Traditionally Christmas was a time for ghost stories, and tonight we’re doing our part to bring back the custom. A bit of history on supernatural stories of the season and then something a bit different for the holiday — a bit of storytelling for your fireside enjoyment — a ghost story from the Victorian master of the genre, M.R. James. An unfortunate holiday incident experienced by Wilkinson and your narrator is also discussed. Merry Christmas to you all! (This episode also provides an example of one of our Patreon rewards: audio texts from classic old books of horror and folklore delivered over a brooding soundscape.)
Category Archives: Victorian
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This time round we explore the way in which the death-obsessed Victorians fetishized the equally death-obsessed Egyptians, creating a number of gothic mummy tales, which often veer into storylines that are almost necrophilic.
To begin we have a look at how the Victorians interacted with mummies as artifacts. We hear an 1899 story from Philadelphia’s The Times making clear that the demand for mummies as displays for educational institutions and even as curios for private homes of the well-to-do, was so great that entrepreneurial types in Egypt came up with rather unsavory ways of meeting the needs of the market.
We discuss Thomas Pettigrew and his promotion, not only of “mummy unwrapping” parties in the 1830s and ’40s, but also of the “miracle” of germinating seeds or “mummy wheat” allegedly found in ancient tombs. A peculiar story of a Scottish duke and his morbid preoccupation with Pettigrew’s mummy ballyhoo should also be of interest to listeners.
Wilkinson narrates a first-person experience of a mummy unwrapping during a thunderstorm penned by French RomanticThéophile Gautier, author of a number of mummy stories himself. His short, supernatural story, “The Mummy’s Foot,” is the first of several included in this episode that connect grotesque mummified remains (a foot in this case) with a rather comely, female love interest. One likely explanation for this tendency is offered via a short side-trip to French Orientalist art and Victorian pornography.
Next we explore The Jewel of Seven Stars, written in 1903 by Bram Stoker. This one also centers upon a regal Egyptian female (a queen and “sorceress”) who is missing an appendage — a hand in this case, which is wearing a ring with the valuable, titular “jewel.” The “seven stars,” we learn, wre lamps from the mummy’s tomb, which are to be used in an occult experiment to raise the spirit of the ancient queen. A mummified cat — much like the one recently gifted to the Bone & Sickle Library by Paul Koudounaris — also plays an interesting role in the story. Wilkinson narrates another strangely eroticized unwrapping scene from the novel, and there are snippets from the surprising number of films adapted from this previously neglected work.
Then we’re off to the manly adventure-world of H. Rider Haggard who once delighted British audiences with tales of stiff-lipped men taming the Empire — and occasionally venturing into lost subterranean worlds, as in the novel She, which we discuss as another case related to the “seductive mummy” trope. Haggard’s stories generally, have more in common, perhaps, with the Indiana Jones model, but She crosses some paths with horror and science fiction, and was adapted for film by both Merian C. Cooper (director of the original King Kong) and British Lion (with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee).
A fair bit of the show is devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest in mummies, both as fictional devices and in real life. Doyle believed both in the much disputed curse upon Howard Carter’s King Tut outing and another case, the “Ingram mummy,” which happens to also have wound its way into the folklore of The Titanic.
Doyle never signed on as a member, but did attend some meetings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult organization popular in Edwardian literary circles and named for Hermes, more or less a Greek version of the Egyptian Thoth. We have a look at how this occult body, and many others, were influenced by Egyptian mythology and how a French novel from 1731 purporting to be the text of a newly translated papyrus shaped their ritual structure. Connections between Egypt, the Tarot, Crowley, and his religion of Thelema are also briefly discussed.
Lots of missing mummy appendages in this episode! The self-described “seer” and palmist going by the name “Cheiro” brings us another tale of a cursed mummy’s hand he supposedly kept in a wall safe for decades. He, like Doyle, also had some things to say about the Tut curse, lessons learned supposedly from a dramatic incident with this mummy’s hand.
Rising to fame in turn-of-the-century Britain, Cheiro migrated to Hollywood, where his later years were spent telling fortunes of the film stars of the 1920s and 30s, and where the idea of the cinematic mummy tale was first developed.
Having provided some background in the curse legends and literary mummy tales of Victorian and Edwardian era, we look at ways in which Doyle’s stories, particularly “Lot 249” might have been an influence on the Boris Karloff film The Mummy from 1932 as well as mummy films of the 1940s through 1960s. A few stray examples from later years are also included.
LISTENER NOTE: Episode Ten is an extra-long deluxe episode wrapping up our Spring-Summer season. Wilkinson and I will be taking off September and returning in October with the folklore of the Fall-Winter season, Halloween, the Krampus, and more. We suggest you check back here, or even better, subscribe, so you know when we’re back.
On this episode of Bone and Sickle, we look at the folklore of ghost ships, undead sailors, some nautical elements in gothic literature, a song about a ship piloted by the Devil, and other horror stories of the sea.
We begin with a little reminiscing about our last show on the Pied Piper and a story by George G. Toudouze that I’d wanted to include but didn’t have space for, “Three Skeleton Key,” It features both a ghost ship and a horde of ravenous rats like those devouring the wicked Bishop Hatto in Episode 7. Clips from a 1956 radio dramatization featuring Vincent Price are included.
We then take a look at some notorious derelict ships from history, beginning with The Mary Celeste, which entered the popular imagination through a fictionalized account by Arthur Conan Doyle. Ships adrift in the Arctic with frozen crews, a ship cursed by malevolent spirits picked up in Zanzibar, and a ship discovered with its lifeless crew in a particularly grisly state are all discussed.
In between the Edgar Allen Poe passage and my introduction to the Flying Dutchman, you heard a snippet of David Coffin and friends singing the sea shanty “Roll the Old Chariot,” which you can hear in its entirety here.
We then have a look at the lore of The Flying Dutchman, best known as the supernatural ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean films or the opera by Richard Wagner, Wilkinson relates some eerie accounts of Dutchman sightings from surprisingly recent times.
A favorite explanation for stories, in which ghost ship are said to luminesce, is the phenomenon of St. Elmo’s fire, a weird electrical anomaly, which we find showing up everywhere from Melville’s Moby Dick to the laboratory of Nikola Tesla.
Ghost ships are sometimes said to arrive as omens of death, or their appearance may recreate the tragic end of ship and crew. These otherworldly aspects have been noted in mariners’ accounts and served as the basis for a few poems, including a work by Longfellow, which we’ll hear. Along the way, we learn about the Klabautermann, a strange sea-going gnome said to haunt ships on the Baltic and North Seas.
Next, it’s a musical break featuring the 17th-century folk ballad “House Carpenter” also sometimes called “The Daemon Lover.” This tale of demonic jealousy or the Devil’s retribution on the high seas is hauntingly rendered by Appalachian singer Jean Ritchie, Scottish singer A.L Lloyd, and in an instrumental arrangement by Adrian McHenry, and we hear bits of all these versions.
Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has often drawn comparison to the Flying Dutchman legend. We have a look at its undead sailors, ominous allegorical figures, and how its arctic setting may have influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
And who would’ve known, but it seems there’s a peculiar link between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. I work it all out in the conclusion of the episode.