Fairies & Ectoplasm

faery2.jpgOver the past few weeks, I have been listening to a biography of Houdini as I drive to and from work. Among the many things that I have learned is that Houdini was acquainted with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. In his later years, Doyle became interested in Spiritualism, a religion of sorts that involved communication with the dead. Doyle attended seances and expressed an interest in other spiritualist phenomenon. Doyle was attracted to Houdini, whose powers seemed to have a mystical dimension. During the early years of their acquaintance, while they were still on good terms, Doyle often claimed that Houdini possessed special powers. Doyle’s gullibility is illustrated by his reaction to one of Houdini’s simple tricks. While riding in the car, Houdini pretended to remove the first joint of his thumb. You may have done this trick yourself, or seen someone perform it. It is very entertaining to small children, but Doyle wrote of the trick in a letter to Houdini, “Just a line to say how much we enjoyed our short visit yesterday. I think what interested me most was the little ‘trick’ which you showed us in the cab. You certainly have very wonderful powers, whether inborn or acquired.”

In 1922 Doyle published The Coming of the Fairies, which you can read here. The book was inspired by some photographs that Doyle had received from a friend, showing young girls apparently surrounded by or interacting with fairies. One of those photos appears to the left. For others, see here. To the modern eye, these photos are laughably unrealistic, but Doyle (and many others) believed that they were actual photos of fairies. Around this same time, Houdini published an article in the New York Sun denying spiritualist phenomena, and thus he embarked on his career as a spiritualist debunker.

margery.jpgIn 1923 Houdini was asked by Scientific American to participate on a committee investigating spiritualist mediums. This led to the spectacular case of Margery the Medium, who remains a figure of curiosity today. During her seances, bells rang, tables rocked, and the dead spoke. Among the stranger manifestations — not unique to Margery — was the appearance of “ectoplasm,” shown in the photo to the right. Margery was a sensation, and Houdini wanted to expose her as a fraud. He wrote a pamphlet describing Margery’s methods (which included putting her head under a table and lifting it up to create movement!).

Reading about these events is entertaining and humorous, but I have the vague sense that there should be some serious lesson for us here. Today, in the place of Margery and Houdini, we have John Edward and James Randi. Few modern spiritualists work in the realm of physical manifestations, like fairies and ectoplasm. Instead, they purport to have spiritual gifts that cannot be seen. This is convenient, of course, because such gifts are difficult to falsify, but more troubling to me is the extent to which many modern psychics emulate our own religious leaders. Take Sylvia Browne, for example:

Sylvia is truly on a mission for God. Simply put, she is determined to show the world that the soul survives death. In addition she wants to emphasize that God, both Father and Mother God, are infinitely loving Beings, not full of wrath and hate as represented by many of today’s religions. Sylvia feels that all people can reach God by knowledge and reason, rather than relying upon faith alone. For any question your mind can raise, God will provide an answer; the trick is being able to understand that answer – which Sylvia does on a daily basis, and it gets stronger and stronger with each person she counsels.

While some people may accept the truth of Sylvia Browne’s claims and be led astray into false beliefs, the more troubling possibility to me is that people will confuse genuine spiritual experiences with spiritualist frauds. For many people, patriarchal blessings and psychic readings must be indistinguishable. Moreover, I suspect that this confusion prevents some of us from seeking spiritual experiences. We do not like to imagine ourselves receiving “revelations” like a psychic, so we avoid the attempt.

12 comments for “Fairies & Ectoplasm

  1. lyle
    September 7, 2004 at 12:31 pm

    there is a movie about the photos & the houdini/doyle connection. can’t remember the name though…

  2. Kingsley
    September 7, 2004 at 12:54 pm

    Regarding psychic readings and patriarchal blessings, I have experienced both, and am not worried, really, that people will confuse the two. For one thing, a patriarchal blessing requires more than just slapping your money down, extending your palm, etc.: rather, you have to be in the Church: you prepare, you interview, and so on. When the Big Moment arrives it does so quietly and simply, as sacred things should. There’s a histrionic, voodoo quality to even the most intellectually respectable psychical stuff that separates it, presto, from Church ordinances. E.g. look at Yeats’s little gatherings. Also, it’s sort of touching, in a melancholy, pathetic way, to see people mad for a sign from the Invisible World, for an assurance that their beautiful things won’t quit. But even with the strong differences, I suppose there are temperaments everywhere, and probably especially within religious movements, which are very likely to jumble things together.

