Spiritualism, the belief that the living may contact the deceased, has made many people a small fortune, so much so that it appears as though almost anyone could set up a show, either on the road or in their homes.
It was popular among the poor and the wealthy, among the uneducated and the highest classes of society. People wanted to believe that there was something good after death. They wanted to communicate with those they had lost, and some people just wanted to be entertained.
While many people enjoyed the efforts of the spiritualists, there was also a growing number of people who wanted to out them as frauds.
10 An American In Paris
How could a woman in the late 1800s raise enough money to travel the world? By becoming a spiritualist and having people believe she could contact the dead.
Mrs. Mary Williams was wildly popular in the United States, and in 1894, she decided to take her show on the road and travel throughout Europe. She had several planned stops, such as Berlin, The Hague, and St. Petersburg. Her first stop was set for Paris, but unfortunately for her, the French had planned a trap for the spiritualist. During her first seance, one man “seized the spirit, which proved to be a doll, and other persons lighted the candles.”
Mrs. Williams was caught wearing men’s clothing to pull off the stunt of having summoned up the spirit of a Swedish man. She tried to make a run for it but was caught and forced to refund everyone’s money. Finally, she was told that she would be arrested if she attempted to pull this stunt again. Williams fled to England.
9 Naughty Parrot
Many spiritualists had helpers who would rap on the windows and produce ethereal voices or sounds. However, a spiritualist in Osuna, Spain, had a parrot as a helper.
This spiritualist spent innumerable hours teaching her parrot different phrases. During the seances, the parrot would say certain things on queue from its spot hidden behind some drapes. The parrot’s voice was said to be the voice of a long-dead nun.
During one particular seance in 1913, the parrot decided that enough was enough and flew out from behind the curtains, landing on the seance table. This naturally generated a lot of anger, and the people at the seance mobbed the spiritualist and left her severely injured.
8 Spirits Reading The Mail
We’ve all seen the trick where someone writes a message on piece of paper, seals it in an envelope, and a magician or “psychic” pretends to read the hidden message. Dr. Walter E. Reid had a similar scam running in Grand Rapids, Michigan, back in 1890.
According to the man’s advertisement, people wishing to ask a question of a deceased person could write the question on a sheet of paper and seal it in an envelope. It would then be sent to Dr. Reid, along with a dollar, and he would call on the spirit to answer the question. If a distrustful person desired, he or she could further seal the envelope with wax or sew it closed with thread. For some weird reason, this method of security cost a few extra dollars, but that’s probably because it took more effort to open the letter, read it, and seal it back up again.
Unfortunately for Dr. Reid, who happened to be the president of the Michigan Spiritualists’ Association, he was charged with mail fraud. He was raking in a lot of money with his spiritual mail-reading service, and it caught the eye of the postmaster.
7 The Flower Medium Of Berlin
Frau Rothe’s seances caused quite a stir because flowers and fruit were known to manifest during her sessions. The items, according to her, were gifts from the spirits. It was a unique trait to her “shows,” and she was very popular because of it.
However, in 1903, news hit the world that Frau Rothe had been outed as a fraud, taken to trial, and convicted. She had managed to fool not only common people but also a number of German officials with her materializing flowers and fruit, but police detectives caught her in the act of foolery.
First, the police managed to get a female detective involved in Rothe’s seance circle. Later, a male detective infiltrated the group so that during one particular seance, Frau Rothe was seized while she was supposedly in one of her trances.
She was searched. Flowers and fruit were found inside her petticoats, but Frau protested, claiming that the spirits had put those items there for her. The police did a bit of investigating and found where she had bought the items.
After a six-day trial, Frau was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for fraud.
6 A Medium Of Many Clothes
Mrs. Elsie Reynolds held her seances in the Grand Pacific Hotel in California. Before giving one particular seance in 1906, she was warned that there might be an attempt to prove that she was a fraud. Thinking that she could outsmart whoever was set to expose her, she hired a guard to remain in the seance room and watch over the medium’s cabinet.
In came Selma Savoy, who wished to communicate with her deceased sister. Mrs. Reynolds complied, and the guard sat in on the seance, cane in hand to protect the secrets within the cabinet. As soon as Mrs. Reynolds took on the form of the deceased sister, Selma jumped up and grabbed her. A struggle ensued, and the medium and her guard fought their way out of the main room and into an adjoining room, where the police were waiting for them.
Caught in the act of pretending to be a conjured spirit, police discovered that Mrs. Reynolds wore numerous different spirit costumes made of white, filmy material under her dress. She was publicly outed as a fraud, and the police went to work to gather complaints against her to use in court.
