“The Spectacle Was Sickening”: The Rotary Jail and the Thrice Hanged Ghost

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I recently had the chance to finally visit the Rotary Jail Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. The jail is the first rotating jail built in the United States and the only one that still turns. In the 19th Century, rotary jails popped up across the Midwestern United States. Jail cells shaped like wedges rotated on a platform, like a carousel, using a hand crank. Spinning the jail around allowed you to access single cells at a time through one

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The hand crank (right) that rotates the jail.

opening. The design was initially created by William H. Brown of Indianapolis’s  Haugh, Ketcham & Co., and the intention was “to produce a jail in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard” (Source). Rotary jails eventually closed (the last one remained in use until 1969) as the spinning mechanism caught limbs (and in one case, a head), breaking and crushing them.

The Rotary Jail Museum in Crawfordsville houses a two-story model attached to the once living quarters of the Sheriff and his family. The very informative–and excellent tour–is only $5 and one hour. I was also lucky enough to visit the museum after their Haunted Jail event, which explained the fake blood and skeletons!

This small Midwest museum is definitely worth the stop. Maybe you might see the ghost of John Coffee.

The Execution of John Coffee

In January of 1885, the beaten and burned bodies of James and Elizabeth McMullen were found in their home near Elmdale, Indiana (Montgomery County). John Coffee, 23 years old, was arrested for their murders. He confessed three separate times, went to trial, and was found guilty.* Coffee was sentenced to death by hanging.

This was the first public execution for Crawfordsville, Indiana. A scaffold was constructed and tested several times with a 150-pound sand bag. About 200 people purchased tickets to witness the hanging in the jail’s courtyard. On October 15, 1885, Coffee’s hanging and a horrific scene took placed. It took three attempts to hang Coffee; the rope broke the first two times. An article in the New York Times (October 17, 1885) describes the event (warning: graphic detail).

When the drop fell the rope broke and the body dropped to the ground. The neck was not broken, but blood oozed from the condemned man’s ears. He was carried up on the scaffold, and while the rope was being readjusted he recovered consciousness and begged to have the cap taken off that he might make another speech. This request was refused. When the drop again fell the rope broke a second time, but the body was caught before it fell to the ground. It was lifted up and held in the arms of the Deputy Sheriff while the rope was fixed the third time. When the drop fell again the rope held and Coffee strangled to death for 12 minutes. The spectacle was sickening.

The hanging was an embarrassment for Montgomery County. Prisoners in the jail pleaded to have the scaffold torn down, as they could see the threatening mechanism through the jail windows (Indiana Historical Bureau)†. The people of Crawfordsville would be haunted, both figuratively and literally, by the ghost of John Coffee.

The Ghost of John Coffee

Shortly after the execution, people began to see the ghost of John Coffee. Firstly, his ghost was seen near Elmdale (location of the murder) “prowling around.” One night, the ghost of John Coffee stopped a farmer as he needed a ride (vehicle not mentioned). He rode with the farmer about three miles, until the reached the ruins of the McMullen household. The ghost “hopped out and bounded away with the speed of a jack rabbit (Newport Hoosier State, October 28, 1885).

Apparently the ghost of John Coffee likes taking rides, because he reportedly hopped on a train, too. As the story goes, a train conductor named Dick Tracy saw the ghost of Coffee with a noose around his bloody neck. Tracy and brakeman were in the caboose, just leaving Crawfordsville. Coffee jumped on the front end and Tracy quickly locked the car’s door. Coffee then jumped on top of the roof and came through the cupola, finally taking a seat on the train. He rode the train for about thirty miles, while Tracy and the brakeman watched in fear. He eventually jumped off the train and quickly disappeared. Tracy decided that was his last ride (Jefferson Daily Evening News, November 11, 1885).

People still believe John Coffee haunts the Rotary Jail as every October the museum’s security systems indicate movement inside the jail and house at night (Indiana Historical Bureau). Allegedly, the Sheriff who decided not to pursue other accomplices in the Coffee case haunts the building.

I visited on the 17th of October; I must have missed Coffee and the Sheriff.

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*The tour guides mentioned that some believed John Coffee was innocent and/or worked with an accomplice(s). No one else was ever punished for the crime.

†The scaffold was used again.  I found one source saying it was used six months later for the hanging of John C. Henning.

