Marcus L. Rowland (ffutures) wrote,
Marcus L. Rowland

Another article: A Séance With The Lights Up

Here's another Edwardian article. Hope it'll be of interest, and would greatly appreciate feedback on OCR errors, typos, etc.

This one's by the same author as the conjuring article a few days ago, so you can probably guess where it's coming from. Don't read it if you're a spiritualist (or spiritist as the article uses throughout) and easily offended.

Reminds me that I haven't had any feedback on the conjuring article or the prehistoric life article a few days earlier. Can't believe that there are no errors, so please take a look if you have time.

From The London Magazine, September 1902


Some "Spirit" Mysteries Exposed.

By Philip Astor.

DARKNESS seems to be the prime ingredient at spiritist séances, in more senses than one, and it is a fact to be noted that the most characteristic manifestations never take place by daylight.

Now, we are far from asserting, or even thinking, that modern spiritism is a system of fraud and nothing else. The most careful and unbiassed investigators agree that intelli- gences belonging to another plane of existence certainly do manifest their presence at some séances. Whether these spirits are good or bad, and whether they are really the deceased persons whom they profess to be, are questions that we must not here discuss, farther than to remark that it is somewhat hard to believe that our departed friends have nothing better to do than to rap tables, and make tambourines float in the air!

Unfortunately, it is impossible to deny the presence of a considerable amount of fraud and imposture in much that has passed for spiritist communications. Exposures have taken place again and again, and some time ago it was asserted by a leading spiritist that there were very few professional mediums who were above suspicion. At the present time séances are being held in a suburb of London, at which phenomena are exploited which the principal exponents of spiritism do not hesitate to say are produced by fraud and trickery.

Most of—if not all—the so-called manifestations that take place at séances can be produced by very simple means, without the aid of spirits of any kind. Through the courtesy of Mr. Henry Bates, of Hove, who has from time to time made many sets of spiritist apparatus, we are enabled to explain and to illustrate what sometimes takes place when the lights are extinguished.

The usual modus operandi at a séance is to place the medium and the sitters round a table of sufficient size. Each person places his two hands flat on the table before him, with his little fingers resting on or under those of his neighbours on either side. The medium's hands are similarly placed and held. Thus the circle is formed and the sitters are told that if anyone breaks it the spirits will be unable to do anything. It is also pointed out that as the medium's hands are held there is no possibility of fraud. We may add that as the sitters' hands are held there is no possibility of their pursuing curious and unwelcome investigations into the phenomena.

How is the medium—supposing him to be a rogue—to get his hands free? The method is so simple that its is really a matter for wonder that people are deceived by it. As soon as the lights are extinguished, the medium begins to shiver, and his arms are seized with convulsive twitchings. By this means he gradually jerks hands—the little fingers of which are held—nearer together, till one is over the other. Then a sudden twitch releases his right hand, and the sitter on that side, ,attempting to regain the little finger, captures the first finger of the medium's left hand instead. Thus the medium has one hand free to use as he chooses.

At the close of the séance, by means of renewed convulsions, he replaces his hands in their original positions. Anyone, with a little practice, can perform this trick.

Sometimes what are known as test conditions are employed. In this case the medium is elaborately bound hand and foot to the chair in which he sits. For this purpose a confederate is required, and the cords are arranged in one or other of the many ways known to exponents of "the rope trick." The first turns of the cord are invariably made by the confederate, after which anyone who pleases can tie, knot and seal them to his heart's content.

The secret lies in the method of tying the hands, which is done with the double slip-knot comprehensively shown in our last illustration. The cords are then brought under the seat of the chair and fastened round the medium's feet, which he is careful to keep well forward. After this it does not greatly matter what is done with the rest of the rope.

When the much-loved darkness has come over the scene, the medium has only to draw his legs under the chair. This slackens the rope, and by pulling his arms apart he is able to open the double noose and release his hands.

Another and, apparently, more convincing method of applying test conditions is to put a little flour in each of the medium's hands, and to draw a pencil line round his feet as they rest on a sheet of paper. It would thus seem impossible for him to move in the darkness, without being found out when the lights are turned up again.

Nothing is more easy, however, than to overcome this difficulty. Under cover of the darkness the medium simply puts his hands in his pockets, which are purposely made very deep, deposits the flour in them, and carefully wipes his hands on the lining. He is then free, for the paper under his feet can be ignored for the present.

Before the lights are turned up again he simply turns the sheet of paper over, places his feet upon it, and marks round their outline with a pencil. He then takes from one of his pockets a concealed bag of flour, pours a little into each hand, and when the lights are turned up everyone is convinced that he could not possibly have moved during the time of darkness. So much for the value of the much-vaunted "test conditions."

The phenomena of spiritism do not greatly vary. Each séance is practically a copy of every other. Almost always the supposed presence of the spirits is indicated by sundry raps on the table, and in this way—by a code agreed upon—any number of communications can be obtained. These raps are very easily produced if the medium is a trickster. They can be made by rubbing the shoe against the leg of the table, or even by doubling the fingers on the table and sharply slipping them off. When the séance is held at the medium's own house it is easy to make the raps by a simple electric contact operated by the foot.

Another well-known mode of obtaining spirit messages is by means of a slate and pencil. The former is carefully cleaned and placed face downwards on the table with a piece of pencil under it. The circle is then formed and the lights turned out. In a few minutes the sound of writing is heard, and when the slate is again examined it is found to bear a message.

