self they want to be. But in another sense, Thompson warns, it makes them more dependent on larger systems over which they have little control. This may lead to a kind of symbolic overload which can eventually absorb the self, so that what he calls ‘mediated quasi-interactions’ become ends in themselves, rather than a resource individuals can choose to draw on and incorporate reflexively into their developing narratives of the self.

 

Thompson warns us that celebrities, which are taking up more and more space in the daily discourse our lives, can begin to overshadow and redefine other aspects of our social interactions. For Thompson, the state of being a fan is rooted in a ‘non-reciprocal relation of intimacy with distant others’. Fans create their own customised worlds by taking up, transforming and incorporating media products into a structured symbolic universe inhabited only by themselves. So, for a while, being a fan may seem to be an effective strategy of the self, because it enables individuals to tap into a rich source of symbolic materials which can be used to cultivate non-reciprocal bonds which are incorporated reflexively into a project of self-formation. But, beware, because fandom can become addictive and take over. When this occurs the individual may find it difficult to sustain the distinction between the world of the fan and the practical contexts of daily life. The two worlds become inextricably entangled, and the project of self becomes inseparable from, and increasingly shaped by, the experience of being a fan. (Thompson p222—225)

 

Because of media technologies, Thompson says, we are all living in a mediated world in which we are increasingly unconstrained by our location or our time, but only at the cost of the displacement of immediate ‘lived’ experience:

 

As these mediated experiences are incorporated reflexively into the project of self-formation, the nature of the self is transformed. It is not dissolved or dispersed by media messages, but rather is opened up by them, in varying degrees, to influences which stem from different locales. […]. If we compare our lives today with the lives of individuals who lived two or three centuries ago, it seems clear that the structure of experience has changed in significant ways. […] While lived experience remains fundamental, it is increasingly supplemented by, and in some respects displaced by, mediated experience, which assumes a greater and greater role in the project of self-formation. P233

 

Perhaps we can see the owner of this album, who lived a mere one hundred and thirty years ago, as a pioneer of both the pleasures, and the pitfalls, of this use of mediated experience for a project of self formation. She probably never left Melbourne, but through the global interchange of cartes-de-visite, and through the global reach of Spiritualist networks, she assembled a coherent world for herself out of fragments of photographically mediated experience.

 

She probably did this by sending money overseas to magazines like Boston’s Banner of Light and London’s Spiritual Magazine, as well as to individuals like James Bowman from Glasgow, and Georgiana Houghton from London. In addition she brought cartes off visitors to Melbourne, and probably exchanged her own image for cartes of her fellow Melbourne Spiritualists. They all come together in her little parlour album — from Battle Creek, from London, and from Boston — all assembled in the ready-made pockets of her album.

 

These cartes construct an entire world, with the compiler’s firm place at the centre of it implied, but never stated. Some of the images were drawn from lived experience in the colony of Victoria, and some were drawn from the higher planes of the spirit world, where celebrity spirits such as John King perpetually hovered, intimately near, but yet always out of reach — very much like a contemporary fan’s relationship to their favourite celebrity. As media objects they were all flattened, delocalised and mobilised by the globalised conventions of the various photographic studios around the world, which produced cartes-de-visite in a standardised format, in standardised glass-house studios, with standardised photographic conventions. (The Glasgow photographer Bowman even transduced trance drawing of supposed spirits into conventional cartes-de-visites.) They were all brought together into the compacted space of the album, where they were available for instant retrieval and sharing. In many respects they are like a page on a contemporary social networking site such as Facebook. In contemporary social networking close intimates, social acquaintances and favourite celebrities are all similarly flattened into ‘friends’, which orbit around the empty centre of us, constructing what we now call our ‘profile’ through our connections, rather than our innate selves.

 

Conclusion

Thompson warns us that there are both strengths and dangers in mediated intimacy, both pleasures and pitfalls. Did our compiler experience any of these pitfalls? Was this album, and the extraordinarily intimate, yet mediated, world it constructed simply the product of a passing enthusiasm? Did the owner, perhaps with too much money and time on her hands, simply jump on the bandwagon at the height of the fad, collecting cartes indiscriminately before eventually getting bored with Spiritualism’s breathless rhetoric of progress and revelation, or perhaps disillusioned with its charlatans. Did the interpenetrating spheres she built up in her album all suddenly collapse in on her like a house of cards? Or, did she remain one of the social, spiritual and technological pioneers of Australia, expanding on the conventions of the portrait album to describe both the palpable and the evanescent world she lived in. Did she seriously manage to incorporate the worlds she constructed in her album, although they were ultimately built only within her imagination, into a sustained, and sustaining, personal commitment to her new religion?