A tour guide pointed out some similarities between this John Coffee and the John Coffey from Stephen King’s The Green Mile. The guide said King never heard of Crawfordsville, but The New York Times article (see above) never mentioned the city. So maybe King forgot he was inspired by a real life event? Hmmmmm. 

Sources

Indiana Historical Bureau, “Montgomery County Jail Machine.” The Indiana Historian (pdf). (This source also provides details on how a Rotary Jail works.)

Lighty, Chandler. “Haunted Hoosier History: John Coffee’s Ghost, Montgomery County,” Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Newspaper Program. 

“Rotary Jail.” Atlas Obscura. 

“Rotary Jail.” Wikipedia.

“‘The Last Vestige of the Gloomy Structure’ Public Displays of Hangings in Indiana.” The History Engine.

#31SpookyStories: October Reading Challenge

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Please note: This post will be continuously updated throughout the challenge, so follow me on social media for any update alerts. 

Every October, I challenge myself to read 31 short stories—a story for each day. I thought this year I might invite my friends—YOU—to join the challenge!

I usually pull an anthology off my bookshelf and then pick a title that speaks to me (here’s my list from 2017). Your reading style and availability may be different than mine, so I gave the challenge additional options:

  • You might read from one anthology/story collection or multiple anthologies/story collections.
  • You might double, triple, or quadtrouple stories on slow days or makeup days. Hell, you could 31 stories in one week.
  • You might choose to read fiction and/or nonfiction spooky stories.
  • You might not have time for 31 stories, so let’s swap the numbers around and make it 13. I’m cool with that.
  • You might choose to participate with your children (I sprinkled in some children’s books below).

The point of this challenge is to read some short stories, so please do whatever works for you. To make this challenge accessible, I have included a list of free short stories online. I also recommend visiting your local library! If you prefer to buy books, used bookstores and small businesses are an excellent choice.

If you cannot join us this round, you can always join our Christmas/Yule/Winter Holiday short story challenge in December! 

Join the Fun on Instagram

Some challenge readers (me included) will be sharing our daily reads on social media. Follow me (@notebookofghosts) for fun Story templates, my daily reads, available anthologies from some of my favorite online sellers, and more! I will also be sharing a bit on Twitter if that’s your preferred media.

We’ll be using the hashtag #31SpookyStories!

Documenting Your Reads

You can keep a list of what you read in a planner, journal, or notebook. You don’t have to be public about it.

But, if you would like to share your reads on social media, here are some ways:

  • Post your daily reads (story, story writer, book title, and book editors) on Twitter or in your Instagram stories. Instagram users: I’m making you templates. Just check my highlights! You might also create your only highlight to archive your daily reads!
  • Share a picture of your book piles periodically.
  • Share your method for picking stories.
  • Write down and share your favorite stories.

Recommendations for Fiction

(that aren’t already in the Free Section)

Recommendations for Nonfiction

FREE Stories

Below are links to some anthologies online. I haven’t read all of these, so I’m sorry for the lame ones! 🙂  Please note: Most of these links take you to Project Gutenberg, which gives you multiple formats to read it in. HTML is best for reading on your computer. You can also send it to your Kindle (I use this email method). 

Keep Notes in a Commonplace Book

Commonplace books are an excellent tool for writing down your favorite quotes and excerpts! To learn more about commonplace books, read this post.

 

I look forward to reading along with you. Feel free to ask any questions you may have in the comments below!

Haunted Chairs

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Haunted chairs…

You know when you use a chair after someone and it’s still warm? It’s like that.

OK. I’m guessing, but haunted chairs are a thing. Whether the chair is possessed by something or just a tool for the ghost, sitters should beware. The following are haunted chairs I came across during my research, from established folklore to personal stories.

Grab a seat (no, not that chair) and enjoy!

Thomas Busby’s Stoop Chair

Thomas killed his father-in-law, as legend has it, over a chair.

He beat his father-in-law to death with a hammer after he sat in his favorite chair, and hid his body in the woods. Thomas was found and sentenced to death. He was hanged, tarred, and put in the gallows. He would scream from the gallows: “May sudden death come to anyone who dare sit in my chair.”

The chair was put in the Thirsk Museum in North Yorkshire, England. People who have sat in the cursed chair suffered from brain tumors, car crashes, etc. The museum eventually hung the chair from the ceiling so no one could sit in it again.