There is not much mystery about this. Under cover of darkness the medium releases his right hand, takes from his pocket a thimble with a scrap of pencil fixed to it, places this on his finger and with it writes the message. This trick may be done in full light if the medium holds the slate with one hand under the table, the opposite side of the slate being held by one of the sitters. In this case the thimble is palmed before and after the writing is done.

In another form of the slate trick, the writing is done beforehand and is covered by a false side, consisting of a sheet of cardboard fitting closely into the frame. This is painted slate colour on the outside, while it's inner surface is covered with material matching the tablecloth. All that is necessary is to turn the slate over, when the false side drops out, and in a dim light is indistinguishable from the table cloth. This trick has the advantage that the slate cannot be thoroughly examined by the audience beforehand.

Now for the slate trick under "test conditions." Two slates are joined together by wire hinges, so as to form a kind of book. This is thoroughly examined and cleaned and the slates are then securely fastened with a padlock, the bar of which passes through both frames. This seems honest enough, but as a matter of fact the padlock offers no security at all. The hinges open with a spring, and there is an end of the mystery!

A far better form the trick is done with two ordinary slates, which are cleaned and then screwed together at four corners by members of the audience. In this case the fastening is absolutely bona fide and above board. Yet the writing gets on just the same when the lights are put out, and this is accepted by spiritists as an absolute proof that no trickery is present.

We take leave to explain a very simple method by which the feat can be performed. The slates should be fairly large ones, with somewhat thin frames that will bend considerably. It is better if the "slates" themselves are made of composition. A small wedge can then be inserted between the frames which are thus forced apart in the middle of one side. Through this opening a thin rod is inserted, bearing at its tip a tiny morsel of pencil set at right angles to itself, and with this the message is written. Of course, only brief sentences can be written in this way but they are quite sufficient for the purpose.

Phenomena of the class just described commonly take place at séances to which visitors are admitted. There are, however, certain manifestations of a more extraordinary character, which only occur at gatherings of spiritists from which outsiders are rigidly excluded.

The theory of this is that materialisation and other higher phenomena are impossible in the presence of any adverse or sceptical mental influence. Of course, to the unbelieving mind a very different explanation suggests itself. Certainly it would be highly unsafe to attempt some of the tricks we are about to describe in the presence of any profane person who might gasp the "spirit" or strike a match at the critical moment!

A very common feat is to make a tambourine or other object float in the air over the heads of the sitters. Why the spirits should be thought to take pleasure in useless follies of this description we cannot pretend to say. We only undertake to explain how it can be—and often is—done by unscrupulous mediums.

All that is needed is a telescopic rod, resembling a fishing rod, which closes up into a sufficiently small compass to be easily concealed on the person. This is extended, under cover of the darkness, and waved about with the object attached to its extremity.

Sometimes a kid glove, stuffed with wool and slightly damped, is by this means brushed lightly against the faces of the sitters, whose hair stands on end as they feel "the touch of a vanished hand."

The story goes that at a certain fashionable watering place the medium inadvertently used some water from a sulphurous spring to damp the glove with. Imagine the consternation of the circle of sitters when they noticed that the "spirit" hand smelt distinctly of brimstone!

Everyone has heard of table turning in connection with spiritist phenomena. There seems little doubt that under certain circumstances this occurs without any conscious fraud, and many theories have been advanced to account for it.

We can, however, introduce our readers to a simple little dodge that is very often at the bottom of it. All that is necessary is to have two pieces of iron, bent twice at right-angles, like this ¯¯¯|___.

One is securely strapped to the under side of each wrist, so as to be concealed by the hand, as shown in our illustration on page 222. When the medium places his hands on the table in the orthodox fashion, these irons slip under the edge of the table and enable him to rock it to his heart's content.

Some mediums have a reputation for levitation, or floating in the air, after the lights are out. It is a significant fact that no one has ever seen them do it in daylight! No trick is more simple. After releasing himself from the "test conditions," in one or other of the ways we have already described, the medium slips off his shoes, places them on his hands, and lightly touches the heads or hands of the deluded sitters, who firmly believe that he is wandering with light footsteps on the air above them!

The most advanced of all spiritist phenomena is that of "materialisation," in which the spirit becomes visible to those present at the séance. In some cases it is claimed that photographs of such manifestations have been secured.

Now we are far from saying that it is impossible for such a thing to take place; on the contrary, it appears to 'be a well-established fact that apparitions do occasionally occur. But it is impossible to forget the number of times that, sceptical investigators have gained admission to private séances and by striking a light or by grasping the "spirit" have proved that it was no wandering phantom, but a very mundane and corporeal entity. In fact, many of the more thoughtful spiritists view all supposed materialisations with grave suspicion.

The modus operandi of a fraudulent materialisation is simply that shown in our first illustration. The medium wraps himself in loose, white drapery, and a light is cautiously thrown upon him by a confederate among the sitters. When the séance takes place at the medium's own house it is possible to arrange more elaborate deceptions by means of concealed doors and mirrors and other machinery.

While there is no question that a vast amount of fraud is practised by some professional mediums, it must not for a moment be supposed that spiritists as a class connive at such deception. On the contrary, we believe them to be as sincere and honest as any other people.

How, then, it may be asked, do we account for their being deceived by such very simple trickery? The answer must be found in the lamentable mental attitude induced by spiritist practices. When people lay aside their common sense, and sit in the dark expecting to see whatever the medium chooses to suggest to them, is it any wonder that they are easily defrauded?


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