Related Articles> Séances, Mediums, and Messages

Séances, Mediums, and Messages




Mediumship and channeling date back to ancient history and undoubtedly tie in with humanity's long held belief in an ability to in some way survive death. Vestiges of this belief are found in prehistoric sites around the globe.

A 60,000-year-old Neanderthal burial site includes medicinal flowers arranged around the body. (Leakey, 56-57). Other ancient cultures also had ritualistic burials which prepared the deceased for the afterworld. The Stone Age Irish built elaborate stone tombs, many with astronomical significance (O'Brien, 1985, 7-11) and held beliefs in an afterworld that were animistic (O'Faolain, 1947, 16-21). The ancient Egyptians believed in a force they called Ka that was a spiritual likeness of the living person and was capable of surviving death (Wilson, 1987, 9-11). Native American myths of the Southwest emphasized the fertility of the next world and rituals were used to insure that the deceased person avoided the dangers and evils on his or her journey there (Bierhors, 1987, 77-83).

The spiritual healers of primitive cultures were almost always the shamans, who acted as intermediaries between the spirit world and the community. Shamans were believed to be able to travel astrally and to act as conduits to higher beings (Parrinder, 1971, 46-47). A common shamanistic ritual involved the acting out, by the shaman, of a trip to heaven or the underworld to retrieve the lost soul of one of his or her sick constituents (Couliano, 1991, 41).

Mediumship, the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead, and divination, the ability to foretell future events through supernatural means, also date to ancient history and appear to be found in all cultures. On Malatia, in the Solomon Islands, for instance, people believed that humans had two souls. When a person died, one soul journeyed to heaven. The other soul, however, became an ancestral spirit and was communicated with by mediums (Ellwood, 1976, R. 36).

In ancient Greece, the most famous oracle was in Delphi. Pilgrims traveled to Delphi to consult The Oracle about their problems and their future. A priestess, while in a trance state, spoke unintelligible words that were believed to be channeled from Apollo (Parrinder, 156). Priests "translated" these utterings into words of advice for the supplicants. Many questions and answers from pilgrims to Delphi survive. One such interchange was: "'How do I cure my son of lovesickness?' 'Treat him gently.'" (Parinder, 157).

Indirect pronouncements were also popular and given credence by preChristian pagans. Answers to questions presented at temples were found in signs and omens at the shrines and sacred groves. Dreams, particularly, were given great meaning when thought to be messages from gods. Visitors journeyed to Egypt to get answers at the temple of the god Bes, "entirely true, the giver of dreams and oracles, never-lying, acknowledge throughout the world, heavenly...: (Fox, 205).

In the early part of the first millennium, theurgy, the art of magic performed with supernatural assistance, became popular in Roman and Greek culture. Prophets, both men and women, were much in evidence. There was a perception that this supernatural power was most commonly found in the young and innocent and the power of divination was often believe to increase when accompanied by music and sweet aromas (Fox, 208).

In Dondona, the sound of rustling leaves was interpreted and given as answers to questions of pilgrims. A few of these questions were written on lead and have survived. One pilgrim, for example, wanted to know if the child his lady friend was bearing was his. (Parrinder, 157).


Séances and mediums were frowned upon in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy, 18:10-12 states: No Israeli may practice black magic, or call on the evil spirits for aid, or be a fortune teller, or be a serpent charmer, medium, or wizard, or call forth the spirits of the dead. Anyone doing these things is an object of horror and disgust to the Lord.

The only séance appearing in the Bible occurs in the first book of Samuel. In I Samuel, 28:8-9, Saul, fearing approaching war with the Philistines and having no one whose counsel he trusted, asked the witch of Endor to summon his recently deceased counselor Samuel, who had anointed Saul as king. After fasting for 24 hours, Saul visited the witch. "'I've got to talk to a dead man,' he pleaded, 'will you bring his spirit up?' 'Are you trying to get me killed?' the woman demanded. 'You know that Saul has had all of the mediums and fortunetellers executed.'" However, Saul was desperate for advice from Samuel and promised that no harm would come to her. Alas for Saul, Samuel, through the medium, predicted that Saul's army would lose the upcoming battle and that Saul would be killed in the fight. During the Middle Ages, there were many stories and beliefs about ghosts, usually tied in with martyrs and holy men and women. Frequently, the ghosts of these holy men and women visited the living and most often did so to advocate the upholding of Christian morality (Finucane, 1996, 41-43). In Ecclesiastical History Of The English People, Bede wrote about a group of English missionaries who were murdered in what is now Germany and thrown into the Rhine River. A shaft of light shown down from the sky near where they were murdered. The ghost of one of the murdered missionaries appeared to a Christian man and told the man that the shaft of light pointed to the murdered Englishmen's bodies. The bodies were then recovered and buried at Cologne Cathedral (Bede, 1990, 281-282).

