Showing posts with label Spiritualism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spiritualism. Show all posts

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Strange Phenomenon of Photographing Ghosts


Photography began back in the 19th Century. I'm sure to folks of that time, it was as amazing to them as computers are to us. Photography of the 19th Century was very primitive by today's standards. It was due to this primitive technique that a Boston Jewelry Engraver named William Mumler, accidentally stumbled upon the ghostly image of a cousin who had died 12 years previously. This was in 1862. Mumler showed his photos to others. He swore that his process was legitimate and that these images were of authentic spirit images. As you might imagine, he created both believers and skeptics. The skeptics felt that what he was doing was some sort of trick. The believer felt they were seeing a ghostly image. 

Keep in mind, as we look upon these images today, we can tell how fake they are. But people of the 19th and early 20th centuries had nothing to compare it to. It's kind of like when a movie comes out with new special effects and we think about how great it is. But soon many movies use the same tech and we are then able to critic CGI and other methods.

Back in the late 1860s,  a NY Supreme Court Judge, upon seeing these so called Mumler Spirit Photos, went to NY with the intention of shutting Mumler down for fraud. But as it turned out, the gentleman, after seeing the process came away a believer!

In April of 1869, Mumler was brought to trial for Fraud. A major skeptic, and one who testified in the trial against William Mumler was P.T. Barnum, the great circus showman. Barnum took offense to this type of deception and worked feverishly against it. I guess not all humbug was the same in Barnum's world. And in fact, there was innocent humbug and offensive humbug, the latter was trying fool grieving people into believing they could talk to dead relatives. As it turned out, Mumler was acquitted of the charges.

But why was he acquitted of the charges if what he did was clearly fraud? Because, his methods were not so obvious. He had actually developed a system which would later become known as The Mumler Process. And this term was used outside of the spirit world. Mumler's process allowed for what is called 'photo-electrotype' plates. The best description comes from the book, The Apparitionist by Peter Manseau, "the Mumler process, as it was known, allowed printers to forgo the usual step of having a photographic plate copied by hand by an illustrator or wood engraver, revolutionizing the ability to reproduce images by the thousands." In other words, we have Mumler to credit for newspapers and magazines being able to print photographs rather than woodcuts or drawings. 

Mumlers most famous spirit photograph was taken in 1872. A woman, dressed in black, turned up at this studio. She was the widow of Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln. This particular photograph would be the last known photo taken of Mary Todd Lincoln, and would be Mumler's most iconic. Mary Todd was known to be a true believer in Spiritualism and remained so all her days. Her photo remains one of the better and spookier images to ever be produced.

Another individual who also stumbled upon a process for making spirit photos was William Hope from Cheshire England. He developed his first spirit photo in 1905. He soon started his own Spiritualist Church. His procedure was wrapped around saying prayers, singing hymns and then eventually taking the photos. Wrapping the whole thing in a religious ceremony would certainly make him different than many of the other photographers who took such photos.  Hope was so impressive with his photos, he fooled famed investigator and scientist William Crookes. Eventually, however his methods were exposed and he was revealed to be a fraud.

Spirit Photography has gone through its phases of popularity, as has Spiritualism. A few years after the Civil War, it was on the decline. But during and after WW1, Spiritualism began to rise again due to the number of deaths during the war. Families desperately wanted one last word with loved ones, and Spiritualism and mediums apparently offered this opportunity. In comes, Harry Houdini. And actually, it was during this time that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved as well. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and avid believer in Spiritualism. In Doyle's eyes this was another example of proof. Sir Arthur could be relied upon to be duped by just about anything. He was no Sherlock Holmes in real life.  In 1922, Doyle published a book called, The Case For Spirit Photography, complete with a cheesy Spirit Photo on the cover of the book.

Houdini on the other hand recognized fraud. In fact, he set up shop in his own home to be able to produce his own Spirit Photos.  I'll say for not being a professional photographer, Houdini's Spirit Photos are as good as any. A few of them, even better than the average. One of his most iconic, also utilized Abraham Lincoln. There are numerous versions of this one. In one he is holding a book and looking at Lincoln. In another, he has his wrists handcuffed. In yet another he has his hands tied. Strangely, Lincoln never changes his pose, but remains the same in every picture. By today's standards we can tell it's faked, but I'm sure it was impressive in his day. 

I think my favorite of the Houdini spirit photos is the one below. There is another that I like which is a close runner up, you'll find that one below this spooky one. Both of them were taken inside Houdini's home in Harlem. Of course, Houdini, being the great debunker, and including an expose of fake spirit mediums methods in show final show, helped to squash the fad of spirit photos. In 1924, Houdini wrote his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, which he systematically exposes the various characters and methods of the Spiritualism movement. The first photo in the book, is of Houdini and Conan Doyle. After the publication of the book, Doyle and Houdini's friendship came to an end. 

from the McCord Museum Collection

Monday, August 18, 2014

Houdini & The Identified Man

Lot#125 Potter & Potter Auctions

Lot#125 in the Potter & Potter Houdiniana Auction this coming Saturday is for the above photo. It's listed as Houdini & unidentified man. Well, now he is identified. The man standing next to Houdini is Nino Pecoraro, an Italian Medium.

