The Bangs Fall from Grace

John Curtis Bundy, “The Bangs Sisters Exposed,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, April 7, 1888

On Sunday evening last, while several societies in this city were celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Modern American Spiritualism, and all the churches were filled to overflowing with people who thronged them to hear the beautiful music and witness the floral display, a very different scene was in progress at the home of the Bangs Sisters on Walnut street.  While church bells were ringing, organs pealing forth joyful anthems and trained voices filling the air with triumphant strains in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus, the Bangs women, mother and daughters, were busily engaged in the cold-blooded, damnable, unutterably vile business of running a bogus materialization show.  With a music box making noise enough to drown all other sounds and Mrs. Bangs ever on the alert with her cracked voice to fill up any hiatus of the machine music, the daughters went through the sickening swindle with all the coolness of well-trained performers.  Heedless of friendly admonition, intent only upon securing the forty to sixty dollars per week which the swindle was bringing in, this female trio, mother and daughters, persisted in their diabolical business; blinded by their avarice and feeling the confidence bred of long success in eluding exposure and deluding seekers after evidences of the continued existence of their beloved dead, these women went on with their nefarious work until the experience which must come sooner or later to all evildoers overtook them.  Nemesis was on their trail disguised as D. F. Trefry, and though they were suspicious of hum, their overweening confidence in their ability to circumvent an exposure led them to court danger and defy detection.  Here is Mr. Trefry’s statement of the exposure, condensed as much as possible by omitting vivid descriptions of the dramatic, almost tragic, details of the scene:

Having secured the assistance of two policemen and several friends, I proceeded with them to the Bangs Sisters, 22 ½ Walnut St., on Sunday evening last, to attend a séance.  There were about thirty persons present.  I sat in the front row where I had an opportunity to carefully inspect the proceedings.  The two policemen were seated in the third row, and the friends accompanying me were compelled to stand back of them, there being no seats for them.

May Bangs occupied one apartment of the cabinet, being locked therein, there being a thin cloth partition between the medium and the apartment where the spirits were supposed to materialize.  Five or six figures appeared purporting to be materializations, some of which were recognized as spirit friends by the gullible people present.  Then Belle, one of the principal cabinet spirits came, dressed in white, with white pearl buttons, and stood in the cabinet with the door partially open.  Then forms appeared, after which the celebrated Russian Princess came and stood in the partially opened door of the cabinet, dressed in white, trimmed with what was stated by Mrs. Bangs, the mother of the mediums, to be precious diamonds.  She wore a white head-dress bespangled like the dress.  There was a signal agreed upon by me and my friends, which I gave when the auspicious moment arrived for making the exposure, and at the same time I made a sudden spring and caught the Princess just before she got the door closed, and I did not release my hold until she was taken before those present, some sixty ladies and gentlemen, with her toggery still upon her, and held by me and my assistants; and when this was torn off of her, the medium, May Bangs, was revealed, dressed the same as she was when she first entered the cabinet.  She had in her possession a bundle of paraphernalia, consisting of robes, scarfs, false beards, etc.  The mother, fighting to release her, grabbed the bundle, and tried to carry it off, but was intercepted by one of the policemen, who took it from her.  The friends of the mediums were so pugnacious that the policemen were compelled to flourish their revolvers in order to maintain order.  After, however, the mediums were arrested, their paraphernalia exposed, and the condition of the cabinet shown to be such that fraud could be easily practiced, those who were loudest in denunciations of their arrest, were glad that it had occurred.

The patrol wagon was summoned and when the mediums were taken out to it, there were about 150 people on the sidewalk, who expressed themselves as highly pleased, at the result, for the show had got to be a dreadful nuisance.

Out of consideration for the little grandchildren, Mrs. Bangs was not arrested.  Her two daughters were taken to the Des Plaines Street Police Station where it is reported they had to remain until 4 o’clock next morning, when they were bailed out by a relative.  They were arrested for running a shop without a license, and booked at the station for this and also for obtaining money under false pretenses.  The trial was postponed on their application until Saturday.

At the solicitation of The Herald the editor of The Journal gave it a comparatively brief statement, brief when the vast amount of material at hand is considered, which appeared in Tuesday’s issue of that paper.  For want of time to prepare a statement specially for The Journal, The Herald account is used and will be found on another page.

