Spirit Brides and Rag Babies

John Curtis Bundy, Editor’s note in Religio-Philosophical Journal, July 14, 1888

Mr. A. E. Carpenter, one of the most experienced of Spiritualists and known in nearly every city and large town in the country as an expert mesmerist, has an interesting letter on another page.  It is high time he and hundreds of other rational spiritualists in Boston should join in an organized effort to regulate the public practice of mediumship in that fraud-riddled city.  The Banner of Light has shown its sympathy with swindlers and has condoned the offenses of incorrigible scamps so long that it cannot now have any reformatory influence even if it had the sense and courage to try.

Albert Emerson Carpenter, “Exhibitions of Tricks as Demonstrations of Spirit Power,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, July 14, 1888

To the Editor of the Religio-Philosophical Journal:

I take up my pen to write from a sense of duty, feeling compelled to say something that ought to be said better than I shall be able to say it, and about which I shall be unable to express myself as strongly as I feel.  Well do I appreciate the brave and sincere efforts that you have made to drag into the light and expose the vile impositions that have been practiced upon the public in the name of mediumship.  Your fearless efforts in this direction are beyond praise, and ought to have called to your aid every honest and conscientious believer in spirit communion in the land.  What are known as physical manifestations and materializations have furnished a fertile field for unscrupulous tricksters and deceivers to work.  They have flourished and increased until their name has become legion.  I think that it is safe to say that nearly all of the public exhibitions of so-called physical mediumship are nothing but tricks and most of them have not even the merit of being good tricks.  A professional magician of any note would scorn to use many of the flimsy methods that are employed by these mediums (?) to deceive the people.  Fifteen years ago a medium here in Boston, one of the first materializers, exhibited a bundle of rags draped in an old white skirt with a wire mask face at the top, as a spirit baby.  A young man stopping at my house grabbed it out of her arms at the expense of being knocked down.  It was captured, however, and we had it on exhibition for some time.  Previous to this some ladies found concealed under the skirts of the same medium, two or three masks, a quantity of black jute that had figured as the long hair of an Indian maiden. These facts were published in the Boston papers at the time.  The medium said that the rag baby had been brought there by her enemies, and carried away again.  It was unfortunate for her, however, that the white skirt used to drape the baby was marked in indelible ink with the name of a friend who gave it to her.

The most remarkable part of it was that notwithstanding this exposure, she went on giving séances for years, and those who completed the expose lost caste among her credulous followers.  Later [Henry] Gordon exhibited materializations in New York City, for nearly a year, exciting a great interest, until finally two level-headed Spiritualists sprang over the table which separated him from the audience and he threw down his draped image, “the spirit bride,” and ran.  On searching about they found two poorly constructed images dressed, one in male and the other in female attire.

Gordon had them so arrayed that he could remove their heads and change them for others.  Something like a half-barrel of these heads were found at hand ready to be changed as occasion required.  He had a stock company of spirits limited to the number of heads.  It is a notable fact that most materializers are limited in the same way to a few devices for changes such as they have at hand.  Lately we heard of a medium who marched out of the cabinet, followed by a spirit who kept just behind her, and seemed to move as she moved.  Some close investigator discovered that she had a draped stick attached to her bustle; the present fashion of large bustles being especially convenient for such an arrangement.  The dim light that pervades these séances makes it possible for these poor tricks to have the appearance of reality.

Then we must not forget that the minds of the observers are usually dominated with the idea that they are going to see a spirit.  A state of mental expectancy may change in a poor light almost any object into a ghost.  We are told that these conditions are absolutely necessary.  Now no one is more conscious of the necessity of proper conditions for success than myself; but if the conditions are of such a character as to make accurate observation impossible, then the experiment becomes valueless.  Until materializations can be presented under positive test conditions, it is but a waste of time to attend such séances.  This statement, it seems to me, must commend itself to every intelligent person.