During the Reformation, tales of ghosts usually concerned the ghosts asking for some sort of absolution as a means of reaching heaven. This could involve asking for forgiveness of those living whom they had offended or pleading to be buried in sacred ground (Finucane, 1996, 105-107). Besides ghostly appearances and appearances in visions and dreams, ghosts were also said to communicate with the living by making rapping noises. In sixteenth century Europe such rappings were reported by both Catholics and Protestants. In 1534, several Franciscan friars in France claimed to be in communication with the deceased wife of the chief magistrate. Using a system of rapping sounds developed by the friars, the spirit "told" the monks that there is a purgatory, that the Catholic Church is the one true church, and that the spirit greatly regretted having converted to Protestantism.

The deceased woman's husband filed a complaint with civil authorities, accusing the friars of fraud and defamation, and the king appointed a secular-lay investigative committee. The friars then withdrew their insistence that their communications with the spirit were authentic. Upon being officially confronted by the investigative committee, they admitted that the entire episode was fraudulent and that they had made up the entire episode. All of the friars, except the ringleaders, were sentenced to make public confessions, pay monetary compensation to the chief magistrate, and serve prison sentences or be exiled. The ringleaders were sentenced to be burned at the stake. The sentence was later reduced to life banishment (Finucane, 109-110).

In the seventeenth century, Emanuel Swedenborg, a gifted and accomplished scientist, began to receive visions which he said were supernatural. He claimed to have traveled astrally to distant planets (although only to those known to exist during his time) and to heaven, and to have spoken to Jesus.

Swedenborg quickly amassed a large following, including several members of royalty. He said that on his astral travels, he frequently recognized familiar people whom he had known while they were living. He stated that he was able to communicate with the spirits of deceased persons, even the spirits of specific people, on behalf of their living families. He and his followers claimed that lost objects were found due to instructions Swedenborg received from the spirits of people who had died. He wrote, In every one that has religion there is implanted a knowledge that after death he will live as a man...Inquiry was made in the spiritual world whether this knowledge is implanted in all, and it was found to be implanted in all. (Swedenborg, 1909, 219-220)

Swedenborg contended that initially, the spirit of a newly deceased person is welcomed by angels and benign spirits but eventually pursues a lifestyle similar to the one he or she had while living. This occurs in a nether world midway between heaven and hell (Sigstedt, 1952, 233).

Swedenborg claimed that he frequently saw and communicated with the spirits of friends, family and coworkers who had died (Sigstedt, 250) and his followers also believed that he could view objects at great distance (remote viewing). Swedenborg and his followers insisted that Swedenborg had seen the murder of Czar Peter III of Russia occurring hundreds of miles from where Swedenborg was currently residing (Wilson, 58). He also preached that the "soul is identical with a life-force which originates from the cortex and circulates in the blood" (Washington, 14). Swedenborg died in 1772 but his visions and writings continue to wield impact, Swedenborgian churches still exist, and his metaphysical books remain in print.

In the early and mid-nineteenth century, Mesmerism was used as a way to communicate with spirits. Using Mesmer's work on "animal magnetism," even educated people saw this invisible force as a conduit to the spirit world. Proponents believed that people successfully "mesmerized" were in the proper frame of reception to receive messages from spirits. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, successful communication with the spirits of the dead were chronicled using Mesmer's methods. In 1836, The Journal du Magnetisme cited the work of several successful mediums who had interviewed the spirits of deceased people in this way. The book Secrets of the Future Life Unveiled, published in 1848, detailed what were purported to be successful mesmeric communications with the spirit world (Finucane, 179-181).