We do not care to publish the evidences of fraud in our possession; too much space is already given to the matter and the criminal court is the only place where the evidence in detail need be given.  It may be well however to say a word about the trick cabinet.  This cabinet is large and divided into two compartments.  As it stands with the sitters facing it, the compartment for the medium is to the right and is only about one half the dimensions of the other one, used by the “spirits.”  The partition is of thin but strong muslin nailed to two pieces of hard wood, one on either side, about an inch thick and two inches wide.  These extend from bottom to top of the cabinet, and are secured by iron sockets and bolts.  The whole thing looks honest and only an experienced investigator familiar with the construction of trick boxes would be able to detect the swindle.  By the use of a small wrench, its head covered with chamois skin to deaden sound, and the removal of three screws which had no hold on the wood and could be instantly removed, the materializer could in a minute remove the wooden strip at the rear of the cabinet and have free access to the other compartment.  After the show it could all be replaced in another minute.  Lizzie Bangs once said to us that if the spirit could have a minute’s warning she was sure it would not get into trouble; we didn’t doubt her statement when uttered and now we know she told the truth; for with a minute to replace the partition, May, the operator, would be secure, the outside door to her compartment being of solid wood, locked and the key in the pocket of her sister Lizzie who acts as general director and body guard.

We do not care to give further details of the construction of the trick partition as it would aid those who are following the same diabolical business, but who have not thus far been fortunate enough to secure such a cabinet.  They are made however by dealers in conjuring goods and can be bought in any of the larger cities or ordered from Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Readers of The Journal, most of you are Spiritualists, and no amount of detected deception can shake your confidence in the evidence you have received of the continuity of life and the facts of intercommunication between the two worlds.  You should be strong and heroic, with this faith posited on knowledge.  You owe it to yourselves, to your families, to your fellow men, to Spiritualism, to exert yourselves to the uttermost in the work of freeing the movement from the blighting curse of pseudo and tricky mediums, and in encouraging, sustaining and developing honest ones.  Your duty is also to aid in the constructive work of Spiritualism, by assisting in all possible ways the study of psychical matters and careful, scientific experimentation.  If you will as a body determine to do all this and go at it with a will, you can quickly place Spiritualism in its proper place before the world; you can raise the esprit de corps of the Movement to such a high mark that, full of confidence and zeal, its well disciplined forces will carry all before them and be gladly welcomed everywhere.  Support The Journal and all other courageous, critical and honest publications in the field of Spiritualism; give as freely of your time and money as do the followers and promoters of other movements.  Do all these things cheerfully and hopefully; then, and not until then, can it be said you have done your whole duty.

“May and Lizzie Bangs,” Reprinted from the Chicago Herald in the Religio-Philosophical Journal, April 7, 1888

Colonel John C. Bundy, editor of the Religio-Philosophical Journal, yesterday consented to give The Herald some interesting revelations touching the Bangs sisters and their methods.  He says the girls first came to his notice as mediums about eighteen years ago.  Lizzie is twenty-nine.  She was married some years ago to one Paul, a letter-carrier, Colonel Bundy adds: “Lizzie obtained a divorce for good cause, as I am informed, and with her two little children, girls, returned to her father’s home.  May is twenty-six years old, and also divorced; has a little boy about three years old, and lives with the parents.  In the early years of their alleged mediumship marvelous stories were told of the phenomena occurring in their presence and about the house.  The respectability of the family and the apparent sincerity of the father carried much weight, and the stories were quite generally credited.  Soon public ‘circles’ were given under the auspices of the parents, and a fee was charged.  Gradually the demonstrations increased in variety and complexity.  Nearly eleven years ago, at the earnest solicitation of Mr. Paul, who was then, as I suppose, engaged to Lizzie, I witnessed several of their ‘dark séances’ for physical manifestations.  The conditions were unsatisfactory in that the observer could never be sure that the girls were not assisting.  As such exhibitions have no scientific value and are useless where certainty is essential, I declined to pursue the matter.  A year later, and again at the request of Mr. Paul, I attended three cabinet séances with May as the medium.  With hands tied behind her she entered the cabinet, a small tea bell having first been thrown inside on the floor.  The bell was rung, hands were shown at the aperture and other demonstrations occurred, all of which the girl could do herself with perfect ease.  On the next evening I tied a cotton tape around her neck and tacked her to the back of the cabinet, where she could stand without discomfort.  No manifestations took place.  On the third night Mr. Paul insisted on returning to the original method of securing the girl, whereupon I saw it was useless to waste further time upon the show.  During these séances I observed that the mother of the girls ostentatiously took many unnecessary precautions seemingly to satisfy the sitters that all was fair and that there were no confederates.  One I recollect particularly was that of sealing all the doors and windows of the séance-room with gum and paper, a wholly useless proceeding, except it might mislead and impress sitters, for the room was well lighted, and no confederate could have entered without being seen, and could not even then have got into the cabinet.

