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.

Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Rise of David Bowie Is a Photographic Deep Dive Into the Musician's Ziggy Stardust Days

This new book examines Bowie's life on and off stage.
This new book examines Bowie's life on and off stage.
TASCHEN

David Bowie will always be remembered as more than a singer. The larger-than-life performer was also an artist, an actor, and even launched his own short-lived internet service provider in the late '90s. But, arguably, his most memorable period was during the early '70s, when he burst onto the scene as the garishly costumed Ziggy Stardust, cementing his place in history as a performer who defied just about every norm imaginable. Now you can get an intimate look at this pivotal moment in his career with the new book from TASCHEN, The Rise of David Bowie ($40).

A new book about David Bowie
Mick Rock spent a year as Bowie's photographer and videographer.
TASCHEN

The images found in this 300-page book are by Mick Rock, a photographer known as "the man who shot the seventies." His career took off alongside Bowie's, and between 1972 and 1973, Rock was the musician's go-to photographer and videographer. Inside the book, you’ll find photographs of Bowie both on stage and behind the scenes, giving fans an up-close look at the transformative performer's life on the road as he honed his daring new persona for the Ziggy Stardust world tour.

Rock compiled the photos back in 2015, after he received the late singer’s blessing to do so. Currently, the book is available for pre-order and it’s set to ship by the end of March if you order from TASCHEN. For those heading to Amazon to pre-order, books will ship around April 21.

Did you know Bowie was an avid reader who often finished a book a day? While you wait for your copy to arrive, check out the performer's 100 favorite books, which include titles like Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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Rare, Early Portraits of Jim Morrison and The Doors Are Headed to Auction

Jim Morrison of The Doors photographed in 1968.
Jim Morrison of The Doors photographed in 1968.
Michael Montfort, Swann Auction Galleries

The Doors left a bluesy mark on rock ’n’ roll music that lasted long after the tragic death of frontman Jim Morrison at age 27. But because the band only existed for about six years—in a pre-smartphone era, no less—there isn’t a ton of behind-the-scenes content to tell the story of Morrison’s bright, albeit brief, career.

Come February 25, nine rare photos of Morrison from The Doors’ first European tour in 1968 will end up in the hands of one fortunate fan. Swann Auction Galleries is selling them as part of their “Classic and Contemporary Photographs” auction, which also includes portraits of early Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, and Veronica Lake.

The black and white photographs of Morrison were taken by German-born photojournalist Michael Montfort when the band performed in Frankfurt, Germany that September, and they manage to capture the strangely hazy, somewhat intense nature of the legendary lead singer. In one, Morrison looks right into the camera while leaning against a church pulpit; in another, he lies on the stage clutching the microphone with his back turned to the audience; in yet another, a sweat-drenched Morrison holds a leather jacket in one hand and makes a peace sign with the other.

jim morrison of the doors lying onstage
The Doors' Jim Morrison takes a break onstage during a Frankfurt concert in September 1968.
Michael Montfort, Swann Auction Galleries

The Doors played early hits like “Light My Fire” and “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” to raucous, devoted crowds across Europe, but the tour wasn’t without its calamities, due largely to Morrison’s substance abuse. After leaving Frankfurt, the band stopped to perform a show in Amsterdam, where a drug-addled Morrison collapsed on stage during Jefferson Airplane’s opening set. He was immediately taken to a hospital, and keyboard player Ray Manzarek stepped in as lead singer that night. Morrison finished the tour, but his drug addiction would continue to plague him until he died of a (suspected) overdose in Paris in 1971.

jim morrison the doors backstage photo
A messy-haired Morrison flashes a peace sign in 1968.
Michael Montfort, Swann Auction Galleries

The collection of nine photos is expected to fetch between $1500 and $2500, and you can place a bid here.

[h/t Swann Auction Galleries]

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