HOW TO HAVE A SÉANCE
Tricks of the Fraudulent Mediums

Exhibits in the Haunted Museum are based on the work of Troy Taylor from his book, Ghosts by Gaslight!


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According to mediums during the heyday of the Spiritualist movement, séances were the most productive way to get in touch with spirit world. A typical séance, which was presided over by a physical medium, could boast all sorts of strange activity, from the movement of objects, to eerie music, glowing lights, levitating furniture, the production of ectoplasm and even the materialization of spirits. Each séance was conducted in a dark or nearly dark room. The mediums claimed that the sittings were held under such conditions because it made it easier for the spirits to manifest -- however critics charged that such conditions made it much easier to conceal the practice of fraud!

Unfortunately, the height of the Spiritualist movement was riddled with cases of fraud. The legitimate mediums and believers were often overshadowed by the crooks and con artists who preyed on those who wanted to communicate with their deceased loved ones. In this types of cases, the so-called "mediums" involved had no paranormal abilities whatsoever and were only looking to see how much money they could bilk out of their unwitting clients. This was not the case with every medium, but as mentioned, the phony exploits of these unscrupulous practitioners often portrayed the entire movement in a bad light.

Thanks to the obvious fraud that was taking place, committees of scientists and laypersons formed to investigate the claims of the mediums. These groups, and individuals, became the first paranormal investigators and essentially founded what would go on to become the ghost research field of today. In addition to scientists, there were many magicians who got involved in exposing the fake mediums, thanks to the fact they easily recognized the slight of hand tricks and illusions that were being advertised as the work of "spirits".


A typical séance room with spirit cabinet and basic furnishings. The only thing missing in the photograph is the large table that was normally used for sittings.

In this section, we'll take a closer look at how phony séances were staged and what sorts of tricks were used by the phony mediums to dupe their sitters. Of course, the idea here is not to provide information on how to give a fraudulent séance yourself, but rather the methods that were used to dupe the public. Some of these methods were blatantly simple but clever when used in a darkened room and under conditions where the sitters were primed for the unexplainable to occur.


Tricks of mediums exposed in a lighted room -- the floating tambourine would look much more convincing in the dark

In some of the most dramatic séances, spirit forms would materialize and would often appear to be the ghosts of the deceased persons the sitters were trying to reach.  This was sometimes accomplished by trap doors and sliding panels, which remained concealed in the dark, and even by assistants wearing costumes, makeup and wigs. On occasion, even the medium himself might change into costume in the dark room. One medium, who was debunked by the Society for Psychical Research was found to have wigs and makeup concealed in a chair with a false back. Even more pathetic were mediums who were caught walking about on their knees -- pretending to be the spirits of deceased children.

Spirits that would actually float about the room were created by taking small balloons that could be inflated and painting faces on them. The movement of the balloons would make the sitters believe the "spirits" were moving about above their heads and the credulous would believe that the voices emanating in the room were coming from these shapes. And balloons were not the only thing that would fly about during a séance.

An adjustable fishing rod made the perfect tool to be used in the darkness. Simply attaching objects to the line and waving them above the sitter's heads would usually have the desired effect. A stuffed glove that was attached to the line would also make it seem like spirit hands were touching the sitters in the dark room.

At many séances, the medium would insist that the sitters actually examine his spirit cabinet to make sure that he had nothing hidden inside and no implements with which to carry out fraud. While this seemed to be a noteworthy effort to show that no fraud was being carried out, it was easily gotten around. One of the sitters in the séance would actually be a confederate of the medium and as the sitters are told to examine the cabinet, the confederate is the last one out and leaves behind the required tools.  In other cases, where the assistant who manned the cabinet is closing the curtains, the medium would reach under the accomplice's coat and withdraw the bag. So that it would not be found later, the bag was again secreted under the confederate's coat when "rousing" the medium from her trance.

As music (especially music played by the spirits) was essential at any good séance, it was always good to have some tambourines, trumpets and guitars around. Especially effective was a duplication of the accordion test that was often written about during Spiritualism's heyday. In this test, an accordion would be placed in a wire cage or i a spot that was sealed off from human hands -- but the spirits would still play tunes on it. This was accomplished in a couple of different ways with the most complicated being the rigging of an air hose that would play on the accordion keys to make music come from the instrument. The most deceptively simple plan was to take a mouth harmonica and play this in the darkness instead. By hiding one of these away and slipping it out at the crucial time, the sitters are likely to be unable to tell the difference between the harmonica and an accordion in a pitch black room, although a larger harmonica is the most effective.

