Photographing the Invisible

It is difficult not to laugh or even scoff at the photos of purported mediumship phenomena produced during the latter half of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth. Some of these photos now found in reference books and on the Internet are hokey, bizarre, and absolutely ludicrous. They include doll-like figures that are supposed to be the spirits of deceased individuals; some look like mannequins, others like cardboard cutouts prepared by kindergarten students. Some of the photos show hands only, while others show miniature faces enveloped in a foamy-looking substance called ectoplasm, or teleplasm, which appears to be flowing from the medium’s nose, mouth, or ears, even from the nipples or the vagina. Most of the forms are incomplete or rudimentary, some even flat. A few surviving photos show fully materialized entities that look like comic-book characters. We read that these full materializations were deceased humans; and in some cases, they embraced living loved ones and carried on conversations with them for a period of time before melting into the floor.

Who in his or her right mind would believe such twaddle to be real? If we rely on modern references, such as Wikipedia, we are assured that it was all fake. We are informed that ectoplasm was nothing more than cheesecloth stuffed in orifices of the body and regurgitated, while confederates in the scam came through trap doors behind curtains and posed as ghosts for very gullible people. Wires were rigged around the dark rooms to tilt the tables and make it appear that objects were floating about, while the voices heard around the room came from clever ventriloquists. There was, the debunkers explain, no end to the ingenuity of the many charlatans taking advantage of people emotionally fragile while mourning the loss of loved ones and unwise to the deceptive methods of amateur magicians.

What is especially curious and perplexing about all that supposed humbug is why those alleged mediums thought that anyone would think it real. Did they expect their victims to be so dimwitted, so utterly stupid as to believe all that claptrap was authentic? The fact is, however, that millions of people, including a number of distinguished scientists and scholars, did accept some of it as genuine paranormal phenomena.

One such scientist was Charles Richet, a French physiologist, chemist, bacteriologist, pathologist, psychologist, and professor of medicine at the University of Paris. He also happened to win the 1913 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for his research on anaphylaxis, the sensitivity of the body to alien protein substance. He further contributed much to research on the nervous system, anesthesia, serum therapy, and neuro-muscular stimuli and served as editor of the Revue Scientifique for 24 years while contributing to many other scientific publications. How could such a man be so shamelessly duped, not just once but on dozens of occasions with different mediums?

“This ectoplasmic formation at the expense of the physiological organism of the medium is now beyond all dispute,” Richet wrote in his 1923 book, Thirty Years of Psychical Research. “It is prodigiously strange, prodigiously unusual, and it would seem so unlikely as to be incredible; but we must give in to the facts…Yes, it is absurd; but no matter—it is true.”

Richet frequently collaborated with Gustave Geley, a French physician and Laureate of the French Medical Faculty at the University of Lyons, in his investigation of mediums. Geley, who gained some fame from his research in anesthetics and various diseases, including smallpox, stressed that his experiments with mediums were carried out under strict controls in his laboratory, behind locked doors and with a complete search of the medium beforehand. The searches went so far as to include ruling out hidden objects in the rectum and vagina. “I do not say merely, ‘There was no trickery,’ I say ‘There was no possibility of trickery,” Geley proclaimed in his 1920 book, From the Unconscious to the Conscious.

One of the mediums studied by Richet and Geley was Marthe Béraud, a young French woman referred to for privacy purposes as Eva C. The two scientists, as well as several associates, observed the materialization process with Eva from beginning to end. “It was formed, developed, and disappeared under my own eyes,” Geley wrote. “However, unexpected, strange or impossible such a manifestation may appear, I have no right to put forward the slightest doubt as to its reality.”

As the two researchers explained it, Eva sat in a cabinet to protect her from disturbing influences and from the action of the light, although there was sufficient light in the rest of the room for observation purposes. The phenomenon would sometimes appear after a few minutes, but at times it would take more than an hour. Eva, in a light hypnotic state, would sigh and moan from time to time, Geley describing it much like a woman in childbirth. “These moans reach their height just when the manifestation begins, they lessen or cease when the forms are complete,” he explained.

