Playing a Spirit
Spiritualist publications are full of reports from believers about the marvels they have witnessed in the seance room: the materializations of dead loved ones, apports showering down after the medium was thoroughly searched and tied to a chair, and the utter impossibility of confederates gaining access to the room. When a favorite medium is exposed, they offer earnest explanations.
Thanks to skeptical investigators we know a fair bit about how Spiritualist marvels were accomplished. These investigators almost always focused on the mediums found impersonating spirits while flitting around the room in their underclothes, but today we hear from one of the unsung heroines of the seance room: the confederate.
The Manner in Which the Cabinet Racket Is Worked.
Spirits of Departed Friends Called up With the Greatest of Ease.
A Boston Girl Who Played “Spirit” at Materializing Séances Tells How the Fraud Is Practiced.
Mrs. Amanda M. Cowan was exposed on April 25, 1888, while giving a materializing séance in Boston, and the paraphernalia captured. August 8, 1888, the Boston Herald published an expose with diagrams, revealing the ingenious trap-doors by which Mrs. Cowan’s confederate “spirits” made their entrances and exits. The Cowan family had removed and the examination of the house was made under the supervision of the City Inspector of Buildings and the owner of the property. The Herald gives an abridged and severely condensed account of the confession of the one of the Cowan spirits, which The Enquirer republishes, as follows:
“In telling her story to the reporter the “spirit” imposed one condition—viz: that her full name should, for family reasons, be suppressed. ‘The beautiful spirit,’ who now devotes her time and talents to affairs and occupations entirely material, thus describes her connection with the colossal humbug advertised as materialization: ‘I was induced to enter this business, having heard about it from a lady friend who had shown me much kindness, and who knew also how dependent I was upon my own exertions for a living. Through this lady Mr. and Mrs. Cowan came to the house where I was living; and after some conversation about the business, and how easily one could become an expert after being initiated into its mysteries, they went away remarking that they thought I would be just the person the wanted. I called on them several times for instruction and rehearsals previous to being introduced into the cabinet as a ‘spirit.’ The salary they offered was in excess of what I would possibly earn in my chosen occupation, and I was induced to take up the business. The position I was to occupy was at the time filled by Mrs. Florence K. Rich, who was a performer of such ability in this line as to make her services in great demand in other cabinets, her salary being double that of others in the same business.”
“Under what circumstances did you make your debut as a spirit?” queried the reporter.
“It was at an afternoon séance. Mrs. Rich, in the
GARB OF A SPIRIT.
Led me from the cabinet as another visitor from the unseen world. I had been instructed with great care as to the role I should enact. I advanced to where Whitney and his wife were sitting and represented myself as their dead daughter, Ethel. I had been carefully instructed in the stock phrases of the cabinet, and taught how to locate any desired individual in the circle by counting the number of chairs from the cabinet and thus finding the person specified by the manager. On each trip I was instructed what to say. In a very short time, I learned the names of all the regular patrons, and also knew whom they most wished to see from the spirit world.”
“Well me, if you know, something about the circumstances under which the Cowans built up their extensive business.”
“I learned from them that they commenced business in the fall of 1886 or 1887 (I have forgotten which) at No. 612 Tremont street. In the parlance of the cabinet Mrs. Cowan was, after a few lessons, developed by George T. Albro at his establishment at No. 55 Rutland street, where she served in his cabinet as a spirit for a short time. Two kinds of cabinets were used. One was square in shape, with curtains at the back, reaching to the floor and tightly drawn underneath and buttoned. After the cabinet was examined by those in the circle who wished to see that all was fair, the lights were lowered and the curtains unbuttoned and raised for the entrance of the ‘spirits.’ Immediately in the rear of the cabinet used by the Cowans was a door leading into the room which the ‘spirits’ used as their headquarters. This door had been locked with a great show of sincerity and the key handed to some one in the circle for safe keeping. The Cowans, however, had constructed a clever device by means of which, with a small stick inserted in the casing, the bolt of the lock could be thrown back by the ‘spirits’ who could noiselessly enter the cabinet amid the singing of the circle and the noise of the cabinet organ. Each white-robed ‘spirit’ was shrouded in black cambric while passing from the room into the cabinet, thus rendering them invisible in the light of
THE SÉANCE ROOM.
It was about this time that Mr. Cowan made the discovery of a new and admirable location for his cabinet in a bay-window on the street front. To all appearances this cabinet was fraud-proof, and so successful were the séances that visitors and believers were attracted in great numbers. Mr. Cowan’s discovery was accidental. While removing the floor in the bay-window in order to construct a trap-door by which the ‘spirits’ might enter from the cellar, he found a space of considerable dimensions so peculiarly arranged as to have no visible connection with the cellar, rendering it absolutely safe from discovery. The male ‘spirits’ were personated by Cowan’s brother Andrew (called Andy for short), while Mrs. Cowan and I played the role of female ‘spirits,’ each having our signals for entrances and exits. Business went on prosperously.”
