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).

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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.

Ghost Nuns Who Will Have You Praying

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I recently finished The Monk by Matthew Lewis and was drawn to the Bleeding Nun character. This ghost of a sinful, murderous, and heartbroken nun walked the halls of a castle, wailing and praying. Her spirit was only put to rest when her bones were found and given a proper burial. “That’s it,” I thought, “I need more ghost nuns.”

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One of my commonplace books

I started scouring the internet and my books for ghosts nuns throughout history. I noticed I had covered this topic in an old commonplace book, which was hidden away in my closet. Obviously, this topic has always haunted me.

The following are ghosts of nuns (except one) that still walk the earth today, each with their own interesting backstory.  Grab your rosary and holy water. Let’s do this…

The Faceless Nun of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (Terre Haute, Indiana)

A faceless nun haunts the campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute, Indiana. According to legend, there was a nun who worked there with great skills in painting portraits. She believed the face was the most important part, so she always saved it for last. One day, she decided to start a self portrait. Before she could start the face, she died of an unknown sickness. Since then, a faceless nun has been seen walking around Foley Hall and its courtyard.

One day a Sister heard crying coming from the room that held the unfinished portrait. The Sister went inside the room and found a nun crying in front of the painting. She approached the nun so to comfort her. The crying nun turned around and instead of a face, there was only darkness. DARKNESS.

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Not the Faceless Nun, but I scared you right?

The Nun with Roses (Würzburg, Germany)

An abbey in Würzburg, Germany has a scandalous history (the best ones do). Maria Renata Von Mossau was a nun accused of mixing herbs into food so she could bewitch other nuns. After the nuns exhibited odd behavior, Maria was caught and sentenced in court. They decapitated her and burned her to ashes, which were then scattered. The ghost of a nun believed to be Maria has been seen walking down the halls. The ghost picks petals off a bouquet of roses, leaving a trail of petals behind her.

The Headless Nun of French Fort Cove (Miramichi, New Brunswick)

In the 18th century, a nun named Sister Marie Inconnue was beheaded (Inconnue is French for “unknown”). There are two legends behind this: (1) a “mad trapper” cut off her head and ran into the woods, or (2) two sailors decapitated her when she refused to give the location of buried treasure. Her head was never found and she now walks around looking for it. The ghost has even asked late night visitors for help finding her head. Other versions say she actually walks around holding her head.

The Famous Ghost Nun of Borley Rectory (Essex, England)

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Borley Rectory. Wikipedia – Public Domain

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before (you probably have). The Borley Rectory is was the most haunted house in England (it was demolished in 1944). The house was the subject of a very famous Harry Price investigation.

The house was constructed in 1862 by Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull near the Borley Church. The location was the site of a previous rectory that burned down in 1841. The property already had a ghost nun, which locals saw walking the grounds. Legend says that a nun and monk fell in love and were planning to marry. They were caught and executed: the monk was beheaded and the nun was buried alive in the cellar walls.

The Bull family witnessed a phantom nun walking the grounds on several occasions. Henry even went to talk to the nun, but she disappeared. They also reported a phantom carriage driven by two headless horsemen.

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A photo of the phantom nun?

The Bull family left and the rectory sat vacant until October 1928. Reverend Guy Eric Smith and his wife moved in and the paranormal activity started soon after. Smith’s wife reported finding a woman’s skull in a cupboard. They also reported bells ringing, phantom lights, phantom carriages, and unexplained footsteps. The Smiths got the Daily Mirror and Society for Physical Research involved and this is where Harry Price came into this very spooky picture.

In 1929, the Smith family left and Reverend Lionel Algernon Foyster and his wife Marianne moved in, along with their daughter Adelaide. The Foyster family reported frightful activities just as the families before them: bells ringing, rocks thrown by disembodied hands, windows breaking, and vanishing household items. On one occasion, Adelaide was locked in a room. She was also attacked on another occasion. The wife reported being thrown from her bed, slapped, and almost suffocated by an unseen presence. Mysterious writing also appeared on the walls (see below).

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From The Ghost Hunt UK

Price believed the writing on the wall was written by a Catholic woman, most likely the nun of local legend. In 1935, the Foyster family moved out and Harry Price moved in. Time for some old fashioned ghost research!