The magazine Scientific American was investigating Pecoraro. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been present during a Nino Pecoraro Seance was totally convinced of his genuine abilities. Then again, Sir Arthur fell for anyone who claimed mediumistic powers.

What made Nino Pecoraro unique was that he claimed to speak with, Eusapia Palladino, who was herself a very controversial spirit medium who had died several years before. Milbourne Christopher, author of Houdini-The Untold Story points out that Hereward Carrington, who was on the Scientific American Investigating Committee, had actually been Palladino's manager, and had been the one to make the arrangements to investigate Nino Pecoraro.

During the first two committee sittings with Pecoraro, he was able to produce numerous manifestations. Even after having been trussed up in a sort of straitjacket-like coat, he still contacted Ms. Palladino. But one thing was missing from these sittings, Houdini. When word got to him about a third seance, Houdini broke from his tour to head to NYC to attend the third seance. This came as a surprise both to the committee and to Mr. Pecoraro. According to the Kenneth Silverman biography on Houdini, it took one hour and 45 minutes for Houdini to completely tie up Pecoraro. Houdini was quoted as saying "I won't guarantee that Nino can't get loose, but I will guarantee that he will never get back."

This time around, the manifestations stopped. Well, all except for some gentle rapping sounds created by the same technique that the Fox Sisters used, according to Houdini. All the grandiose spirit manifestations ceased. No award was given to Nino Pecoraro thanks to the intervention of Houdini.

The one thing that always made me wonder is why these mediums would take their photos with Houdini. The photos must have been arranged before the sittings, because after they had been exposed or stopped, I can't imagine anyone would want anything to do with ole Harry.

A similar photo to the one above appears in Houdini The Untold Story. In that photo, the two men are wearing overcoats. Otherwise, I'm sure the photos are from the same sitting.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The UnMasking of Harry Houdini Part 4

I remember the early days of learning about Houdini. One of the things that I always assumed was that Houdini started the whole Anti-Spiritualist Exposure Shows. I had no idea that many performers had done this before Houdini. Actually, the whole Spiritualism thing helped to expand the branches of magic. Spiritualism really gave rise to the Escape Act, that Houdini would make famous. Though feats of mental magic already existed, quite a few really clever techniques came out of the Spiritualism world which revolutionized the Mentalism field.

But it's the Spiritualism or Anti-Spiritualism acts I want to discuss. I mentioned before that Wyamn the Wizard is credited as the first magician to do spirit or seance type of magic in his act. He had an immense knowledge of how the mediums did their work and added their techniques into his shows. A slew of performers followed like John Henry Anderson, Robert-Heller, Samri Baldwin, Harry Kellar, John Nevil Maskelyne, and on and on the list goes. Some would demonstrate the spirit effects, others would demonstrate and expose them. Magicians used it as some kind of 'high ground' to say you shouldn't be fooled by such charlatans. Though, they were using the same techniques, lol. But in the defense of the magicians, their job is to entertain by fooling, not to swindle people under false pretenses.

The methods of the spirit mediums were fairly well known in magic circles by the time Houdini came along. In fact, Houdini even did some of this mediumistic work early in his career but soon understood how it had a great power to deceive in the wrong ways, and he discontinued it.

Later in life, it's been written that he turned on the whole Spiritualism movement when he found they were unable to contact his mother. I suppose even the great Houdini, in a moment of deep emotional grief wanted to believe the claims of these people. But his vast knowledge of deception wouldn't allow him to be fooled by the same kinds of parlor tricks he had been doing for years. So he went on the attack. Well, that would be the condensed version of it. In truth, Houdini doesn't really turn on the Spiritualists until the 1920s. So even though he never received a message from 'Mama', that alone wasn't enough to cause him to crusade against them. It was an entirely different event....and that I will discuss at another time.

Houdini certainly wasn't the first to expose spirit mediums and their techniques. But he was the most famous for doing so. His celebrity status combined with this very aggressive approach made his battle with the Mediums front page news. Then, to top it off, he made the Spirit Exposure the highlight of this 3 Part Act during his final tour.

I can't help but wonder what Houdini would think about all these Hunting for Ghost Shows on TV these days. I don't think any of them are out there exposing fake phenomenon, but rather trying to prove such things exist, and on a weekly basis. I have a feeling Houdini would have a different take on it all.

