Sharing a taste for the Victorian gothic and the spine-shivering stories of M.R. James, Linda Stratmann is my guest to talk about the world of the spiritualists – the world of the heroine of her mystery series, Mina Scarletti…
In the 1870s, the decade in which I have set my Mina Scarletti mysteries, spirit mediums were a popular diversion. Hardly any serious investigation had been made into their claims, and the field was open for charlatans to make a living and sometimes a fortune, out of the curiosity and grief of others.
The spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century began in 1848 with a game played by two bored sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, aged 12 and 15 in Hydesville New York. They created bumping and tapping noises using an apple on a string or cracking their toe joints, and claimed that they were in touch with spirits. The sisters became a sensation and began to give séances before large audiences. It wasn’t long before other people suddenly discovered that they too had mediumistic powers.
By the early 1850s spiritualism had arrived in the UK as an exciting novelty and party entertainment. Rappings and knockings conveyed important messages on the subjects of love and money. The fickle Victorian public was always looking for something new, however, and the next craze was for table tipping. This was rather more dramatic than bumps and bangs since the tables around which the visitors sat seemed to take on a life of their own, trembling, tilting and even rising up into the air. Spirits, who seemed to be crouching underneath the tables usually in the vicinity of the medium’s foot, would also convey messages by knocking the table legs.
This new diversion became so popular that the celebrated physicist Michael Faraday subjected the animated furniture to rigorous testing, and established that the lifelike motion was caused by unconscious movements of the sitters. On occasions when tables actually rose into the air it was thought that they had been given a little lift with artfully concealed wires and the help of an accomplice.
As the years passed, interest waned, and the public was hungry for new excitement. The time was ripe for the arrival from America of 22-year-old Daniel Dunglas Home in 1855. Home was a talented clairvoyant and medium whose speciality of levitation soon brought him fame, and he was deluged with gifts and given free accommodation. Importantly, Home knew that knockings and tappings just weren’t enough any more. His sitters wanted visual stimulus; they wanted to see the ghosts. For these effects it was essential that séances were conducted in near darkness. Home produced glowing spirit hands and looming faces that his clients recognised as lost loved ones. His reputation was severely dented however, when an elderly widow took him to court in 1868 after he had induced her to make over her considerable fortune to him. The court ordered him to return the money and he decided to continue his career abroad. There was however, no lack of mediums willing to take up the luminous mantle.
The ultimate in ghostly appearances was the full body manifestation and was a particular speciality of the female medium. She would retire to a cabinet or behind a curtain, and the sitters would then be encouraged into the lusty singing of hymns. The purpose of the singing was supposedly to reassure onlookers of the religious purity of the proceedings. Its actual purpose was to mask the sound of the medium changing her costume. She would emerge, radiant in the draperies she had previously concealed under her voluminous skirts, diaphanous fabric that glowed in the dark due to an application of oil of phosphorus. Sitters were easily deluded into believing that they had seen a spirit dressed in gorgeous robes. There was an important warning however. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to light the gas lamps, or take hold of the figure. The divine creature, it was explained, was actually composed of material drawn from the medium’s body. She might speak, even take tea with the sitters, or offer kisses to the gentlemen, but any excessive light or attempt to take hold of the figure could cause the spectral material to rush back into the medium’s body so fast that she would die. When sceptics who were determined to expose imposture did try to grasp the apparition, they found it to be all too solid and the medium very much alive.
The professions of medium and stage magician were not far different and before long special equipment was being manufactured for the production of supposedly supernatural effects. In 1864, American brothers Ira and William Davenport toured Britain with a sophisticated new act. They had a specially constructed cabinet, and were securely tied up inside together with some musical instruments, which were heard to play and even seen to fly through the air.
A watchmaker called John Maskelyne saw the Davenports’ performance and felt sure that with the aid of a trick cabinet he could easily duplicate their act. He was so successful that he went on to become a highly celebrated stage illusionist.
Most scientists were skeptical of psychical phenomena and did not wish to involve themselves in investigating them, but there were a few who embarked on serious studies. These early investigators felt that there was a possibility that they were seeing evidence of a wholly new branch of science, something that would one day be validated and accepted. The thrill of potential discovery could well have made them a little too eager to believe what they were unable to prove. Those mediums who later admitted that they had defrauded the public said that scientists, with their enquiring minds and keenness to understand phenomena, were the easiest subjects to dupe. In1882 the Society for Psychical Research, which included both believers and sceptics, was formed ‘to conduct scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.’ It still exists today.
It is tempting to think that the Victorians were gullible, but they were looking for certainty in an uncertain environment. The eye is easily deceived in darkness, and they had no means of recording events, relying instead on memories of fleeting glimpses, unable even if they dared to try, to cast a rapid bright light on the proceedings. The Victorian dark séance did not survive the invention of the pocket torch.
Linda can be found at her website www.lindastratmann.com
and you can buy her books here –
Mr Scarletti’s Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 1
Mr Scarletti’s Ghost
The Royal Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 2)
The Royal Ghost
An Unquiet Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 3)
An Unquiet Ghost