“From my own observations and the reports of credible informants I had by this time reached the conclusion, much against my inclination, that Mrs. Bangs was master spirit of the business.  I then ceased to have any further interest in the mediumistic claims of the family and knew little of its history for some years.  I think they cultivated that phase of the phenomena known as independent slate-writing—where writing is obtained on slates by the direct agency of an unseen intelligence, not automatic writing—and kept up their dark circles.  During these years an experienced spiritualist and warm friend of the family made a series of experiments with the girls to see if materialized spirit hands could be shown.  From the statements this gentleman has made to me it would seem they were successful and obtained results under conditions of a very satisfactory nature.  I fully believe the man is sincere in his convictions and I cannot now see how he could have been deceived.  On the whole, I incline to accept his testimony.  Prior to two years ago I did not allow the names of the Bangs sisters to appear on the mediums’ directory which I furnish investigators, nor did I mention them in the Religio-Philosophical Journal, to the best of my recollection.  Some time after the formation of the Psychical Research Society in this city the girls called on me and offered to submit their claims as mediums for independent slate-writing to the investigation of the society’s committee on physical phenomena.  They appeared ingenuous, and anxious to obtain a standing in the Journal and with the society.

“Their deportment in this matter, together with reports coming to the office, led me to recognize them, to permit the insertion of their advertisement; and to assiduously seek to personally test their claim as slate-writing mediums.  After eight sittings, seven of which were total failures and one unsatisfactory, I deemed it a waste of time for me to pursue the matter further, especially as each attempt cost three hours of valuable time.  However, I want to emphasize right here my belief that a part of the slate-writing done in the presence of these young women is genuine, the work of ex-carnate spirit.  But I think a large proportion of the genuine is done by the familiar spirits of the mediums rather than by the friends from whom the messages purport to come.  Yet I could, if at liberty, give The Herald some startling and most convincing evidences of the identity of a number who have communicated with their friends on earth through the mediumship of these sisters.

“When I began to publish accounts of their slate-writing phenomena, though I have never editorially indorsed them, their business rapidly grew, and they doubled the price of sittings.  It is only within the past two years that their séances for form materialization have assumed any prominence.  During the past year this feature of their business has been steadily increasing.  They procured a new cabinet, which it is asserted was paid for by Mr. Martin, of Case & Martin, pie bakers, who in this way expressed his gratitude for what he considered excellent tests received through them.  Some three months ago I sent a request to the sisters to call on me.  They promptly complied.  I then told them that I was receiving many damaging reports as to their materialization séances; that I had prevented two attempts at exposure, and asked if they were willing to give me a series of experimental séances; that I had prevented two attempts at exposure, and asked if they were willing to give me a series of experimental séances, I to select a company mostly of Spiritualists, and no one who should be objectionable to them.  To this proposal they readily assented.  Six séances were held under this agreement.  I had intended to institute test conditions after I had witnessed the exhibition long enough to see what was necessary.  I did not carry out this intention, for I became fully satisfied that we were sitting in front of a trick cabinet and that the display was deliberate, premeditated deception.  Yet, knowing of my own knowledge, obtained from experiments with another medium under conditions that no fair-minded scientist would undertake to impeach, that spirits can project an image identical in appearance with that of a person when in the flesh, and believing the sisters to be mediums, I could not affirm that May Bangs was not a medium for form materialization.  Hence I was slow to advise strategic measures to confirm my convictions as to the show which we were taking so much trouble and inconvenience to attend.  I desired, as did all who were members of the circle, to save these young women from the disgrace of an exposure, to awaken their moral sense, to portray the danger they were constantly incurring, and to lead them to discontinue their deceptive practices.  But pleading and argument proved of no avail.  We met, six of us, at the Bangs residence of a Sunday morning, some weeks ago, and had a two hours’ session, during which we exhausted every argument, pointed out some of the deceptions they were guilty of, pleaded with the mother to think of the welfare of her daughters and of the innocent grandchildren who sat in the room with us.