 

We will never know.

 

Martyn Jolly

 

Bibliography

 

Alfred J. Gabay, Messages from Beyond, Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age, 1870-1890, Melbourne University Press, 2001

 

Alfred Russel Wallace, On Miracles of Modern Spiritualism: Three Essays, Spiritualist Press, 1874

 

Georgiana Houghton, Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye, Interblended with Personal Narrative, E. W. Allen, 1882

 

Dorothy Green, ‘Walter Lindesay Richardson: the Man the Portrait and the Artist’, Meanjin Quarterly, March 1970

 

John Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, Cambridge Polity Press, 1995.

 

Emma Hardinge Britten, Nineteenth Century Miracles: or Spirits and their work in every country of the earth: A complete historical compendium of the great movement known as ‘Modern Spiritualism’, William Britten, New York,1884

 

Nandor Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, Arthurs Press, 1933

 

Harbinger of Light, Melbourne.

 

Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography, British Library, 2006

 

Captions:

 

 

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

 

 

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

 

 

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

 

 

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

 

 

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

 

 

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

 

 

 

 

 

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)

Spirit Photography and Passing

‘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.

INTRODUCTION

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.

FLORENCE COOK

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.’

MRS MELON

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

Haunted Australia

‘Haunted Australia’, catalogue essay in Trace Elements: Spirit and Memory in Japanese and Australian Photomedia, 2008, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery and Performance space edited by Bec Dean. English version, pp 52 – 57 of 142 page catalogue, ISBN 978-4-925204-22-4 C 0070

Every country has its ghosts, every country is haunted by spirits and memories. Even countries who once thought of themselves as being young, but are now realizing that they are in fact old, are finding themselves to be as haunted as anybody else. Thirty or so years ago if you had asked an Australian if there were many ghosts here they would have laughed — compared to England or Japan, no way! Sure, there was a ghost in our most popular national song, Waltzing Matilda — the ghost of a poor, sheep-stealing swagman who committed suicide rather than be caught by the colonial police — but that was about it. Recently, however, we have begun to see a persistent tradition of Australian ghosts emerging.

The swagman’s ghost stayed around the billabong in which he had drowned himself, mournfully repeating the refrain from his once cheerful song to warn and remind passers by of the injustice which had been done to him. And this pattern of repetition, mourning, warning and reminding conforms to many other ghost stories from the nineteenth century. On 16 June 1826 an ex-convict and successful farmer named Frederick Fisher suddenly disappeared, a few days later his ghost was seen sitting on a fence rail and pointing to a spot on the ground.  When the spot was dug up his body was found, leading to the arrest and hanging of his neighbour for murder. Fisher’s ghost survived in colonial society as an urban myth until 1859 when John Lang published an elaborated form of the story as The Ghost Upon the Rail. In 1924 Australia’s pioneer filmmaker Raymond Longford made a silent film of the story, and in 1960 Douglas Stewart wrote a play. Ken Gelder discusses Fisher’s ghost and others like him in The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories.

Fisher’s ghost appeared at the disjunction between the new convict-based settler society of Australia, the old established home of Britain from which the convicts had been cast out, and the prior possession of the land by Aborigines. In Lang’s version, in order to cover up his crime and get his hands on Fisher’s wealth, the murderous neighbour, an ex convict equally as successful in his new life as Fisher, used forgery and impersonation to create the elaborate ruse that Fisher had granted him power of attorney before disappearing home to England. To expose this delusion the spectre does not simply point to his own grave, as in the urban myth. Rather, he is seen sitting on the fence-rail with a gash on his forehead. But the light appears to shine straight  through him, and he is as impalpable to the touch as empty air.  An aboriginal tracker from the local tribe identifies ‘white man’s blood’ on the rail, then follows some faint tracks for nearly a mile to a dark pond scummed with ‘white man’s fat’. At the bottom of the pond is found a bag of bones, the rotting remains of Fisher’s body kept together only by his clothing. He wasn’t a world away in old England after all, but still here in new Australia all the time, demanding that justice be done. In addition, the ancient knowledge of the land held by the radically dispossessed Aborigines is needed to track his rotting body down. As Gelder says, ghost stories are one way ‘in which white settlement in this country is shown to be, in fact, fundamentally unsettled.’ [1] Ghosts are able to bring into conjunction times and spaces which are conventionally separated. They can reveal what was previously hidden, or dormant, or ignored.

