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Portraits of the Dead

Posted on 18 December 2023, 10:47

May Wright Sewall, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement (upper left photo), had vehemently opposed mediumship until she experienced some very evidential phenomena at the Lily Dale Assembly Grounds in New York during August 1897.  (See prior blog for a summary of her experiences.)  Some two years later, during September 1899, she visited a Chicago resident that she referred to, for privacy purposes, only as “Miss B,” a slate-writing medium and mediumistic artist.  It seems almost certain that Miss B. was one of the Bangs sisters (lower right photo), Elizabeth or Mary, as they lived in Chicago at the time and are remembered for both slate writing and “precipitated paintings.” Reference is made by Sewall that Miss B.’s sister came into the room at one point in order to add psychic power. (Although a popular internet reference states that the Bangs sisters were frauds, the reference is known for its attempt to debunk all mediums.  The interested reader might consider N. Riley Heagerty’s book,  Portraits from Beyond, published by White Crow Books.)


At the Chicago home of Miss B., Sewall again heard from her husband, Theodore (upper right photo), who had died on December 23, 1895 and had communicated with her at Lily Dale and later in London. She explained that while sitting with Miss B., she wrote a letter containing numerous questions, folded it with several sheets of blank paper and sealed it in an envelope addressed to her husband. “Having washed off two slates, I placed the sealed letter between them, tied them fast with my own handkerchief, and held them firmly in my hands. Miss B. then dropped some ordinary black ink on a small bit or ordinary blotting paper, and placed it on the upper surface of the top slate, I holding the slates firmly all the time, and I alone touching them. In a few minutes, Miss B. said my letters were answered.  I thereupon untied the slates and on opening the envelope found that the paper I had put in blank was covered with clear script in black ink in a writing resembling that but not duplicating that of my husband. There were six pages, which when read proved to be an orderly, coherent, categorical reply to my letter. The answers were numbered to correspond with numbered questions. I was too astonished to reread this novel communication.”

Miss B. then told Sewall that her husband wished to know if she had some other desire.  Sewall replied that she had long wished that in some way Theodore could contrive to give her the long-ago promised portrait of himself for their anniversary or the next Christmas. Theodore responded that he would give it to her at once.

Miss B. suggested that Sewall return the following day and they would then try for the portrait.  However, Miss B. then said, apparently somewhat disturbed, that Theordore insisted on giving her the portrait immediately.  Miss B. complained that she was tired and that the conditions were not right. The portraits that had previously come through her were during daylight and it was already dark. As Sewall was to leave for home the following morning, Miss B. said she would try later that night after a rest break. “From my hand-bag I removed a photograph case containing two photographs of my husband, and placed it closed and clasped between the two slates already mentioned; tied them fast with my handkerchief and wrapped them in heavy paper supplied me from another room by Miss B. Then I returned to my hotel, placed the parcel tied as it was in my trunk and left it there until after dinner; when I unfastened the slates, removed the enclosure and left it (that is, the photograph case with the photographs) in my trunk. Wrapping the slates in the paper, I tied them fast and with them returned to the residence of Miss B., where I had been promised that if all the conditions were obeyed, the portrait should be painted that very evening.”

Magnetizing the Canvas

Upon returning to the home of Miss B. at 8:30 p.m., Sewall was asked to choose one of a dozen or more stretched blank canvases ready for the easel.  Miss B. expressed doubts about her ability to produce a spirit portrait in artificial light, but said that her guides gave her the impression that she would succeed. Following Miss B.’s directions, Sewall placed the canvas she had chosen on top of the two slates which had been in her possession the entire day.  Miss B. then instructed her to place her hands on the upper surface of one end of the canvas, while Miss. B. placed her hands on the other end, explaining that it would assist in magnetizing the canvas. “In a few moments she said, ‘I think it is ready now,’ and in reply to my query, ‘What’s next?’ she said, ‘I’ve always held canvases when I was working for a picture in front of a window. I suppose this must be held in front of a gas-light.’ We pushed the table toward the light and, holding the canvas before the gas-light with both hands, I waited.”

Shortly, Sewall began to see an outline of her husband’s face appear on the canvas “and form shaping itself on the canvas on which my eyes had been fixed from the first moment of my taking it my hands. I could hardly credit my vision, but the outline grew more distinct; color was added to form; it assumed an aspect of warm life and seemed to smile. The psychic called her sister to come to help us. The lady came, but saying, ‘There is power enough here without me,’ withdrew in an instant. I continued to hold the canvas by one side, Miss B. by the other, while the portrait continued to perfect itself before my eyes.”

