I never said it was possible. I only said it was true.
Physical mediumship: The refuge of cheats and scoundrels?
From the seventeenth century onwards, magic lantern shows and phantasmagorias produced impressive ghostly shows. From crude animations to sophisticated full-scale illusions, multiple, moving, hovering, transparent phantoms, shrouded in mists and vapours and aided by appropriate sound effects and settings, frightened and delighted their audiences. Throughout the nineteenth century magicians thought up increasingly complex shows and tricks, and one need only look at the number of TV programmes devoted to such wonders in the present to realise that we are as eager as ever to be awed and amazed in this way.
Magicians create powerful “magic” through optical and other illusions. They can make things appear and disappear, they can destroy and restore them, and they can make things float, change one into another, or penetrate one another. To produce magic, they need to be able to divert attention and to control the space in which the tricks are performed. They need to be good at the psychology of deception but, for large-scale illusions, they also need equipment; (mechanisms, wires, levers, magic lanterns, mirrors, lighting, cabinets, props, automatons, assistants) .
What can be done on stage cannot be done in an ordinary room, or even a local community hall. However, much can be achieved in darkness or semi-darkness particularly when the audience is willing to believe. The nineteenth century saw a great deal of such home-made productions, involving a tremendous amount of fakery by a variety of mediums.
There were complex reasons why mediumship, particularly physical mediumship with its raps, levitations, apports, phantoms and objects moving by themselves, the craze for table-turning, and the rise of the new religion of Spiritualism, produced enormous controversy in the nineteenth century, and its echoes continue to this day . With magic tricks, we know where we are. We have given our consent to be deceived and the deceivers can be proud of their skill. With physical mediumship, in most investigated cases, (both in the early days and more recently) the deceived and the deceivers played a much more complex game of deception and self-deception based on a variety of motivations thereby cloaking whatever genuinely anomalous phenomena there might be in a haze of claims and counter-claims. Some of the strength of the opposition to mediums was, and is, based on genuine moral outrage at vulnerable people being duped, but the phenomena have always presented a challenge to much more than that: to the findings of science, to established religion and, above all, to ordinary common sense.
This is a book about Franek Kluski, a man whose unwilling and short-lived brush with mediumship during the 1920s has left perhaps the most spectacular and the most puzzling evidence on record. The most natural and rational reaction to such tales of wonder would be to dismiss them. If one is to be at least prepared to give them serious consideration, it needs to be shown that the obvious explanations of how these phenomena could be produced by conventional means are inadequate. Hence this brief excursion into the subject of how fake physical mediums produced their tricks in the early days of raising spirits.
Deception relies on the fact that people will infer a lot more than they actually see, especially under the right conditions and with the right expectations. The phenomena might involve crude manipulation of objects (at traditional séances those were often tambourines, bells or trumpets) with rods and limbs. Tables might levitate in response to nimble toes and cut-outs of hands could be made to look as if they were moving their fingers, while lights could be produced by using a variety of substances, such as phosphorus or ferrocerium. A willing audience might recognise spirits of the departed in wire masks covered with handkerchiefs, or painted faces draped with cheesecloth or netting. “Spirits” could rise and then disappear as the “ectoplasm”, or white material, was rolled back and hidden. More elaborate and professional arrangements might involve areas with concealed entrances into the séance room or cabinet, substitution of pre-prepared paranormal objects, and any number of accomplices skilled in using luminous paint and producing the required effects.
In the words of Malcolm Gaskill, “Traditionally, materialization mediums had relied on props. […] But props were difficult to use wherever pre-séance cabinet searches were conducted […] and by 1930 fraudulent mediums on tour could safely use only what they could hide on their own bodies. Usually, this meant white cloth, but discreetly inflated balloons and rubber gloves also made an appearance. […] The SPR Research Officer, the aristocratic C.V.C. Herbert, experimented by dragging a handkerchief attached to a length of cotton, slowly winding it towards him round the stub of a pencil. In a weak light, observers found the trick almost impossible to detect”. (Gaskill 2001: 232)
Stricter controls would not necessarily prevent fraud. Sittings with a medium controlled by having her hands and legs held by participants might offer opportunities for creating a distraction (such as the need to sneeze) and making the controllers believe each of them is holding a different hand when they are both hanging on to the same one. One hand, elbow, or mouth, could be very effective, as Polish psychical researchers found when investigating a medium claiming to produce ectoplasm. The medium underwent a personal search with an examination of the orifices, and wore a swimsuit provided by the Polish Society for Psychical Research . Controls involved holding hands by controllers, a red light, and taking photographs. Yet the ectoplasm turned out to be muslin on a black thread pulled by the teeth, and hand substitution had taken place. Fraud was revealed when a photograph was taken without the prior warning click which was demanded by the medium .
Experienced investigators were certainly always on the lookout for fakes. Julian Ochorowicz, psychologist, naturalist, inventor and psychical researcher (as well as an amateur magician), recounts the story of Charles Richet (a Nobel-prize winning physiologist) weighing a Mrs Williams, the “flower medium”, before and after the show, with the difference in weight equalling the weight of the flowers distributed by the medium during the séance. Ochorowicz’s experience with numerous mediums makes him very much aware of people’s desire to believe. Where he sees a sheet and a glove, others recognise a human phantom, and blame Ochorowicz for producing bad vibrations. (Ochorowicz 1913-1915).
Hereward Carrington, an indefatigable investigator and author of a classic exposé of mediumistic tricks, Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism, tells us that “having sat many score, if not hundreds of times, with mediums I […] had never seen one single manifestation of the physical order which I could consider genuine. On the contrary, I had always detected fraud, and, being an amateur conjurer myself, was enabled in nearly every instance to detect the modus operandi of the trick, usually the first time I saw it”. (Carrington 1909: 154). Incidentally, his first sitting with Eusapia Palladino, a famous and controversial Italian medium, made him change his mind, more of which later.
