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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.


Getty Images

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).


Getty Images

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.


Getty Images

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


Getty Images

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.


Getty Images

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.

Turn Your Phone Into an Instant Camera With KODAK's New Handheld Printer

KODAK
KODAK

Instant cameras are all the rage, but when you're already carrying a high-end camera everywhere you go in the form of your smartphone, the idea of carrying around an extra gadget might seem like more work than it's worth. You don't have to choose between the convenience of your phone's camera and the fun of having a tangible memento. KODAK's new SMILE digital printer combines all the fun of using filters and image editing on your phone with the delight of having a printed copy of your photo.

Blue, green, black, red, and white KODAK SMILE printers printing photos
The KODAK SMILE line of instant digital printers
KODAK

The handheld Bluetooth printer—which is roughly the same size as KODAK's SMILE instant digital camera—lets you edit photos on your phone, then print your image instantly on 2-inch-by-3-inch sticker paper. Using the KODAK SMILE app, you can add Instagram-esque filters; rotate images and change contrast, brightness, and other characteristics; and add stickers, text, doodles, and borders.

Most uniquely, you can add augmented reality elements to your photos, so that when you (or someone else with the KODAK SMILE app) point the app at the physical print, the image is replaced by a short video clip. The effect is something like the moving photographs in Harry Potter—you can surprise your friends by asking them to view a photo through the app's AR function, then watch their delight as the still image begins to move.

The KODAK SMILE app
KODAK

KODAK sent Mental Floss both the SMILE instant camera and the SMILE printer to test, and while there's a lot of fun in snapping photos on an instant camera and accepting whatever weird flaws that photo might have (though you can do some light editing on the SMILE camera before printing), in our opinion, the breadth of image-editing features and convenience of being able to print photos you've already taken on your smartphone makes the digital printer the better option if you're trying to choose between the two.

This is especially true if you're going on vacation or trying to capture a night out on camera; it's just easier to whip out your phone rather than break out another camera, and it's easier to edit photos on your phone than to manipulate photos on the SMILE instant camera's small screen.

Blue, black, green, white, and red KODAK SMILE instant-print cameras
The KODAK SMILE line of instant-print digital cameras
KODAK

The SMILE printer is available on Amazon and Walmart for $100 and comes in five different colors: white, black, blue, green, and red. The SMILE instant-print digital camera is also $100 on Amazon and Walmart and is available in the same colors.

While the camera and the printer both come with a starter pack of sticker-backed ZINK photo paper, you can get 50 refill sheets for $24 when you run out.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Here's the Best Way to See New York's Manhattanhenge Sunset

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

New Yorkers are going to see a lot of people stopping to take pictures of the horizon in the coming days. Manhattanhenge, a term used to describe the two days of the year when the Sun sets in perfect alignment with Manhattan's east-west street grid, will be visible at 8:13 p.m. on May 29 (half-sun, the preferred view for photographers) and 8:12 p.m. May 30 (full sun). Here's a sample of what you can expect to see.

People taking pictures of Manhattanhenge
Mike Pont/Getty Images for S.Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water

Manhattanhenge takes its name from the same phenomenon at Stonehenge, when the solstice Sun lines up perfectly with the large stones. To get the best view in the city, Dr. Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, told The New York Times to stand as far east as you can and look west toward New Jersey. Cross streets that offer an ideal view include 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, and 79th streets. She also recommends Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens as an option in a different borough.

A view of Manhattanhenge
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Can't make it to New York this week? Manhattanhenge will make another appearance on July 12 and July 13. If you want to know more about the phenomenon, the museum will be hosting a presentation by Faherty at Hayden Planetarium at 7 p.m. on July 11.

This story was updated in 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER