Saturday, October 31, 2015

10 Steps to Hosting Your Own Victorian Seance

Belief in the evocation of the spirits of the dead is as old as Humanity. At one period of the world's history it was called Thaumaturgy, at another Necromancy and Witchcraft, in these later years, Spiritualism. It is new wine in old bottles. - The Spirit World Unmasked, Henry Ridgely Evans (1897).
The rules for hosting a seance haven't changed much since the late nineteenth century, though some of the equipment is now fancier.

1. First, you need a location for the seance.

Choosing a location could be dependant on the reason for the seance. Sometimes, a particular room may be chosen for its connection to the departed, but the Victorians loved hosting them in their sitting rooms, at least according to the spiritualist and artist, Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884). Though her life and writings, Houghton seems more familiar with the spirit world than anyone; she used to let herself become possessed by ghosts so she could paint.

Her book, Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance describes a small room with nothing but the table, seating, and equipment used in the seance, which leads us to the second step in hosting a Victorian seance:

2. Minimize distractions.

Distractions aren't helpful when communicating with the dead, limit electronic devices, minimize the amount of light in the room, and remove objects that will otherwise interfere with the seance.

3. Gather your equipment.

Although anything can be used in a seance, a candle is pretty standard. It's good to choose one with a wide base so that it's less likely to fall over. Also, lighting and extinguishing a candle can signify the beginning and end of the seance. Houghton used the act of extinguishing the candle to cease communications when she encountered frightening spirits.
At the very instant that I put out the candle, the slate [used for automatic writing] was taken from before me, and we heard sounds of its being written upon in the air, at about the height of our heads. It was put back upon the table, and when we had struck a light, we found written upon it:
e l b u o r t  ll a h s I
you no more :
which meant "I shall trouble you no more;" the first words of the sentence having been spelt backwards.
The skeptical Henry Ridgely Evans described automatic writing as the act in which a psychic or medium "gives information transcending his conscious knowledge of a subject," while in a state of hypnosis. If someone is going to do automatic writing at your seance, in addition to your candle, a slate, notebook, or Ouija board may also be helpful.

Ouija boards were invented to capitalize on the seance trend of the late Victorian era and are supposed to work by letting unseen spirits communicate through your fingertips by pointing the planchette at the letters and numbers on the board.

Spiritual Telegraph Dial
Ouija boards weren't the only gadgets for talking to spirits. Hudson Tuttle (1836-1910) of Berlin Heights OH invented the Pychograph, or dial planchette, many years before the Ouija board hit the market. The Spiritual Telegraph Dial was being used by mid-century and adapted to test whether people who claimed to be psychics were actually frauds.

Without automatic writing and in the earlier years of the Victorian era, a spirit in a Victorian seance might communicate by shouting letters through a medium, or using a binary code by using a series of taps. The latter was known as "spirit rapping" and was popular enough that an American wrote a song about it. According to Lisa Hix, the table is all many Victorians needed to communicate:
Before long, word got out that if you and your friends or family put your hands on a small- to medium-sized table and waited, it would eventually start moving. Naturally, people believed it was the spirits trying to communicate, through what became known as “table-tipping” or “table-turning.” A scientist by the name of Michael Faraday studied the physics of the phenomenon in 1851 and concluded that the sitters were, in fact, unconsciously moving the table, a phenomenon now known as the “ideomotor response,” but his findings didn’t deter anyone - Source.
Since you're not going to let that deter you from hosting your Victorian seance, put your candle and means of communicating on your seance table, surround it with chairs and fill those chairs with enthusiastic guests.

3. Invite guests.

The Fox sister were famous mediums and
great to have at a seance.
If at all possible, you should invite a Countess and more than one medium, so that the medium who is not performing the seance can look at the habits of the performer with judgement and suspicion. It's fun to invite someone, who totally believes in ghosts (for their enthusiasm), and someone who doesn't (but frightens easily).

When you invite your guests, encourage them to bring sentimental objects, if there's a particular spirit they wish to communicate with.

4. Set up cameras!

 The step before actually beginning your seance, is setting up your recording equipment. It may seem un-Victorian to set up a hidden video recorder, but many Victorians documented their seances in the best ways they could, so they could capture images of ghosts and catch anyone tipping, or rapping on, the table.

