12 Weird Vintage Pictures From Séances

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Getty Images

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spiritualism—a belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living—was all the rage. There was no trendier activity than holding a séance led by a medium, who would mediate between the living and the dead. The medium not only delivered messages from the dearly departed, but also demonstrated the presence of spirits in the room by levitating objects, ringing bells, and producing a substance from her body known as ectoplasm.

Those were excellent tricks, but that's all they were—mediums were often shown to be frauds. “Exposures are of frequent occurrence, many of them highly sensational in character,” wrote the New York Times in a November 21, 1909 article titled “Notable Charlatans Exposed In The Past: A Weird History That Leaves Spiritualism Undaunted.” (You can view a PDF of the article here.) “Slate writing, spirit pictures, table tipping, rapping, and other features of Spiritualism have been exposed time and again. The exposures mount into the hundreds.”

With that in mind, here are 12 weird vintage pictures from séances—including one of magician Harry Houdini—and some explanations for what’s happening in them.

1. A group of people in France hold a séance, 1870.

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At these events, the medium (presumably the guy in the blindfold) would hold hands with the other participants to show that he could not be manipulating any objects himself. But mediums had other methods for making tables tip.

2. Paris, 1900.

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In a 1900 séance held in Paris, a table apparently moves on its own—but in actuality, the so-called medium was moving it, of course.

3. and 4. Rome, 1909.

These photos appear in the New York Times article noted above. The séance pictured took place in 1909 at the Rome, Italy studio of Baron von Erhardt, who set up a test for the medium (the article states that the medium is a man named Eusapia Paladino, but Eusapia Palladino was actually a famous female medium; the lone woman of the group might be her).

Whenever the medium was giving a demonstration, the Baron would press a button, which activated both the camera and the flashlight behind it, illuminating Paladino and snapping a picture. “Thus he pictures tables suspended in the air, the medium with his coat removed, apparently by ‘spirit’ hands, and flung against the screen of the cabinet, and a mandolin in the air,” the New York Times said. No word on whether or not the medium passed the test.

5. and 6. Marthe Beraud in action, 1910.


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Medium Marthe Beraud (also known as Eva C. and Eva Carrière) show-stopping séance specialty was excreting ectoplasm. The material was said to be formed when mediums were in a trance state; it could only be created in near darkness (light, mediums said, would make it disintegrate), and it was emitted from orifices on the medium's body (Beraud's usually came from her mouth, nose or ears).


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But rather than being some spiritual substance, the so-called ectoplasm was usually gauze, muslin, chiffon, or, in the case of Mina "Margery" Crandon, sheep's lung. Beraud was the first medium to perform the ectoplasm trick, and one of her outspoken supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

7. Beraud, 1912.

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Here's another photo of Beraud, this one taken in 1912, apparently showing a light manifestation between her hands and a materialization on her head. In 1922, scientists sat in on 15 of Beraud's séances, and thoroughly debunked her.

8. Levitating instrument, 1920.


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A musical instrument rises in the air at a séance, though it's not likely that ghostly hands are doing the lifting.

9. Ghost arm, 1920.


National Media Museum's Flickr Stream

This photo of a seance, snapped by renowned spirit photographer William Hope around 1920, supposedly shows a ghostly arm levitating the table. In reality, the arm was superimposed during a double exposure.

10. Houdini's "Margie Box"

Mediums had no greater opponent than magician Harry Houdini, who denounced them as frauds. In fact, he had almost a secondary career debunking the methods of famous mediums during séances and performing their tricks as part of his stage show. He even asked his wife to help him show how mediums pull off certain tricks.

In 1924, Houdini was part of a committee investigating Boston medium Mina "Margery" Crandon, the wife of a respected surgeon and Harvard faculty member. Crandon had entered herself in a contest of sorts, run by Scientific American, that offered a monetary prize to the medium able to produce a "visual psychic manifestation." Here, Houdini is shown in the "Margie Box," which was intended to limit the medium's physical movements within the séance room and contain her suspected manipulations; Houdini built the box himself. The committee sat in on 20 séances, and the debate about Crandon's abilities lasted for a year, but ultimately, Scientific American opted not to award her the money.

11. Meurig Morris, 1931


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This photo, snapped September 10, 1931, shows medium Meurig Morris holding an onstage séance at the Fortune Theatre in London. Morris was more of a mental medium than a physical one: She would go into a trance and supposedly channel a spirit that called itself Power. Her body would stiffen, and her voice changed from soprano to baritone. She would preach on philosophical and religious matters for up to 45 minutes at a time. You can check out Morris in action here.

12. A medium Caught in the Act, 1950.


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In séances, mediums often asked spirits to demonstrate their power by levitating or moving a table. But this medium, at a 1950 séance, got sloppy: a photographer caught her using her knee to tip the table, just one method mediums used to make things appear to move by ghostly hands.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

Take a Digital Tour of America’s Vintage Roadside Stops

The Coney Island Dairyland food stand, Aspen, Colorado, 1980.
The Coney Island Dairyland food stand, Aspen, Colorado, 1980.
John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Before GPS, road-tripping Americans canvassing the country’s freshly paved roadway system in the early part of the 20th century had to rely on gas station maps to find diners and other pit stops. Alternately, they could just keep their eyes peeled for one of the thousands of unique buildings that were designed so speeding motorists could easily identify what they had to offer.

Along the famous Route 66, writes author Richard Ratay in his road trip memoir Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, were “colossal fiberglass ‘people attractors:’ giant hotdogs, guns, pies, cow heads, ice cream cones, and other items associated with the goods each proprietor was hawking.” Other places tried to stand out to passing tourists by offering variations on the “world’s biggest” motif, like the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, Illinois.

These giant donuts, whales, tea pots, and other distinctive stops were shot for decades by photographer John Margolies, who made it his life’s work to capture these stucco slices of Americana before they disappeared. The Library of Congress first began acquiring portions of Margolies's archive in 2007 and started digitizing those images after Margolies died in 2016. The result of their efforts is an expansive—and totally free—online scrapbook of 11,710 color photos.

The Teapot Dome in Zillah, Washington is pictured
The Teapot Dome, Zillah, Washington, 1987.

The Hat 'N Boots gas station in Seattle, Washington is pictured
The Hat 'N Boots gas station, Seattle, Washington, 1980.

The Whale Car Wash in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is pictured
The Whale Car Wash, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1980.

The Donut Hole in La Puente, California is pictured
The Donut Hole, La Puente, California, 1991.

The Flamingo Drive-In Theater in Hobbs, New Mexico is pictured
The Flamingo Drive-In Theater, Hobbs, New Mexico, 1982.

Born in 1940, Margolies took frequent road trips with his parents. An architectural critic, he began photographing the roadside attractions in 1969, continuing the work through 2008. While many of these places have shuttered, their creative exteriors live on through Margolies’s lens. You can browse the rest of the collection at the Library of Congress website.

All images courtesy of the John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

[h/t designboom]

Photographer Captures Polka-Dotted Zebra Foal in Kenya

Frank Liu
Frank Liu

Zebras are known for their eye-catching patterns, but this polka-dotted foal recently photographed in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve really stands out from the herd. As National Geographic reports, the zebra baby likely has pseudomelanism, a rare pigment condition that's been observed in the wild just a handful of times.

Nature photographer Frank Liu saw the zebra foal while looking for rhinos in the savannah wilderness preserve. After initially confusing the specimen for a different type of animal, he realized upon closer inspection that it was actually a plains zebra born with spots instead of stripes. The newborn foal was named Tira after the Maasai guide Antony Tira who first pointed him out.

Zebra foal with spots walking with mother.
Frank Liu

Zebra foal with spots.
Frank Liu

A typical zebra pattern is the result of pigment cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for the black base coat, and melanin, which gives the animal its white stripes. (So if you've ever wondered if zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes, the answer is the latter). In Tira and other zebras with pseudomelanism, the melanocytes are fully expressed, but a genetic mutation causes the melanin to appear as dots rather than unbroken stripes.


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Though rare, this isn't the only time a zebra with pseudomelanism has been documented in nature. Pseudomelanistic zebras have also been spotted in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but Liu believes this could be the first time one was found in the Masai Mara preserve.

Zebra stripes aren't just for decoration. The distinct pattern may act as camouflage, bug repellant, and a built-in temperature regulation system. Without these evolutionary benefits, Tira has a lower chance of making it to adulthood: Pseudomelanistic zebra adults are rarely observed for this reason. But as Liu's photographs show, the foal has the protection and acceptance of his herd on his side.

[h/t National Geographic]

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