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12 Weird Vintage Pictures From Séances

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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.

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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.


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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.

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The Strange Reason Why It's Illegal to Take Nighttime Photos of the Eiffel Tower
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The Eiffel Tower is one of the most-photographed landmarks on Earth, but if photographers aren't careful, snapping a picture of the Parisian tower at the wrong hour and sharing it in the wrong context could get them in legal trouble. As Condé Nast Traveler reports, the famous monument is partially protected under European copyright law.

In Europe, copyrights for structures like the Eiffel Tower expire 70 years after the creator's death. Gustave Eiffel died in 1923, which means the tower itself has been public domain since 1993. Tourists and professional photographers alike are free to publish and sell pictures of the tower taken during the day, but its copyright status gets a little more complicated after sundown.

The Eiffel Tower today is more than just the iron structure that was erected in the late 19th century: In 1985, it was outfitted with a nighttime lighting system consisting of hundreds of projectors, a beacon, and tens of thousands of light bulbs that twinkle every hour on the hour. The dazzling light show was designed by Pierre Bideau, and because the artist is alive, the copyright is still recognized and will remain so for at least several decades.

That being said, taking a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower after dark and sharing it on Instagram won't earn you a visit from Interpol. The law mainly applies to photographers taking pictures for commercial gain. To make sure any pictures you take of the illuminated tower fall within the law, you can contact the site's operating company to request publishing permission and pay for rights. Or you can wait until the sun comes up to snap as many perfectly legal images of the Parisian icon as you please.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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Scientists Share the Most Ridiculous Stock Photos of Their Jobs on Twitter
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If you picture a scientist as a guy in a white lab coat who spends all day glaring at vials, you can blame popular media. A quick image search of the word scientist brings up dozens of stock photos that fit this stereotype. And when photos do diverge from the norm, things start to get weird. Now real-life scientists are sharing some of these bizarre depictions on Twitter using the hashtag #badstockphotosofmyjob.

Some stock photos contain errors that would go unnoticed by most members of the public. But show a professional a model posing with a beaker of dyed water, or a backwards double-helix, and they might have something to say.

Despite all the lab gear, safety rules are apparently broken all the time in stock photo world. On rare occasions fake scientists ditch the lab coats altogether for lingerie—or nothing at all.

Even more puzzling scientist stock photo trends include injecting plants with mysterious liquid and holding stethoscopes up to inanimate objects.

Fortunately, scientists from the real world are much better at their jobs than scientists in stock photos make them out to be. To get a clearer picture of how a scientist's job differs from the stereotype, check out some behind-the-scenes accounts of their work in the field.

[h/t IFL Science]

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