There was a rap. Then another. Mysterious rapping sounds had plagued the family for some time. You could hear it quite plainly, especially in the children’s bedroom, a loud knocking as if someone, something, was trying to communicate. Finally, distraught, the mother called out, “Has a spirit taken possession of my daughter.” Another rap provided the unwelcome answer.
This was in 1848 when a prank played by two children, Kate and Margaret Fox, took an unexpected turn. Their superstitious mother mistook raps made by the children for messages from the spirit world. Their home in Hydesville, not far from New York, became a centre of spirit activity and hundreds of people paid 25 cents a ticket to hear what the dear departed had to say. Soon the girls were on tour — the first spook show — as they rapped and tapped their way across America creating controversy, a religion and a new repertoire for the conjuror.
Conjuring and illusion has always been part of my life. It began when I was nine years old and read a book on magic. It continues to this day in my work as a consultant on magic and deception. Most of the tricks magicians call ‘mentalism,’ the reading of minds and the production of faux paranormal effects, were originally developed by non-magicians, people like the Fox sisters, who claimed that their feats were not the result of trickery but were genuine communications with a supernatural realm.
For a while it was enough for the spirits to laboriously rap their messages out letter by letter but soon audiences demanded something more and fraudulent mediums supplied it. Medium Henry Slade made a speciality of delivering written spirit messages on slates. Daniel Dunglas Home managed to persuade the other worldly entities to manifest their spirit hands in the darkness of the séance room and then play a tune on an accordion. The Davenport Brothers, realising the limitations of performing to small groups of people in a dark room, came up with the ingenious idea of taking the dark room séance into the theatre. They toured with a large cabinet into which they would be secured by ropes. When the cabinet was closed, spirits would manifest themselves at two small windows set in the doors, play musical instruments and perform the rest of the by now familiar spirit repertoire.
Spirit phenomena, even if not genuine, were certainly entertaining and magicians began to appropriate the effects and include them in their repertoires. One of the first was Herr Dobler who along with the usual magical wonders of the day featured spirit writing and a dark séance. During the 1850s Professor Anderson, the Wizard of the North, was including a spirit rapping table in his show. He was also one of the first magicians to expose the trickery of the mediums, in particular the Davenport Brothers, and sold booklets explaining spiritualistic tricks at his performances. The Davenport Brothers were, in part, responsible for the career of one of the most revered magicians in history, John Nevil Maskelyne. He saw a performance of the Davenport Brothers in 1865, figured out the method and demonstrated it publicly with his then partner George Cooke. This was the start of Maskelyne and Cooke and a golden era of creative illusion. Maskelyne’s famous levitation, in which he rose vertically into the air, was inspired by the tales of medium Daniel Dunglas Home levitating during séances.
As a result of their ability to duplicate spirit phenomena magicians took on the role of expert witnesses in psychic investigations. J. N. Maskelyne was called upon to duplicate the slate tricks of medium Henry Slade in court after Slade had been arrested in London for fraud. He convinced the court that non-supernatural means were the most likely explanation for Slade’s spirit messages. Slade was convicted but escaped imprisonment on a technicality and fled to Europe.
It wasn’t until 1888 that Margaret Fox confessed, from the stage of course, that the spirit rappings, the very foundations of Spiritualism, were all a hoax, but this was not enough to dampen the spirit of the believers some of whom were magicians. The masthead of the Mahatma conjurors magazine of 1895 announced that it catered to, “the interests of Magicians, Spiritualists, Mesmerists etc.” Will Goldston’s monthly magic journal The Magician featured a similar line on the cover, which said, “Devoted to Magic, Spiritualism, Hypnotism and Human Progress.” Both magazines contained descriptions of spirit effects, which had their inspiration in the séance room.
Following World War I, and resurgence in Spiritualism, Houdini took up the cudgels against fraudulent mediums. He was well acquainted with their methods as the roots of his own escapology act could be traced back the work of the Davenport Brothers and the work of other mediums, such as Dr Josef Gregorowitsch, who specialised in conjuring up spirits while bound with rope or tape. Houdini’s anti-Spiritualist campaign achieved scientific legitimacy when he became a member of The Scientific American committee which had offered a reward of $5,000 to any medium who could demonstrate spirit phenomena under controlled conditions. His battle with Mina Crandon (Margery the medium) is well documented and highlights the difficulties to be confronted when magicians involve themselves in paranormal investigations. While many of his fellow committee members were looking for positive evidence of the paranormal, Houdini was looking for proof of trickery.
