This week, Janine unravels the dark and twisting truth behind spirit photography, ectoplasm, and mediumship and welcomes guest podcaster Katie McAuly to the pod. Katie tells the tale of Mary Nohl and the Witch House in Fox Point, WI and talks a little bit about her personal experiences with the location.
This episode contains a rousing game of hide the cheesecloth, a man named Mummler, chicken bone art, and a spooky sculpture of squished children.
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I don’t have many photographs. I’ve always found that to be rather odd. There are photos of various incarnations of me, but not of those around me. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I think it might be because photos are a little creepy. Think about it. You snap a photo of your friend, have it printed, and frame it for your wall so that your friend can stare at you dead-eyed while you perform daily tasks. See? Creepy. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I think that’s why I’ve come to enjoy creating photo albums on social media. Facebook allows me to choose when my friends stare at me. Choice makes it less creepy, I think.
When my great grandmother passed, we got several items from her estate including a bunch of photos of her in small gilded frames. The photos are black and white. One from a church function (she was a member of the Salvation Army and is wearing her uniform) where she’s drinking wine with a few other people and a bunch of others depicting important events in her life. The one that always jumped out at me and simultaneously gave me the heebie-jeebies was a photo of her smiling face, her eyes staring out from the photo seemingly without purpose. It hung in the hallway in a frame given to her as a wedding gift and I always felt as if it was watching me. The eyes seemed to follow as I passed and I frequently ducked under it or sped past it in avoidance. It didn’t help that the nail the photo hung on was bent, causing it to fall off the wall randomly. At least that’s what I reasoned.
A few years after she passed, my uncle got married, an event that calls for much photo taking. I spent at least an hour standing amongst my relatives while the photographer took shot after shot. It wasn’t until we went to pick up the photos and began flipping through them that we noticed something odd. At the top of all of the group photos, hovering toward the right edge of the shot, was a white fog. It looked as if someone had been smoking and the cloud was lingering, but nobody was smoking around us that day. The photographer told us that the film he used was high quality as was the paper the photos were printed on. There was no explanation. In frustration, my grandmother asked the photographer to come by the house and made everyone get dressed up so the photos could be taken again. We spent a couple of hours in various parts of the yard and in the parlor recreating some of the shots. The photographer left and set about the task of developing only to find that the same thing had happened. My grandmother was furious. I listened as she complained to the photographer over the phone, standing in front of the photo of my great grandmother. Suddenly, there was a crash and I looked down to see that her photo was on the floor but it didn’t look like it had fallen from a nail. Rather, it appeared as if it had jumped from the wall, landing at least a foot and a half away. Perhaps my great-grandmother was upset that someone was trying to crop her out of the family photos? Perhaps someone was smoking around the time the photos were taken or there was some strange trick of the light? Perhaps I’ll never know, but something tells me the photographer didn’t intentionally add the fog to the photos he shot. And even if he had, it wouldn’t have been something he randomly thought up. Spirit photography, the “capture” of deceased individuals in photos, was quite popular in the 19th century and in some cases, the faces that appeared on the finished product weren’t even dead.
The practice originated as a farce in the 1850’s, stereo cards that depicted specters hovering over the heads of unsuspecting individuals. They were simply for fun, amusement until a man named Mumler figured out he could turn it into a money-making endeavor.
“Spirit photography was first used by William H. Mumler in the 1860s. Mumler discovered the technique by accident after he saw a second person in a photograph he took of himself, which he found was actually a double exposure.” There’s actually a very famous photo by Mumler of Mary Todd Lincoln with her husband’s ghostly form standing behind her. “Seeing there was a market for it, Mumler started working as a medium, taking people’s pictures and doctoring the negatives to add lost loved ones into them (mostly using other photographs as a basis). Mumler’s fraud was discovered after he put identifiable living Boston residents in the photos as spirits.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_photography)
Another spirit photographer, William Hope (1863-1933), was quite famous for his work and many people visited Hope in order to capture their deceased loved ones on film. The psychical researcher Harry Price tried to defraud Hope by marking his photographic plates with the logo of the Imperial Dry Plate Co. Ltd. Price knew that the logo would be transferred to any image Hope produced using these plates, but Price must have switched them out for another set because none of his images contained the logo or any identifying marks that Price had placed on them.
