What happened during a spiritist séance in the nineteenth century? How can we piece together these fleeting, otherworldly gatherings? With sources like press reports, promotional material or exceptionally even photographs, it is possible to reconstruct and analyse these spectacular, occult performances of the past. That is precisely one of the challenges of my PhD research on spiritism in Belgium, and its relationship to popular entertainment. Let me introduce you to some aspects of a spiritist séance you would very likely have encountered, had you been a person looking for a night of supernatural amusement in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
A séance with Miss Fay
On the 28th of March 1875, a young medium who went by the name Miss Fay visited Brussels to give a séance, attended by a small group of people. Some of them were spiritists, others were curious spectators, interested in the spiritist movement and wanting to see the supernatural occurrences with their own eyes. The spiritist journal of Liège, Le Messager, published a lengthy report of this event, allowing us to catch a glimpse of what happened during a nineteenth-century séance.
The first part of the séance took place en pleine lumière, with the medium securely sitting in a corner of the room, behind a folding screen. Immediately, some wonderful events started to occur. A tie, put on Fay’s lap, was suddenly tied around her neck, a nail had been driven into a board, a glass of water was half emptied, and figurines were cut out of sheets and a handkerchief. Then, the sound of three instruments, an accordion, a trumpet and a drum, echoed through the room simultaneously.
After every occurrence, the spectators were allowed to look behind the screen and check on Miss Fay. She had been tied up before the séance started, to ensure no deception was being used. Each time, the attendees unanimously concluded that all knots and ties had remained intact and that all occurrences had happened "spontaneously, without fraud and without any active interference of the medium".
The second part happened in complete darkness. Fay was untied and placed in the middle of a circle formed by the spectators. As they still had to make sure she was not tricking them, her hands were tied and covered in flour, so every move she made would result in white marks on the ground or her dress. "Then a series of remarkable phenomena occurred", according to Le Messager, "which can only be explained in one word, by the intervention of invisible beings, of spirits".
Fans waved above the heads of those present, the trumpet and accordion echoed in a discordant din, every attendee at some point felt the hand of a child or an old man affectionately shaking theirs, and one of the spirits had taken off a woman's bracelet and placed it in the lap of a gentleman across the circle. Then, the medium became too tired to continue channelling these active spirits and the séance came to an end.
Seeing ghosts: spiritism in the nineteenth and twentieth century
Spiritism did not start out this spectacularly, with instruments flying around and spirits shaking the hands of spectators. Initially, communication with the spirit realm happened through simple knocks. The birth of modern spiritism is usually situated in Hydesville, New York, in 1848, when the famous Fox sisters connected with the spirit of the deceased previous owner of their home. Spiritism quickly took the United States by storm and all over the country people began discovering their mediumistic gifts. When these mediums started crossing the ocean to Europe, the public there was just as easily drawn to the movement. In Belgium, the French spiritisme of Allan Kardec became very influential.
Spiritist performances were different from any other type of performance in these days, since mediums claimed to channel real spirits of deceased persons, demonstrating the existence of a spirit world, a continued life beyond our earthly world. To convince spectators of the authenticity of their performance, mediums used different practices, a few of which I will explain further on. These practices were meant to serve as a framework through which the audience had to understand the supernatural performance, and hopefully believe it to be legitimate.
This frame was very different from a related popular entertainment format of that time, being magic shows or stage magic. While magicians also played with the perception of reality and the audience’s idea of what was or wasn’t real, they did not claim to be vehicles for supernatural interference. As a spectator, you knew from the moment you sat down to watch a magician’s performance, that you were watching a trick, an illusion.
With mediums, it was not that simple. Many people were convinced of the legitimacy of the spiritist movement and the gifts of its mediums. Others were persuaded after participating in a specific performance or hearing the voice of a departed loved one. Many others, however, were affronted by the claims of spiritists, and accused them of preying on gullible and grieving people. And finally, there were of course a lot of people who were just curious, who wanted to be entertained and thought an evening with a medium was the perfect way to achieve that.
Setting the stage for an authentic séance
How did mediums support their claims of showing real supernatural phenomena? There are some aspects that keep reoccurring and were almost always used in séances to back up the medium’s frame of authenticity. In the report on Miss Fay’s séance in Brussels, we can find the most important ones.
Eliminating all notions of deception
Before Fay’s séance could even take place, the room where it would be held was rigorously inspected. They had to make sure there were no secret doors or spaces where objects could be hidden and that the medium could use to fake spirit intervention and deceive the audience. The author describes how someone "armed with a hammer" inspected the floors, walls, ceiling, and "the rings, which were to serve to fasten the medium and to paralyse her movements".
This refers to a second very common precaution: restraining the medium so they could be sure she herself was not responsible for the spiritist events or sounds. Fay’s hands were tied together and then tied again to an iron ring fixed into the wall. Her head was secured by putting a ribbon around her neck and tying this to a second ring. Her feet were also tied and the ends of the ropes were held by two of the attendees. Only then the séance could take place.
These were common precautions. Other measures could be sprinkling flour on their hands, as we have also seen during the ‘dark part’ of Fay’s séance, but physical restraint was often preferred. It was very important to convey to the audience that the medium was in no way in control of or responsible for what happened during the séance. Ruling out their involvement by immobilizing them made it all the more possible for the spectators to believe that spirits were responsible for the wonderful phenomena. The idea that all of this took place in a ‘controlled environment’, a room that had been thoroughly checked, reinforced this sentiment.
Drained and exhausted
A second important and ever-reoccurring element is that mediums were very explicit about how much effort it took them to guide the spirits. Their mediumistic gifts, the channelling of the spirits in a trance-like state, drained them. Mediums often talked about their exhaustion and appeared to be physically weakened after their performances. As we saw with Miss Fay’s séance, performances were regularly ended because it became too much for the medium or she was too exhausted to continue.
It could even happen that people gathered for a séance, and the medium would make every effort to contact one or multiple spirits, but none would come through. The explanation offered could then be that the medium wasn’t feeling her best that evening, and her powers weren’t strong enough, or that it would ask too much of her to summon the spirits at that time.
The supernatural is part of our modern history
Miss Fay is one of the many mediums who performed in Belgium and that we still know little about. At the crossroads of different cultures and languages, spiritist culture in Belgium was influenced by both Anglo-Saxon and French movements. With this research, I hope to shed some light on a forgotten part of Belgium's cultural and religious history and show that the supernatural was an important part of our modern history. Spirits wander through our past and present, and will undoubtedly always remain a part of earthly life and human imagination
Find out more about my research here.
Do you have any questions? Or, perhaps you have any material or knowledge on spiritism/supernatural performances in Belgium in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Feel free to contact me!