In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spiritualism—the 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 facilitate communication 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,” The New York Times wrote in a November 21, 1909 article. “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 11 weird vintage pictures from séances and some explanations for what’s happening in them.
1. A Séance in France // 1870
At a séance, 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. Parisian Séance // 1900
At a 1900 séance held in Paris, a table appears to move on its own. The medium appears to be Eusapia Palladino, one of the most famous—and most tested—mediums of the era. Palladino drew attention from groups like the Society of Psychical Research and scientists like Marie and Pierre Curie.
3. Germany // 1903
One test of Palladino’s powers, covered in The New York Times article noted above, occurred in 1909 at the studio of Baron von Erhardt in Rome. 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. In the image above, taken during a séance in Germany, Palladino is supposedly making the mandolin levitate.
4 and 5. Marthe Beraud in action // 1910
Medium Marthe Beraud's (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).
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 most outspoken supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
6. Marthe Beraud // 1912
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.
7. Levitating Instrument // 1920
A musical instrument rises in the air at a séance, though it's not likely that ghostly hands are doing the lifting.
8. Ghost Arm // 1920
This photo of a séance, 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.
9. Houdini In The "Margie Box" // Circa 1924
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 into a contest of sorts, run by Scientific American, that offered a monetary prize to the medium able to produce a "visual psychic manifestation." Houdini built the "Margie Box," which was intended to limit the medium's physical movements within the séance room and contain her suspected manipulations; you can see her in the box here. 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.
10. Meurig Morris // 1931
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.
11. A Medium Caught in the Act // 1950
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.
A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2021.