The Amazing Bangs Sisters
Posted on 17 October 2016, 7:23
Although I had read about the Bangs Sisters here and there over the years, I really didn’t have a clear picture of what they were all about until I read N. Riley Heagerty’s recently released book, Portraits from Beyond. Heagerty draws from all the available references on the two sisters and offers overwhelming evidence that they were unusually gifted mediums in spite of the usual Internet debunkers who claim they were clever frauds. They are most remembered for the phenomenon called “precipitated paintings” in which portraits of deceased loved ones and friends appeared on canvases with no humans holding a brush to the canvases. The sisters would each hold one end of the canvas at a window in daylight, as the surviving friends and relative sat and observed the image of a deceased loved one take shape on the canvas, apparently by a spirit artist, the finished product sometimes taking as little as 8-10 minutes, although the average time seems to have been closer to 30-40 minutes.
Bangs in Black, late 1870’s, Elizabeth left, May, right
Consider this testimonial by Dr. and Mrs. E. H. Thurston of Hagerstown, Indiana, as penned on April 5, 1910:
“Desiring a spirit portrait of our daughter, who passed into the spirit life at the age of thirty years, and having viewed some of the results obtained for others through this remarkable phase of the Bangs Sisters’ mediumship, we decided to make a test of it ourselves.
“Visiting Chesterfield Camp, Indiana, we called upon the Bangs Sisters in their cottage and arranged for our sitting, the hour being the following afternoon. At the stated time we again called at their cottage. Entering the séance room, and finding only three canvases, I selected two of them, took them out in the sunlight in company with one of the Miss Bangs, exposed them for 15 minutes to the strong rays of the noonday sun, examined the surface thoroughly to fully assure myself that they were not chemically prepared, at the same time to secretly mark them for identification. Returning to the séance room, I placed the canvas on the small table before a well-lighted north window, and by examination of the table and surroundings convinced myself that everything was void of any mechanical apparatus.
“The Bangs Sisters, seated on each side of the table, merely supported the canvas in an upright position with one hand, myself and my wife being seated directly in front of, and not more than two feet from them. After sitting for a very short time, a dark shadow passed over the canvas, followed by the outline of the head and body; then, to our wonderful amazement, the perfect features of our daughter appeared, with the eyes closed; a few more seconds, and the eyes opened and before us was the beautiful spirit of our deceased daughter, perfectly lifelike in every feature, and which has been instantly recognized by all who knew her when in earth life. When the picture was completed, the identification marks previously spoken of showed that the canvas had not been tampered with in any way….
Queen Victoria, full-length portrait in all her splendor, Camp Chesterfield, precipitated for Dr. Carson of Kansas City
“Being somewhat familiar with photography and photographic processes, especially solar print work, we are fully convinced that the picture is not the product of any photographic process, and we desire to say right here there was positively no evidence whatsoever of any trick, or slight-of-hand performance; everything was perfectly straightforward and honest, as far as the physical eye could discern, and we went away from the cottage at Camp Chesterfield more convinced than every before of the continuity of life after death, and the beautiful philosophy of Spiritualism.”
Lizzie Bangs was born in 1859 and May Bangs in 1862, both in Maine. Their father was a stove repairman and their mother a housewife. At some point in their early years, the family moved to Chicago. They began to demonstrate mediumistic ability at ages 11 and 8. Before the precipitated portraits began, both girls displayed the ability to do automatic writing, slate writing, full-form etherializations, the materialization of spirit hands, clairvoyance, clairaudience, direct-writing by typewriter (no human fingers touching the typewriter keys). However, it was the spirit paintings that made them famous.
Spirit Ethel, Camp Chesterfield
Heagerty’s research turned up a demonstration before a large audience at Camp Chesterfield during August 1908. Each member of the audience was given a ticket with a numbered stub which was put into a vat for a drawing. The ticket belonging to a Mr. and Mrs. Alford, a prominent family of Marion, Indiana, who then took their place on the stage. Lizzie and May sat down near them, never touching the canvas. After a few moments, a thin, vapor-like cloud or shadow swept across the blank canvas and then disappeared. Another wave of mist seemed to float and pulsate across the canvas and also vanished. The other-world artist, it seemed, was making preliminary sketches and trying out different color schemes. Soon the outline bust form of a person began to appear in the center of the canvas, features becoming more distinct along with the hair and face, and slowly, the entire form of a young girl was clearly distinguishable for all to see. The eyes on the portrait were close, but suddenly, in a flash, the eyes opened and the audience cheered. The entire process took about 22 minutes. Mr. Alford, clearly shaken, stood and announced that he and his wife were visiting Chesterfield for the first time and were not Spiritualists. He said the portrait was the exact likeness of his daughter, Audrey. Mrs. Alford then opened up a locket around her neck which contained a photo of their daughter and passed it around for others to compare with the portrait. (See black & white photo of color portrait of Audrey Alford below.)
