I asked a spiritualist, “How’s business?”
“Just medium,” he replied
While Spiritualism was taken very seriously as a kind of New Revelation by many adherents, the press seized on its eccentricities as always good for a journalistic laugh. And, frankly, some Spiritualists made it all too easy to ridicule the faith. Here are some characteristic specimens of 19th-century Spiritualist humor.
What are the most interesting effects of “spirit drawings”?
Getting out the cork, and imbibing the spirits.
More Puniana, Hugh Rowley, 1875
The Boston Post gives the following practical turn to the spiritual controversy: We offer a reward of five dollars a day to any rappers who will not move a table in our dining room, but cover it with a dinner for five persons at 3 o’clock P. M. each day in the week, and then quietly withdraw while we and our interesting family devour it. This shoving round empty tables does no good. Meat—meat is the thing. Weekly Vincennes [IN] Gazette 22 July 1857
To hear a dead-watch, denotes that there is a little insect near you. A ringing in your ear that you have taken a little cold. To see strange things, or hear dismal sounds, is a sign that there is something to cause them, or that your head or nervous system is disordered. To have frightful dreams is a sign that you ate too much supper. To see an apparition or to be bewitched is an incontestable evidence that you are lacking common sense. Any other solution in the above cases in humbuggery. Daily Ohio Statesman [Columbus, OH] 24 June 1858: p. 1
What is the spiritualists’ paper?
More Puniana, Hugh Rowley, 1875
A LOVER OF STATISTICS
There was a séance on –a regular séance, with a black cheesecloth cabinet and a mysterious table rapper and a ghostly guitar picker and a smell of frying cabbage floating in from the back of the house. The medium was a stout lady in black, who was raising a brown mustache and whose controls took those liberties with the English language which seemingly is permitted in a realm where there is neither space nor time—nor grammar. She came from Brooklyn, but at the time of which I speak she was playing the provinces, as the troupers say. The audience was of fairish size.
Amid the throng sat a half grown youth from about three miles out on R.F.D. No. 3. He was attending his first séance. And he was being suitably impressed. As manifestation succeeded manifestation, his eyes popped and his ears twitched. If he had had gills, beyond doubt they would have opened and closed.
Presently the medium’s husband, who acted, so to speak, as ringmaster, desired to know whether there was yet another present desirous of having speech with some departed one. If so, madame would undertake to establish liason.
This was the cue for the yokel. He mustered courage to stutter an embarrassed plea.
He wished to have speech with the shade of his late father.
After a proper wait there were sounds in the cabinet and through the darkness there spoke the tones of one of seeming hoary age.
“Is that you, my son?” asked the voice.
“Yes, paw, this here is me,” answered the youth.
“Was there any questions you wished to ast me concernin’ my present state?” continued the accommodating voice.
The boy thought a moment. Then, “Where air you, paw?” he inquired with simple directness.
“Heaven, my son.”
“Air you an angel, paw?”
“O, yes, my son?”
“An angel with wings and a harp and everything?”
The answer was somewhat muffled but seemingly in the affirmative. The son considered a moment. Then he had an inspiration.
“Say, paw,” he demanded eagerly, “what do you measure from tip to tip?”
Boston [MA] Evening Globe 11 February 1922: p. 10
Reporter: “Mme. Gostwok, the spiritualist, does an enormous business.”
Publisher: “That’s because she’s such a good advertising medium.” Judge’s Library: A Monthly Magazine of Fun, Volumes 202-213, 1906
NAPOLEON CONFRONTS SÉANCE WEARING BERLIN LAUNDRY CHECK
Weird Form Terrifies Audience Until the Hoax is Discovered, Then Laughter of One of the Spectators is Taken for Mad Fit.
Berlin. Feb. 7. The invocation of the spirit of Napoleon at a séance held at the Spiritist club, known as the “Green Phantom,” had a ludicrous termination. A large audience was assembled in the darkened, purple-draped room when in deep bass tones a voice asked one of the guests, mentioning him by name, whom he desired to see.
