A bit of gentle (?) Spiritualist exposé today, with a side order of sexism.
SITTING WITH A SIBYL.
The connexion of modesty with merit is proverbial, though questioned by Sydney Smith, who says their only point in common is the fact that each begins with an—m. Modesty, however—waiving the question of accompanying merit—is a trait which, in my mystic inquiries and devious wanderings, I meet with far more frequently than might be expected. I have just met with two instances which I hasten to put on record, if only to confute those who say that the age in general, and spirit mediums in particular, are not prone to be modest and retiring. My first modest person was a Spirit Photographer; my second was a Sibyl. I might have looked for bashfulness in the latter, but was certainly surprised to meet with it in the former. I suddenly learnt from the Medium the fact that a Spirit Photographer had settled down in my immediate neighbourhood, and the appearance of his ghostly advertisement brings to my recollection some previous mystic experiences I myself had in this way.
A now celebrated medium, Mrs. Guppy, nee Miss Nicholl, was, in the days of her maidenhood, a practitioner of photography in Westhourne Grove; and, as far as I know, she might have been the means of opening up to the denizens of the Summer Land this new method of terrestrial operations. Ever on the qui vive for anything new in the occult line, I at once interviewed Miss Nicholl and sat for my portrait, expecting at the least to find the attendant spirit of my departed grandmamma or defunct maiden aunt standing sentinel over me, as I saw departed relations doing in many cartes de visite in the room. I confess there was a kind of made-up theatrical-property look about the attendant spirits which gave one the idea that the superior intelligences must have dressed in a hurry when they sat or stood for their portraits. They looked, in fact, if it be not irreverent to say it, rather like so many bundles of pneumatical rags than respectable domestic ghosts. However, as long as I got the ghosts I did not care about the dress. Tenue de soir point de rigueur, I would have said, as they do outside the cheap casinos in Paris, or “Evening dress not required,” if one must descend to the vernacular. Well, I sat persistently and patiently through I am afraid to say how many operations, and the operator described me as being surrounded by spirits—I always am according to Mediums, but my spirits must be eminently unsociable ones, for they seldom give me a word, and on this occasion refused to be “taken ” as resolutely as the bashful gentleman in the Graphic who resisted the operations of the prison officials to obtain a sun-picture of his interesting physiognomy. There was indeed a blotch on one of the negatives, which I was assured was a spirit. I could not see things in that light.
Foiled on this particular occasion my anxiety was dormant, but never died out. I still longed for a denizen of the other world to put in an appearance, and kept on being photographed over and over again until I might have been the vainest man alive, on the bare hope that the artist might be a Medium malgre lui or undeveloped. I had heard there were such beings, but they never came in my way. I was really serious in this wish, because I felt if it could be granted, the possibility of deception being prevented, the objectivity of the phenomena would be guaranteed. At this time I was heretical enough to believe that most ghosts were due to underdone pork or untimely Welsh rare-bits, and that the raps assigned to their agency were assignable to the active toes of the Medium which might be anywhere and up to anything with the opportunities of a dark séance.
A short time since, however, M. Buguet, a celebrated French Spirit Photographer came from Paris to London, and received sitters for the modest sum of 30s. each. This would have been much beyond my means; but I suppose my wish had transpired, and that gentleman sent me an invitation to sit gratis, which, I need not say, I thankfully accepted. I felt sure that M. Buguet did not know either my long-lost grandmother or lamented maiden aunt, so that any portraits I might get from him would be presumably genuine. I sat; and over my manly form, when the negative came to be cleaned, was a female figure in the act of benediction. I have no notion how she got there—for I watched every stage in the operation, and selected my plate myself; but neither, on the other hand, does she bear the faintest resemblance to anybody I ever knew.
Still M. Buguet is not my modest photographer. Elated by success so far, I called on the local gentleman who advertised in the Medium; but the local gentleman was “engaged.” I wrote to the local gentleman appointing an interview; but the local gentleman replied not. Yet still his advertisement remains; and I see in every spiritualistic album dozens of “property” relations in the shape of quasi-spirits, and wonder why the local gentleman would not take me, so as to be immortalized in these pages.
Equally modest was the advertising Sibyl. I wrote to the Sibyl, and somebody replied, and “respectfully declined.” But I was not to be done. There is more than one Sibyl in the world. I called on No. 2 without announcing my intention or sending in my name. This Sibyl at once admitted me, and I mounted to the first floor front of a respectable suburban lodginghouse.
I waited anxiously for a long time, wondering whether Sibyl was partaking of the onions, whose presence in that modest domicile was odoriferously evidenced to my nose, though it was then scarcely half-past one o’clock. Presently a portly middle-aged man, who might have been Sibyl’s youthful papa, or rather aged husband, entered, wiping his mouth. He had clearly been partaking of the fragrant condiment. Where was Sibyl?
“She would be with us directly,” the gentleman said, varying the proceedings by picking his teeth in the interim.