Let us look this matter squarely in the face.  What we want to know is the truth, and knowing the truth we need not fear but it will lead us to the very best conclusions.  I am confident that the majority of these fraudulent mediums are not even Spiritualists.  They have no idea of what Spiritualism means in its best sense.  They take up mediumship as a business, learn a few stale tricks, get the necessary equipment, and advertise.  The more extraordinary and extravagant their claims the greater their success in drawing a crowd.  I was talking with one of these wonder-workers a few days ago.  I asked him how he came to be a medium.  He quite frankly said, “Being out of a job I thought I would try the medium business, so I took it up as a profession.”  We shall find this is true of nearly all of these people whose exposes fill the columns of the daily press.  They see an opening to make money, and being without principle, they do not hesitate to “coin our tears into dollars,” as the New York Herald remarks in commenting on the Dis Debar trial

Anna O’Delia Salomon Messant, alias “Madame Dis De Bar,” a con artist and adventuress who spent several years in New York City in the business of materialization and “the religion of Hanky Panky” (in John Bundy’s phrase) for various rich clients, including Luther Marsh, a retired lawyer and 75-year-old widower.  She was exposed and brought to court on fraud charges in 1888.

The early mediums had a different history.  They were developed in private home circles where members of the family gathered to invite the communion of their departed loved ones.  Some one of the company peculiarly gifted proves to be a medium, and unexpectedly becomes the object of interest to all.  With no thought of deception and no motive to deceive, her development goes on, and through her ministrations much joy is carried to sorrowing hearts.  Many come to her until her time and strength is taxed to that extent that she is finally compelled to charge pay or cease to use her gifts.  It is proper and right that she should do so.  This is the history of true mediumship.  It comes unsought and oftentimes has proved a source of poverty and martyrdom to its possessors.  The record of the lives of our early mediums is a sad story of trial and persecution, and yet an imitation of the phenomena that occurred in their presence, and the confidence and faith which their honesty built up, has been the stock in trade of these vile impostors that have sprung up on every hand and flourished for a time “like a green bay tree.”

Honest mediumship has been at a discount because of its modesty of claiming only what is true, while the blatant deceiver and trickster, claiming everything and doing nothing, wears broadcloth, silks and satins, and is covered with diamonds.  Sometimes they meet with their deserts like the Dis Debars.

How do you suppose they regard the honest people who patronize them, and who often with tears and sobs, recognize their masks and images in the darkness as some loved friend whose body has been laid away?  They laugh in their sleeves, do these wretches, while they spend the money of those whose “tears they have coined into dollars.”   They say, “What precious idiots these people are.”

And those who endeavor to apologize and explain away the evidence of their fraudulent practices, instead of eliciting their gratitude, become still more the subjects of their contempt and ridicule.  They brutally and recklessly play with the most sacred feelings of the human heart for paltry gain.  To what depths of depravity have such beings sunk, and who can imagine a punishment superior to their deserts.

The end will be as the Religio-Philosophical Journal has predicted: that the law will step in and try to protect those who seem to be unable to protect themselves, as in the Dis De Bar case with Mr. Marsh.  Finally statutes will be enacted against the practice of mediumship, and then the true as well as the false will be necessarily included.

Bundy, the Editor of the Journal, distanced himself from many of his fellow spiritualists by lobbying  the Illinois State Legislature for passage of a law combating fraudulent mediums—“Every person who for profit or in anticipation thereof for the purpose of presenting what is commonly known as spirit materialization, shall personate a spirit of a deceased person, or who shall by trick, device, or mechanical contrivance present anything to represent the spirit of a deceased person shall be guilty of misdemeanor, and upon conviction shall be subject to a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $300, or confined in the county jail not less than three months nor more than six months or both in the discretion of the court.  This act shall not be deemed to apply to any portion of a scene or play in any theatrical presentation.”

John Curtis BundyCredulous old gentlemen have been continuously robbed, and some of them utterly ruined by the most shamefaced imposition practiced upon them in the name of mediumship.  It is a pretty hard condition of things that compels an old-time worker in the field of Spiritualism like myself to make this statement, but it is unfortunately true.  The worst of it all is that these bad people force themselves to the front and are supposed by outsiders to be genuine representatives of the spiritualistic movement, while it is true, as I have said, that they do not believe in Spiritualism, know nothing of its philosophy and many of them are on too low a spiritual and intellectual plane to learn anything about it.  It is a notable fact that these people never seem to be impressed by the phenomena that occur in their presence, showing no interest in them, while others work in a perfect maze of wonder.  This is because they know how cheap and ridiculous a trick they have played, and they naturally want to say as little about it as possible.  The fact is that they and their tricks really have nothing to do with Spiritualism, per se, and no one outside can have the perfect contempt for them that fills the mind of the philosophical Spiritualist.  Every expose that is made by such men as [magician Harry] Kellar and others is an unmixed blessing to the cause, and should be applauded by every sincere and honest believer in spirit intercourse.