Dad’s Chair

A family in Oakland, California bought their father/husband the most expensive lounging chair when he retired from being a high school shop teacher. The leather chair had a lever-operated footrest, built in heaters and massagers, and an armrest that doubled as storage and cup holder. The rule of the house was only Dad could sit in the chair, but the family cat was allowed to keep the seat warm when not in use.

After Dad passed, the family continued to honor the rule…except once.  One of the adult children took a seat, tilting the chair back, and raising the footrest. The chair suddenly returned to the upright position, almost ejecting the occupant. No one ever took a seat again (except for the cat). The family also reported the massagers starting on their own, even when it was unplugged. Late at night, the footrest would pop up. Dad’s favorite books would disappear from the bookshelves, only to be found in the armrest storage later.

Maybe heaven is a lounge chair.

Haunted Rocking Chair

This summer, television personality and paranormal investigator Zak Bagans closed his Devil’s Rocking Chair exhibit after guests and friends suffered extreme emotional reactions. The chair was used during the exorcism of David Glatzel by Lorraine Warren. During this exorcism, the demon allegedly left David and entered Arne Cheyenne Johnson’s body. Johnson later killed his landlord and attempted to plead not guilty due to possession at the trial. Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and ultimately served 5 years in prison.

According to Bagans, “Six people all shared the same disturbing, uncontrollable crying during the short time I opened the exhibit, one of them being a guest who also collapsed directly above the Devil’s Rocking Chair on the stairs [The chair was directly under the stairs].” Bagans himself experienced an intense response to the chair when it was in his home:

Me and a friend felt an evil presence move between us as we were sitting down in my living room, which then caused my dog to growl […] I then became very affected, began speaking strange things about God and Satan with my head down, and then my friend began to cry uncontrollably and literally ran outta my house.

Bagans purchased the chair hours before Lorraine Warren’s death for $67,000. The upcoming Conjuring 3 movie was inspired by the chair.

The Velvet Chair of Wittenberg University

William A. Kinnison, the 11th President of Wittenberg University, wrote a book about the university titled America’s Most Haunted Campus. In his book, he tells the story of a haunted red velvet chair(s). The chairs, “a fancy, carved and upholstered wooden Victorian-style gentleman’s chair of the gay nineties variety,” were used in the literary societies on the third floor of the recitation hall. They eventually scattered throughout campus. Apparently one of these chairs is haunted, but maybe the others are too?

According to legend, if you take time to stare at the haunted chair patiently, a “dustlike image” of a handsome man will appear. He then vanishes, giving off the sound of a faint sigh or muffled sob. He hasn’t appeared long enough for people to ask why he’s there.

Haunted Cemetery Chairs

There is much folklore attached to chairs and benches in cemeteries. Placed to give visitors a seat when visiting deceased friends and family, legend says they actually do not give such respite.

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The Baird Chair // Wikimedia, Public Domain

Various legends are attached to a funerary sculpture like the one pictured to the right, often called a “mourning chair.” Popular during the 19th Century, these eventually went out of fashion and their original meaning was replaced with paranormal folklore. Most often they are called “Devil’s Chairs” and it’s believed that sitting on the chair will incite a visit from the devil. There are many other superstitions attached to the act of sitting on such memorials or other benches and chairs in cemeteries. Here are a few examples.

  • Cassadaga, Florida: According to legend, if you place an open beer on this particular graveside bench, it will be empty in the mourning. Cheers!
  • Bristol, Pennsylvania: In the St. James Episcopal Cemetery sits a wrought-iron chair called “The Witch’s Chair.” If you sit in the chair at midnight during October, you will find yourself in the embrace of a ghostly witch. Some witnesses have seen a woman sitting in the chair.
  • Kirksville, Missouri: The Baird Chair (aka The Devi’s Chair, pictured above) is a marble memorial that was commissioned by prominent businessman William Baird for his brother and sister-in-law (William is actually buried elsewhere). According to legend, if you sit on the chair at midnight (usually on Halloween), a hand will emerge from the grave and drag you down to Hell.