The man, a lawyer’s clerk named Schwalbheim, replied with much trepidation, “Napoleon.”
Fifteen minutes’ tense silence followed. Then a weird form approached the platform with measured tread and in a sepulchral voice thus addressed Schwalbheim:
“Behold! I am Napoleon! Draw nigh, O mortal, and tell me what is thy desire!”
At these words the women in the audience shrieked with terror, clinging to their male escorts who themselves were trembling in every limb.
Schwalbheim, however, approached the platform with shaking knees and was just stammering “Illustrious spirit of the great Napoleon,” when he made a remarkable discovery.
On the neck of the uncanny apparition he observed a small shield on which were distinctly visible the words, “B. Schulze, laundry loan institute.”
Schwalbheim burst into loud laughter and leaped at the ghost, who, however, escaped him, disappearing amid horrible imprecations, beneath the flooring.
The terrified guests, who mistook Schwalbheim’s laughter for an outburst of madness, made a wild rush for the door and were only calmed by the man’s explanations. Denver [CO] Post 8 February 1920: p. 60
A circle being requested to “tune up,” commenced the immortal, never-fading “Shall we Gather at the River?” As they ceased, an influence manifested itself, unknown to anyone there. On being asked who he was, he answered: “I am the unhappy composer of ‘Shall we Gather at the River?’ Had my life been twice as sinful as it was, I should have expiated everything by the purgatory I have suffered in hearing that tune sung so often and so badly at your various meetings. Cannot you possibly find something else to sing? I am sick to death of it.” The Spirit World, Florence Marryat, 1895
[The author was Robert Lowry (1826-1899), who wrote the hymn in 1864. Obviously the spirit complainant must have been an imposter. Stories about Spiritualists conjuring up the “spirits” of living or non-existent people are a cliche in the literature. In response, mediums claimed that they were not responsible for “lying spirits,” who were attracted by sceptics.]
A HORSE’S GOOD FORTUNE.
A Spiritualist came to our house some time ago and claimed to be able to locate our lost friends if we desired. We had an old horse which we had sold years ago, and my mother wanted to know where he was.
Mother began, “We had a very good friend who always did all our work. He passed from us several years ago and the last we heard of him was that he was in Los Angeles. I would like to know if he is still living.”
The spiritualist made certain motions and knocked on the table, and then said, “Your friend is in Los Angeles and is married to a rich young woman.” Judge’s Library: A Monthly Magazine of Fun, Volumes 202-213, 1906
As I mentioned in the previous post on sex in the séance room, “spirit marriages” were often promoted by the “spirits.” These were invariably reported in a spirit of ridicule.
An individual who has a husband in California, who has learned, by experience, that it is not only not good for man, but for woman also “to be alone,” and who, in her loneliness, has come so far within the attractive influence of one who is not her husband, as to make “a local habitation and a name” with him an object of strong desire, enters a spirit circle, and is there accosted, very unexpectedly, it is affirmed, by the spirit of her husband, from whom she had failed to obtain information at the time expected. With the tenderest expressions of affection, he informs her that he is no longer in the body, but an inhabitant of the “spirit land.” There was one thing, and only one, requisite to the completion of his happiness there — her immediate union, in marriage, with the individual above referred to. The ceremony must be performed the very next evening — we think that was the time — at such an hour, and in such a room, which was to be darkened, where he would be present, and himself as a rapping revelator, preside over and conduct the exercises. Of course the mourning widow was not “disobedient to the heavenly vision,” and the desired union was consummated accordingly. After the lapse of a few weeks, however, a letter arrived from the California husband, bearing date some days subsequent to the ceremony in the dark room. So strong was the sympathy of “the spirits” for human woe, in this instance, that they were willing to become reckless liars for its relief. New but false information was here conveyed. Such are some of the credibly reported doings and new revelations of the spirits in the State of Ohio. Modern Mysteries Explained and Exposed, Asa Mahan, 1855
Why He Didn’t Know.