She was with us in a minute, and never, I suppose, did picturesque anticipations more suddenly collapse and come to grief than mine. I had pictured Sibyl a bright ethereal being, and the realization of my ideal weighed twelve stone, if an ounce. She was a big, fleshy, large-boned woman of an utterly uncertain age, not without considerable good-nature in her extensive features; but the pervading idea that you had when you looked at Sibyl was that there was too much of her. I could not help thinking of the husband who said he did not like a big wife: he preferred two small ones; and then again I fell into wonderment as to whether the man who was still engaged with his dental apparatus was Sibyl’s husband or papa.
I told them I was anxious to test Sibyl’s powers; and, with a few passes from his fat dumpy hands, the man soon put her to sleep. It looked to me like an after-dinner nap, but I was told it was magnetic. It might have been. By the way, I had unmistakable evidence from my olfactory organ that Sibyl had been eating onions.
I had provided myself with two locks of hair, as I had heard that “psychometry” was among Sibyl’s qualifications. I handed her the first, and she immediately proceeded to describe a series of tableaux which appeared to pass through her mind. She kept handling the lock of hair, and said, “The person to whom this belongs is ill—weak,” which was true enough, but might, I thought, be a shot. I should mention, however, that it was quite impossible Sibyl could know me. She had not even heard my name. She then described a bedroom, with some person—she could not see what person—lying in bed, and a lady in a blue dress bending over her. This, again, I thought might flow out as a deduction from her premises of the hair belonging to an invalid. The blue dress was correct enough, but still so little special as to be a very possible coincidence. She then, however, startled me by saying, “I notice this, that on the table by the bedside, where the bottles of medicine are standing, milk has been spilt—a large quantity—and not wiped up.” This was a trivial detail, not known to me at the time, but confirmed on subsequent inquiry.
She then passed on to describe a second tableau, where the same person in the blue dress was in a room all hung over with plates, along with a gentleman whom she described very accurately. He was the occupant of the house where the patient lay, and, having a hobby for old china, had turned his dining room into a sort of crockery shop by hanging it all over with the delft.
This was curious enough, though not very convincing. It seemed as though the influence of this person who had given me the hair was stronger than that of the hair itself. With the second lock of hair we failed utterly. She said that also came from a sick person, but a person not sick with the same disease as the other. She was quite positive they came from different people, and asked me to feel the difference of texture. I am sorry, for Sibyl’s sake, to say they both came from the same person, and were cut at the same time, though from different parts of the head, which made one look silkier than the other.
As a test of Sibyl’s clairvoyance, this was not very satisfactory. She read the inscription on a card when her eyes were bandaged, pressing it to her forehead; hut then olden experiences in the way of blind man’s bluff convince me that it is very difficult to say when a person is properly blinded.
Altogether, then, I never quite got over my previous disappointment at Sibyl’s bulk. Had she been pretty and frizzle-headed like Miss Annie Eva Fay, or like Miss Showers or Miss Florence Cook, I might have been disposed to make more of her coincidences and to wink at her failures. We are so liable to be led away by our feelings in these matters. Sibyl was large, had eaten onions, and would have been improved if she had brushed her hair, and so I am afraid I rather grudged the somewhat exorbitant fee which the fat-handed man—not Sibyl—took and pocketed in an interval of his dental pursuit, and I passed out from that suburban lodging, none of us, I fancy, very well satisfied with one another. I have an idea I unconsciously expressed my inner feelings of disappointment with Sibyl and something stronger in reference to her male companion.
Mystic London ; Or, Phases of the Occult Life in the Metropolis, Charles Maurice Davies, 1875
Davies was a clergyman and later journalist who wrote a series of books in which he investigated various cults and religions in London. I thought the Sibyl’s “hit” on the spilt milk and the plates on the walls was rather a good one, but Davies seemed unimpressed, possibly because of the onions and the failure of the second lock of hair. The “hit” is easily explicable if she somehow knew who he was. It’s a stretch of a coincidence or real telepathy if not.
Mrs Guppy was famous for her apports, the most notorious of which occurred when that lady was apparently herself teleported, half-clad and in trance, onto a seance table at 61 Lamb’s Conduit Street.
Edouard Buguet was a French spirit photographer–until his studio was raided and draped dummies used in producing “spirits” were found. Even after his trial some Spiritualists refused to believe that he was guilty.
Anna Eva Fay and Florence Cook were, of course, spiritualist mediums known for their pulchritude. Florence Cook undeniably used her sex appeal to blind investigators to her tricks. Rosina Mary Showers notoriously hid a veil in her drawers so when searched, the ghost-drapery would go unnoticed.
I’m sure the many feminist historians of Spiritualism will not be surprised at the sexism (or should it be “classism?” or “aestheticism?”) in this passage nor at a Victorian male’s assumptions about how lady mediums should look and comport themselves. Willowy and humble about sums it up . And no dashed vulgar onions either. The more angelic, unworldly, and ethereal a female medium could appear, the more likely she was to get away with her antics in the dark. Just ask Sir William Crookes.