Sunday, 13 November 2011

ECTOPLASM by Mary Hooper




Following publication of Velvet, set in a medium's house in Edwardian London, I recently wrote a piece on Ectoplasm for the children’s book blog in the Guardian. This is an unexpurgated version.

Ectoplasm was purported to be a substance that exuded from a medium whilst in trance: a substance which, it was said, formed itself into the manifestation of whatever spirit the medium was in touch with at the time. It was said to flow from one or more of the medium’s orifices. Yes, even from there.

When I was researching Velvet I found a selection of rather odd photographs showing materials which purported to be this mystical stuff. Accounts of the day describing it say that it was a slimy substance, a fine muslin-like material, something like smoke, or of a rubbery dough-like consistency. Members of the audience, kept at a distance and literally in the dark, were warned against touching any ectoplasm which appeared. It depleted the medium’s own body, they were told. If it was touched, it could kill her. Have a look at these photographs and see if they convince you...

Some mediums didn’t bother exuding anything, but merely pulled the curtains tightly shut across the cabinets they used for going into trances, and appeared through a secret doorway dressed in heavenly white robes. There was a sexual element to all this; sitting in almost-darkness with an attractive lady medium, holding hands around the table, those Victorian gentlemen were getting a lot closer to a lady than they usually did. One evening, Pocky, a small “Indian girl spirit” materialised by Miss Florence Wood, kissed a Mr Gurney two or three times through her drapery and then went on to embrace a corn-merchant “repeatedly”. At a later séance, Pocky was actually exposed as Miss Wood, on her knees and swathed in white muslin. She pleaded that she had been “an unconscious instrument temporarily in the hands of an evil power”.

Another famous medium, Miss Katie Cook, materialised a shapely and attractive spirit who was frequently jumped on by sceptics anxious to prove (after touching her all over) that she was flesh. On one appearance she proved not very ethereal by struggling violently with a gentleman, scratching his face and pulling out his whiskers.

In 1882, The Society for Psychical Research was formed, and as a consequence mediums would sometimes be asked to submit to an examination before and after a séance to show they weren’t hiding anything. Discoveries made included a pump hidden under a carpet ready to inflate a swath of gauze-like material, a medium found with yards of muslin folded into a cube in her cheek, yet another with an assistant in the basement ready to blow up smoke through the floorboards. Mediums could also secrete materials under their voluminous skirts, and sometimes had their arms and legs bound up to prevent them producing anything when the lights went out.

The formation of the Society resulted in the numbers of mediums producing ectoplasm going down, and the numbers being prosecuted for fraud going up. If a Society member was present and the medium was canny, she would say that the dead were being uncooperative that evening and not even attempt to make contact with them. Nevertheless, all the leading mediums were, at one time, caught in wrong-doing and accused of fraud.

6 comments:

adele said...

This is fascinating, Mary! I love those photographs. And very interesting to know that mediums were accused so frequently of fraud...terrific stuff.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Oh what a fab and deliciously squirmy blog. I LOVE it! Those photos are amazing and I love the info about behind-the-scenes trickery. More, please!

Penny Dolan said...

Feel almost sure the medium in the upper photograph did not get approached or "handled" except by the most curious - what a horrible and revolting and frankly unspiritual image! But very interesting, all the same.

The Virtual Victorian said...

It is fascinating. Really enjoyed this. I must buy Velvet...

Thomas Taylor said...

Fascinating. But it is atrange, this desire to give the spiritual realm substance. I'm sure mediums did themselves more harm in the long run by insisting on the cotton bud approach.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Absolutely fascinating. How in the world did people fall for this???