Checking her watch, Sewall found that less than a half-hour had passed since she selected the blank canvas.  “It was a beautiful portrait, a perfect replica of my husband’s features and coloring, delicate and refined, but vigorous and wearing the aspect of perfect health. Miss B. told her that it was the most rapid work she had ever witnessed and said the conditions were “extraordinarily harmonious.” Sewall asked who painted it.  Miss B. said she did not know.  Sewall commented that it had the tone and coloring associated with the work of Raphael, the great Italian artist.  Miss B. then received a message that it was done by a pupil of Raphael. 

Sewall reported that the persons, places, and events discussed with her husband at the home of Miss. B. “must have been utterly unknown” to the medium and there was not instant hesitation nor an irrelevant word coming from him. 

The above portrait of Theodore Sewall was found on the internet with no indication as to whether it is the precipitated painting received at the home of Miss. B.  That was said to be in color, but the change to black and white can be effected in editing.  May Sewall had the portrait in her bedroom for some time and said that it was later moved to the school that she and her husband founded.  Where it went from there is unknown.

The Bangs Sisters

In Heagerty’s book mentioned in the first paragraph, the process of the “precipitated paintings” is explained much as reported by Sewall, although in most cases the two sisters sat on each side of the canvas while the person sitting with them sat and observed the painting take shape on the canvas, sometimes taking as little as 8-10 minutes, although the average time was 30-40 minutes. As Sewall’s book reports that she later developed mediumistic abilities, becoming an accomplished automatic writer, she apparently had the “power” to add to that of Miss B.

Heagerty offers the testimony of 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….

“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 ever before of the continuity of life after death, and the beautiful philosophy of Spiritualism.”

Heagerty’s research also 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 closed, 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 (lower left photo).  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.

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.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.
Next blog post:  January 2

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From Skepticism to Conviction of a Spirit World

Posted on 04 December 2023, 9:30

At the time her husband, Theodore, died on December 23, 1895, May Wright Sewall, a leader in the suffrage movement, considered herself, as well as her husband, “Radical” Unitarians. “We desire immortality as most happy people do; we believed in it much as we believed in the indestructibility of matter; but we felt no certainty of the survival of the separate individual entity,” she explained in the first chapter of her 1920 book, Neither Dead Nor Sleeping, the introduction of which was written by the famous American author Booth Tarkington (see prior blog).


When, following Theodore’s death, two friends suggested that May visit a medium, she was shocked. “It seemed to me grossly to violate both reason and delicacy,” she wrote, adding that “nothing could induce me to seek to reestablish communication with [Theodore] by such means.”  In fact, the idea repelled her. When one of the friends said she had seen her deceased husband walking by her side, Sewall concluded that the woman was either self-duped or the victim of clever impostors. 

Sewall’s attitude would begin to change on August 10, 1897 when she was a speaker on women’s suffrage at the Lily Dale Assembly Grounds outside the village of Cassadaga, New York. An 1872 graduate of Northwestern University with a master’s degree, Sewall and her husband, both educators, had founded the Classical School for Girls in Indianapolis, and in 1888 she became chairman of the Executive Committee of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She also served as president of the International Council of Women and was appointed by President William McKinley to represent the women of the United States at a series of congresses in Paris, France. 

It wasn’t until she arrived at Lily Dale that she realized that it was a “spiritualist camp.” When “Mrs. B.” another officer of the NAWSA, offered to introduce her to some “famous mediums,” she was further shocked. “I told her that I did not wish to meet any ‘medium’  however ‘famous’; that to me the word was offensive, being synonymous in my opinion with the words, deceiver, pretender, charlatan and ignoramus.” Until then she considered Mrs. B. a very intelligent and competent suffrage worker, but she now had doubts about her.

At some point in her four-day stay at Lily Dale, Sewall was persuaded to sit with a slate-writing medium and was astounded when she received “perfectly coherent, intelligent and characteristic replies” to questions she put to communicating spirits. That led to sittings with a trance medium, a trumpet medium, and variously developed psychics. She heard from her husband, father, mother, half-sister, aunt, two sisters-in-law, a great-grandfather, and a niece, all of whom “had identified themselves unmistakably and indisputably.”  Speaking through the trumpet, her husband told her that he worked hard to bring her to the camp and to impress her to sit with the mediums.  Sewall noted that she kept copious notes of her Lily Dale sittings, filling 70 folios.

