Monthly Archives: October 2018

#13: Ancient Necromancy



Finishing up with our October theme of “talking to the dead,” we examine necromancy in the ancient world in this episode.  While the word has been generalized in its present use to mean cover any form of magic of a sinister bent, in its original meaning, it was simply what the Latinized-Greek etymology suggests: “necro-” for “dead” and “-mancy” for “divination by.”  Not that it wasn’t always regarded as a rather sinister activity.  It certainly was, and particularly by the Roman era, we’ll see the practice associated with most ghoulish sort of atrocities imaginable.  But it’s Halloween, so the more ghoulish, the better.

We begin around 630-540 BC when a necromancer was written into the Biblical book of 1 Samuel (or 1010 BC, if we are to date the figure by the time the events were alleged to have occurred — in any case, this is our oldest tale of a necromancer, known most commonly as the “Witch of Endor.”  It’s also our first of several examples of not getting particularly good news when you consult the dead on your future.  Much doom and gloom, when King Saul talks to the dead prophet Samuel, who never really liked him anyway.

"The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul" Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)
“The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul” Nikiforovich Martynov (1857)

Our next tale of ancient necromancy comes from Homer’s Odyssey, and though there’s no actual necromancer in this story, Odysseus follows instructions for summoning the dead in Hades given him by a pretty legitimate enchantress, namely, Circe.  We’ll see an interesting parallel here with the story of the Witch of Endor and learn of the vampiric love of blood attributed to the dead in ancient Greece.

Up next is a lesser known Greek tale of Periander, a tyrannical ruler of Corinth, who sends servants to consult the necromancers to discover the location of some money hidden on his estate, the location of which, only his deceased wife Melissa would know. Some interesting details here as we learn just why the late Melissa finds herself chilly in the afterlife and Periander demonstrates just how tyrannical a tyrant he really is.

A little background is then furnished the rather elaborate pantheon of the underworld and death-related spirits known to the Greeks, much of which was inherited by the Romans and one element even borrowed into a Sam Raimi film.  Interesting etymological links to modern curiosities abound!  Thanatos, Hypnos, Nyx, The Keres, Manes, Achlys, Lemures, and Lamia are all discussed.

Then there’s the story of Pausanias, King of Sparta, who led the Greeks in victory over the Persians in 479 BC.  Troubles begin when he becomes infatuated with a beautiful virgin, Cleonice, in Byzantium. One tragedy and betrayal follows another in this sad tale, and following instructions from a ghost summoned by necromancers only makes things worse.

Then we turn to the Romans for the most gruesome stories.

Detail: "Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho" John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)
Detail: “Sextus Pompeius consulting Erichtho” John Hamilton Mortimer (1776)

The necromancer or witch Erichtho appears in the poem Pharsalia, Lucan’s epic on Caesar’s Civil War. Her characterization was so she’s later picked up by other authors, such as Dante, who uses her in his Divine Comedy, the Jacobean writer John Marston, who uses her in a play, and Goethe, who in Faust features her in the Walpurgisnacht scene we talked about in Episode Two.  Erichtho hangs around graveyards and her spells and rites involve the most abominable elements you can imagine. Her memorably weird resurrection of a dead soldier in Pharsalia was said to have inspired Mary Shelley in her imaginings of dead things brought to life.

Next we have a look at a necromancer or witch appearing in the works of Horace, who uses her to darkly lampooning those who supported or engaged in the practice of magic in his poetry.   He embodies witchcraft in the figure of Canidia, who reappears in several of his works.  She’s nearly as ghastly as Erichtho, walking around with “tiny snakes twined in her hair,” perhaps to outdo her witch pal Sagana, whose coiffure Horace describes as “rough” and “standing on end, like a sea-urchin or some bristling wild boar.”  After some serious spookery, Horace has some weird fun with the his story of Canidia, providing a particularly vulgar touch, while also taking a jab at a lover who rejected him.

We finish up with some actual cases of Roman necromancy, or at least some purported to have been real, though we can assume there’s probably an element of nasty gossip in some of the accounts.  Still, they make for good Halloween listening with spilled blood, entrails, and flayed skin.