5 Wardrobe Problem
London had a large number of spiritualists and believers in 1920, so it was not unusual that Mr. Chambers would choose to put on a few seance sessions there. What he did not expect, however, was that people were actively proving mediums as frauds. During one of the sessions, a gentleman was able to feel the muslin fabric worn by the supposed spirit. He could also see that the spirit wore boots, but he decided to keep his mouth shut until the next seance.
During Mr. Chambers’s final seance in London, one of the sitters turned on a flashlight and lit up the spirit. Suddenly, everyone saw “Chambers with his coat and waistcoat removed, his boots off, and his trousers turned up to the knee. He had a white cloth suspended from his waist and a handkerchief on his head, and was shrouded in a quantity of white muslin.”
Chambers tried to pretend that he was under the control of a spirit, but the people didn’t buy into the act. Instead, Mr. Chambers was made to sign a confession of his guilt, which was printed in the newspapers.
4 Grabbed In The Spirit Form
F.W. Courtney put on quite an act during his seances and was known as a “full form materializer,” meaning he could call up the spirits and make them show themselves during the seance. Originally from California, Courtney decided to go to Detroit and make his fortune there. For about a month, he held his seances until one day in 1893, when he was caught in the act.
William Cox attended Courtney’s last seance in Detroit. As Courtney had just summoned someone’s deceased wife, Cox got it into his head to jump out of his chair and capture the spirit form. Instead of a spirit, Cox grabbed hold of Courtney. Pandemonium broke out. Someone turned on the lights, and Courtney, by this time, had stripped down to his trousers in order to escape Cox.
Courtney, still trying to escape the room, called out a name, and a woman rushed into the room and put a revolver to Cox’s head. The woman soon lost her hold on the gun, however, and Courtney realized he had been beat. He offered to pack up and leave the city immediately as long as the people didn’t bring in the police. The deal was agreed upon, and he was forced to return everyone’s money.
Sure enough, Mr. Courtney packed up his costumes, wigs, and makeup, and left the big city. As he left, other spiritualists threatened to kill him if he would ever try to return.
3 Kissing Spirits
To stand out from the crowds, mediums had to come up with unique gimmicks that would bring in the curious. They also liked to have loops set up on their chairs so that they could slip their hands into them as proof that they weren’t doing any of the spooking. What some people didn’t realize was that the spiritualist could just as easily slip his hands out of the loops when the lights went out.
In a shocking incident in Detroit in 1885, a man denounced spiritualism as a fraud when a seance went bad. After the lights went out and the medium did his act, he would not only play a bit of guitar in the dark, but he would also take a long-handled paddle covered in flannel material and touch the sitters lightly on the cheek while making a kissing sound. One man decided to grab hold of the kisser and discovered the paddle. There was a struggle, but the medium was quick and was able to get back into his seat and slip his hands through the loops.
Not to be fooled, the man spoke out, and a nearby policeman came and arrested the medium on charges of fraud. Of the group of sitters, only one woman decided not to think that the whole thing was fake. In her own words, she said, “I know enough about kissing to know the difference between a bathing swab and a genuine salute. I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, I was kissed.” The crowd around her burst into laughter, silencing the woman’s resolve.
2 Spirit Land Photographs
S.W. Fallis of Chicago used his “mediumistic powers” to produce photographs unlike any other. According to him, he had the “power to produce on cardboard the features of departed ones as they have grown to be in ‘spirit land.’ ” It was a great gig and must have produced much of his income because it was reported in 1905 that he was caught having used the same photograph one too many times.
Mrs. Louisa Reed used Fallis’s services to find out what her deceased child now looked like in the spirit land. What she got back was a photograph of a beautiful five-year-old child. Excited, she took the photograph to another photographer to have it enlarged, but her hopes were quickly dashed. She learned from the second photographer that he had enlarged that same picture numerous times before and that Fallis had deceived her.
1 Never Shake Hands With The Living
“No physical contact with the living” should have been the rule for one Portland, Maine, medium back in 1877. Her gimmick was to sit behind a screen in the corner of a room and send out spirit forms to interact with the sitters.
While the average person would see the possibility of fraud in this setup, the medium had a way to make people feel secure that she wasn’t committing fraud. Before the seance started, she sat down on a stool behind the screen and allowed the sitters to pin her skirts to the floor. The lights would go out, and the acting would begin.
Spirits would be called forth and would come out from behind the screen to interact with the sitters. One man was brazen enough to ask the spirit to shake his hand. The spirit reached out and the man grabbed the hand—and the medium. He held onto her, and the lights returned.
Behind the screen, the sitters discovered that the medium had simply slipped out of her skirts to perform her acts of spiritualism.
Elizabeth, a former Pennsylvania native, recently moved to the beautiful state of Massachusetts where she is currently involved in researching early American history. She writes and travels in her spare time.