Thus, there are plenty of grounds for believing that the somewhat unsavoury reputation which came to surround physical mediumship was justified. This view was strengthened by the stance taken by the founders of the Society for Psychical Research after a series of sittings with Eusapia Palladino. The sittings were full of attempted tricks on the part of the medium, and in 1894, were declared a failure, not having produced convincing evidence of genuine phenomena. There were good reasons why that series should have failed but they may have had more to do with the personalities involved than with Eusapia: “Eusapia was vital, vulgar, amorous and a cheat, and this combination must have jarred upon those whose interest in psychical research was rather to find a sure road to immortality than to inquire too closely into the queer phenomena produced by a woman whose behaviour both in and out of the cabinet revealed a femininity which must often have been a little disturbing to the Cambridge philosophers.” (Dingwall n.d.:189-90)
Eusapia may have been all of those things but she could also produce, under strict controls, results which remain inexplicable to this day. One “splendid example” quoted by Carrington was the occasion when Carrington took Howard Thurston, then America’s most successful magician, to see the medium. Having warned Thurston about Eusapia’s love of mischief, they let her know by their manner that they knew when she “tried it on” by lifting the table with one toe, whereupon she smiled, settled down, “and finally produced a series of perfectly magnificent levitations, which so convinced Thurston of their genuineness that he came forward in the papers the next day with a thousand-dollar challenge to any magician who could produce them under the same conditions.” (Carrington 1954: 22).
Such a mixture of genuine phenomena and trickery may be a common feature of physical mediumship, but it does offer a way out of having to face up to anything that does not fit in with a worldview which rules out the very possibility of the anomalous. The assumption “once a cheat, always a cheat”, apart from being inaccurate and simplistic in its moral rectitude, is also a very effective way of dismissing as worthless a whole body of relevant evidence in general, as well as damaging reputations with long-term consequences. Any claim to explaining the phenomena by “natural” means (i.e., cheating) is much more likely to be taken at face value and not examined further. As recently as 1996, in a preface to his classic work On Mental Suggestion, Julian Ochorowicz, otherwise regarded as the father of Polish psychology, was being taken to task for believing in the reality of mediumistic phenomena even though, in “a famous incident with Eusapia Palladino [...] Hugo Münsterberg, in an extremely simple and clever way, proved her to be fraudulent in moving a table with her foot in 1909, and she had been suspected of fraud earlier as well.” (Ochorowicz 1996: 7-31)
In fact, Hugo Münsterberg, professor of psychology at Harvard, made up the incident and was accused by Carrington, on the basis of stenographic records and witness evidence, of “willful falsehood”. (Sommer 2012; Carrington 1913). This is an extreme case but, in the field of psychical research, there are many more cases where accusations and assumptions of cheating are based on distortion, suppression, and biased selection of facts. A great many explanations, both by academics and amateurs, achieve success by ignoring the full picture. In the words of Ochorowicz after his first series of sittings with Palladino: “It would [...] be safer to omit the stranger portion of facts, and relate the less controversial part of the story in such a manner that the reader would gain a high regard for the author’s cleverness in solving the most complex puzzles. [...] One needs only to stretch some facts, drop certain others, here and there round out certain details with assumptions, and end with a tirade against the gullibility of certain scientists. It would then be said that the subject is of interest and very soberly written.” (Ochorowicz 1913-15; translated by Casimir Bernard)
Even Kluski, although his mediumship was, basically, a private and personal matter, attracted misplaced and unfounded accusations of refusing to admit a conjurer even though no such request had been made, and of not submitting to examination by unspecified scientific panels. His mediumship became known when Dr Gustave Geley, a French researcher, published accounts of a number of séances with Kluski which were conducted at the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris, and in Warsaw. These accounts contained detailed descriptions of the events which took place, including many phenomena which should be impossible not only under the conditions prevailing at the séances, but simply impossible, such as lights emanating from the medium, turning into faces and figures, floating across the room, touching the sitters, and responding to unspoken requests. Amazing as these events were, it was the production of paraffin moulds of “spirit” hands (Geley’s almost obsessive quest for the Permanent Paranormal Object) which attracted, and still attracts, most attention and controversy. The continuing interest in this phenomenon might have something to do with the ease with which one can apply to it Ochorowicz’s recipe for scientific success: it is very easy to demonstrate that such moulds can be produced naturally, provided one has the appropriate tools and sufficient time.
It is wrong to put one’s theory or beliefs above facts, just as it is wrong not to tell the whole truth, and yet the temptation is quite understandable when faced with facts which defy belief, as is the case with some physical mediumship. We may not know exactly what consciousness is and hold varying views on what it is capable of, but we are familiar with the idea that we can subconsciously respond to stimuli of which we are not aware. We might extend this idea to accept, for example, telepathy, and try to explain it through a variety of theoretical approaches, (for example, in terms of signals, fields or non-locality). Accepting telepathy may strain the worldview for some of us - but not as much as does a third arm grown suddenly to turn off the light that is out of reach!
With Kluski, this is just for starters. And yet, just as with the best of Palladino and a few others, dismissing the recorded evidence would be equivalent to deciding that scores of reputable scientists, experienced investigators well aware of mediumistic tricks, and other people whose judgment one would normally trust without hesitation, must be deeply deficient both intellectually and morally. Julian Ochorowicz hoped to advance science by “telling all”, regardless of how impossible it might seem, and so did Hereward Carrington. I add the material on Kluski in the same enquiring spirit which made Ochorowicz ask: What is impossible?
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published March 2015
Size: 229 x 152 mm