"Tiresias appears to Ulysses" Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)
“Tiresias appears to Ulysses” Johann Heinrich Füssli (1785)

#12: Seances & Scandals



Hope you enjoy part two of our exploration of Spiritualism and seances. This one is particularly full of shocking, sad, and amusing tales you won’t hear anywhere else.

First we wrap up last week’s story of the Fox sisters, who in many ways started the whole ball rolling.  Two surprising revelations regarding their ghostly communications are revealed with the help of Vincent Price’s 1979 Hall of Horrors episode about these early mediums.

Article from "Modern Mechanix" on Edison's "spirit phone"
Article from “Modern Mechanix” on Edison’s “spirit phone”
News clipping depicting the "peddler's chest" recovered from the Fox home
News clipping depicting the “peddler’s chest” recovered from the Fox home

Next we get to the root of rumors about Thomas Edison’s building a machine to talk to the dead and have a look at some interesting ways in which his pioneering technologies were embraced by those eager to connect with those on the other side, including a 1901 Russian recording of spirits channeled in Siberia. Edison’s decidedly creepy (and failed) talking doll is also discussed

Edison's talking doll
Edison’s talking doll

Leaping forward a bit we provide a little background on the modern EVP phenomenon and and some rather eccentric Swedish and Latvian researchers (Friedrich Jürgensen and Konstatin Raudive) who were quite convinced their dead mothers were speaking from their tape recorders back in the 1960s and ’70s.

Konstantin Raudive
Konstantin Raudive

After some eerie snippets of their work, we’re back to early 20th-century Spiritualists.

Eva Carrière, was a French medium particularly notorious for conducting her seances in varying states of undress.  The things she and her lesbian lover Juliette Bisson did with ectoplasm are truly the stuff of historic clickbait. Flash photos taken during her sittings by more skeptical researchers, however, reveal a decidedly less impressive side to her craft.

Eva Carrière and friend
Eva Carrière and friend

We also have a look at the Boston medium Mina (or “Margery”) Crandon whose notoriety came from a public feud with the debunker Harry Houdini and her own tendency toward scanty dress during sittings. Her dead brother Walter also figures into the story along with a suspicious “teleplasmic” hand revealed to be constructed in a rather ghastly way.

Stereo slide of Crandon's "hand"
Stereo slide of Crandon’s “hand”

From newspapers of the 1920s we provide two particularly obscure accounts of Spiritualists gone wild.  The first, from a 1921 story in the Pittsburgh Press relates the tale of despondent mother who has lost her baby during childbirth.  A particularly nefarious seance medium inserts herself into the tragedy, and before long the entire town is celebrating the arrival of a miraculous “Spirit Baby.”  A purchase of cheap necklaces, however, proves to be the medium’s undoing.

The second tale, from a 1928 edition of The San Francisco Examiner, begins with a jeweled dagger found in the corpse of an unlucky newlywed. Though the police have already obtained a confession, a Spiritualist circle in France blames a rather brutish spirit that’s been hanging around their seances.  A series of 13 inexplicable deaths, including that of dancer Isadora Duncan are also involved.

Our show concludes with an audio clip from a rather sad, but historically important seance held in Hollywood in 1936.

Bess Houdini at 1936 Seance
Bess Houdini at 1936 Seance

 

 


Episode 11: The Dead Speak



The 19th-century Spiritualist movement was rife with fraud and misplaced hopes, but what made people so eager to believe in the possibility of talking to the dead?  This episode looks at some early mediumistic pioneers, attractions beyond the metaphysical that drew sitters to take part in seances, and the growing pressure within the movement to produce ever more vivid phenomena passing for proof of supernatural contact.  This episode also kicks off our Fall-Winter season and a (3-episode!) October dedicated to the theme of “talking to the dead.”

As communication with the dead is necessarily a two-way process, we begin with a story illustrating, not why we may wish to speak to the departed, but why the departed may wish to speak to us.  A typical folkloric reason for a spirit’s return is the desire for resolution regarding the circumstances of death and proper burial.  Our first story illustrates this with the story of William Corder’s murder of Maria Marten in 1827 —  what came to be known as “The Red Barn Murder” — in which a ghost appears in dreams of Maria’s stepmother in an effort to identify the perpetrator and the body’s whereabouts.  I include a 1932 recording of a popular Victorian melodrama enacting the story and a description of the widespread fascination which this case held and some particularly morbid consequences.  I also include a snippet from a popular period ballad recounting the tale.