In the early twentieth century Australian ghosts took on a greater role in bridging vast distances of time and memory. After 60,000 Australian Soldiers died and were buried on the distant battle fields of World War One an extraordinary cult of the dead grew up amongst those that were left to mourn them, but who had no grave to grieve at. This collective grief became focussed on the Anzac memorials being built in each town, and in the annual ritual of the Anzac Day Dawn Service and Commemorative March. Just before Anzac Day 1925 Melbourne Punch described Anzac Day as ‘that solemn day, on which … the spirits of the nation’s gallant dead come back again for a space, on ‘Home Leave’.’[2] Two years later the famous war artist and cartoonist Will Dyson published his best-known cartoon in the Melbourne Herald. In A Voice from Anzac two ghostly Australia soldiers left behind on the beachhead of Gallipoli draw solace from hearing the feet of the Returned Men marching in Australia. One of them says to the other: ‘Funny thing, Bill—I keep thinking I hear men marching!’.

By far the most popular painting of the period was Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, 1927, which depicted a psychic vision Longstaff had experienced during a midnight walk after the unveiling of the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, when he saw soldier spirits rising from the cornfields around him. When the painting toured Australia in 1928 and 1929 it was seen by perhaps half a million people, who filed reverently past it to the accompaniment of sombre organ music.[3] To this day the spooky painting still hangs in its own darkened grotto in the Australia War Memorial.

The emotional power of Dyson’s and Longstaff’s  spectral imagery derived at least some of its legibility from Spiritualist photography. Spiritualist ideas were pervasive after the war. The period’s most famous proselytiser of Spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous detective and arch rationalist Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during World War One, during which he lost his son and his brother. After that war, when virtually every other family was experiencing similar grief, the ‘sight of a world which was distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge’, had compelled him to use his fame and personal wealth to proselytise the Spiritualist cause in lectures delivered from platforms across the world.[4] In 1920 and 1921 he travelled throughout Australia, eventually speaking to a total of 50,000 people. His most popular lecture was on spirit photography, where he showed lantern-slides of photographs taken by mediumistic photographers at photographic séances. In these images the faces of the dead where captured floating above the living, they seemed to have finally returned to join their loved ones once more within the photographic emulsion. When projected onto the lantern-slide screens of packed meeting halls these photographic ‘proofs’ of the ‘truth’ of spirit return provided implicit comfort to the bereaved families in Australia, whose sons had died thousand of miles away. The Melbourne Age reported:

Unquestionably the so-called ‘dead’ lived. That was his message to the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War, and with the help of God he and Lady Doyle would ‘get it across’ to Australia.[5]

Since that time the Anzac tradition has developed radically. It has changed from being a collective cult of memory for the dead intensely focussed on the physical absence of fallen soldiers, to being a more generalised set of nationalistic and quasi-religious rituals through which every Australian is meant to feel bonded to their country.

At the same time the mechanisms through which ghosts are conjured has developed and widened. Images of people from the past increasingly pervade the present through the power of photography. In the photographic archive the past lies hidden and buried, whilst always containing the potential for exploration and retrieval. The archive has increasingly become a terrain in which some artists feel as though they can meet people from the past and even, in some sense,  bring them back to the present.