5. Form a circle.

Instruct your guests to sit as quietly as possible around the seance table and to identify any noises they inadvertently make, so as not to misread a fart as a communication from the other side.

6. The Lord's Prayer.

Once everyone is seated, it adds drama to say a prayer of protection. Houghton always said the Lord's Prayer before a seance.

8. Light the candle and begin asking questions.

Ask the spirits to join yours circle and to communicate through the method you have provided.

Be polite. Don't only ask questions about yourself. Ask their name. Ask if they have anything they want to talk about, but also try to focus on the purpose of your seance.

9. When you are ready to end your seance, say good-bye and extinguish the candle.

If someone is scared, you can extinguish the candle abruptly and tell the spirits to leave you alone, but it's always best to be polite ...if you can.

10. Review the evidence.

Did you catch any ghosts in photos, or video?

Did you catch anyone trying to trick the others into thinking a spirit was present?

Henry Ridgely Evans was an American magician and skeptic of spiritualism, who wrote prolifically on the subject - publishing two books in 1897 alone. He claimed to have sat with many famous mediums, who produced "little to convince him of the fact of spiritual communication." Maybe you'll have better luck.

For all of your other Victorian seance needs, visit: the Victorian Web, the Museum of Talking Boards, and the Mysterious Planchette.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Ghost Club

Founded in London in 1862, the Ghost Club is the oldest paranormal investigation and research organization in the world. The organization is still active today and its members have included: Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W.B. Yeats, and Siegfried Sassoon.

The Ghost Club was seven years in the making, having started as a conversation about ghosts between Cambridge fellows at Trinity college in 1855. Naturally, it attracted some banter in the Times, but with Charles Dickens and some Cambridge men among their ranks, the Ghost Club soldiered on.

The Davenport Brothers and their spirit cabinet (1870).
Like real-life Victorian Ghostbusters -- though maybe they were more like Myth Busters, the Ghost Club investigated spiritual phenomena, like the Davenport Brother's spirit cabinet. The Davenport Brothers were travelling American magicians and the spirit box was their most famous illusion. In the spirit box illusion, the brothers were tied inside the box with some musical instruments. When the box was closed, the instruments played, but when it was opened, the brothers remained tied in their original positions. The Ghost Club never published the result of their investigation.

Members of the Ghost Club (1882).
Following Dickens' death, the Ghost Club became inactive during the 1870s, but was revived on All Saints Day 1882. It remained a select and private organization of earnest ghost hunters, who really believed that ghosts existed. They met monthly and women were not admitted.

Investigations into the spirit world were referred to as 'physical research,' and the growing popularity of Spiritualism at this time attracted people like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud to its meetings. Many members treated Ghost Club as a kind of refuge, where they were able to conduct the kind of research and have the kind of conversations that they were unable to have elsewhere.

At each meeting of the Ghost Club a list of all the members, dead or alive, was read. Deceased members were said to sometimes make their presence felt during this activity.

Sir Arthur Grey of Jesus College, Cambridge, immortalized the Ghost Club as "The Everlasting Club" in 1919 - a ghost story that, around Cambridge, some still believe to be true.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Three Common Victorian Baby-Killers

I wouldn't have survived infancy in the Victorian Era.

There were truly bizarre ways of dying in the 1890s, but you could also die from the very mundane. If you were a woman, you might die from child birth. If you were a baby, the wallpaper, or the way that your bottle was designed could kill you. Buzzfeed once wrote an article on bizarre Victorian deaths.

Reportedly: in 1875, a man was killed by a mouse in South London.
“That a mouse can exist for a considerable time without much air has long been a popular belief and was unfortunately proved to be a fact in the present instance, for the mouse began to tear and bite inside the man’s throat and chest, and the result was that the unfortunate fellow died after a little time in horrible agony.”
Which is horrifying, but, typically, the things that killed you in the 1890s were far more commonplace and children were the most vulnerable. Wallpaper (arsenic), germs (everywhere), and milk were three incredibly mundane baby killers at the time.