“Later I invited the sisters to my house, and spent an evening trying to save them from themselves, but it was of no use.  May, the cabinet medium, seemed frightened and inclined to discontinue the show, but was evidently swayed by Lizzie and her mother, and after an intermission of séance the farce went on as usual.  Seeing that nothing but a public exposure would do, I reluctantly assented to it, after telling the sisters and their mother that warrants were out for their arrest, and that if they persisted, detection and disgrace were inevitable.  The overwhelming evidence of their guilt, obtained at the seizure on Sunday night, the Herald has already chronicled.”

“Specifically, what do you know they have done that is genuine?”

“Of my personal knowledge I know of nothing.”

“What has the influence of the mother been?”

“I am fully satisfied from long observation and extended inquiry that it is bad; that she is by all odds the most guilty member of this damnable conspiracy to coin money out of the longings of broken hearts, and sorrowing souls in search of that knowledge which is more precious than life to many.”

“What of their financial circumstances?”

“I know but little about them.  I am inclined to think they have not saved much; they may have a few hundred dollars ahead.”

“What of their morals?”

“Their moral obliquity is something shocking.  In all my experience I never saw it surpassed and seldom equaled; but I do not think they are ‘fast’ women.”

“Are you satisfied that the detectives acted fairly toward them?  That they did not supply any wigs, etc.?”

“Yes; they not only acted fairly, but Mr. Trefry, the amateur detective, to whom belongs the greater share of credit for the success of the exposure, had repeatedly and persistently warned them of the risks they ran, and tried to persuade them to confine themselves to their slate-writing, in which he has confidence.  It is the height of absurdity for those guilty people to assert that the police supplied the paraphernalia.  Everything taken last night, wigs, spangled dress and all, will be recognized by sitters as familiar objects.  Their assertion is only an echo of that uttered by J. Matthew Shea, whose detection was brought about by Mr. Trefry several years ago, and who, after swearing the outfit was brought in by the officers, had the effrontery on leaving town to go to the police station, claim and take it away.”

“How complete do you regard the expose?”

“It could not be more complete.  There is nothing left to be asked for in the way of thorough exposure.  Now, I have tried to frankly answer all your questions; I want to add a word: The great body of Spiritualists are more unrelenting toward fraud practiced under the cloak of Spiritualism and better able to detect it than outsiders possibly can be.  The public is apt to judge Spiritualists by the cranks who have come out of the churches to curse this new movement.  Back of this froth and scum is a vast body of rational, cultured, moral, religious people who are Spiritualists, and who are molding the thought and influencing the theology of every leading sect in America.  I labor to develop the scientific and ethical sides of Spiritualism, and number among my friends and co-laborers a body of representative people of whom any many might well be proud.  Fighting frauds is only an incident; constructive work is what most interests me and those I labor with.”

John C. Bundy, “The Angel of Death Enters the Bangs Household,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, April 14, 1888

On Sunday, April 1st, the Bangs Sisters were to all outward appearances in the high tide of prosperity and honor, their house filled with eager searchers after evidence of life beyond the grave, their weekly receipts several times greater than those of any other two mediums in town.  On that night their long continued deceptive methods of supplementing their mediumship were unmasked, they were unmasked, they were caught in the act of personating spirits as the Journal’s readers already know, and are at this writing under bonds to answer to the charge of obtaining money under false pretenses—a crime in this instance beside which any other short of murder is insignificant.  In addition to being cut short in their abominable career, one of them is now called upon to mourn the sudden death of her eldest child.  Alas, what a change two short weeks have wrought in the Bangs household.  What must be the feelings of this mourning mother!  She can now realize as never before the awful enormity of her offense against the suffering mourners who have sought her presence and been sacrificed to her greed.  What must be the feelings of the grandmother as she looked for the last time upon the mortal remains of her little grandchild and recalled her own connection with the cold blooded conspiracy to which she has been a party and in which she is morally the most guilty?  We can pity these people, but we cannot mourn that the little one has been removed.  With such a home environment its future was full of peril; now it has gone to a home where deceit and falsehood do not surround it and where it can grow up into sweet and beautiful womanhood, a pure angel of light to guide the erring ones towards a higher life.

Only a few weeks before disaster came to the Bangs household they were repeatedly plead with to stop short and lead honest lives, but it was all of no avail.  Out of their present afflictions and the penalties yet to come from outraged justice may they be purified and made fit companions for the little one who has gone before.  May the lesson of their experience sink deep into the hearts of all mediums who are deceiving or who falter in their efforts to follow the straight and narrow path.


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