Price recruited some students and observers to help with the research and they began to uncover the nun’s backstory (allegedly). The investigation involved some insightful spirit communication:

During a sitting with a planchette, an alleged spirit named Marie Lairre related that she had been a nun in France but had left her convent to marry Henry Waldegrave, a member of a wealthy family whose manor home once stood on the site of Borley Rectory. There, her husband had strangled her and had buried her remains in the cellar. (Prairie Ghosts)

Five months later, another spirit said the house would burn down that night, revealing proof that the nun was murdered. The house did not burn down that night, but rather 11 months later when an oil lamp was knocked over. Harry Price investigated the cellar and found bones that belonged to a woman: the nun he believed. She was given a proper burial in the small village of Liston a few miles away.

If you are not familiar with the history of the Borley Rectory: read this (I’ll wait). FYI: many people consider this a hoax, but have your fun.

The Nun of Saint Anne’s (aka Pine Glen Cove, Utah)

This property is located deep in the Cache National Forest and Logan Canyon. The site was a private retreat for rich businessmen (from 1910 to the 1950s), until it was donated to the Roman Catholic Diocese. It was used later as a summer camp for children and then eventually ended up in private ownership.

The property is dripping with folklore and is a popular destination for legend trippers. One legend tells of a pregnant nun secretly giving birth on the property and then drowning her newborn in the the property’s pool. Distraught with what she did, she ended her own life. Visitors say you can see the nun looking down into the pool. They even may have caught her image on an episode of Ghost Adventures.

Other paranormal activity on the property include hellhounds, along with rumors of satanic worship (of course).

I’m going to go off track a bit, because the property also has modern frights. In October of 1997, 38 teenagers visited the property around 4:30 AM. Three security guards were hired to watch the private property, which was a popular destination for those hoping to get a scare. The teenagers were confronted by the three security guards with loaded guns and knives. The guards tied up two groups of the teenagers, one in the empty pool and the other group in a cabin.  The teens were verbally harassed (threats of violence, racial slurs) and sexually harassed for three hours until cops arrived (which were called by the security guards). The group in the cabin was tied together by their necks and told that any sudden movement would set off explosives. The three security guards pleaded guilty and accepted a plea bargain.  Just a reminder that humans will always be scarier than ghosts. 

The Nuns of Black Mass (Montpelier Hill & Stewards House, Ireland)

Around 1725, William Conolly (famous Irish politician) built a hunting lodge on Montpelier Hill. Builders supposedly disrupted a cairn while building (maybe even using some of its stones to build the lodge). Shortly after construction, the roof blew off. Revengeful spirits, obviously.

In the 1730s, the Hell Fire Club used the lodge for their gatherings. What is the Hell Fire Club you ask?

The club was founded in 1735 by Richard Parsons, a known dabbler in black magic. The members met at locations across Dublin and were known for their amoral behaviour and debauchery involving alcohol and sex. The secrecy surrounding the club members led to speculation that they were Satanists and Devil-worshipers. The president of the club was named ‘The King of Hell’ and dressed like Satan, with horns, wings and hooves. The members were said to set a place at each meeting for the Devil, in the hope that he’d attend. They were also said to hold black masses in the lodge during which cats – and even servants – were sacrificed. Some say the building was deliberately set on fire in order to enhance its hellish atmosphere. (Source)

At some point the lodge was damaged in a fire and the Hell Fire Club moved to the nearby Stewards House, which seemed to absorb most of their occult energy. According to legend, a giant black cat haunts the area. Could it be a cat that had been sacrificed by the club?

Two nuns, Blessed Margaret and Holy Mary, also haunt the area. Well, they may be women dressed as nuns. Nevertheless, these two women are believed to have participated in the black masses at Montpelier Hill. They can be seen walking the grounds today.

The Bleeding Nun of Wymering Manor (Portsmouth, England)

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Not a ghost nun, but LOOK a skull. Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

The Wymering Manor dates back to 1042 with King Edward the Confessor as the first recorded owner (though the current structure dates back to the 16th century). It is no surprise that a house with so much history is filled with so many ghosts. There have been reports of a ghost nun on the top of the stairs near the attic bedroom. She stares down the staircase, hands dripping with blood. One occupant of the house, Mr. Leonard Metcalf, reported occasionally seeing a choir of nuns walking across the manor’s hall at midnight and chanting.

Bonus: Haunted Railroad Tracks (San Antonio, Texas)

OK. This is a bonus entry, because the ghost is not a nun. But, there’s a nun involved. Stick with me (it is a sweet ghost story).