Richet explained that the ectoplasm exuded by Eva, usually from her mouth but at other times from the top of her head, from her nipples and the ends of her fingers, was initially invisible. “Then one observes a whitish steam taking the shape of gauze or muslin, in which a hand or arm develops, gains consistency, then moves,” he added.

“We have seen a hand emerge from a mass of the substance,” Geley wrote. “We have seen a white mass become a face; we have seen in a few moments the representation of a head give place to that of a hand; we have been able, by the concordant evidence of sight and touch, to perceive the passage of the inorganic amorphous substance into a formal organic representation having for the moment all the attributes of life—in flesh and bone, to use a popular expression.” They further observed the materialized matter disappear, melt into the original substance, and be absorbed into the body of Eva.

Although Richet had witnessed a complete materialization with Eva some years earlier in Algiers, an entity called Bien Boa, all of the materializations he witnessed with Geley were partial or incomplete, some of them even flat. However, the fact that nearly all the forms and objects produced by Eva were rudimentary, fragmentary, amorphous or defective in one way or another did not suggest fraud to them. Quite the contrary, they served as evidence, Geley declared, of her good faith. “How should the medium, ignorant as she was of natural science, have conceived the idea of simulating a rudiment?” he asked, going on to mention that he had seen in certain cases a face appear flat, and then become three dimensional, entirely or partially.

Geley concluded that the materializations were ideoplastic—molded by the thoughts of invisible entities—and the incomplete or aberrant forms were the result of “a force whose metapsychic output is weak and whose means of execution are weaker still.” In some cases, the medium’s power was insufficient to produce the desired effect and the materializations stalled before completion, but in other cases the directing entities lacked the ability to effectively project the intended image. One might infer from Geley’s more detailed explanation that while the entities or spirits were attempting to project images into the ectoplasm by thought, their ability to do so varies as much as artistic ability varies among humans.

Lending some credence to Geley’s conclusions is Richet’s experience in one experiment in which a “communicating spirit” said that he could not materialize because he could not remember what he looked like when alive. In a later experiment, this same spirit materialized in body but without a face, all this suggesting that the success of the materialization appears to depend upon the ability of the particular spirit to visualize his old self and project that thought-image into the ectoplasm.

While Geley came to accept that spirits of the dead were behind it all, Richet remained skeptical and “scientific,” preferring to believe that some unknown aspect of the medium’s subconscious was responsible. “To ask a physician, a physicist, or a chemist to admit that a form that has a circulation of blood, warmth, and muscles, that exhales carbonic acid, has weight, speaks, and thinks, can issue from a human body is to ask of him an intellectual effort that is really painful,” he expressed his frustration. (He had examined the materialized Bien Boa, checking its, or his, heart rate, respirations, etc.) However, Richet was later quoted as saying that the spirit hypothesis “explains the facts more easily” than does the subconscious explanation.

Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, a German neurologist, was just as certain as Richet and Geley that fraud was not a factor with Eva C. Over a four-year period (1909-1913), he carried out 180 experiments with her, also requiring an examination of all cavities of the body, including the rectum, to rule out anything being smuggled into the laboratory room. “The productions of Eva C. are undoubtedly genuine, and only a malicious prejudice could doubt the reality of the occurrences,” declared Schrenck-Notzing, who also studied a number of other mediums over a 40-year period.

Schrenck-Notzing further observed that the artistic performances in the productions “are of various levels, from the highest artistic power down to an amateur awkwardness.” He noted that materializations usually liquefied or evaporated when exposed to too much light or touch. “The mysterious intelligence, which appears to be concerned in this preparatory work, evidently wishes to make face and head types optically visible, but requires a certain time for doing so, which may amount to as much as an hour,” he wrote in his 1923 book, Phenomena of Materialization, further noting that the materialized hands sometimes showed no signs of life and at other times showed their living character by grasping objects held out to them, even digging their nails into the skin of his hands.

Richet, Geley, and Schrenck-Notzing also studied Eusapia Palladino, another physical medium written off as a charlatan by more casual observers of her time and in modern references. “Even if there were no other medium than Eusapia in the world, her manifestations would suffice to establish scientifically the reality of telekinesis and ectoplasmic forms,” Richet stated.

“To suggest that these trained observers were all deceived by fraudulent operations, those stupid and very tiresome performances which mislead no one but the uninformed and gullible, is to offer an explanation which offends our reason and shows willful indifference to truth,” wrote T. Glen Hamilton, a Canadian physician who undertook an investigation of mediums producing much the same phenomena as Eva C.

Over a period of some five years (1928–1934), Hamilton, working with a number of associates, observed hundreds of materializations and photographed many of them. “I regard teleplasm (ectoplasm) as a highly sensitive substance, responsive to other-world energies and at the same time visible to us in the physical world,” Hamilton concluded. “It therefore constitutes an intervening substance by means of which transcendental intelligences are enabled, by ideoplastic or other unknown processes, to transmit their conception of certain energy forms which appear objective to them, into the terms of our world and understanding.”

The ideoplastic process was alluded to at a small gathering in England during 1912, when William T. Stead, a victim of the Titanic disaster earlier that year, materialized in front of a group gathered with American medium Etta Wriedt. As reported by William Usborne Moore, a retired admiral of the British navy turned psychical researcher, Stead said that there were souls on his side who had the power of sensing people (mediums) who could be used for communication. One such soul helped him find mediums and showed him how to make his presence known. It was explained to him that he had to visualize himself among the people in the flesh and imagine that he was standing there in the flesh with a strong light thrown upon himself. “Hold the visualization very deliberately and in detail, and keep it fixed upon my mind, that at that moment I was there and they were conscious of it,” Stead explained, adding that the people at one sitting were able to see only his face because he had seen himself as only a face. “I imagined the part they would recognize me by.”

It was in the same way, he said, that he was able to speak to them. He stood by the most sensitive person there, apparently the medium, concentrated his mind on a short sentence, and repeated it with much emphasis and deliberation until he could hear part of it spoken by the person.

In effect, all those bizarre manifestations surviving in photographs may very well have been genuine spirit productions. They were imperfect either because the medium lacked power or because the spirit entities attempting to show themselves lacked the ability or know-how to project their images into the ectoplasm. It might be likened to asking the average person today to draw a portrait of him/herself. Only a few would succeed with a recognizable likeness. Many would resemble cartoon characters or stick figures. It also should be kept in mind that people from earlier years, before the development of photography, may not have had a fixed idea of what they looked like. How many people today would remember what they looked like at a much younger age if they did not have photographs to remind them?

“In the science and philosophy of ectoplasmic formation resides the great secret and the great mystery, a revelation of the highest knowledge, a divine consummation hitherto denied to mortals,” Geley offered, probably assuming that Science would have a better grasp on it a hundred years later.

During the 1850s, long before the experiments by Richet, Geley, Shrenck-Notzing, Hamilton and others gave credibility to the strange physical phenomena, Robert Hare, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and a renowned inventor, investigated a number of mediums with the intent of debunking them. However, he came to the conclusion that mediumship was real, even if there were a number of frauds mixed in with the real ones.

Hare asked a communicating spirit what it was all about and why there was so much crazy stuff. He was informed that the various phenomena were “a deliberate effort on the part of the inhabitants of the higher spheres to break through the partition which has interfered with the attainment, by mortals, of a correct idea of their destiny after death.”   To carry out this intention, he was told, a delegation of advanced spirits had been appointed. He was further informed that lower spirits were allowed to take part in the undertaking because they were better able to make mechanical movements and loud rappings than those on the higher realms. It became clear to Hare and other researchers that the spirits were experimenting on their side just as we were on our side.

After declaring his belief in spirits, Hare came under attack by his scientific colleagues. However, he remained steadfast in his new worldview. “It is a well-known saying,” he lamented the conflicting views, “that there is ‘but one step between the sublime and the ridiculous’.”

By Michael Tymn