For example in 2003 two Sydney artists, Kate Richards and Ross Gibson, presented Life after Wartime at the Sydney Opera House. The work was an interactive  ‘performance’ of an archive of crime-scene photographs that had been assembled by Sydney’s police force in the decades following the Second World War. The artists sat at laptops and midi keyboards and brought up strings of images which, combined with evocative haikus, were projected onto two large screens. Beneath the screens, The Necks, a jazz trio well known for its ominous movie music, improvised a live soundtrack of brooding ambience. Although not directly picturing spectres, the texts and images generated open-ended non-specific narratives around a set of semi-fictionalized characters and locations in Sydney. These characters became invisible presences occupying the creepy emptiness of the crime scenes. The element of automation, in the way the story engine generated the loose narratives, preserved the integrity, the historical artefactuality, of the original archive. Ross Gibson wrote:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. … Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence. [6]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro titbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images. This sense of the palpability of other times preserved in the archive also informs the work of the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran. In 1997 she made a ‘metaphorical x-ray’ of a nineteenth-century historic house. She carefully removed items of the colonial family’s clothing from its drawers and cupboards and, in a darkened room, laid them gently onto photographic paper before exposing it to light. In the photograms the luminous baby dresses and night-gowns floated ethereally against numinous blackness. To Ferran, the photogram process made them look ‘three-dimensional, life-like, as if it has breathed air into them in the shape of a body … With no context to secure these images, it’s left up to an audience to deal with visual effects that seem to have arisen of their own accord, that are visually striking but in an odd, hermetic way.’[7]

Other Australia artists have gone beyond the generalised, enigmatic, uncanny ambience of the photographic archive, and have used archival photographs to directly create ghostly images. But these contemporary spectres — photographically produced apparitions from the past superimposed on the present — are not being invoked in order to console the living, as in the Anzac spectral tradition, but to cajole them, beseech them, or imprecate them, just as Fisher’s ghost did in the nineteenth century.

In 1980 Australia’s most eminent art historian, Bernard Smith, gave a series of lectures under the title ‘The Spectre of Truganini.’ In the nineteenth century, Truganini had been a much-photographed colonial celebrity as the ‘last’ of the ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aborigines. Smith’s argument was that, despite white Australia’s attempt to blot out and forget the history of its own brutal displacement of Australia’s aboriginal population, the repressed would continue to return and haunt contemporary Australia until proper amends were made.[8]

As aboriginal activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits such as those of Truganini, began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young aboriginal artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Their reuse attempted to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two-way corridor through time, or a sense of New Age channelling. In a meditation on nineteenth-century anthropological photographs, the aboriginal photographer and curator Brenda L. Croft retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in the 140-year-old portraits.

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.[9]

But aboriginal ghosts face a lot of work to do yet before they can finally rest. Aboriginal ghosts are needed to remind Australia that there is unfinished business, that the process of reconciliation with the past is not complete. Rather than laying their ancestors to rest, many aboriginal artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various contemporary campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian aboriginal photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition Patterns of Connection travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. To make her large, deeply coloured photo[compositions she copied anthropological photographs from the State Library of Victoria, liberating them from the archive to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. For her, this process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.’[10]

King-Smith holds spiritualist beliefs of her own. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that ‘people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.’[11] Her work animistically gave the museum photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow aboriginal artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a ‘strategic essentialism.’

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds …But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[12]

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality, other aboriginal artists have also attempted to use the power of old photographs to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past. In a series of works from the late 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous (1996), I Split Your Gaze (1997), and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998). Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately reinscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. Although Andrew was also criticized for using the powerful portraits of the aboriginal subjects without appropriate consideration for their original tribal and geographical identity, these works have since become almost iconic in contemporary Australian art.

Since 1999 the photographer Darren Siwes, of aboriginal and Dutch heritage, has performed a series of spectral self portraits in Australia and the United Kingdom. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings, he refers to an aboriginal haunting, certainly; but because he is ghosted standing to attention while wearing a generic suit, he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalized, accusatory masculinity – exactly the same feeling that a memorial Anzac statue gives. Like much other contemporary aboriginal photography in Australia, Siwes’s photographs are mannered, stiff, and visually dull, but they have proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators in Australia and internationally. It is not the intrinsic quality of the art that is so persuasive, but the rhetorical force of the spectres. As overwrought and histrionic as they are, ghosts are still able to directly address historical and cultural issues of broad contemporary concern.