There are haunted railroad tracks in San Antonio, Texas with various legends and versions of such legends. One story grabbed my attention. In the 1930s or 40s, a nun was driving a school bus of sleeping children after a school trip. The bus stalled in the railroad tracks. The nun saw a train coming down the tracks in the distance. She tried desperately to get the bus started again, doing so not to wake the children. The train hit the bus, killing all the children. The nun survived after having flown through the windshield.

The nun returned to the scene after the accident full of guilt and with thoughts of suicide. She parked her car on the tracks and waited for a moving train. Before a train could hit her car, she felt something pushing the back of her car. Eventually the invisible force moved the car completely off the tracks. Bewildered, the nun exited the car and checked the back of the car. She saw tiny hand prints on the trunk. Grateful that her schoolchildren had saved her, she devoted her life to helping other children. She chose to live and open a school for orphans.

If you visit the tracks today and park your car on the tracks, you will be pushed over by the caring ghost children. Some people even put baby powder on the trunk to capture the hand prints.


Like what you read? I got more:

The Jesuit and the Poltergeist 

10 Stories of Haunted Objects

In My Commonplace Book: The Stone-Throwing Devil 

Haunted Cemetery Statues in the United States 

6 Paranormal Photo Hoaxes (Maybe)

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This year an alleged ghost photo taken at the Stanley Hotel by tourist Henry Yau went viral and, with programs such as Photoshop, people questioned its authenticity. Kevin Sampron of the SPIRIT Paranormal investigation team of Denver argues the photo is indeed the real deal and there is in fact another figure in the image. Kenny Biddle, researcher and podcaster at Geeks and Ghosts, believes the figure (and the second figure) is simply a glitch made from the panoramic feature of the iPhone used to capture the ghost:

Panoramic images are not taken in the same fraction of a second as a normal images are. They take several seconds, which would allow Yau to start taking his panoramic image at one end of the room, and another guest or two to hit the halfway point down the stairs, turn the corner, and begin the second set of stairs to the floor as Yau ends his panoramic image on the other side of the room.

With new technologies comes new ways of capturing paranormal phenomenon, but also new ways of faking it or mistakenly believing you did. In the following post, I share six interesting examples from history. Do you think they are real or fake?

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

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In September of 1936, a photographer from Country Life magazine captured the famous Brown Lady of Ryanham Hall in Norfolk, England. The Brown Lady is allegedly the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686–1726). She was the second wife of Charles Townshend, a very angry man who, after finding out about his wife’s affair with Lord Wharton, locked her away in a room. She eventually died of small pox (or under mysterious circumstances). The story has multiple versions.

The photographer, Captain Hubert C. Provand, captured what seemed to be a spirit descending the main staircase. Harry Price, famous paranormal investigator (most famous case: Borley Rectory),  believed the negative was never tampered with and only collusion between Provand and his assistant would make this photo a hoax. Skeptics suggest the photogenic spectral was created by applying grease to the lens, double exposure, a woman wearing a white sheet, or a Virgin Mary statue.

The Cottingley Fairies

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In 1917, two young cousins named Elsie Wright (16) and Frances Griffiths (9) took photographs of frolicking fairies. The photographs were so convincing that they caught the attention of  Arthur Conan Doyle, spiritualist and author. General public perception was mixed. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Elsie and Frances admitted the photos were fake. They used images from a popular children’s book and cardboard cutouts. Both women still claim to have seen fairies.

Read more on The Museum of Hoaxes.

The Loch Ness Monster

The Loch Ness Monster  PICTURE TAKEN IN 1934 OF THE LOCH NESS MO

The famous “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster (1934) was taken by a London gynecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson and published in the Daily Mail. This was the first photograph that captured the monster’s head and neck.  According to Wikipedia, this photograph was part of an elaborate (revenge) hoax.

The creature was reportedly a toy submarine built by Christian Spurling, the son-in-law of Marmaduke Wetherell. Wetherell had been publicly ridiculed by his employer, the Daily Mail, after he found “Nessie footprints” which turned out to be a hoax. To get revenge on the Mail, Wetherell perpetrated his hoax with co-conspirators Spurling (sculpture specialist), Ian Wetherell (his son, who bought the material for the fake), and Maurice Chambers (an insurance agent).The toy submarine was bought from F. W. Woolworths, and its head and neck were made from wood putty. After testing it in a local pond the group went to Loch Ness, where Ian Wetherell took the photos near the Altsaigh Tea House. When they heard a water bailiff approaching, Duke Wetherell sank the model with his foot and it is “presumably still somewhere in Loch Ness.” Chambers gave the photographic plates to Wilson, a friend of his who enjoyed “a good practical joke.”

