Frauds, Phonies and Hoaxes
The Art of Good Story
By Deborah Abela
In the late 1840’s the western world experienced a rise in what was to become known as Spiritualism…or a belief that spirits of people existed beyond the grave. It came about at a fascinating time of increased literacy, new ways of thinking and a rise in new scientific methodologies and inventions. For many this provided a delicious idea…make use of new inventions to capture images and recordings of ghosts to prove to the world that they really did exist.
Spiritualists held public lectures and demonstrations where they spoke to the dead, held séances and conducted automatic writing which was a direct transcribing of messages from spirits (Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife professed a great talent for this and would ‘perform’ on stage beside her beloved husband.) Some even believed in Mesmerism: the belief that you could heal people through hypnotism. This got believer Charles Dickens into trouble with his wife, however, when he spent a large amount of a family holiday staring at a pretty young lady who he was trying to cure of nervousness.
Spiritualism became a firmly held belief system as well as a great source of public entertainment.
Some attribute the rise of Spiritualism to the Fox sisters, three young women who lived in Hydesville, New York in a house they claimed was haunted. Through a series of knocks and banging they said they could communicate with their dead housemate, and within months they became a huge sensation, touring the country displaying their remarkable skills.
Many tried to uncover them as frauds, but none succeeded, until the younger sister Margaret, unable to take the guilt any longer, admitted it was all a very well rehearsed hoax. She confessed:
‘There is no such thing as a spirit manifestation. That I have been mainly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of spiritualism upon a too-confiding public many of you already know. It is the greatest sorrow of my life . . . When I began this deception, I was too young to know right from wrong.’ (Margaret Fox (1888), quoted in Joseph F. Rinn, Searchlight on Psychical Research, 1954)
It did little to damage the enthusiasm for Spiritualism, but it did ruin the sisters, two of whom died poor and destitute.
One staunch believer was Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical man who created one of the most famous detectives of all time, Sherlock Holmes. In his later years he even gave away Holmes to travel the world to speak about Spiritualism, so convinced he was of its truth, but he was sometimes too quick to believe and was subsequently drawn into the Cottingley Fairies hoax….a series of photos taken by two cousins of fairies dancing at the bottom of garden. When they were much older, the cousins confessed how they did it. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tx8yD_cymKA)
But despite the many frauds, Doyle remained committed:
‘The conclusion, then, of my long search after truth, is that in spite of occasional fraud, which Spiritualists deplore, and in spite of wild imaginings, which they discourage, there remains a great solid core in this movement which is infinitely nearer to positive proof than any other religious development with which I am acquainted.’
Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Revelation, 1918
He even allowed it to ruin friendships. Harry Houdini was a great friend of Conan Doyle but the two were at odds with Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and Houdini often exposed fakes who used simple tricks in claiming they could speak with the dead. Conan Doyle was so astounded by Houdini’s escapist feats, however, that he insisted he must have spiritual powers. Houdini repeated that it was all technique and skill and the two fell out irreconcilably.
In the UK, The Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 made it illegal for people to pretend to act as spiritualistic mediums for money or other reward. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/spiritualism/history/history.shtml)
I have just finished the first draft of the third Ghost Club: The Transylvanian Ghost Convention and the temptation for some to commit fraud for fame, money or simply for fun, was too much a part of Spiritualism to ignore.
Whether you do believe in ghosts and spirits or think it’s a bunch of hokum, the fact still remains, that our rational human minds cannot know and explain everything, leaving the delicious possibility for the writer to imagine what may be the real story.
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Harry Houdini picture source: http://www.fwweekly.com/2012/09/25/harry-houdini-coming-fort-worth/
Fox sisters picture source: http://www.natemaas.com/2011/02/fox-sisters.html
Conan Doyle picture source: http://history.inrebus.com/index.php?category=25
Spiritualism poster source: http://www.shorpy.com/taxonomy/term/78,107?page=1