I blame my own interest in the paranormal on the cataloguing systems in libraries. I remember looking up Magic in the local library index cards in the hope of finding conjuring books that were not on the shelves. This led me to Magic as in Occult and I soon had my hands on Seers, Psychics and ESP written by Milbourne Christopher, Eric Dingwall’s The Unknown Is It Nearer and Harry Price’s Leaves From a Psychist’s Casebook. All books on the supernatural and all written by magicians.
I’ve met many mediums and psychics over the years, watched many demonstrations and listened to countless spirit messages. Not all mediums are the cheats and frauds that Harry Houdini thought them to be. Many genuinely believe they possess some kind of intuition or ability to communicate with spirits. Most of them are not that good at what they do and would find it difficult to hold any credibility performing outside their Spiritualist church environs. Others are clearly deluded. I recall declining an invitation to have a private sitting in a dark room with a medium because based on what I had seen I had decided she was clearly mad. A few, very few, give truly extraordinary performances, usually demonstrating clairvoyance on church platforms. An astute mentalist could learn a lot from them. I have not seen anything which convinces me that these people are in contact with spirits but as theatre it can sometimes be extraordinarily interesting.
The most spectacular spirit phenomena are, according to the literature, to be found at physical séances. The history of Spiritualism is teeming with levitating tables, rapping noises and luminous manifestations, all taking place in a darkened room. Unfortunately with the advent of infrared photography this phenomenon has all but died out. You still hear stories though. Even as late as the sixties luminous ghosts could be found at a Spiritualist enclave known as Camp Chesterfield. So bold were the mediums that they invited journalists from Psychic magazine to photograph the manifestations with an infrared camera. The resulting film created a scandal and was a huge blow to Spiritualism as it exposed the whole séance as a sham, nothing more than conjuring tricks in the dark. A further blow came when another medium, M. Lamar Keene, confessed an astonishing tale of fraud and flummery taking place at Spiritualist camps. The tale is told in great detail in the book The Psychic Mafia. Lamar Keene quickly disappeared from the scene following threats from former colleagues and the book, a classic of its kind, remained out of print for some time though did resurface in an annotated form on the Internet.
In the 1990s, in Britain, there were attempts to revive the practice of physical mediumship by the Noah’s Ark Society, a group of amateur investigators who welcomed the opportunity to study mediums specialising in this type of phenomena. Their sittings weree by invitation only. Psychic News reported one in which the lights of the room suddenly came on in the middle of the séance. The medium, who was supposed to be tied to a chair, was discovered standing up holding a spirit trumpet in his hand. He fell to the floor instantly and later claimed that spirits must have taken over his entranced body and placed him in this awkward and highly embarrassing position.
It had always been one of my goals to gain entrance to a physical séance. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to sit in the dark and observe first hand the type of phenomena that caused so much controversy, so much belief. How convincing can it be? Remember, when these manifestations were at their most popular there was no television, cinema or radio. A séance might be an attractive form of evening entertainment.
So I jumped at the chance when medium Norman Knight asked if I would like to attend his séance. Actually Norman didn’t like to refer to his “meetings” as “séances”, he thought it sounded old fashioned. I met Norman when I worked as a researcher on a British television show featuring James Randi, Norman came onto the show with a piece of equipment he had devised which he claimed measured telepathic thoughts. We devised an experiment to test whether the apparatus worked. Ron, one of Norman’s subjects, was wired to the apparatus which was a metal box resembling a Geiger counter. Someone from the audience then sent thoughts to Ron and the box was supposed to make a squealing sound when the thoughts arrived at their destination, i.e. Ron’s brain.
After a trial run Randi suggested it would be more of a test if Ron faced away from the audience so as not to receive any clues as to when the person was sending their thoughts — the machine could have been a biofeedback device and Ron therefore the author of the squealing sound. This was done but the experiment soon descended into farce as neither Ron nor Norman could stop the box squealing and the test was brought to a confused halt amid much laughter from the audience.
I kept in touch with Norman. He had other curious devices including a spirit table and a small box which he claimed could measure the human aura. He also conducted dark séances, sorry, meetings, in which I was told all the traditional phenomena of the Victorian séance room manifested themselves. He asked if I would be interested in attending. This was not an invitation I was going to turn down. So lock your doors, close your windows, turn the lights down low and let me tell you a ghost story.
