Ordering Special Effects for the Séance Room

Ordering Special Effects for the Séance Room A medium's trumpet, c. 1923

Ordering Special Effects for the Séance Room A medium’s trumpet, c. 1923

Recently on my Facebook page, I posted a report about a special-effects team that boasted that they create fake effects specifically for “paranormal attractions.”

This was, of course, the inevitable, if reprehensible, result of the rise of  “paranormal attractions,” as opposed to “haunted house attractions,” although several groups have started marketing both under, as it were, one umbrella. Here in Ohio, when I saw the first announcement of a “paranormal attraction” where “investigators” could pay to look for ghosts, I noted, first, that the lurid back-story of the site was completely fabricated and second, that there was a strong suspicion that the owners were helping things along. Paying customers expecting ghostly phenomena are just too much of an incentive.

Because I am inconsistent, although this modern version of special-effects repulses me, I find 19th-century examples of séance fakery to be charming in their simplicity and bold-faced effrontery. Since I am drawn to accounts of fake séance effects like egg-white ectoplasm to the bogus medium, let us look at a story of a business-like offer made to Mr. Craddock, a “materialization medium.”

APPARATUS FOR BOGUS SEANCES

If a man resorts to a mean and dishonourable trick in order to bring discredit upon another, it is quite possible that, instead of accomplishing his purpose, he may find that all the infamy attaches to himself and not to his intended victim. Here is a case in point.

Some short time after the seizure of Mr. Craddock at a séance in Manchester, he received by post the following letter.

25, Portland Crescent,

Leeds.

5th May, 1897.

Mr. F. Craddock,

74, Dartmouth St.,

Burslem

Dear Sir,—I see you have had a very unpleasant affair at Manchester, and feel I should like to offer you a little advice. To sit in a promiscuous circle is only to expose you to a repetition of the unpleasantness. If you want to run the thing successfully, you must form a sort of Syndicate, who will see no sceptic sits near enough to grab. The guides business is played out—because the sensible people naturally ask where the guides get the muslin. I can supply you with boiled muslin, artificial hands, faces painted on bladders, which can be inflated—as supplied to Messrs. Huggins, Warren, Davidson, and others—at most reasonable charges.

To have your Syndicate properly placed to prevent your being grabbed is the only possible way of preventing exposure. You may write me and trust me in all confidence.

Awaiting your reply,

I am, Dear Sir,

Yours faithfully,

  1. Williams.

This letter Mr. Craddock forwarded to us, with an expression of his intense disgust, and of his strong opinion that if such a ‘horrible trade’ were really being carried on by J. Williams, then ‘J. Williams’ ought to be thoroughly exposed. In this we cordially concurred, but to make certain of our ground, we suggested to Mr. Craddock that he should write for prices, our object being, of course, to secure specimens of the articles offered, that being the only way of gaining satisfactory proof that ‘J. Williams’ was doing what he professed to do. Mr. Craddock acted on our advice, and his request for a statement of prices brought the following reply:—

25, Portland Crescent,

Leeds.

14th May, 1897.

Mr. F. Craddock,

Burslem.

Dear Sir,– In reply to your post-card of the 7th, I can supply you as follows:

Muslin, boiled, very fine, 2/-

“       not so fine,            1/3 per yard,

both 40 inches wide,

The 1/3 quality is to go over the fine, and stands out a little. I generally furnish 3 yards of each—occasionally 6 yards.

The heads, which are a marvellous imitation, cost as follows:—

Children, white, 5/-

“ North American, 5/6

Men, white, 7/-

“   North American, 7/6

All hand-painted and fitted with elastic nozzle. You simply fit into the nozzle a bamboo (hollow) cane—blow through—and the head is inflated. Keep your finger on the end, and, when you wish to dematerialise, take off your finger and allow the air to escape gradually. Of course you can have your canes different lengths, and they can be passed through the curtains and out of anyone’s reach with perfect security.

My terms are cash on receipt, or half cash on arrival and half in a month later.

Any child can work them, they are so admirably made.