  3. Nathan Tolman
    September 7, 2004 at 1:08 pm

    But even with the strong differences, I suppose there are temperaments everywhere, and probably especially within religious movements, which are very likely to jumble things together.

    It seemed to hapen a bit in the early Church.

  4. September 7, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    A couple of years ago I read Houdini’s fascinating book:

    The Miracle Mongers, A Complete Expose’ Of The Modus Operandi Of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc.

    The methods of these “Miracle Mongers” are absolutely ingenious. It is probably a good thing I didn’t discover this book until I was older. Had I found it as a teen I would have been highly tempted to try out some of the tricks. Many of them involve using substances that we now know are quite toxic. Some of the things people would do to themselves to get their bodies to tolerate and perform “miracles” were downright disgusting.

    One of the points that Houdini makes is that generation after generation were duped by the same tricks which the “miracle mongers” resurrected with a new ingenious twist again and again after they had slipped from society’s collective memory. I suspect the psychics &c. of today are using many of the same methods, but as a society we have forgotten.

    Anyway, it is a wonderful read and provides a fascinating glimpse at a world of entertainment and belief from another time.

    Houdini’s “The Miracle Mongers, An Expose…” is available for free from Project Gutenberg for any of you who are intrigued.

  5. Kingsley
    September 7, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    Yes indeed. I call it the My Pet Rock phase.

  6. Jack
    September 7, 2004 at 2:05 pm

    Lyle: I believe the movie is entitled “A Fairytale” starring Peter O’ Toole.

  7. September 7, 2004 at 2:52 pm

    One interesting footnote to the Houdini story is that (as I understand it) he debunked because he was a seeker. He hoped that there was life after death, that there was possibility of communication between spirits and the living. He and his wife arranged some signals that they hoped to be able to use to communicate with each other after one had passed on. I don’t think they ever succeeded.

  8. Charles
    September 7, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    Some real interesting things about this is the cyclical nature of those being decieved. Very similarly in the BoM generations go through various paterns of being decieved by those in power and coming to the truth.

    Also, its interesting to note in Revelations, there is discussion that before the second coming there will rise some to power that are so convincing that even the prophets could be fooled by thier miracles.

    Lastly, and for me personally, I believe that miracles are far more often internal. We discover the truth in this case by an internal testimony. Sure we can judge some of these acts with our critical mind. And in many cases we should. But watching a charlitain perform these parlor tricks is far different then when we obtain our own testimony and witness our own miracles in our lives without thier interuption.

  9. September 8, 2004 at 11:56 pm

    I don’t know about spiritualism, but clearly Gordon is prescient. Unfortunately, today’s Jeopardy taped before this post was published.

    [Tonight’s Final Jeopardy clue was about which magician and author had a falling out in the ’20s over the validity mediums (or something like that). Ken missed it — but still won easily.]

  10. September 9, 2004 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks for sharing that, William. Something cosmic is happening here because I just posted a link to an article about Ken losing in Jeopardy. (See the side panel under our new “Notes from all over” section.

  11. September 9, 2004 at 1:09 pm


    On the plus side, one of the clues in Double Jeapordy for the “Long Words” (or something like that — I was feeding the baby and had the TV on in the background) was: The term for a 150th Anniverary.

    That’s one that all Mormons over the age of 30 should know. Every time I hear or read the word “Sesquicentennial,” I then hear in my head President Kimball saying it in his raspy voice at the April 1980 general conference.

  12. Mark B
    September 9, 2004 at 8:48 pm

    Aha! I was trying to remember where I had just learned that useless bit of information that enabled me to impress my wife (unlike Ken, who hadn’t the advantage of reading this blog before yesterday’s show was taped). And, finally, a day late, a review of this thread revealed it to me.

    Just an aside to the boss, whoever that may be: Can you immediately remove any post that refers to the last book of the Bible as “Revelations”? :)

Comments are closed.