The meeting is held in a rectangular room maybe14 feet wide and 20 feet long. I’d visited Norman in this room a number of times and knew it quite well. The door is at one narrow end and a table at the other. It is evening and curtains are drawn across the windows. Ten people have turned up to take part. All except myself have attended this séance before. It is very friendly and relaxed, many of us have cups of tea or glasses of juice and are allowed to bring them into the room with us.
Norman knows I’m involved in magic and illusion and am sceptical. We’ve talked about fraudulent mediumship a number of times. He says there’s quite a lot of fraud in Spiritualism and has no qualms about stating that the Fox sisters were charlatans. But to allay my suspicions he asks me to examine the room for any wires or other gimmickry. He and the others describe in some detail the kind of phenomena that might be expected. The large oriental chimes in the corner might ring so I’m encouraged to examine them. On a table in the centre of the room is a sheet of paper upon which a spirit message might manifest itself. I check that it is blank. To be honest I felt a little guilty checking these things. I hadn’t come looking for fraud. I’d come looking for an experience that might help me better understand why people believe in spirits.
Eventually we all sit down in a kind of oval arrangement, most of us having the backs of our chairs up against the long walls of the room. I am against one such wall. Norman, who is conducting the séance, is to my left, almost diagonally across from me, his chair situated a little forward of a table on which are a number of lit candles. To my right, some way forward of the door, sits Bob. Bob is a prominent member of the group and I’d heard that he has come to play a significant role in the meetings.
The chimes I had examined are directly to my right, hanging in the corner of the room perhaps four or five feet from the nearest sitter. Another, smaller, set of chimes hangs in the centre of the room. Below it and a couple of feet to its right is a small-topped, four-legged table. Below the table is a tray of sand, which I had also examined, and alongside that is a small African drum, which Bob had brought back from a holiday in Egypt. Bob asks me to smell the leather of the drum saying that often, after the meeting, the leather smells more animal-like.
On top of the table are the blank sheet of paper and a piece of charcoal. And on top of them stands a conical spirit trumpet, maybe a little more than two feet tall. It bears luminous rings around its upper and lower edges and an abstract luminous face on its side. Near the trumpet is a small luminous ball.
To my left, and on the perimeter of the circle of sitters, is a nest of smaller tables and next to that a hi-fi unit on a trolley. It contains an audiocassette tape deck because, as usual, the séance will be recorded. We are all still chatting and sipping our drinks. People are entering the names of people who are ill and in need of prayer into a book which Norman holds. The gathering has a jolly tea party atmosphere and no sense of reverence. Then everyone takes their seats, settles down, and the lights are turned off leaving only the candles for illumination.
Norman turns around to the table and starts to blow the candles out. Gradually the room becomes dark. Very dark. There are luminous stars on the ceiling which give off a faint glow. I can see the luminous dots on the ball on the table. The luminous face on the trumpet gazes directly at me and looks more ominous than it had previously. Norman’s voice can be heard in the darkness. He suggests a prayer. I was expecting some mumbled version of grace and am astounded when the whole group, in complete synchronisation and harmony, boldly and clearly recite a joyful prayer of thanks. The sound is simply amazing, cult-like even, and jolts me into awareness. It felt odd to be the only one not singing. I was later told that if you take the first letter of each line of the prayer it forms the word “blessings.”
A strange silence follows their rousing “Amen,” then, faintly, the oriental chimes in the corner of the room begin to ring. The sound is weak but as the chimes gather momentum it becomes stronger, a slow, heavy ringing which resonates throughout the room. Norman explains that this is the work of Bob’s spirit companion, a monk, hence the bells as a choice of communication tool. “What’s he saying, Bob?” asks Norman. Bob usually acts as interpreter but on this occasion is unsure what the ringing means.
I should explain that, as Norman had warned me, you can hear every little sound in the dark. You rely on sound to locate yourself in the room. The ringing sound was definitely coming from the direction of the chimes. Bob was definitely still in his chair as was the other man nearest the chimes, the man sitting to my immediate right. And the chimes are still ringing.
“Is that a tune?” asks Norman. “Not sure,” replies Bob. We can’t work out why the chimes are ringing and then slowly the chimes seem to lose interest. The sound dwindles away to silence. I do not hear anyone creeping about in the darkness.
The group is quite light-hearted about all this. When nothing is happening they chat a little, recall past incidents, make a joke or two. They ask if I am all right. I am. I also, as you would expect, listen carefully for any suspicious sounds. When people talk you can sometimes hear them move in their seats. When it is silent you can hear them breathe.
Suddenly there is a mighty thumping sound as of someone banging furniture along the floor. “It’s Eddie,” shouts Norman, “Better get your feet under the chairs.” Something heavy is thumping around the room, to my left, somewhere between me and Norman. Everybody laughs because they are familiar with the spirit of Eddie Birkett who is a regular visitor to the meetings. He likes to stomp around the room and if you’re not careful he’ll tread on your toes. The banging and thumping continues for some time. Norman is still in his chair, commentating on the phenomena. “I can feel it coming towards me,” he says.
Then a spiritual game of twenty questions takes place as Norman tries to find out what Eddie wants. He wants to ask something. “Is it a healing question?” says Norman. A single thump from Eddie tells us that it is not. “Is it to do with leaving?” Another thump, another no. “Is it to welcome David?” I am relieved to hear a single thump from Eddie. All we’re getting are lots of “nos”. Finally a couple of rapid thumps indicate a “yes” and the agenda moves on. Eddie is not a particularly intelligent spirit but then he was a woodsman when he was alive and perhaps it is unfair to expect more of him while he is dead. But he supplies Norman with the recipes for healing creams and other herbal medicines. After a while, noisy Eddie leaves us and once again it is silent. The luminous stars on the ceiling have lost a little of their glow but I can see a couple of LEDs on the cassette deck across to my left. It is switched on and recording. I find that I can use these tiny lights as markers in the dark. If anyone crosses them, and I am looking in that direction, their body will block the light.
Now there is a curious sound. Low down to my left, on the floor. Like something scurrying around. “It’s Laker!” says Norman, “Here boy.” Laker is a spirit dog. The original Laker belonged to the lady sitting to my left and she calls out, cheerfully, “Hello Laker.” The scurrying around on the floor does sound something like a dog tapping its paws on the carpet. It seems to spend a lot of time in one place though and I wondered whether a dog might not run around a little more. Then it scampers over to the table and knocks the luminous ball onto the floor. Nothing crosses the luminous face on the trumpet, which has been watching me all this time, so whatever Laker is it is keeping low to the ground.
The luminous ball is batted around the floor. You not only see it, you can hear it because it rattles. The ball comes near me then is batted away. Suddenly it rolls under the chair of the man on my right. He leans down to pick the ball up and accidentally knocks my drink over (fruit juice I swear). He apologises and then throws the ball, towards what I’m not sure while the sitters laugh and giggle at Laker’s antics. For all its playfulness I do not hear Laker panting but then perhaps spirits don’t get out of breath. Also, unlike most dogs, it doesn’t bark. It can though see in the dark and continues playing with the ball without bumping into any of the furniture. Suddenly there is a scream from the woman on my left. Laker has leapt onto her. But it’s not a scream of horror it’s the scream of someone whose overly playful dog has just jumped onto her lap. Norman laughs and then the dog is off again, scurrying around the floor area to my left. Then it leaves without a sound.
I have at this stage no sense of the time that has passed. I remember the luminous dial on my watch but have to bring it real close to make out the time. We’ve been here for over an hour. The next manifestation is not long in coming as Bob’s African drum, located just three feet in front of me, beats out a simple tattoo. The rhythm isn’t particularly clear and, like the chimes before, makes no musical sense. To the unspiritual it might sound like someone kneeling on the floor trying to hit a drum in the dark. But I haven’t heard anyone crawling around on the floor, other than Laker that is.
“Is that for Diana?” asks one of the sitters. “Could you drum a message for my friend who isn’t particularly well at the moment?” asks another. I’d been told that the drum plays healing rhythms. Various sitters make requests for people who they know are sick and the drum obliges by beating an uneven tune. Each tune is different from the one before but not distinctive enough to give Mick Fleetwood any worries. The end of each message is signalled by a dramatic and rapid flourish. Then the drum healing session is over. Silence. I don’t hear anyone crawl back to their seat.
A little later, from Norman’s direction, I hear a strange guttural sound. I’ve seen enough horror movies to realise that something is taking possession of his body. Norman’s spirit guide, Ambullah, makes its appearance. It sounds like Norman, but then it is using Norman’s vocal chords to speak, but the grammar has become scrambled as if someone is translating from German to English.
“Good to see you,” says Ambullah in an authoritative manner. “Hello,” responds one of the sitters. “To see you it is good,” says Ambullah. Then someone asks if they can ask a question. “You ask your question and I will — how you say — help advise you.” Questions are asked and Ambullah offers reassuring spiritual advice. One sitter asks about a friend who has a scalp problem, another about a problem with her knee. The advice has a folk medicine quality about it and often involves rubbing ointments on the affected areas.