Audrey Alford, black and white photo of color portrait precipitated in 22 minutes at a demonstration in front of a large audience at Camp Chesterfield in 1911, from Photographing the Invisible by James Coates
Some of the portraits were so life-like that they could have passed for photographs, but nearly all of them were produced in color before color photography came into existence. Moreover, there were no brush strokes to be seen. According to Heagerty, the portraits have been examined by experts over the years and they cannot explain them.
A Dr. Carpenter of Olin, Iowa took his own canvas nailed in a box. The sitting took some three hours, and Carpenter was about to give up. However, the spirit messenger then told him to open the box. “We accordingly opened the box and to my great surprise and joy beheld a complete life-sized picture of my wife and child in the spirit world. The picture is so natural and life-like hat many of my neighbors and friends fully recognize it although they have been in the spirit life for 33 years,” Carpenter stated, adding that he had asked only for a portrait of his deceased wife. The addition of the daughter was totally unexpected. Carpenter pointed out that he observed the whole process and the box containing the canvas never left his sight.
Journalist George Lieberknecht reported on the typewriter phenomenon, stating that there was a circle of six men, one woman, and one of the Bangs sisters. With not one of them touching the typewriter, messages came “with an astonishing degree of swiftness and dexterity.” The message addressed to him was from his deceased son and was 186 words long.
One of the best known researchers studying the Bangs Sisters was Vice-Admiral W. Usborne Moore, retired from the British navy where he commanded a fleet of surveying ships. As such, he was a man accustomed to precision and detail. He visited the Bangs Sisters anonymously, first receiving nine and a half pages of direct writing on slates untouched by the Bangs sisters from an old friend, referring to facts and happenings of 40 years earlier which only the spirit and Moore had any knowledge of. Moore’s brother accompanied him and received 13 pages of information from three different spirit friends. Moore observed that the Bangs never came in contact with the slates.
In one test, Moore put nine sheets of paper between slates, all clearly marked in order to rule out the skeptic’s theory that the Bangs Sisters had somehow prepared answers beforehand (even though they didn’t know what the questions were) and by sleight-of-hand substituted them. Further, Moore, at the suggestion of his friend, Sir William Crookes, added lithium to the ink he brought for the test, a chemical not found in ordinary ink. When Crookes later examined the papers, he found that lithium was present, thus ruling out some deception by the Bangs Sisters, who would have used their own ink.
Of course, the skeptics had their theories. One Rev. Stanley Krebs, theorized that the Bangs Sisters somehow got photos of deceased loved ones beforehand and brought the finished products, some 20 inches by 30 inches, into the room hidden in their long dresses and managed to distract the sitter long enough to substitute the finished product for the blank canvas. However, this did not explain how they got the photographs in the first place or how they obtained all the evidential information that came through in the slate and automatic writing. And there were times when nothing was produced, as when researcher Hereward Carrington sat with them, thus leading him to believe that they were charlatans. Carrington was then just beginning his career as a psychical researcher and prided himself on exposing fraudulent mediums. However, as he gained experience he came to believe in mediumship, though he apparently never again sat with the Bangs.
There is so much more to the story and so many other testimonials discovered by Heagerty that it is difficult to believe these two sisters were anything but genuine mediums, even if modern references write them off as frauds. Heagerty’s offers around 20 of the spirit portraits in the book, some of them so life-like that one almost senses that they are, in fact, still alive.
Portraits From Beyond: The Mediumship of the Bangs Sisters by N. Riley Heagerty is published by White Crow Books.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
The author discusses the Abbott “exposure” in the book. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have an index and I don’t have time to look for it now. As I recall, however, Abbott never observed the Bangs sisters and it was one of those “might have done it this way” theories that didn’t hold any water.
Michael Tymn, Sun 23 Oct, 20:29
In Appendix I of “Portraits From Beyond”, Heagerty provides an article by Hermann Handrich about May Bangs on trial. Apparently May was arrested at one time and testified on trial that she was not a Spiritiualist. “I am an artist”, she said. “My pictures are made by the sun—-hung in a window so that the sun can operate upon them with its rays, developing them.” When asked if there are any spirits in the making of the picture, May answered that “The process is my own. Nobody would understand if I were to tell you how they are made”
She seemed a little ‘cagey’ with her few remaining answers. When asked, “Did you ever represent that you can draw these pictures or do anything else by the aid of spirit?” May replied that, “I suppose we all have a spirit.”
