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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.

1. SPIRIT RAPPING

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."

2. MANIFESTATION CABINETS

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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.

3. SPIRIT SLATES

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.

4. ECTOPLASM

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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.

5. SPIRIT TRUMPETS

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."

6. FIRE TESTS

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.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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