The Chair in Pieces

I found this ghost story on a website YourGhostStories.comA user explained that during a home renovation, they found a carved chair back behind a wall. Then, in a boarded-up storage space, they found the seat’s chair and two legs. When pulling weeds in the yard, the user found the other two legs with a bit of damage. The family put the chair together, instantly feeling uneasy by its presence. They took it apart, put the pieces in a trash bag, and left it in the garage for years.

They eventually moved and the chair came with them. The user felt a desire to assemble the chair, but warned everyone not to sit in it. One night, the user’s husband sat in the chair. He seemed to go into a trance and was hospitalized that night due to amnesia-type symptoms (the user does not say, but he seems to be OK now). The chair now sits unbothered in the guest room. Sometimes a mysterious mist appears in photographs of the chair.

Sources

Kinnison, William A. America’S Most Haunted Campus. Xlibris CorporationAug 16, 2018. 

“Kirksville Devil’s Chair.” Atlas Obscura. 

“My Haunted Chair.” YourGhostStories.com.

Stansfield Jr., Charles A. Haunted Northern California: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Golden State. Stackpole Books, Jun 10, 2009.

Wetzel, Charles Wetzel. Haunted U.S.A. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2008,

Wikipedia.

Wynne, Kelly. “Zak Bagans Closes Devil’s Rocking Chair Exhibit After Museum Haunts, Chilling Encounter in His Home.” Newsweek, 3 June 2019.

Photo by Michael Nunes on Unsplash

#HumpDayHaunts: 3 American Ghost Ships

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Using the hashtag #humpdayhaunts, I share a bit of paranormal history on my Instagram every Wednesday.  I’ve been letting my followers vote between two themes. The most recent candidates? Haunted Lighthouses or Ghost Ships. The winner? Haunted Lighthouses!

I must admit, I was a bit bummed. I love lighthouses, but I wanted to explore new territory. In addition to the Instagram #humpdayhaunts, I thought I might do a short post on 3 ghost ships (since I’m doing 3 lighthouses). In the end, everyone wins.

The Ghost Ship of New Haven

English settlers of New Haven Colony sent a ship to England in January of 1647 in hopes of selling some goods. The ship was not in the best condition, prompting Reverend John Davenport to say rather prophetically, “Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our Friends in the bottom of the Sea, they are thine; save them!” The ship set sail and never returned.

A year or so later, as the legend goes, a summer thunderstorm hit New Haven. When the storm passed, the colony saw that very lost ship sailing the sky with battered sails. The Puritans took this as a sign of God’s anger.

(Source: Connecticut History)

The Palatine Light of Block Island

There was a shipwreck at Block Island (Rhode Island) on December 26, 1738. The ship Princess Augusta was filled with German Palatines and led by Captain George Long. The trip itself was awful: provisions were limited, people died from illness, and water was contaminated. Captain Long was among the casualties. First Mate Andrew Brook took over and charged passengers for food.

Now, the waters of history get a bit murky.

There are several versions of what happened with this shipwreck. Here are two popular endings.

  1. The people of Block Island saved the living passengers (that were pretty much left behind by Brook) and buried their deceased. The ship may have been scuttled or burned. Some theories said it was repaired and sent to its intended destination: Philadelphia.
  2. The people of Block Island lured the ship to the shore using a false light. They then murdered the passengers and took all their belongings. They set the ship on fire.

During the period between Christmas and New Years, people have witnessed a burning phantom ship. The phenomenon is known as the Palatine Light.

John Greenleaf Whittier made the story famous with the 1867 poem “The Palatine.”

(Source: New England Historical Society, Mental Floss)

And One More from the #HumpDayHaunts Archives

I love this story!

