On the 23rd of September 2004 I was lucky enough to attend a recreation of a Victorian séance organized by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman at the Dana Centre in London, a venue dedicated to encouraging ordinary people to think and talk about science. Approximately fifty of us sat around an enormous round table holding hands, and, as the lights dimmed, we were treated to an orchestrated evening of raps and knocks, and at one point a thump from the middle of the table which was so unexpected that many of us jumped in our seats. But the event was only ever partially successful because we all expected something to happen, and, armed with our noughties scepticism, nobody imagined for one instant that the sounds were produced by any supernatural agency. We were a particularly tough audience.
Twelve years prior to this in 1992, Wiseman had made a study of the last of the great Victorian mediums, Eusapia Palladino. Born of Italian peasant stock, her first husband was a conjuror, and the second a wine merchant. Yet it is the second husband who is fingered as her accomplice, entering the darkened séance room via a secret panel and assisting Palladino in her catalogue of tricks: levitating tables, making objects appear to move, partial materializations of hands and faces, plus the normal gamut of ghostly pinching, touching and kicks.
But Palladino's audiences were as tough as Wiseman's. From 1892 onwards she gave regular sittings all across Europe where she was (regularly) exposed as a fraud. The Victorian fascination with mediums was over. Something more potent was needed, at least amongst the leisured classes: the fin-de-siècle obsession with magic, Gnostic texts and Freemasonry that found its spiritual home in Paris. But even this heady brew was powerless against the unstoppable march of science.
Whether public or simply domestic, séances had always been a form of entertainment. As the 20th century dawned, a new entertainment threw its hat into the ring: film. Though initially seen as little more than a curiosity, within thirty years it had become one of the leading forms of public entertainment as sound and colour were added to the mix.
True believers in spiritualism in Britain had seen the writing on the wall, and despite an innate distaste for any formal organization had nevertheless organized their various groups into the National Federation of Spiritualists by 1891. Though it lacked a hard and fast belief system, one key issue which drew almost universal support from its constituent groups was women's suffrage. Its numbers swelled during the First World War, then declined again as the century progressed. Spiritualist churches sprang up throughout the Commonwealth, with quite large followings in both Australia and New Zealand.
America had many spiritualist churches, often far more organized than their British counterparts, but also far more resistant to being organized by umbrella groups.
Although radio was taking over as the entertainment of preference in the home, domestic séances continued well into the 1930s, but now as simple evening pastimes to while away the long winter nights. As likely as not, they were performed by people of a certain age who had been born in the Victorian era. The writer Agatha Christie, whose canon of novels wittingly or unwittingly documents the sweeping social changes that occurred in Britain during the first half of the century, gave cameo roles to two such women in her 1937 novel Dumb Witness—the sisters, Julia and Isabel Tripp. Having interpreted Poirot's name as "Parrot", Isabel observes: "How remarkable. P. You remember the planchette distinctly insisted on P last night. A visitor from over the water and the initial P."
The Second World War did little to restore spiritualism's flagging health, and by the 1950s people were more willing to believe in little green men than Frances Griffith's art nouveau styled fairies. Television had arrived and it was beginning to vie with radio for our attention. Interestingly, William Crookes, the scientist who investigated D. D. Home, Kate Fox and Florence Cook, had a part to play in its invention. Crookes was fascinated by electricity, and one of his experiments involved passing electrical discharges through, amongst other things, vacuum tubes, thus producing cathode ray particles which glowed in the dark. As uninspiring as this research may seem, it led later scientists to invent the 20th century's most popular form of public entertainment.
I want the final words to go to Houdini's widow, Bess. Like D. D. Home before him, Houdini made a pact with his wife, whom he adored: if it were at all possible he would find a way to deliver a message to her when he died, the words "Rosabelle, believe." For ten years Bess held a séance every Halloween, but the message never came. "Ten years," she said, "is long enough to wait for any man."