It was at a spiritualistic séance in Philadelphia that this incident took place. Captain Morrell of the steamship British Prince was engaged to Miss Souley, who at a former séance met a “spirit lover,” said to be Harry Montague, the actor. “I’ll tell you what we’ll do,” said the captain on his last voyage here; “we’ll get married and then we’ll go to the séance and see whether this dead actor fellow knows how he has been cut out.” This was agreed to, and sure enough at the next séance Harry proceeded to make love to Miss Souley, just as though she was not already another man’s possession. Finally Mrs. Morrell exclaimed: “Why, Harry, don’t you know what has taken place?” Harry didn’t. Then Mrs. Morrell announced her marriage and asked Harry how, if he loved her so, he didn’t know it? This was a staggerer for the spirit, but whoever took the part of Montague came to the scratch in great form with the explanation: “Why, you see, we don’t have marriages in heaven, and so of course I couldn’t know anything about it.” Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 15 August 1895
[Harry [Henry James] Montague was a handsome matinee idol of the 1860s-70s. He died in 1878, age 34.]
I wish I knew more about the author of this next, homespun tale about the antics of some local Spiritualists, which the author claims to have witnessed.
ASSISTING THE SPIRITS
I well remember the Spirit Rapping craze that swept over the country in the early 50s. I was but a small…boy then and the uncanny subject made me exceedingly careful of the dark…and made me sleep well under cover when in bed. The craze struck Troy [Ohio] with a vengeance, and table tipping grew quite common, that being the medium of communication among spirits in that section. A family named Allen, living in one of our houses near us, gave weekly expositions of ghostly telegraphy to wide-eyed crowds, the man and wife operating the table. My father, who was a profound disbeliever of the craze and a straight-backed Baptist, was greatly annoyed at the ghostly reputation his hitherto quiet property was accumulating and set his head on giving them manifestations of a more material nature for the fun of it, also thinking to drive the mediums out and hoping they would take their immaterial retainers along with them…. My father who was a carpenter, had a number of young men working for him, let them into the secret, and it was their business to be at the séance and rather help things along. Knowing nothing of what was up, on the night in question, I was one of the crowd that filled the sitting room. I had gone there with many misgivings through a great curiosity, but with little courage, it being the first one I attended.
In the center of the room, at a common table, sat the mediums, looking very sedate and mysterious; the crowd was ranged around the room on chairs with some standing in the corners. No talking was going on to break the ghostly silence, and I remember still the feelings of awe which ran over me and up and down my back like cold chills, for it seemed that I could smell the ghosts in the very air. Even those who wanted to cough didn’t do it; it was no place for noise. All eyes were fixed on the man and his wife, or the enchanted table which was a rickety old thing, but then I thought the spirits weren’t very particular as to the means of communication.
At length, in a low voice, the man asked if anyone desired to communicate with a dead friend. One old lady believer said she would like to talk with the spirit of her husband. Four hands rested on the table – and also all eyes in the room, while nobody breathed. “Is the spirit of Silas Shepherd present?” asked the medium, in a bold tone. Slowly the legs on the opposite side of the table began to leave the floor to fall and give three raps for yes or two raps for no….
Three monstrous raps resounded from under the table, and all hands vacated the haunted room quicker than I could tell it; the effect was so sudden and so startling. The mediums were about as rapid in transit as anyone else; one old lady tried to leave by way of the chimney, going through the fire screen. I saw two men jump through the open window, the sacred table was overturned, and most of the chairs. I wasn’t much of a loiterer myself. I think I ran so fast my feet didn’t touch the street as I crossed it on my way straight home, imagining all the ghosts of ghostdom were hot after me. To me it was decidedly real, and when I got home I stayed there like a good boy.
My father had slipped around and got under the house in the woodshed, scraping away the accumulated chips sufficiently, and then reaching out he scraped them back to hide his entrance. On his hands and knees he went around the cellar wall and took his place directly under where he knew the table sat. Getting a smooth round rock he wrapped his handkerchief around it to deaden its human sound a little, and when he heard the question, “Is the spirit of Silas Shephard present?” had waited to allow the table legs to rise, and before they could descend, gave the three most monstrous raps that had ever scared a ghost out of its hide or a crowd out of a house.
