Exhibits in the Haunted
Museum are based on the work of Troy Taylor from his
book, Ghosts by Gaslight!
Click on the Cover for More About the Book!
According to mediums during
the heyday of the Spiritualist movement,
were the most productive way to get in touch with spirit world. A typical
sťance, 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 sťance 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 sťance 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 sťances 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 sťance 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 sťances, 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 sťance.
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 sťances, 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 sťance 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 sťance, 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
Magician Joseph Dunninger
revealed another method by which "spirit music" was played. At a sťance 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
sťance 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 sťance
to "prove" that could not have caused the phenomena that occurred. This
method would take place around a large sťance 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 sťance.
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 "sťance" 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 sťance. For instance, a
table that would rock and jump about during the sťance 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
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
© Copyright 2003
- 2008 by Troy
Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
the Haunted Museum