Eventually the fake photograph ended up in the Daily Mail. Many argue that this hoax does not disprove the monster’s existence. People still claim to have captured the monster through satellite images and video.

William Mumler’s Photo of Mary Todd Lincoln (and Abraham)

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American William Mumler worked as an  jewelry engraver, but enjoyed photography on the side. In 1861, he noticed that a transparent young girl was floating beside him in a self portrait. He believed it was a technical glitch, but friends pointed out the girl looked like his cousin. She died 12 years earlier. Spiritualists caught wind of the photograph and soon William Mumler because a photography sensation, taking pictures of those who lost their loved ones in the Civil War.

Mumler had many critics including showman P.T. Barnum, who claimed that Mumler was taking advantage of those grieving. Barnum even spoke out against Mumler when he was on trial for fraud. People argued that Mumler went as far as breaking into people’s houses to steal pictures of their loved ones. The photographs were simply a product of double exposure. Mumler was acquitted, but his career was never as successful. He still had one believer, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mumler captured her deceased husband, President Abraham Lincoln (see above). Mumler claimed he didn’t know she was a Lincoln when the photograph was taken.

That UFO Photo from that X-Files Poster

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A Plejaren // Public Domain // Wikipedia

In the fourth season of X-Files, production made a slight set change. The iconic “I Want to Believe” poster was updated with a different, but similar image. The first poster was the subject of an intellectual property lawsuit, since X-Files mistakenly used a UFO photograph taken by Billy Meier without permission. Billy Meier is a Swiss man known for producing photographs of UFOS and providing evidence of extraterrestrial life. He also claims to have contact with extraterrestrials called the Plejaren, which come from the planet Erra and fly around in “beamships.”

His photographs display shiny metal discs flying across the Swiss countryside. Did he want to believe like Mulder or is he a liar? Regardless, it would have made a great X-Files episode.

The Wem Ghost Girl

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During a fire at Wem Town Hall in 1995, a man named Tony O’Rahilly took photos and captured a young girl, but no one recalled a young girl being in the building. Town members believed it was Jane Churn, a young girl who died in a fire in 1677.  It’s been debated whether the picture was doctored or real, but a postcard from 1922 with the same girl revealed it was most likely a hoax. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

A Repository of Paranormal Knowledge: Artificial Ghosts

This series explores the paranormal basics: key terms, categories, theories, and schools of thought. This will prepare you to be an intellectual ghostbuster. 

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An artificial ghost is a ghost created though the collective imagination and energy of a group of people.

The Philip Experiment

In 1972 a parapsychology experiment was conducted to see if humans could create and communicate with a fictionalized ghost. The experiment occurred in Toronto, Canada and was led by several members of the Toronto Society for Physical Research. This group had a diverse set of backgrounds:

The experiment was conducted by the mathematician A. R. G. Owen and overseen by psychologist Dr. Joel Whitton. The test group consisted of A. R. G.’s wife Iris Owen, former chairperson of MENSA in Canada Margaret Sparrows, industrial designer Andy H., his wife Lorne, heating engineer Al Peacock, accountant Bernice M, bookkeeper Dorothy O’Donnel, and sociology student Sidney K. (Wikipedia)

None of these members had ever demonstrated psychic ability.

The group created a man named Philip and his life story:

  • “Philip Aylesford” was born in 1624.
  • He joined the military at age 15 and was knighted at age 16.
  • He was friends with Charles I.
  • He fought for the crown in the English Civil War.
  • He married a woman named Dorothea.
  • While married, he fell in love with a Gypsy girl. Dorothea found out and accused her of witchcraft. She was burned at the stake.
  • Philip died from suicide in 1654 (age 30).