What of the crowd that had not gone clear home gathered in an excited clump outside on the pavement. Father went to a grate in the wall at the side and heard the conversation. His hands were in the midst of them, swearing they had seen ghosts shooting upward through the ceiling. One man, braver than the most, said he believed a man was under the house, and proposed, if the crowd would follow, to go around and investigate. They circled the house but saw no evidence.
A council of war was then held outside and it was suggested they go in with the mediums and try it over. This was a bold thing to do, but they ventured in. The mediums again seated themselves at the table and asked if the spirit of Jacob Ashworth was present, probably thinking he would be less violent in his demonstrations. Father, being then at his post, waited until the walnut legs had poised before dropping, anticipated the spirit and gave three more resounding licks on the floor above him. In two-thirds of a little jiffy the house was cleared again of mediums and all, and no doubt any ghosts hanging about waiting for their turn.
Another council of war was held outside. From the grating father heard Allen say he’d be damned if they would stay another night in that abominable haunted house, which was seconded by his wife in the most emphatic manner. This was good news to the impromptu spirit under the house.
It might have ended here, but it didn’t. A courageous tailor, who was moved also by spirits more material, swore he knew a man was under the house, that he had a pistol and would crawl under and root him out and started for the wood shed again, followed by what remained of the crowd, including our hands. My father at the grate heard his threat and hurried around to the entrance where he posed with both hands ready to grab him by the hair should he venture to crawl under, and make him think he had fallen into the hands of ghosts, or the hands of the ghosts…. When the tailor began to scrape the chips away our hands got his pistol to prevent accidents, promising it to him when he got in. Father was ready for him. When the hole was large enough the doughty tailor laid down, flattened himself but said he guessed he was good for one ghost, and squeezed his head and shoulders under into the inner darkness, and—
With an unearthly howl my father clutched him by the hair. The tailor answered the howl with another of larger calibre, kind of broken up by Help! Murder! Oh Lord! Oh Lord! Let go! Pull me out! Ow Wow! Amid a deal of shouting and laughter he was drawn out by the boots, and without apologies made a bee line around to the street, and on home leaving hat and pistol behind.
Father, having accomplished his mission, then emerged, covered with dirt, dust, ancient cobwebs, and glory, into the hands of his friends, looking like he had had a hard struggle with ghostly combatants himself. The mediums had gone to other quarters for the night, leaving the house alone with not even a ghost in it, and when they heard the explanation of the mystery their anger at my father was exceedingly earthly. Next day their goods were moved, and the house was rented to a family without ghosts. A.W. Bellew in Sidney Gazette The Piqua [OH] Daily Call 29 July 1898: p. 4
Many stories about mediums report the security measures taken to ensure they did not cheat or could not be physically responsible for phenomena. Most of the methods (hands filled with flour, mediums sewn into bags or clothing, ropes and chains) in this satire actually were tried, although in less exaggerated forms.
THE MODERN SCEPTIC.
[This playful skit is clever—is so like very many actual scenes we have witnessed at various times in the past, that their concentration to a focus will perhaps create a laugh.—Ed.]
