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6 Classic Séance Tricks Explained

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Today self-proclaimed psychics tend to get a bad rap, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries they enjoyed celebrity status. Whether the medium performed at home or on stage, the chance to see them summon disembodied hands, decipher otherworldly messages, and belch up ectoplasm was considered quality entertainment back in the day. These so-called communions with the dead have since generally been debunked as clever parlor tricks (thanks to skeptics like Harry Houdini). But knowing the behind-the-scenes secrets of séances doesn’t make them sound any less entertaining.


The famous Fox sisters had spirit rapping to thank for their careers. After their mother heard mysterious knocks coming from the walls and furniture of their home, she concluded the noise was metaphysical in nature. The Fox girls were indeed responsible for the rapping, but the source was actually apples they had tied with string and bounced against the floor of their bedroom.

The sisters used this concept as the basis for their medium act. During séances, they would recite the alphabet and pretend to wait for spirits to slowly spell out messages. The "ghosts" they corresponded with weren’t really ghosts at all, nor were they apples. Rather, the girls produced the sounds themselves by manipulating the joints in their knuckles and toes.

After relying on the trick for decades, one of the sisters decided to reveal her fraud to a live audience by banging her bare toe against a wooden stool to show them how it was done. The New York Herald wrote, "There stood a black-robed, sharp-faced widow working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird."


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After first appearing on the séance scene in the 1850s, manifestation cabinets, or spirit cabinets, soon became a staple of the genre. Mediums would enter the cabinets (often curtained-off sections of stage) with their hands bound to prevent them from faking any paranormal activity. To gain the full trust of the audience, they sometimes invited spectators to come on stage and tie the ropes to their liking. Once the curtains were drawn and the lights were extinguished, all sorts of spooky mayhem took place. Hands poked out from between the drapes, ghostly figures materialized, and instruments left on the floor of the cabinet started to play themselves. At the end of the scene the curtains parted to reveal the medium tied up just as they were left.

This was a convincing trick in its time, and all it required was a little escape artistry to pull off. The medium would slip their bonds as soon as they were out of sight, freeing their hands to stand in for the rambunctious spirits. Meanwhile, accomplices would wait for the lights to go out to slip in through trap doors elsewhere on stage. As long as the ropes were refastened before the trick’s conclusion, the audience was never the wiser.


As an alternative to the tedious task of spelling out messages one letter at a time via ouija board, mediums often used slates that spirits could supposedly write on themselves. Séance participants were given a pair of black slates and told to jot down their messages to the deceased on a slip of paper that was then sandwiched between the boards. Once the slabs were bound together, the medium would hold them to the sitter’s head, shoulder, or perhaps hang them from the chandelier for a few moments while waiting for the spirit convey their thoughts. After finally separating the slates, a mystical message would be revealed inside.

There were a few ways for mediums to pull off this sham, one of which involved a strategically placed square of cardboard. A black sheet cut to the exact size and shape of the slate would be laid inside the frame, hiding the pre-written message beneath it. When it came time to take apart the two slates the medium lifted up the prepared cardboard off the top and left the flap to cover the blank slate on the bottom. The extra slate was quickly brushed away, with the note from the great beyond providing a convenient distraction.


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On occasion, lucky séance participants were treated to the sight of ectoplasm oozing from their mediums. The gauzy substance was said to be part of the supernatural veil separating the spiritual realm from the physical one. The trick required near-darkness or else, according to mediums, the ectoplasm would disintegrate. Once the conduit reached a trance-like state, various orifices would secrete the material, signaling a breach between worlds.

One of the mediums best known for this phenomenon was Marthe Beraud (also known as Eva C. and Eva Carrière). Instead of extruding ghostly goo through her mouth, nose, and ears, she stuffed them with muslin or a similar fabric. She sometimes added photos clipped out from newspapers to give the ectoplasm a bit of personality. This signature touch ended up being her downfall: The faces she used (which included those of actress Mona Delza, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and Woodrow Wilson) were eventually recognized, exposing her deception.


Houdini with a spirit trumpet. Image credit: Popular Science, 1925

One of the most unusual accessories to come out of the spiritualism craze was the spirit trumpet. Without context, the instrument more closely resembles a cheap telescope than a tool for communicating with the dead. Such contraptions were believed to amplify the whispers of spirits and could produce sounds when the medium was nowhere near it. Of course the medium was behind every murmur: A rubber hose connecting the trumpet on stage to a manifestation cabinet could be threaded beneath the carpet, allowing the out-of-sight psychic to provide the vocals. More outrageous accounts of trumpets floating "around the room in a bright light, tapping the sitters on the head, talking and going through a whole lot of strange maneuvers without any assistance from mortals," have been spread in the past. In the 1903 book Mysteries of the Séance and Tricks and Traps of Bogus Mediums, the author advises readers who’ve heard of such scenes to "sprinkle a little salt on the tale before you swallow it."


Mediums would sometimes subject themselves to a series of trials to prove their connection to their spiritual realm. One especially convincing trick was the fire test: The mediums in question boasted that a special power given to them by the spirits made them impervious to heat. They backed up this claim by holding hot coals, waving their hands through flames, and performing other feats of pain endurance. The reason they were able to pull this off without screaming in agony boils down to chemistry. A mixture of a few basic components—namely camphor gum, whiskey, quicksilver, and liquid storax—could be used to create a fireproof glove of sorts. But no matter how desperate you are to take your séance to the next level, this is one trick we don’t recommend trying at home.

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.


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