Flashback Friday: 19th century Spiritualism, fakers and fakery

Instead of “Fashion Friday,” today will be “Flashback Friday.”  I’m re-posting an earlier piece on seance cons in the 19th century, and the devices used.  Enjoy!
The Entertainment Circuit

We often think of seances as events held inside private homes, sort of like consulting a fortune-teller’s tent at a carnival.  Certainly, many mediums worked in this way, but the biggest money-making venue for spiritualist performers was the stage.  Mediums, magicians and mind readers played up the glamor and drama of their special access to the spiritual world.

Kellar the Magician (Harry Kellar), was particularly successful.  His tricks, such as ‘The Vanishing Lamp’ and ‘The Levitation of Princess Karnac‘ made him a popular draw.  One of his most famous illusions is depicted in the poster to the left: the ‘spirit cabinet.’  This was an invention of Kellar‘s mentors the Davenport Brothers, which came to be widely used by other spiritualist performers in the 19th century. “By confining himself to the cabinet while feats of unexplained trickery manifested around him, Kellar could ‘prove’ the tricks were products of an unseen spiritual hand.”

Source: http://theboweryboys.blogspot.com/2010_10_01_archive.html

Other Tools of the Trade:

Even the home-bound seance medium needed some props in her arsenal.  “Spirit trumpets” were horn-shaped speaking tubes that were said to magnify the whispered voices of spirits so that mortals could hear them.

“Spirit slates” consisted of two chalkboards bound together that, when opened, were said to reveal messages written by spirits.  The trick was performed by putting a blank slate on an audience member’s head, or asking him/her to hold it under the table.  Then, after a suitable interval, a chalk-written message would be revealed.  It wouldn’t be that difficult to switch out a pre-written slate, or for the medium to hold a piece of chalk in a ring and become proficient at writing under the table.


“Séance tables” were special light-weight tables which were said to rotate, float, or levitate when spirits were present.


Next week:  Exposures of frauds, and thoughts on why so many women were mediums.

Thanks for reading,

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12 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: 19th century Spiritualism, fakers and fakery”

  1. educlaytion.comeduclaytion.com

    You're covering one of the coolest topics ever! Sorry I'm late to the punch here. Some of the funnest research I've ever done was on the life of Harry Houdini (http://post-gazette.com/pg/09081/957168-109.stm). I'm sure you know he was the biggest fraud exposer of them all. I'm a big American history guy anyway but spiritual matters and pop culture to boot? Great, great post.

  2. Nancy LauzonNancy Lauzon

    Hi Kathy,

    I’ve never been to a seance, on purpose … I think it would freak me out! As usual, a fascinating subject.

    Have a great weekend!

    Chick Dick Mysteries

  3. Xandra JamesXandra James

    One of my favourite subjects to read – loved the post! 🙂 x

  4. Loree HuebnerLoree Huebner

    Interesting post.

    I think it was easier to fool people back then…

  5. Gene LemppGene Lempp

    Nicely done, Kathy!

    Barnum called it dead on when he said “There is a sucker born every minute.” If someone wants to believe in a cure they essentially con themselves into believing anything the person who claims to have the cure says.


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