I seems to me that the court missed an opportunity to pursue May with follow-up questions regarding the exact process for producing the paintings, but apparently they did not ask, being content to accept that the pictures were “made by the sun”. The court should have replied and asked May, ‘Well, please tell us in detail how they were made. We will try to understand.’
I don’t know how much credence to give to newspaper and magazine articles written about the Bangs sisters at that time. I seems to me that writers then were just as prone to fabricate and cherry-pick information as they are today, perhaps more so. Sceptics and materialists were as active then as they are today as was mainstream and media bias.
Amos Oliver Doyle, Sun 23 Oct, 18:44
If this short article in Appendix I is all that could be written about May Bangs on trial, it is sorely deficient, not revealing anything. - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Sun 23 Oct, 17:24
I found an online copy of the ‘little booklet’ you referenced. Heagerty included portions of Abbott’s solution in his book, “Portraits From Beyond”. Have you read Heagerty’s book? If you have not read it I recommend that you should read it before you get too enthusiastic about Abbott’s explanation. In my opinion, now having a little knowledge about the Bangs sisters and descriptions of their ‘séances’, I think Abbot’s explanation is laughable. Anyone having sat with the Bangs sisters I am sure would think it was laughable too. Read Heagerty’s book—-you’ll see! - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Sun 23 Oct, 17:03
I am having trouble finding the free ‘little booklet’ to read online. Could you provide the link to that source? Better yet, I assume that you have read it so are you able to share just what was the secret to the Bangs sisters fraudulent pictures. How did they do it? Help us out here! My time is short. - AOD
I am reading Heagerty’s book now. I has a nice collection of information about the Bangs sisters and a number of photographs of some portraits . The formatting of the book and choice of font makes it difficult sometimes to follow the author’s comments though.
Chesterfield Indiana is a couple of hours from where I live so maybe I will make a trip there sometime. - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Sun 23 Oct, 12:36
Amos, Michael etc. The Bangs sisters were exposed as frauds in a booklet with all their methods revealed by the magician David Abbott. This little booklet can be found online to read.
It is entitled “The Spirit Portrait Mystery: Its Final Solution”. You should be able to find this online easily. Do you dispute Abbott’s findings? Let me know what you think about this booklet.
Brian, Sat 22 Oct, 11:47
The SNU at Stansted, England, have some. I don’t know if they are on show but Duncan Gascoigne brought some up to the SSPR a few years ago.
They have a very strange quality. As I said previously there are no discernable brush strokes.
Tricia, Fri 21 Oct, 09:58
Most of the surviving portraits seem to be at Camp Chesterfield in Indiana. See
Michael Tymn, Fri 21 Oct, 05:54
Astonishing phenomena but they were vouched for by careful and reputable people. The supposed explanation by the skeptical Reverend Krebs is so absurd it is harder to believe than the Bangs Sisters’ unusual form of mediumship.
Besides Lily Dale, where are the existing portraits now?
Rick Darby, Thu 20 Oct, 20:18
A wonderful story per usual!!!
Karen Herrick PhD, Wed 19 Oct, 17:28
At Lily Dale in the museum there are portraits and information on the Bang Sisters -Thanks Mike Blessings Karen
Mike, you always bring us fascinating information lost in the past.
Yvonne Limoges, Tue 18 Oct, 21:22
The spirit world never ceases to amaze how it manifests itself to us.I believe we are only at the tip of the iceberg regarding the potential of what mediumship can provide as proof of survival.
Thank you Michael for getting me started down this path. As I look for information about precipitated spirit paintings I see that there are several other examples, e.g.the Campbell Brothers, The Virgin of Guadalupe, to name just two.
Ron Nagy also wrote a book titled “Precipitated Spirit Paintings”, also available on Amazon,about the Bangs sisters and ‘The Campbell Brothers’ I think. Of course the skeptics have ready explanations for how the paintings were done, e.g, Joe Nickell, but I find Nickell’s investigation of the Bangs sisters typical of his other investigations of the paranormal; totally without merit and mostly cherry-picking and his fabrications and opinions. - AOD
Amos Oliver Doyle, Tue 18 Oct, 14:40
Photo of Audrey Alford, previously referred to but not shown, now shown above.