Mesmerism set the stage for modern day spiritualism, which really began with the Fox sisters in 1847. In 1847 in Hydesville, New York, Margaretta and Katie Fox, aged 15 and 12, startled their community when they claimed that spirits communicated with them by making rapping noises when the sisters summoned "Mr. Splitfoot." Joined by their married sister Leah Fish, who claimed that the gift of spirit communication was an hereditary gift, and their mother, Mrs. Fox, the sisters attracted great attention and many believers. They promptly went into mediumship professionally and performed at P. T. Barnum's museum. Despite intense accusations of fraud by journalists and an admission of fakery and fraud by the sisters themselves (Kurtz, 1985, 178), the Fox sisters nonetheless continued performing séances for fees. Well known persons known to accept their performances as legitimate communications with the dead included Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft and James Fennimore Cooper. A wealthy banker became their European manager because of their purported success at communicating with his deceased wife (Finucane, 181). Although the sisters were frequently denounced as dishonest and vilified by many for preying on the naive and desperate, their success started an avalanche of emulators.

Mediumship quickly became immensely popular in Europe and America and by 1853, ten spiritualist journals were being published in America. Also in 1853, "it was claimed that more than 300 magnetic circles in the city of Philadelphia were receiving messages from the dead" (Finucane, 180). New practitioners of mediumship in Europe and in America developed their own techniques. Henry Gordon supposedly levitated to the ceiling while in communication with spirits. Musical instruments hung from the ceiling played music for Miss Vinson when the spirits were contacted. Mysterious writings appeared on a slate for medium John W. Truesdale, who was twice arrested and convicted of fraud as a result of his séances. Francis Monck, too, specialized in spirit slate writing. Like Truesdale, Monck also was successfully prosecuted and imprisoned for fraud (Finucane, 186).

"Ectoplasm" (the luminous substance believed to emanate from a spiritualistic medium) frequently emerged from the mouths of dozens of mediums. Being touched by the hands of spirits and seeing images of ghosts during séances were common, as were tables vibrating, shifting and moving. The planchette (Ouija board) was extensively used.

Despite the credulity of its proponents, spiritualism did have its detractors. Huxley wrote: (set off) If anybody could endow me with the faculty of listening to the chatter of old women and cures in the nearest cathedral town, I should decline the privilege, having better things to do. And if the folk in the spiritual world do not talk more wisely and sensibly than their friends report them to do, I put them in the same category. (Finucane, 183).

An English journalist writing about the mediumistic use of the planchette wrote "What I did consciously, the credulous do unconsciously." (Finucane, 184) Robert Browning satirized spiritualism in general, and Daniel Home in particular, in his poem "Mr. Sludge: Medium." And numerous professional magicians successfully duplicated the performances of the mediums.

Probably the most famous medium practicing in England in the nineteenth century was Daniel Home. It was claimed that he could levitate, make objects move around the room, cause an accordion to float in the air, and carry hot glowing coals in his bare hands. A notable aspect of Home's career is that he seldom charged fees but instead relied on the generosity of those attending his séances. A wealthy woman named Mrs. Jane Lyons gave him 33,000 English pounds in gratitude for his spiritual services. Significantly, during a Home séance, her deceased husband told Mrs. Lyons to adopt Home and will her wealth to him (Kurtz, 186). Mrs. Lyons, however, had a change of mind, accused Home of undue influence, and successfully sued him for full recovery of the money. Home did, none-the-less, marry twice and both times to wealthy women. Eusapia Palladino was an attractive, barely literate woman from Italy who became a quite famous medium in Europe and America in the late nineteenth century. During her séances, tables would levitate, her weight would change on a scale, spirit hands would appear, objects would appear from a nearby cabinet, and "spirit" music would be heard. Eusapia was observed by several scientists and academics on both continents who declared her gifts genuine. Still other observers insisted that she was a fraud and she was, in fact, caught cheating on many occasions.

This did little to change the minds of those who believed her gifts as a medium were genuine. The reasons so many people believed in the legitimacy of mediumship are varied and outside the scope of this paper. However, it might be of interest to explain briefly how the mediums accomplished some, at least, of their feats. It may be that every medium had methods specific to his or her own style, yet there was a commonality in most séance performances, and many such performances were revealed to have been done by trickery. In 1851, the Fox sisters were exposed in a New York newspaper by an investigator who determined that the raps heard during their séances were caused by the sisters cracking the bones in their knees. The Fox sisters acknowledged that it was true yet continued successfully to perform professionally. In 1888, Margarita Fox confessed during a public lecture that she and her sisters had, from the very beginning, always faked their séances, and that none of them had ever had paranormal powers. Margarita then demonstrated to the packed lecture hall how she and her sisters had made the rapping sounds (Somerlot, 1971, 76). There was less of a market for lectures on fakery, however, than on spirit communication, and Margarita Fox soon after recanted her confession and returned to the séance business (Wilson, 61).

