Category Archives: Fox Sisters

#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.