I’m drawn into the conversation when someone asks Ambullah whether I have a spirit companion. Ambullah says that I have. Bob asks Ambullah to spell out the name of my spirit guide but Ambullah declines, saying that now is not the time. And after what seems a good twenty minutes with Ambullah he says his farewells and leaves Norman’s body. Norman wakes from his possessed state. The other sitters laugh about the fact that they will have to tell Norman what Ambullah said after the meeting. Apparently Norman has no recollection of any events that occur while he’s in a trance state.
It feels cold but then it is winter and there are no lights to suggest warmth. The darkness makes you more aware of the temperature around you. “Do you know any songs David?” asks Norman. I tell them how I was excluded from the school choir because of my unusual vocal interpretations. “What about Daisy Daisy?” says someone in the darkness. “We need to warm things up again,” says Norman, “I’ll start.” And he does. Everyone in the room, myself included, is singing, “Daisy, Daisy what am I going to do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you.” We make a rousing chorus and you feel the room warm to our cheery song. Through the noise I hear, or think I hear, a peculiar sound… Psssst! Pssssst! For a moment I think it is some kind of scratching sound. Then it’s gone and the song, which is loud and boisterous, continues. Everyone is in a good mood and having a fine old time. As the song ends I can smell flowers.
“Can you smell that?” Says someone. I say I can. We inhale the perfume and try to identify the scent. There’s something spring meadow-like about it. I wondered whether the sound I heard was that of an aerosol spray or simply my imagination. The next sound certainly isn’t imagined.
There’s a tapping on the ceiling above us. Poe would be proud. It’s a light but rapid tap, tap, tap. It moves a little but is clearly coming from the ceiling area between myself and Norman. Tap, tap, tap. “It’s Lil,” says the lady on my left. Another familiar spirit. She taps some more and then rattles the small set of chimes on the ceiling. I’m quite sure that no one is standing beneath them. The lightness and speed of the taps would suggest that it’s someone with a fishing rod hitting the ceiling and then giving the chimes a smack or two. But this is purely a sceptical supposition. To the sitters it is Lil.
The raps disappear and I think I hear the noise of a rod collapsing before being returned to its hiding place. I wonder if the darkness is making me paranoid. If I see a spirit I’ll think I’m hallucinating. The luminous face on the spirit trumpet opposite me seems to move. I am hallucinating. No, wait a minute, it’s really moving. It’s moving because the table it is on is moving, from my right to my left. The table drags itself across the carpet towards Norman. Then there is a crash and I think the Egyptian drum, which was standing next to the table, has toppled over. “That’s the drum,” says Bob, as if to reassure us.
The table continues to creep towards Norman. Then the table jerks from side to side as if tilting back and forth in the dark. The movements need to be interpreted. Norman asks if we should spell out the meaning. Someone recites the alphabet and the table moves when they call out “G”. The process is repeated until we have G, E and O and someone says, “It’s George.” George is back. The table moves nearer Norman and the spirit trumpet starts to levitate. It moves around then flies across the room as if thrown. Then there’s silence. Two hours have past. There are no more manifestations. The meeting is at an end. Bob gets up and makes his way to the lights and we all shield our eyes when he switches them on. I can see the drum on its side. The table is far from its starting point. The trumpet is on the floor. There are some strange marks in the tray of sand. We look at the sheet of paper which is still on the table top. It has something scrawled on it but we’re not sure what. It might be a D and a B, my initials, then again it might not.
We drift off to the kitchen where a variety of sandwiches and cakes are to be had. “Well, what did you make of it?” asked Norman. I tell them that I’m sceptical of spirits but I can honestly say that it was one of the most interesting evenings I’ve ever had. And it truly was. I wasn’t interested in whether it was real or not. I wasn’t looking for spiritual enlightenment. But I did want to find out what the experience of sitting in a séance was like. And it’s thrilling. There’s no two ways about it, as entertainment it was marvellous. No wonder it was popular. The Fox sisters, Henry Slade and the amazing Daniel Dunglas Home must have put on a spectacular show. Those who wanted some kind of spiritual comfort probably got that too.
At the end of the evening we say our farewells and one of the group gives me a ride to the train station. She asks how it felt to be sitting in on such a bizarre affair. “You won’t find a barmier bunch than us,” she says, laughing. Oh no? Maybe I should invite them to a magic convention.
Photo credit: Elaina Morgan, Pixabay