“Will you not give a few illustrations of cabinet manifestations with which you were connected?”
“Well, I remember two spirits who used to come to Mr. E.A. Brackett, of Winchester. Mr. Brackett is the author of a book on the subject of materialization, entitled, ‘If Not Spiritual beings, What Are They?’ and has always been looked upon as a high authority on the subject. Mr. John Wetherbee also had the freedom of all the circle. Mr. Brackett was very demonstrative in the séance room and inclined to overdo his part in announcing the remarkable tests which he experienced. I personated his niece, Bertha, whom he desired to see on every occasion. I came to him ‘strong and lively’ (in cabinet language), always calling him ‘uncle’ and grasping him by the hand and leading him up to the cabinet for whisperings with the ‘spirits.’ Mr. Brackett would express great delight at seeing me, and would earnestly ask if I had ‘been near him all the time since the last appearance.’ In order to furnish convincing proof for some of the skeptics I would materialize for Mr. Brackett at the back of his chair or in some remote part of the room. In order to do this it was necessary for me to creep behind the black curtain that hung around the wall, counting the chairs by feeling as I crept along until I came to the one occupied by Mr. Brackett. I would then jump up and greet him.
“HOW DO YOU DO, UNCLE?”
And take him by the hand. ‘Andy’ always personated Mr. Brackett’s dead brother George, and we were often greatly amused by his enthusiastic descriptions of our séances in the Banner of Light. Mr. Wetherbee was also very enthusiastic in his descriptions of our manifestations, especially those at 219A Tremont street. Mr. John Low, of Chelsea, was another frequent visitor. He was very hard to please. He required many spirits, and was not satisfied unless he saw them all in the same evening. His favorites, outside his own family circle, were the spirits of Phoebe and Alice Cary, whom he would lead to the center of the room and introduce to the circle. The famous sisters were always personated by Mrs. Cowan and myself. After a while Mr. Cowan, desiring more privacy, decided to remove into apartments which should be occupied by his own family exclusively. He located at 219A Tremont street, where he constructed another cabinet introducing the ‘spirits through a trap-door in the corner, leading under the partition into the next room. The hinges of the trap were placed on the under side so as to escape detection while feeling over the carpet with which the floor was covered. Access was had to the spirit room through a hole chiseled out of the brick partitions wall between the two floors. It was very easy for us to creep in and out of the cabinet on our hands and knees.”
“Can you explain the sudden appearance of the two white forms at the cabinet opening?”
“Oh, yes; that is very simple. When Mrs. Cowan, in her role as medium, would enter the cabinet from the séance room, after having been introduced to the circle, she was already attired in her spirit robe, over which she wore a dark dress so constructed as to drop off almost instantly. At the same moment I crawled rapidly through the hole from the private room, and thus two materialized spirits were suddenly revealed, to the great astonishment of the circle.”
“What prominent people do you remember as among your visitors at his latter place?”
“There was Mr. T.P. Beals, of Portland, who first visited us, in company with Mrs. Rich. From her, we obtained on the ‘test exchange plan,’ points and information by which we were enabled to satisfy him that his wife and sister actually appeared. Mrs. Cowan personated the sister, and I the wife. I can tell you a funny little story about Mr. Beals. It seems that one night, when he was attending a séance at Mrs. Rich’s, the spirit ‘Dew Drop,’ her control suggested to Mr. Beals that he give ‘Medie,’ his wife’s diamond ring, which he was then wearing on his little finger. To this robbery I, ‘the spirit wife,’ strenuously objected, when he consulted me about it a few evenings later, and Mr. Beals may thank me for the preservation of his ring. A Mr. Russell, of Cambridgeport, was very anxious to see his ‘three darlings’ as he designated his two deceased wives and his intended third. There were only two of us women in the cast. Now, how do you suppose we managed it? It was very simple, I assure you. We merely rigged up ‘Andy’ in female apparel and worked him in as ‘the third intended.’ Andy was a little shaky, however, having positively refused to sacrifice his mustache; and so the excuse was invariably offered that the spirit of the ‘intended’ was never ‘strong’ enough to get very far away from the cabinet. We had many a laugh over Andy’s nervousness. Brewer often used to come and converse with the spirit of Louisa, his wife. He also had three familiar spirits, of whom he was very fond. He spoke of them affectionately ‘Faithy,’ ‘Hopey’ and ‘Lovey.” Mrs. Cowan and I alternated in producing these spirits in appropriate disguises. Mr. Brewer was so infatuated that he arranged for private séances for once a week, paying at the rate of $10 for each sitting. Mr. Brewer was very fond of playing the organ at these séances while we ‘spirits’ joined in the singing. We also furnished him with numerous messages of love and comfort from the spirit world. About this time Mr. Brewer had private séances with Mrs. Rich at her rooms at No. 175 Tremont street, where the same ‘spirits’ appeared to him, as he declared. At any rate, they were satisfactory, Mrs. Rich being well acquainted with his wants. At one of Mrs. Rich’s sittings Mr. Brewer requested to see Mr. Ayer’s popular Back Bay Temple ‘Queen’ in her illuminated robes. This robe was manufactured especially for this occasion by Mr. Charles H. Bridge, an expert in spirit paraphernalia , and was similar to that in which the ex-medium, Mrs. Hatch, was wont to masquerade. I think the hardest time I ever had was in the role of Little Elsie, a spirit child, supposed to be only 3 years old. My make-up consisted of a short frock and a veil wound closely around my face, concealing the greater portion of it, and making it appear diminutive. I had cultivated quite a baby vocabulary, and had studied up cute little baby speeches. I never failed to keep the circle in good humor. I always did this baby act crouching down on my knees at the cabinet opening, and at that distance was said to be
A GREAT SUCCESS.