Once the story was complete, the group met to meditate, visualize, and materialize him into existence. After having no success for months, the group turned to techniques used by Spiritualists: seance and table-tilting. Rosemary Ellen Guiley describes their first contact with Philip:

On the third or fourth table-tilting session, the group felt a vibration under the tabletop. The vibration became raps and knocks, and the table moved beneath their hands. When one member of the group wondered out loud if ‘Philip’ was responsible, a knock sounded in answer. Using a simple code of one rap for yes and two for no, the group communicated with the spirit, who claimed to be the very man they had created. Although the spirit was able to give historically correct answers concerning the events and persons–perhaps due to cryptomnesia or extra-sensory perception (ESP) among members of the group–it was unable to provide any information about itself which had not previously been manufactured as part of his life’s history. (The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits 254)

People questioned the validity of the study, pointing to the unreliability of seance methods and the lack of solid controls (Wikipedia). Additional experiments were done with the characters “Lilith” and “Humphrey” with similar results. The Owens believed the study demonstrate that a group’s subconscious could created effects resembling a ghost or psychokinetic (PK) effect, what they termed “PK by committee” (The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits 254).

A short video about the experiment:

Ghosts Created in Labs

Parapsychologists aren’t the only ones creating ghosts. According to mental_floss, scientists created their own ghostly sensations in the lab.

Olaf Blanke, a researcher from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL), first had to find the scientific culprit for these strange sensations [the presence of an unseen entity]. He and his team analyzed brain scans of patients suffering from neurological disorders who experience the ghostly feeling. They found abnormalities in the areas controlling how the brain sees the body, or one’s own spatial self-awareness. These abnormalities “can sometimes create a second representation of one’s own body, which is no longer perceived as ‘me’ but as someone else, a ‘presence,’” says Giulio Rognini, who led the study.

Armed with an understanding of where the feeling of being haunted comes from, the researchers set out to recreate it in “healthy” people. A group of subjects—oblivious as to the experiment’s purpose—were blindfolded, their fingers connected to a robotic device. When the test subjects moved the device, a robotic arm behind them mimicked the movement, poking them in the back. Sounds pretty straightforward, but when researchers introduced a slight delay between the subject’s movement and the resulting poke, the subjects were spooked. They felt they were being touched by another presence. Some even reported sensing more than one “ghost.”

Both are interesting experiments which put forth the question: are ghosts real or something we create (whether through energies or through tricks of the brain)?

The Tale of 2 Skeptics & Spiritualism

 

15071439170_14c3a15d82_nSpiritualism is the belief that the dead are inclined to and have the ability to communicate with the living. According to the Camp Chesterfield website, a “spiritualist is one who believes, as part of his or her religion, in communication between this and the spirit world by means of mediumship, and who endeavors to mold his or her character and conduct in accordance with the highest teachings derived from such communion.” Thus, many seek moral and ethical guidance from those spirits, who are constantly evolving. Historically, spiritualism hit its peak from the 1840s to the 1920s. Though still alive and thriving today, spiritualism’s membership decreased greatly by the late 1880s due to accusations of fraud. Regardless if you are a believer or not, we must acknowledge that every religion or area of study has its fraudulent members.

According to Wikipedia, “Many prominent spiritualists were women, and like most spiritualists, supported causes such as the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage.” Ann Braude of the Harvard Divinity School once wrote, “Not all feminists were Spiritualists, but all Spiritualists were feminists” (I’ve been excited to check out her book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America). While some women moved spiritualism forward, others worked to discredit its allegedly fraudulent members. Today we meet two of them.

Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1845-1936)

Eleanor (Nora) was an advocate for women in higher education and principal of Newnham College of Cambridge University (1892). She received honorary degrees from the universities Eleanor_Mildred_Sidgwickof Manchester, Edinburgh, St Andrews, and Birmingham. She was also one of the first of three women to serve on the Royal Commission of Secondary Education. A feminist, she was an advocate for women in higher education. Impressed? Well, we haven’t gotten to the supernatural part yet.

Eleanor’s academic pursuits focused on electrical resistance and physical phenomena. She even worked closely with the Noble Peace Prize Winner of of Physics, John William Strutt 3rd Baron Rayliegh. She was elected the 12th president of the Society of Physical Research (her husband, Henry was the first president). This society claimed to be”first society to conduct organised scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.” Its stated purpose was to  “to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated” (source). This group exposed a lot of fake phenomena with Eleanor being very skeptical of mediums. According to Wikipedia:

In 1886 and 1887 a series of publications by S. J. Davey, Richard Hodgson and Sidgwick in the Journal for the Society for Psychical Research exposed the slate writing tricks of the medium William Eglinton. Sidgwick regarded Eglinton to be nothing more than a clever conjurer. Due to the critical papers, Stainton Moses and other prominent spiritualist members resigned from the Society for Psychical Research.

