The Victorian Séance

Linda Stratmann has long been fascinated by history and crime, and combines these in her writing, which includes thirteen non-fiction books of true crime and biography and two crime fiction series featuring Victorian lady sleuths. When researching for her series set in 1870s Brighton, Linda has had enormous fun reading about the subject of her guest blog, the Victorian séance. Linda lives in London and when she is not reading or writing, she can usually be found in the kitchen, as she loves cooking.

The Victorian Séance

Linda Stratmann

The Victorian séance was a phenomenon that seized the interest of every sector of society. It was a craze, a passion, a breeding ground for fraud and extortion, and the focus of earnest scientific endeavour. It emerged, however from some unpromising origins.

Ghost stories have been with us since storytelling began, but in the ancient and medieval world, an apparition was usually a dreadful warning or a herald of disaster, and only witches with their dark arts would ever seek to conjure one.

The Cock Lane ghost in 1762 London attracted widespread attention, and persons of influence gathered to listen to the supposedly supernatural knockings and scratchings, before suspicions were aroused. The haunting was exposed as a fraud, and the sorry affair ended with a trial for conspiracy, heavy fines, imprisonment and a spell in the pillory. The story became the butt of humour and satire well into the 19th century and must have discouraged the idea of séances for some years.

Nineteenth-century illustration of Cock Lane, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1848 however, what probably started as a game played by two bored girls sparked a new surge of interest in spiritualism. Kate and Margaret Fox, sisters aged 12 and 15 lived in Hydesville New York. As they later confessed, they used an apple tied to a string to make bumping noises and cracked their toe joints to convince listeners that they were in touch with spirits. The word spread, and soon they were launched on a lucrative career, giving séances before large audiences. Although they had their detractors, the fame of the Fox sisters led to a proliferation of imitators, as more and more people suddenly discovered that they had mediumistic powers.

Spiritualism came to the UK in the early 1850s. Mediums were engaged for parties where spirits communicated by rapping and knocking, and guests consulted them on matters of personal importance. The next novelty to arrive was table tipping, which provided more drama as tables appeared to take on lives of their own, trembling and tilting. Physicist Michael Faraday subjected this animated furniture to rigorous testing, and attributed their lifelike motion to unconscious movements of the sitters. Where tables actually rose into the air it was suspected that they had been given a little lift with artfully concealed wires. Interest eventually waned for the want of something more sensational.

The sensational arrived in 1855 in the form of 22 year old Daniel Dunglas Home, who had been conducting séances in the USA since 1851. Hume was a clairvoyant and trance medium, but his great speciality was levitation. He was reputed not only to have risen up into the air, but also to have floated horizontally out of an upstairs window and back into the room through another. It should be noted that his séances were not conducted in full light and reports of his deeds were often contradictory. Hume rapidly shot to fame, and received generous gifts and free accommodation. In 1868 however he was taken to court by an elderly widow, whom he had persuaded to adopt him as her son and make over her entire fortune to him. The court reversed the arrangement and he was obliged to return the money. Despite this he didn’t lose all his supporters, but finances were tight and his health was poor. He left England, married a wealthy Russian and retired from mediumship.

Daniel Dunglas Home. Geri Walton’s collection.

One of Hume’s effects was the production of spirit hands that glowed in the dark, ushering in the next great phase of the Victorian séance — materialisation. Now the sitters didn’t just hear the spirits, they could actually see them. Some of these apparitions took the form of hands or faces, but the pinnacle of this art was the full body manifestation. The medium, usually a female, retired to a curtained recess or cabinet in a darkened room, and after a pause during which everyone was encouraged to sing hymns as lustily as they liked, a graceful form clad in radiant draperies emerged. The hymns served two purposes, to reassure those present that the demonstration was pure and religious, and to cover any noise the medium might make in changing her clothes. The draperies, diaphanous fabric easily concealed under the medium’s skirts, glowed from the application of oil of phosphorous. These radiant ghosts took tea with the sitters, asked for gifts of jewellery, and even distributed kisses to the gentlemen. In these times of high infant mortality, many of those who attended séances were bereaved parents, and mediums engaged children to masquerade as child spirits, or appeared holding bundles of cloth, which came to be known as ‘rag babies’.

It was an essential rule of the dark séance that the gas lamps should not be turned up again until the ghostly figure had returned to the cabinet. The apparition, it was explained, was constructed from the essence of the medium’s body, and a sudden light would cause this material to rush back so violently that it could kill her. There were also strict orders not to seize hold of the apparition, as this, too could result in the death of the medium. Some sitters, determined to expose deception, ignored that rule, and grasped the supposed ghost. No mediums died, but many were shown to be frauds.

In 1864, American brothers Ira and William Davenport toured Britain with a new act. They brought with them a specially constructed cabinet, and had themselves securely tied up inside together with some musical instruments. While they were supposedly immobile, ghostly hands appeared at the cabinet windows, the instruments played, and violins were said to emerge and whirl through the air.  A watchmaker called John Maskelyne seeing the Davenports’ performance was certain that he could duplicate their act with a trick cabinet, and put on his own show to demonstrate this. He went on to become one of the most celebrated stage illusionists of his day. Many years later Ira admitted to Harry Houdini that all the Davenport effects were conjuring tricks.

Ira and William Davenport. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Men of science were largely sceptical of psychical phenomena, but some started to conduct serious investigations of noted mediums and declared their belief that they were witnessing a new branch of science, which would one day be validated. Those mediums who later admitted that they had defrauded the public said that scientists, with their enquiring minds, and keenness to understand phenomena, were the easiest subjects to dupe. In1882 the Society for Psychical Research which included both believers and sceptics was formed  ‘to conduct scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.’ It still exists today.

The death knell of the Victorian dark séance was the invention of the pocket torch which increased the danger of exposure. We might think the Victorians were gullible but they were being confronted by sights that were beyond their experience, with no accurate means of recording events for later study. They were the victims of fleeting impressions, fallible memory and a need to believe.


To learn more about Linda and her books, visit her website by clicking here. You can also find her on Facebook by clicking here or here, and you can follow her on twitter by clicking here.

To learn about her first fiction book in the Brighton series called “Mr Scarletti’s Ghost,” here is a short summary:

In 1871, spirit mediums are all the fashion, especially Miss Eustace, a psychic who claims to produce apparitions of the dead. Diminutive Mina Scarletti, a writer of horror stories, is sure that her widowed mother and friends are in the hands of cheats and extortionists so she enlists the help of an Anglo-Indian doctor, her charming but disreputable brother, and his voluptuous mistress to expose the frauds. But the scheming criminals have spread their nets wide and dramatic séances easily convince and captivate the bereaved and vulnerable. When Mina’s determined campaign backfires she only succeeds in adding to Miss Eustace’s fame. With chaos reigning in the Scarletti house, Mina and her associates must turn to desperate methods to outwit the illusionists and reveal the truth.

“Mr Scarletti’s Ghost” is available at all fine bookstores and at these following online locations:

Amazon Kindle Version, click here

History Press, click here

If you are interested in one of her true crime books, here is a link:

“The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder,” click here

If you are interested in other crime fiction by Linda, here is a link:

“Children of Silence: A Frances Doughty Mystery,” click here


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