It is best to announce to your friends that you are developing one of your children, and after a time you can introduce these things without the least fear of failure. The heads, when inflated, will go into a lady’s purse.

If the goods do not give satisfaction, you may return them, but must pay the carriage.

Awaiting your reply,

Yours faithfully,

J. Williams.

P.S.—It is advisable not to write on post-cards.

This letter, which Mr. Craddock at once sent on to us, led to the suspicion that ‘J. Williams’ was actuated by some other motive than the mere earning of a few shillings in payment for the articles he offered, such an object being altogether disproportionate to his apparent eagerness to effect a sale; and yet, on the other hand, we wore reluctant to believe that his offer was not a bond-fide one, for in that case no other conclusion would be possible than that he was guilty of many deliberate and cunningly-devised falsehoods for the despicable purpose of entrapping an unsuspecting victim! To solve the problem, we suggested to Mr. Craddock that he should send an order for some muslin and a head; that if he got them he should send them on to us; and as ‘J. Williams’ had volunteered the information that the inflated head would go into a lady’s purse, he should ask him how some yards of muslin could be secreted with equal ease, so as to escape detection by a committee of searchers. If this could be done, we thought it would be well to know the trick, that we might publish the information for the guidance of searchers in the future; and here was a professed expert who could surely let us into the secret!

Mr. Craddock acted on our advice and sent the order, but ‘J. Williams’ to this day has never supplied the ‘goods.’ We learn, however, from various sources, that, forgetting his assurance—‘You may write me and trust me in all confidence’—he has been proudly boasting of his success in proving Mr. Craddock’s readiness to avail himself of the use of artificial aids for the production of bogus materializations! Possibly this plain, unvarnished narrative of the facts may have the effect of teaching him that he is not quite so clever as he has thought himself, and may serve to show him that while Mr. Craddock’s conduct in the matter has been beyond reproach, all the disgrace which ‘J. Williams’ has sought to bring upon Mr. Craddock has recoiled upon himself.

We may add that we have no personal ill-will against ‘J. Williams,’ or we should publish his real name. His name is not ‘J. Williams,’ the signatures to his letters being as false as the statements to which they are subscribed. We need say no more at present.

Light 19 June 1897: p. 290-91

Well, that was a nice little piece of entrapment. I won’t specify on whose side…  But the owner of the special-effects company mentioned at the beginning of this post, who was so candid in his online interview, might want to consider having t-shirts printed with “It is advisable not to write on post-cards”.

Frederick George Foster Craddock had quite the following as a materialization medium, as well as the usual number of exposures.

The English branch of the movement received the first severe shock. Materialising mediums had been comparatively rare, but in the early part of this century the London Spiritualists considered that they had one of indubitable power. At this period, having been stimulated by certain sittings in Leicester in the later ‘nineties, I was making my early research into Spiritualism, and I was told that Frederick George Foster Craddock was not only unquestionably genuine and powerful, but the only genuine medium in London. His sittings were held with a cultivated circle of Spiritualists in St. John’s Wood. He was, I was told, a furniture-porter, a simple-minded man who was content with the very modest fee which his patrons gave him. Men and women of distinction often attended the studio in St. John’s Wood, and three different ghostly figures came out of the cabinet, when Craddock sat in it in a state of trance, and walked about the room. Yet in June 1906 Craddock met the invariable fate of materialising mediums. He had abandoned his friends or patrons in St. John’s Wood, and was making a good deal of money by holding sittings at his house at Pinner. Colonel Mayhew, who obtained admission, soon had proof that Craddock was a fraud. He named friends who were not dead, or had never existed, and Craddock caused their “spirits” to appear in materialised form. Colonel Mayhew seized the ghost, found that it was Craddock, and informed the police. He was fined ten pounds at Edgware Police Court. Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, Joseph McCabe, 1920: pp 216-7

Oh, those naughty lying spirits! Does anyone know what the specific unpleasant little Manchester affair was? Drop a post-card to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Other examples of séance apparatus may be found at The Spook Factory: 1904, a post from Mrs Daffodil.

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.