Digging up the grave. A Victorian Penny Dreadful.
Digging up the grave. A Victorian Penny Dreadful.

Vincent Price’s 1979 series of radio shorts, “Hall of Horrors,” gives us a audio introduction to the de facto founders of the Spiritualist movement, the Fox Sisters, Margaret, Kate, and Leah, of Hydesville, New York.  Like the unfortunate Maria Marten, a murdered peddler and his attempt to communicate in 1848 with the siblings through a knocking code is the purported initiator of this historical movement.  Even as the sisters are developing a following in the 1850s, other small groups of friend and relatives are gathering in “home circles” to emulate the Fox’s supernatural communications, and other “public mediums” are gathering their own followers and offering performing on an evolving circuit of Spiritualist hotspots. We return to the Foxes in Episode 12 next week for the unexpected end to their tale.

The Fox Sisters
The Fox Sisters

One of these “public mediums” was Jonathan Koons of Mt. Nebo, Ohio, who in the early 1850s, claimed to have been directed by the spirits to build his “Spirit Room,” a log cabin, in which bizarre musical seances were held around a mysterious “spirit machine” handmade by Koons. We hear some strange firsthand accounts of the goings-on from newspaper accounts of the period.

As things progressed, greater proof of the spirits’ presence was demanded, and mediums complied with all sorts of gimmicks including physical tokens supposedly manifested from the spirit world (“apports”), spirit photography, and even impressions of ghostly body parts made in plates of warm paraffin left out during seances.  We hear a couple cases of apports and spirit prints going terribly, terribly wrong.

We visit William and Horatio Eddy of Chittenden, Vermont, whose showman-like seances upped the ante with a cast of dozens of costumed spirits including costumed Native Americans, elderly Yankees, Russians, Asians, Africans, and pirates.  A bizarre incident with a rat (or is it a flying squirrel?) and a dancing spirit is recounted.

William Crookes & "Katie King"
William Crookes & “Katie King”

Next, we hear the more well-known case the teenage medium Florence Cook investigated by Sir William Crookes, known for his pioneering work with vacuum tubes and radiography.  Crookes’ fanatical investigation of of Cook’s spirit guide “Katie King” did not meet with the same success as his mainstream work.  Listen for the rather embarrassing conclusions drawn by his colleagues in the scientific community.

Annie Fairlamb Mellon with her alleged materialization Cissie.
Annie Fairlamb Mellon with her alleged materialization Cissie.

The show concludes with some tricks of the trade, a look at the a super-secret catalog used by fraudulent mediums and an exploration of ectoplasm, how it might be simluted, what exactly it feels and looks like, and what it should be capable of doing.

Ectoplasm produced by Stanislawa P. 1913. Photo Albert von Schrenk-Notzing.
Stanislawa P. during séance of 25 January 1913. Photo Albert von Schrenk-Notzing.

 


Spirits Rising! October Shows!



"Saul and the Witch of Endor" Benjamin West
“Saul and the Witch of Endor” Benjamin West

To thank you for all your patience through September, we’re giving you THREE Bone & Sickle episodes for this Halloween month — all about speaking with the spirits of the dead.

Monday, October 8
EPISODE 11: THE DEAD SPEAK
Early Spiritualism. Ectoplasmic shenanigans. Vaudevillian seance shows. A “spirit machine.  Tricks of the trade and compromising positions. A ghostly dream and a grisly punishment.

Monday, October 15
EPISODE 12: SEANCES AND SCANDALS
Early 20th-century attempts to record spirit voices. Seance nudity and birthing an ectoplasmic egg. A stolen “spirit baby,” and the murderous ghost of a Neanderthal.

EPISODE 11: ANCIENT RITES OF NECROMANCY 
Talking to the dead in antiquity. What turned “black magic” black? A Roman graveyard witch.  Walled up alive by a Greek ghost. Fresh blood and body parts. Figures in a mirror.