Mediums held advantages over investigators who attended séances to test the legitimacy of the mediums' performances. Most of the investigators studying mediums were academics who were not trained in stage magic or in spotting street chicanery. Additionally, many such investigators were, for reasons of their own, predisposed to believe in the legitimacy of spiritualism and as a consequence, often rationalized mediumistic mediocrity and fraud.

Believers in spiritualism went to séances seeking comfort, and by most accounts, the well-known mediums were very good at giving comfort and reassurance. Many mediums were careful not to admit known unbelievers, skeptics or unsympathetic investigators to their séances, claiming that the negative energy these people brought with them made spirit communication prohibitively difficult. The participants of séances were also instructed to remain completely still during the séance session and were nearly always required to remain sitting at the séance table. To aid the mediums, there was also a "blue book" circulated among professional American mediums (Kurtz, 185) which contained personal information about people known to attend séances. And one absolutely cannot underestimate the importance of the fact that séances were held in the dark, where sleight of hand was difficult to detect.

In 1875, a French spirit photographer was convicted and imprisoned for faking photographs (Finucane, 187). Mediums were also caught sneaking around the darkened séance table, some dressed in ghostly garb. Blackburn and Smith were two highly regarded mediums of the 1880's. In 1911, Blackburn published a newspaper account detailing the highly developed system of signals and signs, none of which were paranormal, that he and Smith had used to convince their audiences that their gifts were supernatural. Blackburn did not know in 1911, though, that Smith was still living and still performing, and Smith angrily denied Blackburn's confession. Blackburn apologized publicly to Smith but insisted that his published account of his and Smith's fakery was accurate.

In both America and Europe, hidden cameras revealed mediums using hidden rods to move tables, and furniture, and to strum musical instruments suspended from the ceiling (Wilson, 64). Wind instruments situated away from the séance table were observed being played by mediums using long hollow metal tubes. Eusapia Palladino was caught using an accomplice hidden under the séance table and of hiding fake hands and mechanical devices within the folds of her clothing (Finucane, 185). She was also observed using her feet both to move furniture and "spirit touch" her clients (Kurtz, 205).

Because séances were conducted in the dark, no one actually saw a medium levitate. Rather, they heard the voice of the medium, which may have sounded as if it was above the séance table. Mediums who claimed to levitate were caught standing (instead of sitting) and/or speaking through hollow tubes pointed upward. "Ectoplasm" emerging from a medium's mouth was observed to be regurgitated surgical gauze (McHargue, 1972, 1989). Photographs of ghostly figures glimpsed during séances showed such figures to be cloth painted with phosphorescent paint, and double exposure photography was commonly used by mediums and their assistants to create spirit photographs.

A very important technique used by successful mediums was, and is, the ability to do convincing cold readings. Ray Hyman wrote that cold reading is the procedure by which a 'reader' is able to persuade a client whom he has never before met that he knows all about the client's personality and problems. (Hyman, 1981, 81)

Hyman emphasized that cold reading can be a highly developed skill. Successful cold readers ask questions that sound like pronouncements and are able to formulate both personal information and predictions based on what the client has inadvertently revealed during the session. Successful cold readers are also observant and notice things like wedding bands (or the lack thereof), style and expense of clothing worn, worry, and exhaustion. Through a careful methodical series of questions and pronouncements (such as, 'I see you are worried about someone close to you, am I right?') the cold reader quickly knows quite a bit about the client he or she has just met (Steiner, 1989, 17-24). The willingness to believe by proponents of mediums is of great importance.

Believers were invested in the belief that the mediums were legitimate. Comfort received during a séance with a deceased spouse, for instance, would have been nullified had the believer accepted that the medium was a fraud. Academics and scientists would have appeared professionally ludicrous had they admitted that their methodology was faulty or that the spiritualist they had championed had fooled them. Supporters of specific mediums who were exposed as frauds often rationalized the mediums' fakery by insisting that the medium's occasional use of trickery and fraud did not mean that the medium always used trickery and fraud and that some, at least, of their feats had not been determined to be sleight of hand and thus must be legitimate proof of the medium's supernatural gifts. Hereward Carrington, a respected scholar and supporter of Esaupia Palladino, defended his faith in her by saying, I have seen levitation when both the medium's ankles were held beneath the table... Esaupia herself says that she will cheat if allowed. (Kurtz, 207)

Kurtz points out that Carrington was the only person known to have seen the medium levitate while her ankles were tied beneath the table.


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