In their book Uncanny Australia Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs use Australian ghost stories to describe the uncanniness of Australia’s relationship to aboriginal spirituality. Although it is supposedly a settler country, in many ways Australia remains ‘unsettled’. In Australia both aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships to the land have to co-exist, while its often violent history of possession, displacement and oppression underscore both relationships in different ways. For over two hundred years generations of non-aboriginal, settler Australians have forged strong spiritual bonds to the land, but aboriginal claims for the full recognition of their prior occupation of the continent, and for the precedence of their sacred relationship to the land, often give non-aboriginal Australians the uncanny feeling they are ‘foreigners at home’. In these postcolonial terms Gelder and Jacobs see hauntings as a productive occurrence, a means of acknowledging the inherent postcolonial contradictions in modern day Australia:

‘Ghosts’ simply could not function in a climate of sameness, in a country which fantasises about itself as ‘one nation’ or which imagines a utopian future of ‘reconciliation’ in which … all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But neither can they function in a climate of nothing but difference, where the one can never resemble the other, as in a ‘divided’ nation. A structure in which sameness and difference solicit each other, spilling over each other’s boundaries only to return again to their respective places, moving back and forward in an unpredictable, even unruly manner—a structure in which sameness and difference embrace and refuse each other simultaneously: this is where the ‘ghosts’ which may cause us to ‘smile’ or to ‘worry’ continue to flourish.[13]

Ghosts have re-emerged because both white and black Australians are now spiritually immersed in their country in a way which goes beyond the mutually exclusive binary of possession versus dispossession.

The haunting experiences of everyday Australians are explored by the historian Peter Read in his book Haunted Earth. He uses oral history interviews with over forty non-aboriginal and aboriginal Australians to explore their relationship to what he calls ‘inspirited places’. These are places defined by the nexus of place and history, time and spirit. For Read ‘inspiriting’ is a reciprocal process between the Earth and humans, where both old and new Australians bring inspiriting mythologies, rites and beliefs with them to the land they inhabit, just as particular landscapes are experienced by the humans who inhabit them as ‘haunted’ with a kind of soul or essence. Like many contemporary cultural historians Read is trying to go beyond hackneyed ‘paranormal’ explanations for some people’s intense experience of spiritual presence. He wants to understand these uncanny feelings as something more interesting and complex than the self-limiting notion that they are just the ‘epiphenomena of an excited or deluded brain’.

He recounts the vivid experience of people living in the suburbs built on the sandstone ridges north of Sydney which were once intensively occupied by Aboriginal people. He meets three separate families who believe they have either seen or felt the direct presence of Aboriginal spirits. ‘To the haunted families, the land itself, and the memories that the land holds independent of humans, carry profound meanings clearly related to invasion, dispossession and violence.’ However this haunting is not something to be banally expiated. If all the ghosts were ever to be exorcised then something would be lost to our contemporary experience. As he comments, ‘Those untroubled, those unhaunted, by the ghosts of the past have missed something profound.’ [14]

Australia has a long and persistent history of haunting. And its ghosts are a long way from being laid to rest, indeed more seem to be accumulating. The means through which we make these ghosts appear might have changed — from the genre of storytelling, to drawing and painting, to photographic superimposition. And the uncanny, unsettled worlds between which the ghosts communicated may have changed — from distant countries sundered by space, to not-so-distant pasts sundered by historical forgetting. But in all their over the top kitschiness, in all their histrionic posturing, ghosts have always continued to contribute to our sense of ourselves.


[1] The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories, selected by K. Gelder, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. xi.

[2]  R. McMullin, Will Dyson: Cartoonist, Etcher and Australia’s First War Artist, London, Angus & Robertson, 1984, p226.

[3]  A. Gray, Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, nd, np.

[4] N. Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press, 1933, p106.

[5] ‘Conan Doyle in Australia’, Light, December 18, 1920, np.

[6] R. Gibson, ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile 58, 1999, p30.

[7] A. Ferran, ‘Longer Than Life’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 1, 1, 2000, pp166 -70.

[8] B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980.

[9] B. L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, in Portraits of Oceania, ed. by J. Annear, Sydney, 1997, p9, p14.

[10] J. Phipps, ‘Elegy, Meditation and Retribution’, in Patterns Of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[11] L. King-Smith, ‘Statement’, in Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[12] A. Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive’, History of Photography, 23, 2, 1999, p117.

[13]. K. Gelder and J. M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p42.

[14] P. Read, Haunted Earth, Sydney, University of New South Wales, 2003, p59.