View this post on Instagram

It's a whole week of #humpdayhaunts! I'll share a haunted place or legend each day this week, because #HALLOWEEN. 👻 Have you heard about the “THE SHIP OF DEATH” in Wyoming? About every 25 years or so, a phantom ship appears on the Platte River. Witnesses of the ghost ship report a thick fog and a ghost crew covered in frost. The unfortunate witness that pursues a closer look might see the corpse of a still-living loved one lying on the deck. Sometimes the crew is surrounding the person or the captain is motioning towards the loved one's body. This loved one always dies soon after. 👻 100 or so years ago, a trapper named Leon Webber saw the ghost ship (this is the first reported sighting). When he got closer to the ship, he saw his fiancée lying on the top deck. She died that same day. The next reported sighting was 25 years later (1887) when Gene Wilson, a cattleman, saw his wife lying on the ship's deck. She too died the same day. The last reported sighting was in 1903. Victor Hiebe was chopping firewood one autumn day at his residence along the river (or he was a lumberjack). He saw the fog and then the ship…and then the body of his good friend hanging from a noose. This friend had been convicted of murder, though Victor believed in his innocence. Victor last heard his friend escaped from prison. The same day of the sighting, Victor's friend was captured and put to death. 👻 There have been no reported sightings since, but I recommend avoiding the Platte River on foggy days. . . . . . #halloween #scarystory #scarystories #fall #autumn #october #ghost #ghostship #ghosts #paranormal #supernatural #hauntedplaces #haunted #folkore #history #urbanlegend #Wyoming #scary #horror #writersofinstagram #spooky #paranormalactivity

A post shared by 𝕹𝖔𝖙𝖊𝖇𝖔𝖔𝖐 𝖔𝖋 𝕲𝖍𝖔𝖘𝖙𝖘 (@notebookofghosts) on

5 from the Archives: A Repository of Paranormal Knowledge

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I have gained some new followers on social media, so I thought I might spend some time diving into the archives. Y’all have missed a lot! Don’t worry, I’ll catch you up…

Some time ago, I did a series called A Repository of Paranormal Knowledge. This series explored the paranormal basics: key terms, classifications, theories, and schools of thought. The idea was to prepare you to be an intellectual ghostbuster. I might bring the series back some day. For now, let’s enjoy some past posts!

Black-Eyed Children

Artificial Ghosts

Ghost Lights

Types of Hauntings

Street Light Interference

 

Photo by Greg Panagiotoglou on Unsplash

Pumpkin Superstitions

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It is almost July and I’m burning a pumpkin scented candle. Too soon? My friends are watching their pumpkin seeds become seedlings, so I can start shoving pumpkin knowledge into your faces. Right? I will start slow with a short list of pumpkin superstitions. Enjoy!

  • Carrying a hollowed-out pumpkin on Halloween will protect you from evil spirits.
  • Eating a pumpkin stalk will make you foolish.
  • In China, the pumpkin is a symbol of fertility.
  • Pumpkins are best planted on Good Friday.
  • Once growing, never point at a pumpkin! It will cause them to rot.
  • Eating pumpkin seeds can quiet “an excessively passionate nature.”
  • Pumpkin seeds, when mixed with oil to create a paste and then rubbed on the skin, will eradicate freckles.
  • “Plant pumpkin seeds in May / And they will all run away. Plant pumpkin seeds in June / And they will come soon.”
  • Eating pumpkin seeds will cure worms.
  • If cows eat pumpkin seeds, they will go dry.

Sources

Carroll, William. Superstitions: 10,000 You Really Need. Coda Publications, 1998.

Daniels, Cora Linn. Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World: Volume 2. 1903.

Little Giant Encyclopedia of Superstitions. New York, The Diagram Group, 2008.

Pickering, David. Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions. London, Cassell, 1995.

 

 

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

 

5 from the Archives: Haunted Indiana

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I have gained some new followers on social media, so I thought I might spend some time diving into the archives. Y’all have missed a lot! Don’t worry, I’ll catch you up…

This week, let’s revisit some posts on spooky Indiana!

Six Haunted Bridges in Indiana

They say there’s more than corn in Indiana. It’s true. We have haunted bridges, too!

A Hoosier Ghost Story with a Pun

A funny story for the kids!

The House of Blue Lights

Did this Hoosier keep his wife’s body in a glass coffin surrounded by blue lights? I explore a legend from my childhood.

In My Commonplace Book: Two Mausoleums and a Bottle of Wine

I share two ghost stories about haunted mausoleums. Spoiler alert: ghost dog.

The Chain on the Tombstone 

Why does a chain stain appear on this tombstone?

 

Photo by Dimitar Donovski on Unsplash

5 from the Archives: Listicles

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I have gained some new followers on social media, so I thought I might spend some time diving into the archives. Y’all have missed a lot! Don’t worry, I will catch you up…

Let’s start with some spooky listicles.