In 1891, Alfred Russel Wallace requested for the Society to properly investigate spirit photography. Wallace had endorsed various spirit photographs as genuine. Sidgwick responded with her paper On Spirit Photographs (1891) which cast doubt on the subject and revealed the fraudulent methods that spirit photographers such as Édouard Isidore Buguet, Frederic Hudson and William H. Mumler had utilized.

The group itself was often divided on spiritualism. Once, member Arthur Conan Doyle led a mass resignation of 84 members, arguing that the society was anti-spiritualism. Eleanor had her hand in causing resignations, too. You can read more about her work with the society here.

Rose Mackenberg (1892-1968)

Another skeptic of mediumship, Rose Mackenberg worked closely with Harry Houdini to expose fraudulent mediums. During the 1920s there was a resurgence of Spiritualism. With the destruction of WWI and the Spanish Flu Pandemic came a desire to communicate with loved ones lost. Proponents of this movement include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but not all spiritualists were trustworthy. Some mediums used people’s grief to make a profit. Many magicians worked to publicly expose and embarrass these mediums. One was Harry Houdini, who put together a task force to catch these fraudulent “ghost racketeers” (the slang “ghost racket” was used during the late 19th century to describe the con of posing as a medium or physic so to draw money out of vulnerable people).

cripped_rose_mackenberg
Rose showing how the levitation trick worked (source).

Before meeting Harry Houdini, Rose Mackenberg worked as a private investigator. On one challenging case involving a medium giving bad investment advice, she sought out Harry’s expertise. Harry was so impressed with her logic and wit that he invited her to join his “secret service.” She wasn’t the first woman to join his team, as Julia Sawyer (his niece) and Alberta Chapman were already members. According to an Atlas Obscura article:

This clandestine team traveled ahead of Houdini’s touring schedule, visiting towns and cities where he was due to perform and infiltrating the local Spiritualist “scene” to gather evidence of fraud. These details were passed on to Houdini, who would then expose the fraudsters during his shows.

As expected, Houdini and his secret service made a lot of enemies and this sometimes got violent. Harry recommended that Rose carry a gun, which she refused. Instead, Rose wore elaborate disguises as a safety precaution.

Rose worked as the chief investigator and claimed to have investigated 1,000 mediums, all of which were fake. Rose was widely perceived as an expert, giving lectures on how to avoid scams and serving as a courtroom expert. Two memorable stories involving the adventures of Rose in the courtroom follow (both from Wikipedia):

Copeland-Bloom Bill

“In the first session of the 69th Congress, an anti-fortunetelling law for Washington D.C. was put forward on the urging of Houdini. The Copeland-Bloom bill (H.R. 8989) came before a House committee beginning February 26, 1926. Houdini was to testify in its favor.

Following the same pattern as during the tour, Mackenberg visited local Washington mediums in the days prior to the hearings. She targeted local mediums including Jane B. Coates and Madam Grace Marcia who were scheduled to testify against the bill. Her testimony on May 18, 1926 included the revelation that Coates had told her that Senators Capper, Watson, Dill, and Fletcher ‘had come to her for readings’ and that ‘table tipping seances are held at the White House’ with President Coolidge and his family. This was met with raucous denials in the committee room, and a ‘fracas’ ensued. The meeting was adjourned. President Coolidge did not officially respond to the accusation but unofficial denials were made known in the press. Ultimately H.R. 8989 did not pass, but the hearings received wide press coverage.”

Lockwood’s Estate

“After Houdini’s death in October 1926, Mackenberg continued to investigate fraudulent psychics for over 20 years and serve as an expert on them in various venues.One court case in Pennsylvania involved the 1939 will of Augustus T. Lockwood. He had bequeathed a large sum of money to a ‘Spiritualistic College to Educate Mediums’ at Lily Dale, New York, a famous camp and meeting place for Spiritualists. The state of Pennsylvania sought to invalidate the will, in part on the argument that the bequest would benefit criminal behavior and thus would be ‘against public policy’. Mackenberg was called as the ‘star witness’ and the state was successful at trial. The case was appealed, however, and overturned by higher courts.”

More Reading

“Death and the Birth of Feminism” – Death and the Maiden 

“The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism” Smithsonian Magazine Online 

The History of Spiritualism, Vol 1 – Arthur Conan Doyle (free download!)

“Houdini’s Greatest Trick: Debunking Medium Mina Crandon” – mental_floss