The true man has no cause to defend except in the interests of truth, and if there is no foundation to our belief in spirit communion except that which rests upon trickery, collusion, and delusion, let it go by the board, and the sooner the better.  For myself I am a believer in the possibility and reality of spirit communion, based upon facts in my own experience, which were of such a character as to convince the most skeptical person living.  These exposes of frauds do not disturb my convictions in the least.

The true Spiritualist does not base his faith upon public exhibitions of phenomena, however wonderful they may seem to be.  He depends upon his own observation of facts occurring among his personal friends and acquaintances, or with mediums that he has every reason to believe are honest.  The phenomena that he relies upon are of such a nature as to put all possibility of deception out of the question.  The honest mediums are anxious to make every condition possible to relieve the mind of the investigator from suspicion of themselves.  The manifestations that occur in their presence may happen at any time and are often as unexpected to themselves as to others who may witness them.  Their mediumship is not confined to the paraphernalia and equipment of the séance room or cabinet, nor their communications to a stock company of spirits in constant attendance.

Some of the best things I ever saw came unexpected and unsought.  I have had occasion to mention some of these in my communications to the Journal.  Many years ago, I was visiting at the house of Walter Currier, of Haverhill, Mass.  His daughter Mary, then a slight girl eighteen years old, had been developed as a musical medium, and the demonstrations in her presence were of a marked and positive nature.  Her father had fitted up a séance room, for the better accommodation of the friends who wished to see the phenomena.  In it there was a piano and various musical instruments.  Heavy blinds, when closed, caused a deep twilight to pervade the room even in the day time.  Mary was a natural musician and a fine player on the piano.  She spent much of her time in playing, and often went into the séance room for that purpose.  It not unfrequently happened that while she thus amused herself, the other musical instruments that were lying about would be taken up and played upon by invisible performers, keeping perfect time with music she was making.  One day while she was thus engaged, and the other instruments had joined in, I quietly approached the door which was standing ajar and looked in.  I saw several bells and a tambourine at one end of the piano moving about, and marking time to the tune that was being played.  It was a curious sight, full of interest to the observer.  I had a chance to see the effect of different degrees of light upon the manipulation of the instruments by the unseen operators.  Occasionally the bells would be brought out from the shadows of the piano where the light was stronger, and when it became too strong the bells would drop to the floor.  Then it would be pushed back again into the gloom and directly be lifted up and go on ringing as before.  The medium went on playing without appearing to notice the efforts of her invisible aids.  In this case our attention is called to the necessity of a certain amount of darkness or absence of light that was required for the handling of the instruments.

In the presence of this medium, I have often seen one end of the piano rise up and down and mark time to the tune that was playing upon the keys.  Here we have the genuine phenomena, which the impostor fraudulently advertises to draw a crowd to his Sunday night exhibition in some theatre or hall:

“The piano will be lifted and float in the air.  Spirit flowers will be brought.  Forms of spirit friends will be seen and plainly recognized in full view of the audience,” etc.

The crowd gathers, too often enhanced by numerous Spiritualists, and what they see is a few cheap rope tying tricks done in a cabinet.  The impostor escapes through the back door and gathers up his ill-gotten gains, and leaves town on the night train.  He waits a year and goes back and does the same thing over again.

Every Spiritualist in the land should give these people a wide berth, and never attend a theatre or hall exhibition advertised in the name of Spiritualism for they can be sure it is a swindle every time.  Of course I am referring now to the physical manifestations.  I could go on indefinitely with a record of the tricks and methods of those shameless impostors, but I have said enough, leaving the subject to the consideration of all honest people, believing that I have rendered some timely aid to the Journal in its noble efforts to drive out frauds from the ranks of Spiritualism.

A. E. Carpenter

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