“I knew as clearly as I know after twenty-two years of constant study and experimentation that I had, so to speak, acquired actual knowledge, if not of immortality, at least of survival of death,” she wrote of those initial sittings. “I had learned that the last enemy is destroyed, in that he can destroy neither being nor identity, nor continuity of relationship.” 

Sewall invited the trumpet (direct or independent voice, not trance voice) medium to her home on October 31, 1897 and she again heard from different relatives who called her by the various “pet” names which they had been accustomed to use in life.  The voices coming through the trumpet were characteristic of their voices in life, as was their laughter.

Among her visitors was an aunt who had died many years before her birth, but whose name was given to her.  “For convenience I had dropped my second name and when a sweet voice said, ‘I am your Aunt Eliza, and your name is really May Eliza Wright Sewall,’ I was startled,” Sewall further recorded. “My aunt did not chide me for having dropped her name, but seemed amused at my embarrassment over her knowledge of it. She proved a very intelligent, entertaining visitor, as did a strange clerical gentleman whom my husband presented as his paternal grandfather.”

Sitting with another direct-voice medium in Buffalo, New York the following May, Sewall heard from a different aunt, her Aunt Lyddy, Mrs. Joseph Warren Brackett.  “The ‘forces’ seemed uncommonly strong,” Sewall recorded the experience. “I not only had visits with my own dearest friends, on that plane, but with several others who explained their coming on the ground that ‘they were passing by, and seeing opportunity, used it.’ Among these was an aunt who had passed on when I was a young lady, who possessed a striking and quite original personality, and a clergyman who had been my tutor in Latin. I welcomed these most unexpected visitors, recognizing their voices and personalities as distinctly as I ever could have done in life; but was surprised by their entrance into my circle.” 

Much to Unlearn

Sewall identified the former Latin tutor as Dr. Alexander, whom she had not heard from since her nineteenth year. He went on to became president of Beloit College and then died a few years later. “He seemed eager to talk with me, and pressed much into a few sentences,” Sewall wrote. “He expressed great joy in being able to tell of the indescribable interest of life on his plane – where he said that he had found much to unlearn, had awakened to known that on earth he had taught many errors; that his former conception fell far below his present realization of God’s goodness – and on retiring he said he would add a test of his identity, that his wife was with him but that their son (an infant in my girlhood and of whom I had since never heard) was still in earth life, facts subsequently verified.” 

Theodore frequently communicated and told May that he often reads with her when she is reading something that interests him. When she asked him if he could read her thoughts, he responded that he is not yet strong enough to do so, but he could usually understand her articulate speech.

Sewall’s mother communicated that one of the greatest griefs there is in trying to awaken friends here to their presence and find them quite inaccessible.  Such was the case with Dr. P. B. Wright, her son (May’s brother), whom she said is not yet ready to accept such communication. “Your temperaments are so very different,” the mother said. “You must both work out conditions you were born under. The planetary influences make it impossible for him to accept what you can until he has worked out certain conditions.” 

On June 17, 1898, Sewall visited a Chicago medium recommended by a Chicago physician. “I had a long audible conversation with my husband by independent voice, and shorter similar ones with my sister and the little niece who had sent me the flowers, Annie Brackett.”  Sewall asked her husband if such conversations with him were preventing him from advancing in the spirit world. “That is a mistake,” Theodore responded. “Taking your earth burdens is so far as I can turns them into joys for me. You do not thus retard my progression, you help it.”  He added that he continues to grow spiritually while helping her.

When May asked about Christ, Theordore replied: “Oh! We are all taught that Christ is the transcendent human being above any other spirit ever humanly incarnated in goodness and purity. The laws of nature are perfect and sure.  They are never broken. Do you understand – never broken.  And all things are under law.” 

