Today self-proclaimed psychics tend to get a bad rap, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries they enjoyed celebrity status. Whether the medium performed at home or on stage, the chance to see them summon disembodied hands, decipher otherworldly messages, and belch up ectoplasm was considered quality entertainment back in the day. These so-called communions with the dead have since generally been debunked as clever parlor tricks (thanks to skeptics like Harry Houdini). But knowing the behind-the-scenes secrets of séances doesn’t make them sound any less entertaining.
1. SPIRIT RAPPING
The famous Fox sisters had spirit rapping to thank for their careers. After their mother heard mysterious knocks coming from the walls and furniture of their home, she concluded the noise was metaphysical in nature. The Fox girls were indeed responsible for the rapping, but the source was actually apples they had tied with string and bounced against the floor of their bedroom.
The sisters used this concept as the basis for their medium act. During séances, they would recite the alphabet and pretend to wait for spirits to slowly spell out messages. The "ghosts" they corresponded with weren’t really ghosts at all, nor were they apples. Rather, the girls produced the sounds themselves by manipulating the joints in their knuckles and toes.
After relying on the trick for decades, one of the sisters decided to reveal her fraud to a live audience by banging her bare toe against a wooden stool to show them how it was done. The New York Herald wrote, "There stood a black-robed, sharp-faced widow working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird."
2. MANIFESTATION CABINETS
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After first appearing on the séance scene in the 1850s, manifestation cabinets, or spirit cabinets, soon became a staple of the genre. Mediums would enter the cabinets (often curtained-off sections of stage) with their hands bound to prevent them from faking any paranormal activity. To gain the full trust of the audience, they sometimes invited spectators to come on stage and tie the ropes to their liking. Once the curtains were drawn and the lights were extinguished, all sorts of spooky mayhem took place. Hands poked out from between the drapes, ghostly figures materialized, and instruments left on the floor of the cabinet started to play themselves. At the end of the scene the curtains parted to reveal the medium tied up just as they were left.
This was a convincing trick in its time, and all it required was a little escape artistry to pull off. The medium would slip their bonds as soon as they were out of sight, freeing their hands to stand in for the rambunctious spirits. Meanwhile, accomplices would wait for the lights to go out to slip in through trap doors elsewhere on stage. As long as the ropes were refastened before the trick’s conclusion, the audience was never the wiser.
3. SPIRIT SLATES
As an alternative to the tedious task of spelling out messages one letter at a time via ouija board, mediums often used slates that spirits could supposedly write on themselves. Séance participants were given a pair of black slates and told to jot down their messages to the deceased on a slip of paper that was then sandwiched between the boards. Once the slabs were bound together, the medium would hold them to the sitter’s head, shoulder, or perhaps hang them from the chandelier for a few moments while waiting for the spirit convey their thoughts. After finally separating the slates, a mystical message would be revealed inside.
There were a few ways for mediums to pull off this sham, one of which involved a strategically placed square of cardboard. A black sheet cut to the exact size and shape of the slate would be laid inside the frame, hiding the pre-written message beneath it. When it came time to take apart the two slates the medium lifted up the prepared cardboard off the top and left the flap to cover the blank slate on the bottom. The extra slate was quickly brushed away, with the note from the great beyond providing a convenient distraction.
On occasion, lucky séance participants were treated to the sight of ectoplasm oozing from their mediums. The gauzy substance was said to be part of the supernatural veil separating the spiritual realm from the physical one. The trick required near-darkness or else, according to mediums, the ectoplasm would disintegrate. Once the conduit reached a trance-like state, various orifices would secrete the material, signaling a breach between worlds.
One of the mediums best known for this phenomenon was Marthe Beraud (also known as Eva C. and Eva Carrière). Instead of extruding ghostly goo through her mouth, nose, and ears, she stuffed them with muslin or a similar fabric. She sometimes added photos clipped out from newspapers to give the ectoplasm a bit of personality. This signature touch ended up being her downfall: The faces she used (which included those of actress Mona Delza, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and Woodrow Wilson) were eventually recognized, exposing her deception.
5. SPIRIT TRUMPETS
Houdini with a spirit trumpet. Image credit: Popular Science, 1925
One of the most unusual accessories to come out of the spiritualism craze was the spirit trumpet. Without context, the instrument more closely resembles a cheap telescope than a tool for communicating with the dead. Such contraptions were believed to amplify the whispers of spirits and could produce sounds when the medium was nowhere near it. Of course the medium was behind every murmur: A rubber hose connecting the trumpet on stage to a manifestation cabinet could be threaded beneath the carpet, allowing the out-of-sight psychic to provide the vocals. More outrageous accounts of trumpets floating "around the room in a bright light, tapping the sitters on the head, talking and going through a whole lot of strange maneuvers without any assistance from mortals," have been spread in the past. In the 1903 book Mysteries of the Séance and Tricks and Traps of Bogus Mediums, the author advises readers who’ve heard of such scenes to "sprinkle a little salt on the tale before you swallow it."
6. FIRE TESTS
Mediums would sometimes subject themselves to a series of trials to prove their connection to their spiritual realm. One especially convincing trick was the fire test: The mediums in question boasted that a special power given to them by the spirits made them impervious to heat. They backed up this claim by holding hot coals, waving their hands through flames, and performing other feats of pain endurance. The reason they were able to pull this off without screaming in agony boils down to chemistry. A mixture of a few basic components—namely camphor gum, whiskey, quicksilver, and liquid storax—could be used to create a fireproof glove of sorts. But no matter how desperate you are to take your séance to the next level, this is one trick we don’t recommend trying at home.