John Cox and the Lost Scrapbook
In a few short days, August 23rd 2014, Potter and Potter Auctions is having a huge auction of  Houdini items.
Among the items up for auction is a recently discovered Houdini Scrapbook on Spiritualism. It was none other than my buddy John Cox from that first revealed the news of the Lost Spiritualism Scrapbook earlier this year. You can read all about it here.

Now, this Scrapbook is available to the highest bidder.  The estimates for this item are in the $15,000 to $20,000 range, and it could go even higher. What an incredible resource for the Houdini researcher. I can only imagine what new revelations might come out on Houdini and his battle with the Mediums from this collection of notes and newspaper clippings.

Save up your dollars because this incredible piece of Houdini history could be YOURS....or David Copperfield's...but let's hope it's yours.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Odd Dr. Slade

A friend of mine sent me information on the grave of Dr. Henry Slade, but I couldn't quite recall who he was. I thought he had something to do with 'spiritualism' but was not totally certain so the research began. His name shows up in magic periodicals and even magic books. So who was Dr. Henry Slade?

He was born in Johnson Creek New York in 1836 and at an early age showed signs of having some sort of psychic ability. The claim was he had some sort of telekinetic power and could cause objects to move and even levitate. Let's stop right there for a moment and get some historical perspective.

In 1848, two sisters, Margaret and Katie Fox of Hydesville NY began to produce spiritualistic manifestations in the way of rapping sounds. This unusual phenomenon had never occurred before and when the news got out the world of so-called spirit communication took off. By 1954, two brothers, Ira and William Davenport were presenting something they called 'The Spirit Cabinet' in which manifestations also took place. The brothers were from Buffalo NY. And guess what town sits right in the middle between Buffalo and Hydesville............Johnson Creek.

Henry Slade would have been 12 when the Fox Sisters started their 'spiritualistic work'. As I mentioned before, as a boy Henry showed 'signs' of some sort of unusual power. Quite interestingly, the two young Davenport boys also showed 'signs' of unusual powers at a young age, all of this right after the word of the Fox Sisters hit the newspapers. For the record, people who could create these manifestations were referred to as  'Spirit Mediums'.

Slade moved to Michigan when he was 20. His title of 'Dr' apparently was not a medical doctor but rather a 'spiritual doctor'. His signature spiritualist manifestation was called 'Slate Writing'. At the time a very common item was a small square or rectangular piece of chalkboard or blackboard that was used by school children, these were called slates. Dr. Slade would show the several slates to have no writing upon them and during the course of his seances, writing would appear. This writing, he claimed, were messages from the dead. And to make his 'slate writing' even more exciting, the words were often written in different languages.

The spiritualist community recognizes that Dr. Henry Slade inventing or discovering slate writing. He certainly gets credit for it's popularity. If you're wondering how this fits into magic history, well let me explain that the Fox Sisters and the Davenport Brothers all later revealed that what they were doing was fake. In other words, they used what we would call 'magical methods' to create their effects. Magicians of the time knew this and that's why many of them included 'fake spirit effects' in their shows. Others, like Harry Kellar actually exposed the methods used by fake spirit mediums in their performances.

Slade apparently made millions of dollars over the course of his career by presenting seances and slate writing exhibitions. He traveled to Europe and performed before many of the royal families. At the height of his career it was near impossible to get a sitting with Dr. Slade. Even with the exposures in the press and by magicians like Kellar and by scientific investigators, his popularity continued.

That popularity stopped when he was beaten and robbed one evening in NY. He lost $10,000 worth of money and diamonds, likely everything he had. Ten Thousand dollars in the late 19th Century would be about $250,000 today, he could have lived on that the rest of his life. But now the money was gone and on top of that he developed some sort of paralysis after his injuries. He continued to give sittings but now at the discount price of .50 cents. His frail body, lack of money and constant exposure of mediums in the press and in theatres brought his career to an end. He would up in a Sanatorium in Detroit. And died on September 9th, 1905 and was buried in a paupers grave in Battle Creek Michigan.

But the story doesn't quite end there. A number of famous spiritualists of the time found out about Slade being buried in Battle Creek and began to take up a collection to have his grave moved to Albion Michigan. It was discovered that Slade owned a plot in the Riverside Cemetery there. They did get his grave moved and now he rests beneath a very large monumental tombstone with the following inscription on it "Henry Slade, renowned throughout the world as the first spiritualist medium for the independent slate writing. Retired to spirit life September 8,1905 after an earthly visit of 69 years, 5 months and 22 days. With toil now finished, with soul set free, he now enters eternity."

So was Slade the genuine spirit medium that he claimed or was he like the Davenport Brothers, the Fox Sisters, Anna Eva Fay and others of the time, a fake? Well, he had been exposed a number of times. The most damning exposure came from Remigius Weiss who caught Slade in the act and forced him to sign a document stating that his manifestations were all done through trickery. Weiss later gave the document to Harry Houdini to be used in his book A Magician Among the Spirits.