While attending a convention advancing women’s rights in London during July, Sewall met with William T. Stead, the renowned English author and editor who was also an automatic-writing medium.  “Mentally I proposed a series of questions,” Sewall wrote. “At the end of each, Mr. Stead’s hand began to move rapidly and as if without his guidance over the paper, and to each was given an intelligent reply… There [were] references to incidents in the past that could have been known only to Mr. Sewall and myself, and there are statements made, my husband said, as ‘tests’ by which I could judge of their validity as time should pass. All this occurred while we were sitting on the balcony, in the open air and in broad daylight.”  Stead referred her to ‘Mrs. B.” (clearly not the same Mrs. B. from Lily Dale)

When Sewall arrived at the home of Mrs. B., the air was charged with electricity from a thunderstorm. Mrs. B. informed her that such electrical conditions interfere with reception from the spirit world Mrs. B. was able to enter the trance state but due to the weather conditions was unable to maintain it.  Arrangements were made for the following Friday.  Mrs. B. told her that she would try to have “Vigo,” her spirit “control” get in touch with her (Sewall’s) spirit friends before then. 

Taking Possession

When Sewall and Mrs. B. met again at Mrs. B.’s apartment, they sat under soft twilight. Sewall observed a slight shudder by Mrs. B. before she passed into the trance state. “Instantly through Mrs. B.’s lips, not her voice, but that of her chief ‘control,’ with whose tone and accents I had become familiar on my first visit, addressed me,” she reported. “She told me that during the week she had met my husband, and it had been arranged that today he should try to take possession of the medium’s organism and talk with me independently of any aid. She added that as he had never before done this, the effort would probably be made with some difficulty, and it might be some minutes before he would be able to ‘use this organism comfortably.’ Vigo added: ‘Our medium may experience convulsions as this personality, your husband, takes possession of her organism for the first time; if this should happen, do not be alarmed; it is all in accordance with law.’” 

Sewall observed a slight shudder passing through Mrs. B.’s body as Vigo departed and heard her leave. “For an instant, Mrs. B.’s frame became convulsed – a moment of rigidity being followed by contortions; presently relative serenity returned, and as a rapturous smile overspread the features of the medium, my husband’s own voice – low, gentle, but eager and firm, entirely natural and unmistakable, addressed me.  His voice – not Mrs. B.’s voice, not Vigo’s, but his, filled with emotion; his whole manner betrayed excitement. He spoke eagerly, telling me what pleasure he had in this manifestation. He said that as it was his first experience of using another person’s physical organism, he found it difficult, but thought it a ‘satisfactory way to effect a return.’ I was so surprised and awed that I found it difficult at first to act on my husband’s invitation to ask questions. Naturally, however, when I had adjusted myself to the situation, I asked him to explain this manner of manifestation. I quote his exact reply, written down at the time:

Why all there is about it is this: The medium has retired from her body and has loaned her organism to me that I may talk with you all alone without the intervention of a third person; I never have had such an opportunity before, but I am getting used to it and shall get on very well. I am told that I shall not be able to remain long the first time, and I feel this is true, so we must talk as fast as possible and about the things that most immediately concern you.

Theodore told May that he is almost always with her “except when you are with me.” May asked for clarification and Theodore explained that when she is asleep her soul is brought to his plane and has many experiences. May lamented the fact that she could not remember her out-of-body experience while sleeping. “You now are conscious of your soul’s experiences while these are in progress and you now retain them; but you are not yet able to impart them to your mind and your body, i.e., to become mentally and physically conscious of them, so to speak. As body and mind both have many experiences which are unshared by either your real self or by your soul, although through them your real self gets more effective instruments – so the soul has many experiences that in their nature can not be shared by the mind and body, although the value or net produce of such experiences may be and often is communicated to the body and to the mind; to each in just the degree that each is able to appropriate such product.”

Listed as one of 100 women “trailblazers” by Encyclopedia Britannica, Sewall apparently caused quite a stir throughout the country and in Europe with the publication of her 1920 book. (More about her experiences in the next blog)

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.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

Next blog:  December 4  


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The Only Planet of Choice: Visitations – Many people use the word ‘Alien’ to describe a visitor from outer space. Extra terrestrial is another word, which is rather more user friendly. For the sake of the question and answer format, the word used by the questioner has been left, though even Tom questions our use of‘Alien’. Should we wish to foster openess between all beings of the Universe perhaps we should also look at our vocabulary? In a discussion between Andrew and Tom many years earlier, Andrew had asked Tom about UFOs and whether they were created manifestations. Tom had replied: “Many of the flying things that you call UFOs come from our place, but they come from other places also, and they do come in physical form. But many of them are not physical. They are like your movie screen”. Read here
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