A medium subjected to the following “test conditions:”— A plaster made of gutta percha and beeswax was placed over her mouth; a bandage of six handkerchiefs was put over her eyes, tied at the back and sealed, and her ears were filled with cotton wool soaked in mucilage. Both hands were filled with flour. One of them was fastened to the top of her head with fine cambric thread; the other was firmly bound to her side with tarred rope. Her feet were secured to a block of oak wood twelve inches long, eight wide and three thick, with a strongly-riveted, hardened steel chain. She was then completely enveloped with forty-two yards of cotton drilling, which was sewed at every crevice with a patent noiseless, double back action sewing machine. After that she was put in a strong coffee-bag, which was tied at its mouth with three hundred yards of shoe-thread. The bag was then put in a chest, and the chest lid fastened with six padlocks, every key different, and rendered doubly secure by strips of leather glued upon the outside lengthways, breadthways and sideways. It was then suspended by wires in a copper-fastened cabinet lined with corrugated sheet iron, and the cabinet deposited on a high shelf in a recess of the stone wall of a room that had been unoccupied for twenty years. In front of this recess was drawn a gauze screen, which was glued, tacked, sealed with red wax and marked with a No. 1 Faber lead pencil belonging to the sceptic, which he knew to be free from fraud, and which he brought with him so that he might be protected at all points from deception. A number of the sceptic’s friends were posted in various places to prevent collusion between the medium and confederates. One was at the back area concealed behind an ash barrel, one stood at each window, one sat on the top of the chimney and one held his hand over the keyhole of the front door. Thus all things were ready, and the careful investigator took a position where the least indication of imposition could be instantly detected. He held one hand ready to grasp the medium should she walk out and assume the guise of an angel, and with the other he held a note-book, in which to record in detail the last “great exposure of Spiritualism.” Suddenly a strong unseen hand clenched as a vice his outstretched digit. The note-book took to itself wings and flew away. Voices were heard, half a dozen forms as natural as life walked around him, and one whom he afterwards admitted to be “a pretty good imitation of his mother” came and laid a hand on his head. These vanished. Then up he rose to the ceiling, till with his nose he could write his name on the plaster, then down to the floor with double the speed he went up. A broad hand which he could not see dealt him a rather smart blow on one side of his face, then on the other. Some power then stood him on his feet and marched him around the room at a speed which “Goldsmith Maid” never thought of attaining, and the perspiration poured from every pore until he was as wet as a No. 1 mackerel in the home of its childhood. But all this did not convince him! He went home declaring that the medium did it all, that he should prosecute her for assault and battery (with intent to kill), and that she ought to be indicted for “obtaining money under false pretences.” His wife wrote to a friend the day following relating the circumstances, and added, “I don’t think my dear, kind husband would believe even if one rose from the dead.”—Banner of Light. The Spiritual Magazine of Phenomena, Spiritual—Ethereal—Physical, edited by J. Enmore Jones, Third Series, Vol. III, 1877
In writing of Spiritualist satire, I must at least mention Robert Browning’s poem “Mr Sludge, the Medium,” which apparently arose from a quarrel Browning had with medium D.D. Home. Various versions of this antipathy have been given. Suffice it to say that Mrs Browning was a believer (or was at the very least interested in) Spiritualist phenomena, while Mr Browning was not. He objected to the irregular morality so often found in Spiritualist circles and was revolted by the fakery. All well and good, no doubt, but I can’t see that it warranted a long and tedious poem.
Since I posted on sex in the séance room recently, it seems right to conclude with this Spiritualist imposture where the medium used her pneumatic personal attractions to bolster her claims. Earlier parts of the passage tell of the medium’s remarkable full-body materializations of spirits, including spirit infants.
“The children on the occasion of which I am speaking constituted a very interesting feature, one or two of them being babies in adult arms. They were kissed and handled by me, and they were living flesh and blood.” This statement of Mr. Wetherbee as to what he did is strictly correct, for the writer was present at the time referred to, and not only saw but heard the osculations.
But what of the baby? It will scarcely be credited that this medium had the audacity, well knowing the credulity of her adherents, to stand in her dark cabinet and present, by the aid of an old night gown thrown over her arms, her bare maternal bosom as the face and head of a materialized baby, nature having endowed her in this direction in almost mammoth proportions.
Not only Mr. Wetherbee, but scores of other phenomena hunters followed his example, month after month, until the secret came out, when there were no more spirit babies in the Ross cabinet, and that lady forthwith relegated her bosom to nature’s proper sphere, thus exploding one of the most ingenious frauds ever perpetrated. Some Account of the Vampires of Onset: Past and Present, 1892
[Vampires in this case means “parasites” in the sense of confidence tricksters, rather than the blood-sucking entities we usually associate with the term.]
Any other good Spiritualist jokes? Rap once for yes; twice for no to Chriswoodyard8@gmail.com. I’m sure there’s a knock-knock joke there somewhere.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.