Six Haunted Bridges in Indiana 

Til Death: Ghost Brides of the United States 

The Famous Screaming Skulls of England 

Ghost Nuns Who Will Have You Praying

Terror and Tomes: Haunted American Libraries 

 

Photo by Viktor Juric on Unsplash

Spooky & Specific Short Story Anthologies

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I am obsessed with short story anthologies on anything spooky; they take up 70% of my book collection (I’m guessing). One of these days I will share my favorite anthologies of ghost stories, but that is a challenge. I’m going to get more specified for now.

I have been trying to seek out anthologies with very specific themes, because so many of my anthologies were overlapping in content. I probably have 10 anthologies with M.R. James’s story “Lost Hearts,” for example. Below are three that I have enjoyed.

Please note: I shared Amazon links so you could learn more about the books, but I always recommend supporting small business! 

The Haunted Dolls (Selected by Seon Manley & Gogo Lewis, 1980)

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Stories by: Agatha Christie, Nathaniel Hawthorne, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood…

This book is rare and I probably paid too much for it, but I loved it. This 318-page anthology has an introduction for each story with interesting historical tidbits about dolls and their folklore. There are also fun illustrations sprinkled throughout the book.

In some stories, dolls are terrorized by their human owners. In other stories, the dolls cause havoc in their homes. This book will not cause sleepless nights, but that does not mean the stories are not haunting. I thought the entire book was an interesting look at the intimate relationship between humans and dolls and the anguish dolls must feel when left behind.

Favorite Story in the Book: A tie. “Feathertop” by Nathaniel Hawthorne & “The Doll” by Terry Tapp

Lighthouse Horrors (Selected by Charles G. Waugh, Martin Harry Greenberg, and Jenny-Lynn Azarian, 1993)

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Stories by: Rudyard Kipling, Henry Van Dyke, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe…

So, I love haunted lighthouses. The solitude! The sea! The shipwrecks! The ghosts!

This 256-page anthology starts with a short introduction on lighthouses and the four basic variations of horror stories. Each story opens with a short biography on the author along with some contextual information on the story. Overall, I like the psychological elements of these stories. I think that much solitude could make anyone mad.

One story worth mentioning is Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished “The Light-House,” which is finished by American fiction writer Robert Bloch.

Favorite Story in the Book: “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury

Into the Mummy’s Tomb (Selected by John Richard Stephens, 2001)

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Stories by: Ann Rice, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, Tennessee Williams, Agatha Christie, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, Elizabeth Peters…

First off, this anthology has a substantial introduction about mummies. My favorite part is the long list of people affected by the curse of King Tut.

Second off, this 368-page anthology has a variety of genres (mystery, horror, travel lit, etc.) and, along with famous authors, perspectives from Egyptologists, archeologists, and even an ancient Egyptian priest.

Y’all. I started this book with a whatever perspective on mummies and finished it wanting to get my hands on any literature on the subject. 

Favorite Story in the Book: “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott

Erotic Ectoplasmic Birth: Vaginas and Scientific Probing in the Age of Spiritualism

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This is a work in progress. A (much) better version of this post appeared in Dirge Magazine when it was alive (RIP!). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to save the final, edited version before the site went down. I had some really great editors! Nevertheless, I find the topic interesting and thought I would share. I’ll probably make further improvements in the future! 

On September 27, 1726, a young woman in rural England gave birth to three legs of a cat, one leg of a rabbit, and the backbone of an eel. Over the next month, Mary Toft gave birth to around a dozen rabbits. Due to a theory that emotions could cause birth defects, this birth seemed plausible and Mary became a local celebrity. Eventually, mounting evidence and the threat of court-appointed and experimental pelvic surgery led to Mary’s confession that it was indeed a hoax.800px-Mary_toft_1726

How does one fake the birth of animal parts and full-grown rabbits? After a miscarriage, Mary hid the animal parts while her cervix was still open. For future births she sewed a pocket in her skirt where she hid the rabbits. While the doctor was distracted, she placed the rabbits inside her and faked birth.

This would not be the last time a woman put a peculiar thing in her vagina to trick the men of Science. At the height of Spiritualism (late 1800s and early 1900s), or the belief that the living could communicate with the spirit world, mediums put on entertaining seances with knocks, moving tables, and a mysterious white substance called ectoplasm that sometimes came out of their vaginas.

