Gold Studs and Scant Spirit Toggery

Guilluame [pseud.], “Notes from Boston: Startling Evidence of the Deception Practiced by Materializing Mediums,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, April 28, 1888.

[. . .] Mr. John Curtis of Boston [. . .] is a level headed common sense gentleman of leisure, having retired several years ago from a large clothing business, in this city, in which by honesty, diligence and strict attention he has amassed a handsome wealth. He resides at the popular Clarendon Hotel adjoining Berkeley Hall, and Sunday noon of the 15th of April, at the close of the meeting, about two dozen of its officers, directors, members and attendants, with Mr. and Mrs. Lillie, accepted an invitation of Mr. Curtis to visit his parlors and inspect five or six cartoon boxes of wearing apparel, wigs, mustaches, cork stilts, white shawls, mosquito netting, lace, etc., which had been captured, mainly by Mr. C., in the frequent exposures of the Boston mediums, who are engaged in fraudulent materialization. He said it comprised material from all of them except one medium, and now being so well known, he could not get admission there. The collection came from the Berry sisters, Mrs. Ross, Mrs. Fay, Mrs. Fairchild, Mrs. Bliss and Mrs. Holmes.

What a varied collection of stock used for purposes of deception, from a cap and blouse of a “Billy the boot-black” to the satin robe of a “Queen of Sheba;” from a military garment of a “Capt. Hodges,” to the cork stilts of a high-up “Ancient;” from the highly colored blanket of a “Montezuma” to the soiled long dress of an “Infant cherubim.” These garments had been used so much in the materialization shows business that many of them had been torn or worn through and then patched in a rough and bungling manner, and withal were so stained and dirty that gloves were almost needed in the handling of them. In all, I think, about a hundred pieces were shown, and each one is labelled with an immense tag informing the beholder from whom captured and the date, with name of character represented. Each cartoon box had about a pound of camphor in it to preserve and sweeten the contents, if possible.

Mr. Curtis is doing Trojan work in his endeavors to carry out something towards a purifying process in the materializing line, and true mediumship will be gained thereby; he has received a number of anonymous letters threatening him with bodily injury, and one writer went so far as to intimate an assassination probable; Mr. Curtis having learned the writing of these cowards, he knows his would-be assailants and does not fear any of them. [. . .]

John Curtis, “The Boston Brand of Materialization,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, March 15, 1890.

To the Editor of the Religio-Philosophical Journal.

In the Boston Herald of February 23 there appeared under the caption “Confession of a Spirit,” the most graphic account of the inside workings of a successful “fraud proof” cabinet that has ever been published.  As far as it went the published account was truthful and accurate; but many choice bits of descriptive did not find their way into type, possibly because the editor failed to comprehend the audacity of the tricksters who manipulate the materializing machine.  The proofs of the construction of two of the cabinet traps described in the article still remain in the floors at their respective localities.  The identity of the Cowan “spirit” was known all the time and can be proved by unimpeachable testimony.  The “spirits” this young woman impersonated and the makeups and disguises for them can be established not only by her victims but by several of her friends who were in the secret and who were present from time to time as spectators of the show.  It is perhaps needless to say that the Cowans enjoyed the unbounded confidence of all their victims when one recalls the oration and presentation of a purse of money by J. W. Fletcher who, in complimenting Mrs. Cowan, thanked her “for the opportunities afforded for interviews with our angel friends.”

