the very beginning of the Spiritualist movement, there were
magicians and skeptics who were adept at re-creating the
allegedly "miraculous" phenomena of the mediums. They would
do so by duplicating, then exposing, their effects. The
methods practiced by the mediums were simple, these men
claimed, and were merely stage illusions just like the ones
being created before audiences in vaudeville theaters across
the country. "If I can only get your attention intently,"
one magician claimed, "an elephant could pass behind me and
you would not see it."
"Is Spiritualism a fraud? Are the spirit-rappings and the
spirit-forms of the séance, the prophecies of the palmist
and the clairvoyant, the visions of the trance mediums,
genuine evidence of a spirit-world, or are they mere
catchpenny tricks, engineered by charlatans to charm money
from the pockets of the credulous?"
were questions asked by Pearson’s Magazine in March
1910, when it began a series of articles written by William
S. Marriott about Spiritualism. The editors added that "in
order that readers of Pearson's Magazine may judge
for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously
important subject. If Spiritualism is genuine, it ought to
be a vital factor in the lives of us all: if false, then it
and its high priests should be ruthlessly exposed and
believers in it disillusioned of a faith that is altogether
Unfortunately, little is known about Marriott’s early years,
how he got started in the magic field and what led him to
pursue the truth behind Spiritualist mediums. What we do
know is that he was described as a likable man with “a pair
of well-waxed mustaches” and that he was a British
professional magician who performed under the name of Dr.
Wilmar. At some point, in the early 1900s, he became
interested in exposing the hoaxes that were being carried
out by fraudulent mediums. He actually took up this task
before magicians like Houdini, who became quite famous for
his first, and most valuable, exposures came when he located
and publicized a copy of a catalog called “Gambols with
Ghosts: Mind Reading, Spiritualistic Effects, Mental and
Psychical Phenomena and Horoscopy”. It was a secret catalog
that was being circulated among mediums and was filled with
tricks, apparatus and paraphernalia that could be used to
dupe the public. The catalog was issued in 1901 by Ralph E.
Sylvestre of Chicago and was designed for private
circulation among mediums, on the understanding that it
would be returned to Sylvestre when tricks had been selected
catalog, a copy of which was later obtained by Harry Price
and added to his library, had an introduction to it that
read: "Our experience during the past 30 years in supplying
mediums and others with the peculiar effects in this line
enable us to place before you only those which are practical
and of use, nothing that you have to experiment with. We
wish you to thoroughly appreciate that, while we do not, for
obvious reasons, mention the names of our clients and their
work (they being kept in strict confidence, the same as a
physician treats his patients), we can furnish you with the
explanation and, where necessary, the material for the
production of any known public 'tests' or 'phenomena' not
mentioned in this, our latest list. You are aware that our
effects are being used by nearly all prominent mediums of
the entire world."
This notorious catalog included equipment for
slate-writing, stuffed ghosts, self-playing
guitars, self-rapping tables, materializations,
and a "Complete Spiritualistic Séance." Marriott
obtained a number of these illusions from the
catalog and had himself photographed posing with
Marriott had become disenchanted with the
deceptions being carried out by dishonest
mediums. As has been pointed out many times
already, Spiritualism was riddled with cases of
outright fraud. Many deceptive mediums would do
whatever they could to bilk unsuspecting clients
and sitters out of money to "contact their
deceased loved ones.” And while not every medium
was dishonest, there were enough of them to
color the entire movement -- and to give
Spiritualism a bad name.
One of the most thrilling aspects of any séance
was the materialization of the spirits. Some
mediums, like Florence Cook, built an entire
career on such materializations. Because the
appearance of the spirits was so important to a
good séance, fraudulent mediums would do just
about anything to cause it to happen -- from
smoke to mirrors to even more dishonest
As the heyday of the Spiritualist movement began
to wind down, the fraudulent mediums became more
and more sloppy with their tricks and
manipulations. Gone were the days of elaborate
stages shows like those that had been created by
Pepper and in their places were cheap displays
and shoddy hoaxes. A case that illustrates this
point was reported in newspapers in 1906. As it
turned out, two ardent and legitimate
Spiritualists were responsible for exposing the
had himself photographed with some of the
"ghosts" that he bought from the GAMBOLS WITH
men went to an apartment where a séance was to be conducted
and became suspicious of the chair and the cabinet used by
the medium. They managed to examine the chair and found a
secret compartment in the rear and also a keyhole, which was
carefully concealed beneath the upholstered material that
covered the rest of the chair. The investigators then had a
key made, which would open the lock, and found another
secret compartment that was 15 inches deep.
next séance, the men noticed that the back of the chair
seemed to be stuffed much better than the rest of it and
suspected that "ghostly" materials had been placed there
before the sitters arrived. During the séance that followed,
the men were not surprised to see that all manner of
"ghosts" materialized and when it was over, they exposed the
medium as a fraud. They opened the secret compartment on the
chair with their own key and began removing the items
contained inside. They found a collapsible dummy head made
of pink material; a flesh colored mask; six pieces of china
silk that comprised about 13 yards of material; two pieces
of black cloth; three beards and two wigs of various color
and length; a telescoping rod from which drapery could be
hung to represent a second ghost; a small flashlight with
four yards of wire and a switch, which would be useful to
make "spirit lights" and various other contraptions.