Michael tymn, Tue 18 Oct, 10:58
I agree with Tricia and Amos that Admiral Moore appears to have been a very discerning researcher.
As for the SPR, I believe Heweward Carrington is the only one to have published anything about the Bangs Sisters in the SPR or ASPR journals. As noted, he got nothing and concluded that they were charlatans.
This appears to have been in the very early days of Carrington’s research and association with the ASPR when he seemed more intent on debunking people. However, his books suggest that by 1920 or so he was much more a believer than in his early days. I think Eusapia Paladino got him rethinking his position.
Michael Tymn, Mon 17 Oct, 22:55
Stranger than the paintings..in a way.. were the pen and ink letters which were produced in a sitting. Within a sealed envelope, which contained a blank sheet of paper, scratching noises would be heard. When the noises ceased the envelope would be opened and a letter would be there relevant to the sitter and signed ( correctly) by the deceased.
Tricia, Mon 17 Oct, 20:24
you could not make this up!
This is one of the most amazing mediumistic stories I’ve ever come across. Thanks to Mr. Heagerty and to you, Michael, for bringing it to light.
How can a sane, openminded person doubt the reality of an afterlife after a story like this—and so many others equally evidential?
I wish I had known of this case so I could have worked it into my latest book!
Stafford Betty, Mon 17 Oct, 18:41
Only in the very, very early stages of the Bangs phenomena were ‘oil paints used and this was only for the ” essence ” of the paints, not the paint itself. It turns out that the spirit chemists and artists would utilize that same essence of flowers, or any color of anything in the room, etc. No one knows what the media was, and probably never will. Even the ” ink ” used for independent writing was somehow precipitated on to the blank sheets of paper unseen by the naked eye during the process. I am just as amazed at the Bangs after writing the book as I was before, and always will be.
riley heagerty, Mon 17 Oct, 15:58
I don’t know what to say Michael other than why aren’t the Bangs sisters better known? How come so very little has been published about them while other less spectacular mediums have volumes written about them. Like the writings of Patience Worth the ‘paintings’ of the Bangs sisters have no explanation other a spiritual one and in cases such as these, the world goes silent—skeptics have no rational explanation of the phenomena and the case fades into obscurity.
Do you know if the SPR has printed anything about them? I am aware of a couple of other cases of “precipitated” images, not exactly the same; one being the camera experiments of the Scole Group and the other being Ted Serios, I think, who could cause fuzzy pictures to appear on film by holding the camera to his forehead and by thought alone exposed the film.
Even if these portraits were somehow produced by the Bangs sisters surreptitiously, which to me seems highly unlikely based on the reports of the people who sat with them; the quality of the ‘paintings’ is exceptional. I doubt that few amateur artists today could produce a similar clean high quality image that the Bangs sisters produced in minutes. From an artistic viewpoint it would require years of training and experience with the technique, whatever it was, to product a similar quality not to mention the hours or days to complete them by hand. Obviously these were not oil paintings as there were no brushstrokes. I understand from reading Usborne Moore’s account that they were not pastels but seemed to be a kind of tempera “worked upon with pastel, chalk, paint and airbrush” somewhat oily in substance and were wet immediately after completion and reportedly ‘evolved’ over a period of hours or days after they were completed.
Do you know if anyone has tried to duplicate what they did and was successful? Usborne Moore recounted one test with a conjurer, Mr. William Marriott but the attempt was not really successful as it produced “a rough picture in one hour and a-half and a very good finished portrait in freehand in two working days” apparently copying photographs possessed by Mr. Marriott.
And what about the typewriter typing by itself. That seems to me to be hard to believe. After all , typewriters at that time required a significant pressure to activate the keys. I just don’t see how this could be done by the Bangs sisters without anyone seeing them touch the keys to type 186 words. This is similar to D.D. Home’s accordion playing by itself with no visible person touching the keys.
Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 17 Oct, 15:04
I have ordered the book and can’t wait to read Heagerty’s account although Usborne Moore ‘s account was pretty good as he actually met with the Bangs sisters in Chicago in 1909. - AOD
I have known of the Bangs sisters for a number of years now. I have seen several of the original portraits. Quite amazing. Although a set of oil paints was placed below each canvas, before it was covered and ‘painting’ was produced… when experts studied the portraits they were not done in oil or watercolour. As far as I know they never really defined the medium and there were no definable brush strokes…..that is why it was called precipitated art. Usborne Moore was nobody’s fool.
Tricia, Mon 17 Oct, 10:45
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