1. Arsenic and arsenic-laced wallpaper

From the 1850s until the 1890s, green wallpaper was a silent killer. Arsenic was used to create a shade called Paris Green. Once on the walls, the arsenic entered the air. After exhibiting symptoms of diphtheria, patients generally died of asphyxiation. The worst part: treatment usually involved being confined to a cold room with no circulation, but usually green wallpaper because it was already present in the home.  Such a death usually claimed children first. Paris Green was not identified as the silent killer until the end of the century.

Before it was recognized as a killer, the Victorians thought arsenic possessed many health benefits. A health spa in southeast Austria was home to the arsenic-eaters. People who travelled to the area would take ratsbane in their coffee. It became trendy to take ever increasing amounts of arsenic, until you got diarrhea. While many people consumed doses strong enough to kill a healthy person today, they believed it improved their complexions and aided their respiratory system.

2. Germs, surgeons, and baby bottles.

Germs weren't known to cause disease until 1867, and even then, it took a lot of work on the parts of Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and their supporters to adopt methods that protected patients from germs. Methods that protected patients from germs included washing your hands before performing surgery. One doctor, Joseph Lister made great strides in gaining acceptance for the germ theory of disease and preventing infections by keeping bacteria from entering the body through wounds and sores, through the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic.

A Victorian surgeon in barber college
(source and date unknown).
Can you even imagine a world where surgeons need convincing to wash their hands before operating? Surgical practices were bad enough without conducting the surgery with dirty hands. Rich people paid the doctor to look after them in their homes, so only the poor went to hospitals. If the operating room in the hospital wasn't clean, you stood a one in four chance of dying from a fever caused by infection after the surgery. Most wealthy homes didn't have a proper operating room at all, so it is no wonder that surgeons didn't have the respect they do today and were seen as butchers!

Often patients would die in shock on the operating table because the only anesthesia available was ether, or whiskey.

But I'm getting off track discussing the horrors of surgery... the point was that most doctors didn't even believe in germs. Germaphobes wouldn't be considered crazy to worry about eating or touching anything the nineteenth century.
In England during the Victorian years, approximately HALF of all babies born alive died prior to their first birthday.  Even worse, only two out of ten ~ a staggering statistic ~ reached their second birthday.  Sanitation was deplorable, and people did not yet understand the value in sterilization.  Hygiene was essentially unheard of - Source.
A baby bottle that attached a nipple to the end of a rubber feeding tube was popular for decades after doctors condemned it because the feeding tube was impossible to clean.

3. Milk and tuberculosis. 

If the baby bottle and wallpaper didn't kill your beloved baby, the milk in the bottle might have. Mrs Beeton recommended adding boracic acid to milk to remove evidence that milk had gone off. In 1882, 20,000 samples of milk from homes were tested and one in five samples proved to have been adulterated this way. On its own, boracic acid causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Combined with milk, the slow-growing mycobacterium bovis found in milk flourishes and causes tuberculosis.

If this post wasn't morbid enough for you, look at my photos of Victorian dead people and have a safe Halloween!

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Feejee Mermaid and the Fur-bearing Trout

Freak shows and taxidermy: these two trends coincided with horrifying results in the Victorian era.

The popularity of freak shows saw its first rise in the Elizabethan era and examples of taxidermy in apothecaries date back to the middle ages, but something special happened in the nineteenth century when American circuses began touring Europe and exporting their ideas. That special thing was P.T. Barnum's Feejee mermaid.

The Feejee mermaid began its life in Japan, where some fishing communities had long histories of creating taxidermy hybrids out of monkey torsos and fish tails, which after is what the Feejee mermaid actually was. An American sailor, Captain Samuel Barrett Edes bought the mermaid in Japan for $6,000 and displayed it in London in 1822. No big deal, until it was sold to the Boston Museum after Edes' death in 1842.
Barnum media advert.

The museum presented it to P.T. Barnum, who confounded a naturalist with it. Though confounded, the naturalist would not attest to its authenticity because he simply did not believe in mermaids. Barnum saw a certain appeal in the mermaid and leased it from the museum for $12.50 a week, then wrote fake letters to New York newspapers from around the country, which served to fabricate a new origin story for the Feejee mermaid. Through an elaborate ruse and the assistance of Dr. J. Griffin, Barnum generated enough publicity to launch the Feejee mermaid's new career as a public curiosity.

This original Feejee mermaid was most likely lost to one of multiple fires in Barnum's museum, but it was such a popular and controversial attraction that the idea was copied many times - often with the correct spelling of Fiji.

