Elizabeth French’s “Instant” Images


Elizabeth J. FrenchElizabeth Jane Poorman (1815-1890) was born in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.  From an early age, she was fascinated by electricity, and tinkered with batteries and other electrical devices, convinced that electrical energy was, as she later described it, identical with the Life Force.

About [1833], two of my nearest and dearest relatives, namely, a brother and sister, were killed simultaneously by a stroke of lightning.  My mother, being present at the scene of the tragedy, received a sufficient portion of the shock to paralyze one side of her body, thus apparently destroying the functions of life in one half of the system.  That dead half I subsequently restored to life by the action of certain rude batteries, in the construction of which I, even then a child, endowed with strong tendencies in that direction, was myself the mechanic.

—Elizabeth J. French, A New Path in Electrical Therapeutics: an account of Prof. Elizabeth J. French’s great discovery of electrical cranial diagnosis, and the scientific application of nine different currents of electricity to the cure of disease. Philadelphia: The Author, 1873.

In 1839 or 1840 she married Joseph French, Jr., a civil engineer.  They had four children:  Elizabeth, Belle, Newton (who died when young), and Mary (or May).  Around 1845 the family moved to Pittsburgh when Joseph became Superintendent of the Pittsburgh City Water Works.  Elizabeth carried on her electrical experiments.

In 1849 a young man by the name of Russell, sailing on the Alleghany River, was upset from his boat opposite the Pittsburg Water-Works.  It was quite thirty minutes before the body was recovered from the water, and attempts were made by the ordinary methods of friction, etc., to produce reanimation.  Being present at the scene of the accident, I succeeded in procuring the opportunity to apply my battery to the inanimate form in my own way.  In about ten minutes the man gave signs of returning life, and in less than half an hour he was completely restored.

As soon as the spirit-rappings began in 1848, Mrs. French began to develop herself as a medium and a magnetic healer.  Spiritualist correspondent and writer Warren Chase said that she was “a remarkable woman who had been a medium many years in the Methodist church, acceptable to them while she called it the power of God, or the ‘Holy Ghost,’ but when she found it was of ghosts who were not more holy than other human beings, and told the truth about it, then they cast her out, and said it was of the devil.”

She became a wanderer under the direction of spirit-impressions, and participated in experiments with other mediums to amplify with electricity their powers to contact spirits and to transmit thoughts from one person to another.

She moved away from her husband in Pittsburgh, taking her daughters with her to New York City.  In New York, she and her daughters became friends with medium and trance-lecturer Emma Hardinge, with whom she continued her investigations of telepathy.  The Frenches boarded in the house of Thomas Culbertson, where Emma Hardinge’s mother also lived.

I must record one form of noteworthy phenomena which was projected and carried out by our attendant spirits there.  This was an agreement made between Mrs. French and I, that we would spiritually telegraph to each other every Sunday, at one o’clock by New York time.  This was Mrs. French’s dinner hour, and besides her own family, my mother, who boarded there, several of our friends would drop in about one o’clock to test the success of the mental telegraph.  The message Mrs. French would send me was written down by those present at her house, and generally one of the visitors was deputed to write to me, wherever I might chance to be, to state in full what the message consisted of.  Meantime precisely the same formula was observed at my end of the wire.  I might have been in Chicago, or New Orleans, or anywhere a thousand miles distant from New York; but always allowing for variation in time, our messages were sent and received at each end without failure or mistake for some years, that is, when I was absent on lecturing tours.  Parties of friends and witnesses assembled round me, as with Mrs. French, to hear the messages received and sent, and these, with perhaps a slight change now and then in a word, NEVER FAILED.  The letters sent by the attending friends around me, and from them to New York, crossed each other, but were in substance always correct.  Mrs. French received her messages through rappings, generally at the crowded dinner table; I mine through clairaudience, but at the same social meal.
—Emma Hardinge Britten, Autobiogaphy

Mrs. French considered electricity to be the medium through which the intangible world of the spirits acted in this world.  Spirits could manifest themselves and their thoughts through the mundane channels of energy and matter—including through chemical processes, for example, such as those used in photography and painting.

French became most famous (or infamous) for her séance demonstrations, beginning in 1860, in which she produced drawings and pastel or watercolor paintings on blank cardboard which she inserted in the recess below a parlor table, along with pencils, pastels, or paints and brushes.  These pictures seemed to be developed onto the cardboard in a matter of seconds, while she remained away from the table, seated in trance among the other participants.

The friends of the medium say, that by some unknown process of chemistry, the substance of the lead pencils is suddenly precipitated upon sketches already limned by spirit artists, in such a way as to bring out the pictures by some act similar to that of our ordinary photography.

—William Howitt, “The Mystic Crayon Drawings: A New Phase of Mediumship,” The Spiritual Magazine (London), April 1861: 177.

A frequent visitor to Mrs. French during this time, and observer of—or perhaps participant in—her spirit-drawing séances, was Jeremiah Gurney, the most successful and accomplished photographer in New York.

Jeremiah Gurney and the Spirit Artists

Spirit Photo by Jeremiah Gurney, from the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection

Unfortunately for Mrs. French, once the spirit-drawings began to be widely reproduced, it was noticed that many of them were copies of pictures that already existed.  Either Mrs. French was a fraud, or her spirits were, according to some critics.

A few years later, Jeremiah Gurney was brought in to investigate William Mumler’s spirit photography, in order to uncover evidence of fraud.  Gurney testified that he could find none.

Gurney Tests Mumler

The goal of materializing what was not material continued to suggest a link between photography and spiritualism throughout the next decades.

Elisabeth Blanchard Finds Spirit Images Everywhere

Mrs. French did not rely on her mediumistic powers to earn a living.  She advertised herself as a physician and lectured on health and healing, publishing a Temperance tract, as well as books on the use of electricity in curing disease and relieving pain.  She developed a treatment regimen using electrical apparatus sold by Dr. Jerome Kidder.Emma Hardinge Britten

Doctor Kidder Makes Visible Images of Invisible Energies

Mrs. French trained several other women in her methods and theories of electrical treatment, including her daughter Mary, as well as Emma Hardinge.  They opened free clinics in New York City and then in Philadelphia for poor women, offering them electrical treatment for their ills.

Mrs. French seems to have fallen out with Hardinge, perhaps on the question of who invented their theories and methods.  Hardinge married another “Electric Physician,” William Britten.  She struck out on her own, as a competitor to Mrs. French, hooking up her patients to the “Home Battery” manufactured by her husband, for what she referred to as “electric séances.”

It is only necessary to add, that the system practiced with unbounded success by the author in her own professional career, the methods of which are in part laid down here, are neither originated by herself, nor yet by any others who with egotistical pride announce themselves as the “sole discoverers of a system.”

—Emma Hardinge Britten The Electric Physician; or, Self cure through electricity.  A plain guide to the use of electricity, with accurate directions for the treatment and cure of various diseases, chronic and acute. Boston: W. Britten [1875].

Elizabeth French’s daughters assisted her throughout her career, from the time of her mediumistic healing, to her production of spirit images, to her development of medical treatments with electricity, and even with her production and mail-order marketing of “Mrs. French’s Electric Anti-Dyspeptic Baking Powder.”

Her daughter Mary married writer Eli Lemon Sheldon, who died not long afterwards, but Mary French Sheldon went on to have an exciting and adventurous life.  She translated Flaubert’s Salambo, wrote fiction and non-fiction, and became an intrepid African explorer, and the friend of Henry Morton Stanley, and Albert I, King of the Belgians.


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