Spiritualism and Female Sexuality

Spiritualism was a movement that did not discriminate based on socioeconomic class or gender, and most mediums were women. People looked to women for a peek into the afterlife, giving them substantial power and respect. It is no surprise then that many members of the American suffrage movement were also Spiritualists and even Susan B. Anthony supported the assertion that Spiritualism was the only religious sect to acknowledge the equality of women (Dickey 74).

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Spiritualism gave women the space to move their bodies and speak in ways they had not before. In Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places, Colin Dickey writes, “Spiritualism tended to valorize traits that were elsewhere labeled as women’s psychiatric diseases, including convulsions, incoherent babbling, open displays of sexuality, and other violations of Victorian decorum” (74). Behaviors that would usually get a woman institutionalized became evidence of otherworldly communication. Mediums’ open displays of sexuality during seances also revealed to observers another mystery of the universe: the vagina.

Science was already confused about female sexuality and was using new tools and procedures to explore what Freud called “the black continent.”  In “Bawdy Technologies and the Birth of Ectoplasm,” Anne L. Delgado writes:

Ectoplasm emerged at a time when women’s bodies were under special scrutiny: surgical gynecology allowed physicians to examine pathological conditions hidden within the female body and medical practitioners had devised and made use of gynecological instruments like the speculum that could reveal female interiors. It was also during this period that parts of the female anatomy were being removed through procedures like the ovariotomy, a surgery designed to treat phantom ailments like nymphomania and hysteria.

Society’s misconceptions about female bodies and desire to understand the afterlife set the stage for a fascinating elaborate hoax. Using the tool of ectoplasm, women convinced many they were giving birth to a new biological order.

With any threat to patriarchy comes a wave of backlash. Although, it did not help matters that mediums were using fraudulent practices. Two key figures in the ongoing public discussion concerning Spiritualism’s credibility were magician Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. Harry Houdini, using his knowledge of illusion creation, developed a task force to disprove dishonest mediums. Doyle, on the other hand, was a huge proponent of mediumship and a believer of ectoplasm.

Ectoplasm: The Magician’s Secret

Ectoplasm, a term coined by French physiologist Charles Richet, is the materialization of spiritual energy that extrudes from a medium during a seance. This milky white substance varies in description and its make-up may change throughout the ectoplasmic process, beginning as a vapor or solidifying into a plastic substance (Doyle). It may be snake-like, web-like, sticky, airy, smokey, doughy, moist, dry, cold, or warm. Furthermore, ectoplasm is sensitive to light and any flash of light might “drive the structure back into the medium with the force of a snapped elastic band” (Doyle).

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A “spirit” hand created from animal parts.

Ectoplasm enters the world of the living through orifices of the medium’s body: pores, mouths, ears, nipples, and vaginas. Once ectoplasm is released from the body, it may transform into limbs, faces, or entire bodies. During one seance led by medium Madame d’Esperance, observers watched as a cloudy patch moved along the floor, gradually expanding. Then near the center, something began to rise from underneath the material, forming what looked like to be a 5-foot humanoid figure. In another example, Mina Crandon produced a ectoplasmic hand from her navel.

Ectoplasm was later proven fake as spiritualists were using cheesecloth, egg whites, or other this-worldly materials. You know that hand that came from Mina’s navel? It was animal tissue and trachea cut and sewn together.

The Queen of Ectoplasm: Eva Carrière

Like the mystery of female sexuality, ectoplasm baffled science, resulting in many intrusive experiments involving the examination of orifices for hidden “ectoplasm.” It was not uncommon for mediums to have their vaginas searched before mediumship experiments. No one was more intimately studied that French Spiritualist, Eva Carriere (1886-1943).

Eva_C_medium_3
Eva producing ectoplasm during a seance.

Eva Carrière (born Marthe Béraud) was so prolific in producing ectoplasm and ectoplasmic bodies that she was nicknamed the Queen of Ectoplasm (Jaher 47). Her most notable seance character was Bien Boa, a 300-year-old Brahmin Hindu that would rise from her ectoplasmic emissions. She attracted the attention of many critics and believers, including Houdini and Doyle.

Physical researcher Juliette Bisson and German physician Bardon Albert von Schrenck-Notzing would perform the most thorough and titillating examination of Eva’s body and vaginal excretions in the early 1900s. They took turns before sessions examining her vagina for any evidence of hidden material. Sometimes, even after Bisson thoroughly checked her genitalia, Eva would invite Schrenck-Notzing for a second examination.