The copycats grew increasingly innovative, giving rise to the dime museum in London and the United States. Dime museums were designed to entertain and 'morally educate' the masses (lower classes), although the 'moral education' involved appears to centre on the perverse logic of the anti-masturbation movement. As a social trend, dime museums reached their peak in the 1890s and began to peter out in the 1920s.

If you thought the Feejee Mermaid was bad, dime museums gave us the fur-bearing trout. Fur-bearing trout purportedly live in the coldest parts of the rivers and lakes of the Northern reaches of North America. Supposedly, the fur-bearing trout either grew its hair to keep warm down there, or because someone accidentally spilled four jugs of hair tonic in the Arkansas River.

Perhaps the most tragic thing about dime museums was that they were able to convince many people that their exhibits were real and these people would go on believing in ridiculous things for a very long time. A Canadian, Ross C. Jobe purchased one of these taxidermy trouts, which he presented to the Royal Museum of Scotland, where the fish was found to be covered in rabbit fur.

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Friday, October 2, 2015

Victorian Clowns and Clowning

Symptoms of coulrophobia can include sweating, nausea, feelings of dread, fast heartbeat, crying or screaming, and anger at being placed in a situation where a clown is present. - Source
1890 Occupational Photo of Circus Clown
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. It's Halloween, so don't unfriend, or unfollow me, for writing this post. Last October, I wrote a series of scary posts and I'm up to the same tricks this year.

Grimaldi and son.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, one of the most influential clowns was performing in London and his name was Joseph Grimaldi (1776-1837). Gimaldi was a Regency era stage performer, who expanded the role of the clown in British pantomime in the early 1800s. Grimaldi so dominated the comic stages of London that the harlequinade role of clown bears his name, "Joey," and his whiteface makeup design remains in use to this day.

Grimaldi's son tried to follow in his footsteps, but was never as successful as his father and, like his father became an alcoholic. He took his financial problems out on his parents, until his life came to an early end. After the son died, Grimaldi and his wife attempted suicide together, but failed and resolved to go on living what had turned into an impoverished life. Grimaldi outlived his wife by three years.

Duburau as 'Pierrot Laughing' (1855) by Nadar.
Meanwhile, in France, Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846) was going to court for killing a boy with his cane, after the boy insulted him on the street in 1936. Deburau was famous for playing the clown, Pierrot.
Certainly the violent and sometimes sinister cruelty that Debrau brought to his role had at least part of its source in the brooding rancor of his own temperament. On a spring day in 1836, he had shown to what lengths this rancor could carry him, when, while strolling with his young wife and shildren, he had warmed to anger under a street-boy's taunts and brought his heavy cane down on the young man's skull, killing him with a single blow. The court had acquitted the fashionable mime, but his act seemed to darken the already deepening shadows of Pierrot's billowy tunic. - Robert F. Storey, Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask, 2014.
Having been acquitted of murder, Deburau carried on his clowning career. He didn't by any means invent the character of Pierrot, but introduced the signature black skull cap and collarless shirt to the role. Pierrot, as a character, leaves a lot of room for actors to express their own clowning style; eDeburau is not even seen as the most influential incarnation of Pierrot in that era.

Paul Legrand as Pierrot (1857) by Nadar.
In 1839, Paul Legrand (1816-1898) took to the French stage as Pierrot. Legrand is said to have brought dramatic realism to the role, greatly influencing pantomime as an art form.

Félicia Mallet as Pierrot (1895).
Félicia Mallet played another version of Pierrot toward the end of the century. Although she became better known as a singer, than a clown, George Bernard Shaw said of her role as Pierrot that:
Felicia Mallet is much more credible, much more realistic, and therefore much more intelligible — also much less slim, and not quite so youthful. Litini was like a dissolute "La Sylphide": Mallet is frankly and heartily like a scion of the very smallest bourgeoisie sowing his wild oats. She is a good observer, a smart executant, and a vigorous and sympathetic actress, apparently quite indifferent to romantic charm, and intent only on the dramatic interest, realistic illusion, and comic force of her work. And she avoids the conventional gesture-code of academic Italian pantomime, depending on popularly graphic methods throughout. - George Bernard Shaw in James Huneker, Dramatic Opinions and Essays by G. Bernard Shaw: Containing as Well A Word on the Dramatic Opinions and Essays, of G. Bernard Shaw, 1913.
While, Pierrot dominated France, Grimaldi's work was still more influential in London.