William Stainton Moses, a cleric, and spiritualist claimed that the process of spirit photography was directly related to a substance called ectoplasm which allowed spirits to come into physical existence. The substance is said to form when a medium is in a trance-like state and expresses through the mouth, ears, and/or nose. It’s gauze-like and flowing and, to be perfectly honest, really fucking creepy. It’s said that ectoplasm begins clear or invisible and gradually darkens or becomes visible, draping itself over the entity with which the medium wishes to communicate. Some mediums stated that ectoplasm had a very strong odor and could not exist in certain light conditions as it would simply deteriorate. Darkened rooms and candlelight were the weapons of choice for these individuals and, given that participants could barely see what was happening, the excuse that ectoplasm was light sensitive was quite convenient.
The psychical researcher Gustav Geley defined ectoplasm as being “very variable in appearance, being sometimes vaporous, sometimes a plastic paste, sometimes a bundle of fine threads, or a membrane with swellings or fringes, or a fine fabric-like tissue”. Arthur Conan Doyle described ectoplasm as “a viscous, gelatinous substance which appeared to differ from every known form of matter in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes”.
Science doesn’t recognize the existence of ectoplasm and researchers have duplicated the effect using items like muslin and gauze, but it sure is interesting that mediums at this time thought to create such a fantastic lie. For someone in the 19th century who had just lost a loved one and wished to communicate with the other side, the appearance of ectoplasm likely blew their minds.
“The Society for Psychical Research investigations into mediumship exposed many fraudulent mediums which contributed to the decline of interest in physical mediumship. In 1907, Hereward Carrington exposed the tricks of fraudulent mediums such as those used in slate-writing, table-turning, trumpet mediumship, materializations, sealed-letter reading and spirit photography. In the early 20th century the psychical researcher Albert von Schrenck-Notzing investigated the medium Eva Carrière and claimed her ectoplasm “materializations” were not from spirits but the result of “ideoplasty” in which the medium could form images onto ectoplasm from her mind. Schrenck-Notzing published the book Phenomena of Materialisation (1923) which included photographs of the ectoplasm. Critics pointed out the photographs of the ectoplasm revealed marks of magazine cut-outs, pins and a piece of string. Schrenck-Notzing admitted that on several occasions Carrière deceptively smuggled pins into the séance room. The magician Carlos María de Heredia replicated the ectoplasm of Carrière using a comb, gauze and a handkerchief.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ectoplasm_(paranormal))
Carrière wasn’t the only one duping onlookers with homemade ectoplasm. Other mediums of the time would use potato starch smoothed over textiles, egg whites, soap, gelatin, and even cut-outs from the newspaper. Some would swallow and regurgitate cheesecloth in order to wow their attendees and one was even found to have hidden cheesecloth in his rectum, pulling it out when the time was right. Sadly, many fell for these tricks of the trade and paid large amounts of money to mediums, desperately seeking one more message from their deceased family members and friends. I’m still not sure how you could mistake a scarf and a rubber glove for ectoplasm, but I suppose if the lights were low enough you wouldn’t know what you were seeing. It’s no surprise that the exposing of this aspect of many Victorian-era seances led to a rapid decline in physical mediumship.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that mediums are still very much a thing and I’m well aware that there are people in this world who will defend the practice to the bitter end. I’m not saying that every medium is fraudulent, nor am I saying that going to visit a medium is a waste of time. I’m simply saying that if you go to a medium who insists on operating in near darkness and buys stock in cheesecloth and rubber gloves that person might be a charlatan.
Thanks for your continued support of my spooky work. I greatly enjoy posting articles to my blog and getting feedback from all of you. It is truly the highlight of my day when I pop onto WordPress to find your posts and comments. Right now, Haunt Heads is going through a bit of a change. Mimi has decided to take a step back from the podcast in order to focus on other things. I’m excited for her to have more time for her art and to create beautiful things, but she will be sorely missed. I’ll be taking on the responsibility to create new podcasts on my own and will continue to bring you creative, creepy content.
It’s our first mini-episode featuring stories from our pals on Reddit! We’re excited to share these tales with you, ranging from ghostly sounds and moving objects, to shadow people and spirits who count raisins (just trust us), and hope you enjoy. Haunt Heads will return on the 22nd with a new episode to accommodate some life “stuff.”