The columns of the ancient Banner have teemed with laudations of the “spirit return” wonders of the Cowan cabinet.  Mr. John Wetherbee especially congratulated himself on the happy circumstance of his presence, one evening, whereby “Grabbers” of “Full Form” were “prevented from executing their diabolical schemes.”  Mr. E. A. Brackett was so loyally indignant after the Cowan exposure as to express the amiable wish that “Somebody might be killed while engaging in the sacrilegious work” of interfering with the orthodox manifestations of the Cowan séance room.  This pious expression was accompanied by profanity which need not here be repeated.  The same sentiment of bloodthirsty devotion was also shared by others of the faithful believers who, on the evening of the investigation extinguished the lights and savagely pounded the raiders with stovelifters and loaded clubs, always at hand to defend the “spirits.”  The readers of the Religio-Philosophical Journal will be interested to learn that additional facts have been recently gathered in a more confidential conference with the “beautiful spirit” by which to supplement the Herald confession.  A venerable gentleman whose sideshow was the Cowan cabinet for those gifted poets, the [Alice and Phoebe] Cary sisters, but whose devotion to the [ex-sewing machine agent and spiritualist commercializer George T.] Albro cabinet never wavers even at captured wigs of the Princess White Thorn, hits off the happy events in his favorite cabinet with childlike innocence.  His spirits have become so familiar that they take from his shirt-front gold pins and studs for their own use in the “summer land,” explaining the appropriation of these trinkets by stating that “spirits are just as fond of bright, pretty articles as we mortals are,” and are encouraged and strengthened by gifts to “come stronger and stronger.”  He even went so far in this line as to pass into the cabinet an armful of aesthetic tiles to be dematerialized for “spirit land.”  The Cowans, having been “developed” by Albro and advertised by him as “doing good work in the field,” copied this enterprising business feature from their tutor and encouraged presents to the spirits of every name and nature.  Doctor Whitney on one harmonious occasion, presented the spirits of the Cowan cabinet with two gold rings.  One of these he placed upon the finger of his spirit daughter, Ethel, who ever after wore the ring when materializing for him.  Ethel, in her short blue dress and her hair flowing over her shoulders, was the star of the cabinet.  Mr. Simeon Snow brought roses for his spirit daughter on the assurance of the medium that “roses were very welcome to the spirits in cold weather”; forgetting, perhaps, the beautiful legends of the “the bright land where flowers forever bloom.”  The title of “Prince of Givers” to the spirits must, however, be awarded to Mr. William D. Brewer, whose presents possessed the charm of novelty and variety as well as plenty.  His visits to the séance room were always characterized by big bundles containing fruit, confectionary of all kinds and flowers in profusion.  Some would be bestowed upon the spirit of Louisa, his wife, and a large proportion were presented to his favorite spirits, whom he affectionately designated as “Faithy,” “Hopey” and “Lovey.”  Mr. Brewer also lavished choice cigars on the spirit of “White Moccasin,” an Indian brave to whom he was greatly attached.  Readers of the Journal will not be surprised that the “Big Injun” was personated by Mr. Cowan, decked out in blankets and feathers, he having leisure for this kind of masquerading at private séances when the arduous duties of manager were not required.  The familiar child of the Cowan cabinet, “Little Elsie,” was never known to advance into the circle for the best of reasons.  The young woman who personated her was upon her knees and was attired in a short child’s frock, yet so real did she appear to the believers that she was affectionately remembered by Miss Maria E. Brown who presented her with a large doll and by a French gentleman who gave her a pretty child’s ring.  Mr. Pilling, a familiar visitor at the Albro séances, held frequent communion with the spirit of an Indian maiden in short red skirts and black wig.  Mr. Pilling was very grateful for these manifestations and acknowledged the compliment by numerous theatre passes.

Mr. Brackett, after a successful materialization for him, led his “Bertha” around the circle, inviting all to “handle her hair and to notice that it was not a wig but a genuine, freshly materialized article.  The spirit of Mr. John Wetherbee’s “Gracie” was personated for him by the young woman who makes the confession, while Mrs. Cowan played the role of “Flossie” who never failed to be recognized as the genuine spirit.  Mr. Russell’s “three darlings” were sufficiently mentioned in the Herald, as was also the wife of Mr. Beal whom he was sure was his genuine spouse because she called him “hubby.”

In the Cowan cabinet there were but three “spooks,” including the medium, save on some special occasion such as the testimonial when Ethel secured a confederate to fulfil a promise made to Dr. Whitney that she would bring a warm friend she had in the other life.  This she did to the great satisfaction of the doctor besides taking the remarkable spirit walk before described through rooms and corridors to find the doctor on that evening of financial prosperity for the Cowans.

The names of the gentlemen above recorded are not given for the purpose of casting reflections on their characters, but because they are proud to be known as witnesses of such astonishing manifestations of “spirit power” and do not hesitate to publish their experiences to an unbelieving world.  The writer’s sole intent is to furnish them with an object lesson and, if possible, benefit other believers in the cabinet.  Here we have the story of one young girl who has for a year or more personated their Ethels, Berthas, Gracies, Louisas, wives and daughters innumerable, Indian maidens and child spirits, and have been invariably “recognized” in all these roles by the gentlemen above named and hosts of others.  These recognitions were so vivid and conclusive that they were uniformly acknowledged by a cordial embrace and parting kiss, the caresses in some instances being prolonged to an unseemly extent.  And yet there was not one of these deluded victims of cabinet tricks who could not by a “grab” and flash of light have become thoroughly convinced of the outrageous swindle of materialization and at the same time learned how thoroughly they have been duped.  It would seem as if the victims prefer to be swindled; and when exposures are made they take the part of the dishonest mediums.  Not long since the unwholesome creature known as Mrs. Bliss, who has been publicly exposed over and over again, with her scant spirit toggery on her person walked into Mr. Ayer’s temple cabinet, opened the curtains and announced: “Allen Putnam,” “Billy the Boot-black,” etc., to the entertainment of several hundred of that gentleman’s select guests who enjoyed the dim spectacle and declared themselves as thoroughly satisfied.  One rush on the “form” and the “recognized spirit” would be found to be the Bliss woman with her discarded petticoats, etc., on the floor of the cabinet.  The trophies could be secured every time if one were found rash enough to handle them without fumigation.  Cleanliness is a lost art among materializing mediums hereabouts, as the Boston collection of spirit garbs conclusively proves.

J. Curtis.


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