Another clever, yet simple, ruse is to place a bell underneath a glass or inside of a box or cage in the center of the table and state that the bell will be played by the spirits when the lights are turned out. The bell never moves -- however, a duplicate bell is produced and played instead. By muffling the bell with some clear tape, it will make the ringer sound muffled, as though the sound was coming from under the glass.

Magician Joseph Dunninger revealed another method by which "spirit music" was played. At a séance that he attending, a violin was placed by itself on a table and when the lights went out, he and the other sitters heard the faint strains of ghostly music being played. When the lights came back on, he examined the violin and found that it had not been played but soon realized how the trick had been accomplished. A resin thread with a weight on one end had been laid across the violin so that the weight dangled off the end of the table. When a hidden assistant pulled on the other end of the thread (in this case through a keyhole in a door) the resin rubbing across the strings made it seem as though music was being played.

If this all sounds too simple, it was in many instances. More sophisticated sitters would demand that the mediums be restrained in some way, perhaps by ropes or in their cabinets, so that there would be no chance of them wandering about the séance room in the darkness. Of course, many mediums were known to be adept escape artists and so restraints were seldom effective but they often offered the sitters to remain "hands on" with them during the séance to "prove" that could not have caused the phenomena that occurred. This method would take place around a large séance table with the medium's and the sitter's chairs surrounding it. The sitters were placed around the table with male and female alternating and the person sitting on the medium's right would grasp her right wrist in their left hand, while there own right wrist was held by the sitter on their right side. This is, of course, carried out in complete darkness and repeated around the circle. This made each sitter hold the right wrist of their left hand neighbor in their left hand, while their own right hand is held in the wrist of their neighbor on the left.  None of the sitters could have the use of his or her hands without one or the other of their neighbors knowing about it. Every person's hands were  secured and engaged, including the mediums -- or so it was thought.


In these two photos, a woman how demonstrates how sitters were sometimes tricked into believing that they held both hands of the medium, never knowing that she had freed a hand to carry out the tricks of the "spirits"

Soon, music would play and lights would flit about and all sorts of spirit phenomena would occur but when the lights would be turned back on at the end of the evening, everything would be just as it was and the medium would still be securely held by the sitters to her right and left. So, if this was fraud -- how was it accomplished. Once again, the methods were deceptively simple and as wild as the phenomena might have been , it never needed an accomplice and every bit of it could be done with one hand. But how -- when both hands were secured?? The medium took her place before the light was turned out and those holding onto her stated that she did not let go for an instant during the séance.

Or did she? After the light was turned out, the medium did request to be released for just a moment to get a handkerchief. Moments later, the sitters were again asked to take her wrists, which was done, but this time, both sitters were actually holding one hand instead of two. By shifting slightly, the medium is being held by the hand by one sitter and around the wrist by the other. Although each was holding the same hand, each believed they were holding the one on his or her side of the medium. The rest of the "séance" was easily managed by the medium with one free hand.


Those who debunked fraudulent mediums often published small booklets to warn the unsuspecting. This page is from a booklet by magician Joseph Dunninger

Other tricks that were carried out seem just as silly to us now, but they were still amazingly effective under the heightened conditions of the séance. For instance, a table that would rock and jump about during the séance would seem like the work of the spirits, even after the lights were turned back on and the sitters discovered no ropes or wires that could make it behave in such a way. What the sitters did not realize is that a table can be tipped with uncanny effect using a hook that is attached to a medium's belt or even the medium's foot, which is easily extended to lift the center of the table.

Levitations of the medium by apparent "spirit forces" were also easily accomplished in the dark rooms. The medium would sometimes stand on his chair and then gently press the sole of his shoe onto the hand or shoulder of one of the sitters, making it seem as if he were floating around the room. He might also stand on the chair and then take his shoes off. By holding them with his hands, he could move them about and even as one of the sitters to hold on tightly to the heels to keep him from floating away.

And so on ... there were so many tricks employed to dupe the credulous that it would be impossible to chronicle them all. In other sections of the Haunted Museum, you'll find other exposures of fraud and accounts of the men who did the debunking. It is unfortunate that those who were attempting to bring credibility to Spiritualism were so hampered by the frauds in their midst. Many good-hearted and well-meaning people played a major part in the rise of the movement but it would be the frauds and fakers who brought about its decline.

© Copyright 2003 - 2008 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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