In a letters to Schrenck-Notzing (Delgado), Bisson describes the erotic dance between Eva and the spirit world.

On my expressing a wish, the medium parted her thighs and I saw that material assumed a curious shape, resembling an orchid, decreased slowly, and entered the vagina. During the whole process I held her hands. Eva then said, ‘Wait, we will try to facilitate the passage.’ She rose, mounted on the chair, and sat down on one of the arm-rests, her feet touching the seat. Before my eyes, and with the curtain open a large spherical mass, about 8 inches in diameter, emerged from the vagina and quickly placed itself on her left thigh while she crossed her legs. I distinctly recognized in the mass a still unfinished face, whose eyes looked at me.

And months later in another letter:

Yesterday I hypnotized Eva as usual, and she unexpectedly began to produce phenomena. As soon as they began, Eva allowed me to undress her completely. I then saw a thick thread emerge from the vagina. It changed its place, left the genitals, and disappeared in the navel depression.More material emerged from the vagina, and with a sinuous serpentine motion of its own it crept up the girl’s body, giving the impression as if it were about to rise in the air. Finally it ascended to her head, entered Eva’s mouth, and disappeared. Eva then stood up, and again a mass of material appeared at the genitals, spread out, and hung suspended between her legs. A strip of it rose, took a direction towards me, receded and disappeared. All this happened while Eva stood up.

Bisson and Schrenck-Notzing also took a number of erotic photographs of Eva (you know for science), including Eva naked with fake ectoplasm dripping from her breasts. Many argue that Bisson and Eva were romantically involved, creating elaborate ectoplasmic performances to seduce and trick a male audience. Were Bisson and Eva using sexuality as a method of distraction? Were they exploring new sexual desires? We’ll never know their intentions.

Photographic evidence eventually revealed Bisson and Eva as frauds. Prior to this, Schrenck-Notzing and other male researchers found out about the hoax, but kept quiet because they believed in mediumship so strongly. After one observation of Eva, Houdini said both women had taken “advantage of the credulity and good nature of the various men with whom they had to deal” (Delgado). Basically, women were lying seductresses and men were victims of sexual misdirection.

The Witch of Lime Street: Mina Crandon

Another famous medium known for her alleged sexual behavior and vaginal ectoplasm was Mina Crandon (1888-1941) of Boston, known by her followers as Margery and by newspapers as the Witch of Lime Street. In The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, David Jaher describes Harry Houdini’s witch hunt against lauded medium Margery. She had convinced Boyle of her skills, so much so that he urged her to enter a contest sponsored by Scientific American. The publication promised a sizeable monetary award to the first authentic medium. This began a publicity war between Spiritualism and Science, and all eyes were on Mina’s body.

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Harry Houdini (left), Malcolm Bird (back), Mina Crandon (middle), O. D. Munn (right)

While Mina was never examined to the extent of Eva, her vagina was still under scrutiny. One member of the Scientific American committee, psychologist William McDougall of Harvard, said she concealed fake ectoplasmic hands in her vagina. He also said that her husband Dr. Crandon must have surgically expanded her vagina. Houdini also said she was in bed with investigators, winning their silence. Whatever way you look at it, Jaher writes, she was considered a “loose woman” by committee members. She did not win the award.

Maybe these mediums were protesting the rigid scientific analysis of female anatomy by male-dominated medicine. After all, mediums were convincing otherwise educated men that a piece of cheesecloth was a manifestation of spiritual energy. Maybe these mediums wanted the opportunities men had: captivated audiences, money, and respect. We praise Houdini for his illusions, but these mediums were just as intelligent and creative. History portrays these women as seductresses, loose women, and sexual deviants, but maybe they should be honored as Magicians of Matriarchy.

Sources

All photos from Wikimedia Commons. All Public Domain. 

Delgado, Anne L. ““Bawdy Technologies and the Birth of Ectoplasm.” Genders, no. 54, 2011.

Dickey, Colin. Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places. Viking, 2016.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism, vol. 2, 1926.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. Facts on File, 1992.

Jaher, David. The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in The Spirit World. Broadway Books New York, 2013.

Reilly, Lucas. “The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits.” mental_floss, 28 January 2014.