James Frowde
Grimaldi's signature red triangle cheeks reappeared the face of James Frowde (1831-1899) and many other clowns throughout the world. Frowde was an English clown and evangelical preacher, who married an equestrian performer from a circus family. While families, like Grimaldi's, suffered financial hardships, Victorians considered circus performers little better than beggars in England. That being said, not all circus families were so hard up. Frowde's father owned the circus he performed in: Hengler's Circus.
Hengler's Circus which prospered during the 1850s travelled under a series of different headings such as 'Hengler's Colossal Hippodrama and Grand Cirque Variety', Hengler's Colossal Moving Hippodrama and National Circus' and Hangler's Mammoth Circus and Great Equestrian Exhibition'. Even its catchphrase 'Amusement for the Million and Reational Recreation' reflects a switch to more demotic and pragmatic ambition as an impression of royal appointment is traded in for a democratically minded image of a judiciously balanced mass entertainment. - Helen Soddart, Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation, 2000.
In that variety of names I see the clown shifting from the theatre with its stationary stage to the art of the spectacle and its travelling rings. I see the family politics of showcasing Frowde's equestrian wife. I also see an industry that had to compete with the American's Buffalo Bill's Wilde West Show.

1880s playbill for Hengler's Grand Cirque.
As American culture penetrated circus and theatre clowning in Europe, it's important to mention Dan Rice (1823-1900), an American clown, who is seen as the inspiration for Uncle Sam and was so popular that he ran for president in 1868.

Keeping up with the competition of the times, he coined the "One-Horse Show" and "Greatest Show" terms. Rice became one of America's first pop-culture icons and helped make the circus what it is today by combining a variety of acts, like animals and acrobats and, of course, clowns.

Dan Rice
For a period in the 1840s, he even performed in blackface. As his fame grew, he starred in song-and-dance parodies of Shakespeare, including "Dan Rice's Version of Othello" and "Dan Rice's Multifarious Account of Shakespeare's Hamlet." He's said to have been vaudeville before there was a vaudeville.
Rice was not simply funnier than other clowns; he was different, mingling jokes, solemn thoughts, civic observations, and songs. - David Carlyon, Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of, 2004.
Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaboration incorporated a pair of clowns who adopted the mannerisms of both Grimaldi and Rice. Harry (1833-1895) and Fred Payne (1841–1880) were collectively known as the Payne Brothers.

Harry & Fred Payne
Harry was Covent Garden's clown throughout the 1860s, a role once played by Grimaldi.

Grimaldi's Leap Frog act at Covent Garden (1812).
Harry was to clowning in London what Dan Rice was to the United States.
Every Boxing Day Harlequinade at Drury Lane opened with Harry's cheer-filled somersault and catchphrase: "Here we are again!" His obituary in the Times said:
Mr. Payne was at once an actor, a singer, and an accomplished humourist. Probably he owed something to the tuition of his father … whose mimetic feats he would seek to emulate as much as the altered conditions of pantomime entertainments would permit.
 Sadly, his younger brother, Fred's career relied more on their father's and Fred died many years earlier.

These were by no means all of the clowns that had an impact on the art of clowning in the nineteenth century, but they were the best ones I could find with pictures. I would love to hear more about why Deburau was acquitted for killing that boy who insulted him in the street. If you know more, please share in the comments.

In the meantime, enjoy these photos of clowns in the 1890s:

Enrico Caruso as Canio, Italy (1892).
Sara Bernhardt as “Pierrot the Assasin” by Nadar (1893).
World's Fair in Chicago (1893).
Do-Re-Mi, a musical clown trio (1895) more info.
Clown Band, Ringling Brothers Road Book (1897).
Clowns (1897).
Natalie and his Educated Pigs, Ringling Brother Road Book (1897).
Natalie and donkey at Stampede in Vancouver (1897).
Guillaume Tell et le clown Melies (1898).
Clown, New York (1898).
The stars Drury Lane's Harlequinade, 1898-99 season (including the Payne Brothers).
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