12 Weird Vintage Pictures From Séances

Getty Images
Getty Images

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spiritualism—a belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living—was all the rage. There was no trendier activity than holding a séance led by a medium, who would mediate between the living and the dead. The medium not only delivered messages from the dearly departed, but also demonstrated the presence of spirits in the room by levitating objects, ringing bells, and producing a substance from her body known as ectoplasm.

Those were excellent tricks, but that's all they were—mediums were often shown to be frauds. “Exposures are of frequent occurrence, many of them highly sensational in character,” wrote the New York Times in a November 21, 1909 article titled “Notable Charlatans Exposed In The Past: A Weird History That Leaves Spiritualism Undaunted.” (You can view a PDF of the article here.) “Slate writing, spirit pictures, table tipping, rapping, and other features of Spiritualism have been exposed time and again. The exposures mount into the hundreds.”

With that in mind, here are 12 weird vintage pictures from séances—including one of magician Harry Houdini—and some explanations for what’s happening in them.

1. A group of people in France hold a séance, 1870.

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At these events, the medium (presumably the guy in the blindfold) would hold hands with the other participants to show that he could not be manipulating any objects himself. But mediums had other methods for making tables tip.

2. Paris, 1900.

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In a 1900 séance held in Paris, a table apparently moves on its own—but in actuality, the so-called medium was moving it, of course.

3. and 4. Rome, 1909.

These photos appear in the New York Times article noted above. The séance pictured took place in 1909 at the Rome, Italy studio of Baron von Erhardt, who set up a test for the medium (the article states that the medium is a man named Eusapia Paladino, but Eusapia Palladino was actually a famous female medium; the lone woman of the group might be her).

Whenever the medium was giving a demonstration, the Baron would press a button, which activated both the camera and the flashlight behind it, illuminating Paladino and snapping a picture. “Thus he pictures tables suspended in the air, the medium with his coat removed, apparently by ‘spirit’ hands, and flung against the screen of the cabinet, and a mandolin in the air,” the New York Times said. No word on whether or not the medium passed the test.

5. and 6. Marthe Beraud in action, 1910.


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Medium Marthe Beraud (also known as Eva C. and Eva Carrière) show-stopping séance specialty was excreting ectoplasm. The material was said to be formed when mediums were in a trance state; it could only be created in near darkness (light, mediums said, would make it disintegrate), and it was emitted from orifices on the medium's body (Beraud's usually came from her mouth, nose or ears).


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But rather than being some spiritual substance, the so-called ectoplasm was usually gauze, muslin, chiffon, or, in the case of Mina "Margery" Crandon, sheep's lung. Beraud was the first medium to perform the ectoplasm trick, and one of her outspoken supporters was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

7. Beraud, 1912.

Wikimedia Commons

Here's another photo of Beraud, this one taken in 1912, apparently showing a light manifestation between her hands and a materialization on her head. In 1922, scientists sat in on 15 of Beraud's séances, and thoroughly debunked her.

8. Levitating instrument, 1920.


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A musical instrument rises in the air at a séance, though it's not likely that ghostly hands are doing the lifting.

9. Ghost arm, 1920.


National Media Museum's Flickr Stream

This photo of a seance, snapped by renowned spirit photographer William Hope around 1920, supposedly shows a ghostly arm levitating the table. In reality, the arm was superimposed during a double exposure.

10. Houdini's "Margie Box"

Mediums had no greater opponent than magician Harry Houdini, who denounced them as frauds. In fact, he had almost a secondary career debunking the methods of famous mediums during séances and performing their tricks as part of his stage show. He even asked his wife to help him show how mediums pull off certain tricks.

In 1924, Houdini was part of a committee investigating Boston medium Mina "Margery" Crandon, the wife of a respected surgeon and Harvard faculty member. Crandon had entered herself in a contest of sorts, run by Scientific American, that offered a monetary prize to the medium able to produce a "visual psychic manifestation." Here, Houdini is shown in the "Margie Box," which was intended to limit the medium's physical movements within the séance room and contain her suspected manipulations; Houdini built the box himself. The committee sat in on 20 séances, and the debate about Crandon's abilities lasted for a year, but ultimately, Scientific American opted not to award her the money.

11. Meurig Morris, 1931


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This photo, snapped September 10, 1931, shows medium Meurig Morris holding an onstage séance at the Fortune Theatre in London. Morris was more of a mental medium than a physical one: She would go into a trance and supposedly channel a spirit that called itself Power. Her body would stiffen, and her voice changed from soprano to baritone. She would preach on philosophical and religious matters for up to 45 minutes at a time. You can check out Morris in action here.

12. A medium Caught in the Act, 1950.


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In séances, mediums often asked spirits to demonstrate their power by levitating or moving a table. But this medium, at a 1950 séance, got sloppy: a photographer caught her using her knee to tip the table, just one method mediums used to make things appear to move by ghostly hands.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

This Mobile Art Museum Is Visiting Every Neighborhood in New Orleans

NOMA
NOMA

Whether a museum specializes in art, history, or giant shoes, it tends to have a fixed address. The New Orleans Museum of Art is challenging that norm. As Hyperallergic reports, NOMA is expanding its reach to new neighborhoods with help from a traveling art trailer.

The mobile museum, dubbed NOMA+, lacks many of the features museum-goers take for granted. Instead of a Greek facade complete with towering columns, the outside of the tiny museum takes the form of a plain white shipping trailer. When it's parked, the unit folds out to include a ramp and two decks with blue awnings, erasing the need for doors and walls.

The brick-and-mortar NOMA charges $12 admission for adults, and offers free admission for Louisiana residents on Wednesdays, but regardless of the ticket price, the museum isn't equally accessible to everyone. For some, the time and cost it takes to get there is more than they can afford. Others might be intimated by the building's imposing architecture, or more generally, the art world's history of catering to a largely white and wealthy crowd.

With NOMA+, the museum plans to make stops throughout the greater New Orleans area. The pop-up's first project, #EverydayNewOrleans, a collaboration with the nonprofit Everyday Projects and the New Orleans Photo Alliance, invites community members to participate in photography workshops and use disposable cameras and smartphones to snap photos of the city. Images selected from the workshops are displayed as part of Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories, an exhibition running at NOMA until September 16.

So far, NOMA+ has set up shop at schools, community centers, and service organizations in six New Orleans communities. NOMA hopes to eventually bring the roaming museum to all 72 neighborhoods in the greater metro area.

NOMA+ Time Lapse Open from New Orleans Museum of Art on Vimeo.

[h/t Hyperallergic]

Worried About Getting Duped by Fake Photos? Try This Browser Plug-In

iStock
iStock

It’s easier than ever to get fooled online, especially by photos. Sophisticated editing can make doctored images look like legitimate photojournalism, and a surprising number of the viral images that show up in our social media feeds are at best misleadingly taken out of context, and at worst, completely doctored. But if you’re not a Photoshop expert, you may not be able to tell. That’s where SurfSafe comes in. The new browser extension helps flag fake or misleading images as you surf the web, as Wired reports.

Available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers, SurfSafe allows users to cross-reference where photos have shown up before online. It compares images with similar photos from news organizations, fact-checking sites, and reports from its users to determine whether you should trust what you’re seeing.

It flags images as either “safe,” “warning,” or “unsafe” depending on whether there are other versions of the photo out there that show a substantially different image and whether it’s been the subject of any controversy. When you click on the magnifying glass in the right-hand corner of an image, a window will appear in the right-hand corner of your tab aggregating instances where that image or something similar has shown up elsewhere on the web.

Two side-by-side images of SurfSafe's warning alert
Screenshot, SurfSafe

When you enable SurfSafe, you can choose to mark a number of sources as “safe,” including TV news networks like ABC and CBS, wire services like Reuters, papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and websites like Slate and Ars Technica. Wired reports that the extension also checks more than 100 other sites, including dedicated fact-checking sites like Snopes.

But some of the sources you’re allowed to mark as “safe” aren’t entirely reputable themselves. The list includes sites that have a well-known reputation for being unreliable, like The Daily Mail—whose standards for factual accuracy are so low that Wikipedia no longer allows it as a source. Presumably, if an image is cross-checked against 100 other sites as well, the extension will be able to flag a misleading photo, but it still seems like an odd choice for a fact-checking plug-in regardless.

SurfSafe 'Report an Image' window
Screenshot, SurfSafe

The browser extension just launched, so the developers may still be working some kinks out. During my trial run, the extension sometimes lagged and failed to finish analyzing particular images. Other times it incorrectly reported that an image had not been spotted on any other site, though a reverse-image search on Google turned up plenty of hits for the same photo.

Eventually, the more people who use SurfSafe, the bigger its database of verified and flagged images will grow, in theory making its results more and more accurate. Even with its shortcomings, unless you dedicate yourself to becoming an eagle-eyed Photoshop expert and news junkie, it’s probably your best chance at navigating the often-murky world of viral images without falling for a hoax.

[h/t Wired]

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