Séance, Magicians, and the Arms Race of Things

Historically, the apparent ability to contact spirits has provided a wealth of opportunities for deception by performers.  Magicians have had a constant and ambiguous relationship with the performance of spiritualism and the complex links within this relationship formed a ‘dysfunctional family’ with magicians and spiritualists competing in developing better methods of deception (Taylor & Cooper, 2019).  While, following the first rappings of the Fox sisters in 1848, the rise of spiritualism may have provided the audience with, ‘a brief diversion from Enlightenment’ (Cook, 2001, p. 172), it also opened up a series of practices that made spiritualist performance fair game for magicians to replicate.  They would often perform spiritualist effects under the guise of scepticism or exposure, and, as they were already able to, for example, divine information through hidden method, they were able to exploit the contemporary drive, by believers and sceptics alike, for empirical evidence of spirit contact.  Monroe in his article on the seriousness of the séance cites Kardec’s Book on Mediums (1874) as central to making séance a ‘serious’ pursuit.  A pursuit that was often defined by the quest for empirical evidence and an attempt to remove the more ‘dangerous’ elements through regulation.  However, even with the loss of ‘ecstatic trances, uncontrolled, eroticised female behaviour, and the possibility of madness’ (Monroe, 1999, p. 246), the private séance still managed to provide ‘spectacular entertainment directed to all the senses’ and many so-called genuine seances continued to feature trance in some form. These were usually accompanied by demonstrations of physical phenomena including, ‘table tilting, floating furniture, musical instruments playing themselves, [and] the wafting of mysterious incense in the air’ (Walkowitz, 1988, p. 8).  With these, often complex but serious performances all occurring in the domestic space, the performance of séance became a private, middle-class pursuit (Bloom, 2010, p. 147) and magicians were quick to see their commercial value on the public stage.

Around the same time, the figure of the modern performance magician was becoming formalised by authors such as Professor Hoffmann, whose work Modern Magic (1876) effectively created the model of the modern parlour magician as a ‘perfectly socialised nineteenth century gentleman’ (Mangan, 2007, p. 104).  The gentleman magician would often debunk spiritualist beliefs by demonstrating, and thus exposing, the magical method behind the parlour séance, and, while on the same bill, perform their own miracles often claiming scientific method, rather than magical technique or fraudulent means.  One such magician was the American performer Keller (active 1869-1908).  Keller, according to Anspach (2009), claimed to be performing ‘true magic’ as opposed to the ‘lowbrow hokum which had come to be known as magic’.  Anspach argues that Kellar, and other magicians of that time, performed a separation of the ‘lowbrow magic of mediums’ against a ‘legitimate magic’ of things.  These things, which Anspach identifies as ‘trunks, handcuffs, levitating bodies, saws, playing cards, rabbits, top hats’ (Anspach, 2009) became clear signifiers of the performance magician.  However, at the same time, spiritualist performance, as it moved to satisfy the empirical drive for evidence, began to develop its own spiritualist things.  These things, while using what can be broadly termed as magical method, claimed a validity for themselves outside of ‘legitimate magic’ and thus an ‘arms race’ (Taylor & Cooper, 2019) of invention and debunking ensued, with magicians eventually appropriating the things of the séance as their own.  Many of these new things became constants in performance magic and were later used on stage by the mentalist and then re-imagined by the bizarre magician.  For example, in so-called genuine spiritualist performance, we have Henry Slade first using slates in London in 1876; Charles Foster using billets, small pieces of paper used by the sitters for writing down their questions to the spirits in 1862; and in London in 1864 the Davenports were using rope ties and a spirit cabinets (Lamont, 2006, pp. 22–25).  These new props and methods were known to fraudulent spirit mediums many years before magicians fully exploited their methods, and when they did find their way into the hands of the magicians, many of the props saw continued development in terms of method and mechanics.  This resulted in magicians claiming the effects and often publishing their own working methods, for example, William E. Robertson (Chung Ling Soo) wrote the definitive work on slates in his book Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena for Magicians (1898) and much later Dr. Q, a pseudonym for Claude Alexander Conlin who performed as Alexander: The Man Who Knows, published The Life And Mysteries Of The Celebrated Dr. Q (1921) which contained a number of exposures including an explanation of spiritualist performer Anna Eva Fay’s act.

While Abbott notes in his exposé Behind the Scenes with the Mediums ‘There is much difference in the effect when one knows such a thing is a trick and does not think some supernatural agency is at work’ (Abbott, 1912, p. 62), in practice it was not so clear cut.  As, while a sceptic gentleman magician might expose a medium’s abilities as tricks, they would also appear to better them by performing more spectacular (and theatrical) wonders.  It was not until the rise of the mentalist, proto-bizarre and the bizarre magick movement that we see a movement away from exposure and a return to the ambiguous playing of the supernatural as apparently real.   Much of performance magic practice that was seen as external to the emerging genre of bizarre magick had become trapped in its own paradigm of things and associations, and, with reference to Keller’s legitimate magic paradigm, became centred on tricks and illusions.

Abbott, D. P. (1912). Behind the Scenes with the Mediums. Chicago?: The Open court publishing company. http://archive.org/details/b00ehindsceneswithabborich
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Anspach, E. (2009, May 18). Thing Magic or Magic Things. Thing Theory. https://thingtheory2009.wordpress.com/2009/05/17/magical-things/
Bloom, C. (2010). Gothic histories the taste for terror, 1764 to the present. Continuum.
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Cook, J. W. (2001). The Arts of Deception: Playing with fraud in the age of Barnum. Harvard University Press.
Kardec pseud., A. (1874). Experimental Spiritism. Book on Mediums; or, Guide for mediums and invocators ... (E. A. Wood, Trans.). Boston.
Lamont, P. (2006). Magician as Conjurer. Early Popular Visual Culture, 4(1), 21–33.
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Monroe, J. (1999). Making the seance ‘serious’: Tables tournantes and Second Empire bourgeois culture, 1853-1861. History of Religions, 38(3), 219.
Robinson, W. E. (1898). Spirit slate writing and kindred phenomena. New York City, Munn & company. http://archive.org/details/spiritslatewrit00robigoog
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Taylor, N. (2015). Impersonating Spirits: The Paranormal Entertainer and the Dramaturgy of the Gothic Séance. In L. Piatti-Farnell & D. L. Brien (Eds.), New Directions in 21st-Century Gothic: The Gothic Compass (pp. 163–174). Routledge.
Taylor, N., & Cooper, A. (2019, May 31). Spiritualists and Magicians: Outrage, Appropriation and the Birth of a Performance Genre. Science and Spiritualism, 1750 – 1930., Leeds Trinity University.
Walkowitz, J. R. (1988). Science and the Seance: Transgressions of Gender and Genre in Late Victorian London. Representations, 22, 3–29. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928407