home books e-books audio books recent titles with blogs
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


Thanks for the link, Amos. A very interesting and inspiring interview. I’ve forwarded on to some friends.

Michael Tymn, Tue 26 Dec, 23:54

Sorry, Here is the link to Lazar interview. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 25 Dec, 16:45

Here is one of the more impressive interviews done by Jeffrey Mishlove on “Thinking Allowed. It is with Oliver Lazar an afterlife researcher. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Sat 23 Dec, 17:03

Test…And I’ve had no difficulty on Firefox….


Don Porteous, Sat 23 Dec, 12:19

Test.  I switched to DuckDuckGo. - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Fri 22 Dec, 16:07

FYI. I’m posting this comment using the Bravo browser on a cell phone.

Jon, Fri 22 Dec, 15:36

Testing. FYI: This comment was posted using Duck Duck Go.

Jon, Fri 22 Dec, 15:31

Mike, and others. I’m posting this comment on Safari. If that helps.

Jon, Fri 22 Dec, 15:26

I have been informed by Jon Beecher of White Crow Books that some readers have commented that they are unable to leave comments here.  Jon has not been able to identify any problem with the system and has suggested using a different browser.  That worked with at least one person.

On an unrelated matter, I watched a movie on Netflix last night—“Leave the World Behind.”  It was a somewhat dull and depressing movie, but the theme of the movie really hit home relative to our world situation.  Julia Roberts said she hated everybody and had to get away from home for a week or so.  Her teenage daughter was stuck in a fantasy world and only concerned about watching the next segment of “Friends.”  Even after the world started falling apart, she was more concerned with what happened to the characters on the “Friends” show than what was happening to her family and the world.

Michael Tymn, Thu 21 Dec, 22:50

Although I read Riley Heagerty’s book about the Bangs sisters, after it was first published by White Crow Books several years ago, I was browsing through it yesterday and came upon an interesting comment that Riley quoted from Admiral Usborne Moore’s classic book, which included his sitting with the Bangs sisters in 1909. While this is not related to precipitated paintings, it is consistent with what the discarnate Sir William Barrett told his wife, Florence Barrett, some years later.  Moore put questions to Iola, a deceased former loved one, who replied:  “I do wish I could tear asunder the little barrier preventing me from giving free and full expression, but do you know…in all these matters my memory is perfectly clear when I stand free and unhampered in the spiritual atmosphere but somehow when I return into earth’s atmosphere, so many things become hazy and incomplete; in other words, it is not designed that mortals shall know it all..”

The skeptic might reason that Lady Barrett had read Moore’s book many years earlier and simply penned that her late husband said the same thing.  However, if Florence Barrett, a physician, was a credible person and got it directly from Sir William, we have two separate spirit references saying the same thing.

Michael Tymn, Tue 19 Dec, 22:35

I don’t think there has been a satisfactory explanation of how the Bangs sisters and the Campbell Brothers did their precipitated paintings. Although several attempts have been tried to duplicate the process; no one really succeeded.  The precipitated paintings by these mediums are one of the most enigmatic examples of spirit interaction with the living for which there is hard evidence.  The black and white drawing or sketch of Theodore Sewell does not seem to be of the same high quality of all of the other Bangs color paintings and I don’t think it is the precipitated painting by the Bangs sister Mrs. Sewell commissioned. I am not aware that there were any black and white precipitated paintings by the Bangs sisters.  N. Riley Heagerty’s book and well as Ron Nagy’s book “Precipitated Spirit Paintings” provide some of the best information about the Bangs sisters and precipitated paintings.  - AOD

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 18 Dec, 22:07



I believe that the spirit world doesn’t do this kind of thing now for the many reasons you have stated throughout the years.

Also, I believe people are so much more skeptical now and I think most would believe it all some kind of trick no matter what.

At that time, people were sincerely searching and investigating.

Maybe, for right now, we do not really deserve the spirits’ efforts for phenomena like that, except for some few sincere ones, but done in private.

Happy Holidays and best wishes in the New Year!


Yvonne Limoges, Mon 18 Dec, 20:00

Add your comment



Your comment

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

Please note that all comments are read and approved before they appear on the website

translate this page
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
© White Crow Books | About us | Contact us | Privacy policy | Author submissions | Trade orders