Exposures like this one prompted Marriott to begin his own
investigations and he soon made a name for himself --- and a
number of enemies among the frauds of the Spiritualist
1909, Pearson’s Magazine approached Marriott in order
to conduct, on the magazine’s behalf, a series of
investigation on spirit mediums. The results were published
afterward in four issues of the magazine. In the first
installment, he delved into Spiritualist séances and wrote
of several hilarious incidents that occurred. At one séance,
the medium entered the spirit cabinet as the lights were
being turned out and after a time, the curtain parted and a
stately form emerged from the cabinet. The “spirit” was
partially luminous and carried a shimmering globe in his
hand, which he held near his face to make it more visible.
The figure graciously inclined his head, gestured as if to
bless the sitters, and then retired back into the cabinet.
Marriott wrote more of what happened next:
should have closed the séance. Tonight, an unrehearsed
effect was in store for the believers. As the form entered
the cabinet, he sat down on what he thought was the settee.
It happened to be my knees. I had quickly slipped into the
curtained enclosure and was sitting, waiting for him to come
back. As my arms went around him, he gave a yell followed by
language which I will not repeat. My friend had the light up
in a moment. And there for the faithful was the edifying
sight of the medium, clothed in flimsy white draperies,
struggling in the arms of myself!
Marriott’s reputation as an investigator was widely known.
He was a friend of Harry Price and through him, acquainted
with Everard Feilding, who was intensely interested in
psychical phenomena. Feilding frequently held séances at his
home with notable mediums and Marriott was often called in
to “vet” the phenomena --- often with amusing results.
occasion, Feilding invited a German apport medium to London.
The medium specialized in causing fish, flesh and fowl to
appear in the séance room and often worked in semi-darkness.
Feilding invited him to dinner one night and it was arranged
that a séance would be held after the meal, to which
Marriott was also invited. The medium arrived very early ---
but so did Marriott. Both had the run of the home for a
considerable time before dinner was ready to be served.
before the meal was announced, the medium was placed in
another part of the house while Feilding and Marriott
thoroughly examined the dining room. They made a curious ---
although not completely unexpected --- discovery. Carefully
hidden in the folds and frame of a silk lampshade that was
suspended above the table, they found a dozen large boiled
prawns! A slight jerk of the shade caused the prawns to fall
onto the table. The men replaced them in their original
positions after they had made a few “adjustments” to them.
dinner, the table was cleared, and a discussion took place
about the séance to follow over as dessert and coffee was
served. It was agreed that the sitting should be held around
the dining room table --- an arrangement the medium heartily
endorsed. Most of the lights were put out and the séance
began. In a few minutes, the medium was in a deep trance,
which was marked by his rapid breathing and waving arms.
Suddenly, a shower of something fell onto the guests. All of
the lights were turned on and it was discovered that a
“miraculous” fall of prawns had taken place. They had
seemingly fallen from nowhere. But what astonished everyone
even more was that each of the prawns had a red band of silk
tied in a bow around it!
to wonder what the medium was thinking when this occurred
but according to Marriott, he had a good laugh at himself.
The magician had come to the house with a reel of red silk,
hoping to make good use of it, but he had not anticipated
prawns. He later presented one of them to Harry Price for
his museum of such objects.
photographed a number of experiments for
Pearson's Magazine. In this photo, he showed how
small tables could be easily levitated with
nothing more than his foot -- which was
virtually undetectable in a dark room.
Marriott, along with Harry Price, was also
involved in the controversy concerning the
Crewe Circle and alleged
spirit photographer, William Hope. The incident
in which Price exposed Hope as a fraud was
described earlier in the book but Marriott had
his own brush with Hope and the Crewe Circle.
In 1921, a journalist named James Douglas, had a
photograph take of himself by William Hope that,
when developed, showed the presence of a spirit
extra. Douglas was so impressed with the image
that he issued a public challenge to anyone who
could duplicate the feat without using psychic
Marriott accepted the challenge and performed not only in
front of Douglas, but also in front of Everard Feilding and
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He produced a photo of Douglas
and Conan Doyle with a young woman who seemed to be a ghost
and a picture of Doyle with little fairies dancing in front
of him. He then explained in detail how he had created them.
Sir Arthur was so impressed by the quality of his work, and
Marriott’s honesty, that he felt compelled to make a public
statement: "Mr. Marriott has clearly proved one point, which
is that a trained conjurer can, under the close inspection
of three pairs of critical eyes, put a false image upon a
plate. We must unreservedly admit it."
Marriott had not demonstrated that Hope was a fraud but he
had show that what some believers thought was impossible by
ordinary means could actually be accomplished by a skilled
magician. Marriott was so well respected by “both sides of
the aisle” because he was not just offering money to anyone
who could perform a paranormal feat he could not duplicate.
Rather, he was simply showing that alternative explanations
to apparent miracles existed and he was invited open-minded
observes to decide for themselves what they wanted to
am one of the 'scoffers'," wrote Marriott, "it is not
because of any original bias, but because of the arrant
humbug, cheap trickery, and pathetic self-delusion that I
have encountered at every point of my investigations of
Copyright 2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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