By all odds the most absurd thing was the ovation to Mrs. Cowan, tendered by about thirty believers, who presented her with a purse of $65, for, as the spokesman expressed it, ‘her efforts to eliminate from the séance room every suggestion of fraud, and the opportunities she has afforded us for interviews with our angel friends.’
“Were you present when the Herald reporter and a party of friends broke up the Cowan and séance and exposed Mrs. Cowan and her confederates?”
“Yes. That was an exciting night. The room was full, and every thing was going along smoothly until Mrs. Cowan was seized by some one in the circle while personating a spirit. A voice cried out ‘Now!’ and lights suddenly flashed through the room. We tried to escape, and during the excitement that followed succeed in creeping through the trap-door into the spirit room, while Cowan stood guard. In the confusion I was seized by some one, and only escaped by slipping out of my spirit robe, which the raiders kept as one of their trophies. After this raid the use of this trap-door was abandoned.
“Were you spirits not in constant fear of exposure?”
“Yes, we were always under a great mental strain, and I scarcely ever concluded a séance without a severe headache. There was no danger from the believers, so complete was their confidence in whatever we did, no matter how absurd or apparently impossible.
“To what extent are ‘test exchanges’ carried on?
“All materializing mediums are in league together, and information is exchanged on application. It is very rarely that a visitor is accorded a sitting on the occasion of a first visit. He is pretty thoroughly “Pumped,” however, and the medium is thus enabled to communicate with others in the same time of business, and to ascertain such facts in reference to his family and friends as can be used in producing successful tests. When in the séance room “tips” are given to us by the manager, who takes a sharp view of the sitters, whom he has placed about the circle to suit his own convenience. He then communicates to us the names of the spirits it is safe to present, and the location of each believer in the circle; and, lest memory be treacherous, a record of those ‘points’ is kept in the spirit room for frequent reference, together with the messages to be delivered to the faithful.”
“What is the usual weekly salary of a ‘spirit.”
“The spirit, when inexperienced, usually received $1 for each séance. Mrs. Rich was paid $3 a séance, and this is the highest price I ever knew to be paid for a single séance. I should say that $1.50 is a pretty fair price for playing spirit.
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 8 March 1890: p. 13
I regret that I could not find an online version of the original Boston Herald story. This brief article gives some farcical details.
The story of the discomfiture of another materializing “medium”—Mrs. Amanda M. Cowan—is told at length in yesterday’s Boston Herald. The unbelievers waited until three “spirit forms” were gliding around the darkened room, and then one of them grabbed the nearest spook while the others lighted the gas. The spook shrieked and struggled, a man said to be Medium Cowan’s husband hit the investigator who was holding the spook an ugly blow on the head with a stove lifter, other Spiritualists present showed fight, but the jig was up. Mr. Cowan was marched off to the police station and locked up on a charge of assault. Mrs. Cowan, who was “partially disrobed,” a man in his shirt sleeves and a little girl who had been doing duty as spooks were not arrested. A few months ago twenty-eight Bostonians signed and sent to the Banner of Light a string of resolutions setting forth their gratitude to Mrs. Cowan “for the opportunities she has afforded us and continues to afford us for interviews with our angel friends.”
Hartford [CT] Courant 27 April 1888: p. 4
Other stories from Spiritualist confederates, minions, or underlings? “Tips” and “points” to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.