How rife was spiritualism at the turn of the 19th century? There was certainly no shortage of the great and good (plus quite a few rogues) happy to declare ‘belief’ in communication with the spirit world. One of the leading believers, featured in the Wellcome Collection’s current Smoke and Mirrors exhibition about magic and psychology, was Arthur Conan Doyle. Like the GP he once was, Conan Doyle declares reassuringly in a late filmed interview that it’s no matter of mere ‘belief’, but evidence he’s gathered from countless séances. Somewhat disconcerting from the creator of the forensic Sherlock Holmes.
Several of Robert Paul’s early customers were magicians who’d built their acts around ‘exposing’ fake mediums, notably the Egyptian Hall impresario Nevil Maskelyne. And Paul’s studio produced several sceptical films based the spiritualism vogue, two of which happily survive, with one included in the Wellcome show (above). Their early Upside Down, subtitled The Human Flies (1899) remains one of the most perfect two-shot trick films, and possibly the earliest screen appearance by Paul’s new hiring, the conjuror Walter Booth.
In this satirical take on ‘table turning’, a ‘professor of spiritualism’ (Booth) first makes his umbrella stand up and then has his hat ‘fly onto the ceiling’. The party of four are invited to stand, before they too fly up, and start dancing on the ceiling (a trick recapitulated by Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding).
By 1906, the tone has changed, and it’s Is Spiritualism a Fraud?, subtitled The Medium Exposed, that appears in Smoke and Mirrors as evidence of contemporary scepticism. Here, we see the mechanics of setting up a fake séance in some detail, with an accomplice hidden in a chest and a spectacular ‘spiritualistic’ display, before the light is turned on by a suspicious member of the group to reveal the deception. Then the fake medium is bundled into his own coffin-like chest by indignant clients, and paraded on a cart through the streets of Muswell Hill, appropriately in the style of a modern-day witch.
By this date, George and Weedon Grossmith had extended their hugely successful Diary of a Nobody, first serialised in Punch in the 1890s and steadily republished through the Edwardian era (and set in Holloway, north London, where Paul was born). Séances were evidently as fashionable in middle-class social life as Tupperware parties would later be. Their anxious anti-hero, Charles Pooter, is sceptical, but intrigued by his wife’s and her friends’ fascination, and by Chapter 22 he too is taking part.
The moment I turned out the gas, and almost before I could get my hands on the table, it rocked violently and tilted, and began moving quickly across the room. Gowing shouted out: “Way, oh! steady, lad, steady!” I told Gowing if he could not behave himself I should light the gas, and put an end to the séance. To tell the truth, I thought Gowing was playing tricks, and I hinted as much; but Mrs. James said she had often seen the table go right off the ground. The spirit Lina came again, and said, “WARN” three or four times, and declined to explain. Mrs. James said “Lina” was stubborn sometimes. She often behaved like that, and the best thing to do was to send her away.
We have no idea if the Pauls ever witnessed a suburban séance. But they must certainly have been aware of what was going on around them, and had probably read Diary of a Nobody, one of the period’s most popular books. Having fun with filmic ghosts was part of the studio’s stock in trade, in films like The Haunted Curiosity Shop and The Magic Sword, but taking mediums as seriously as Conan Doyle and the Society for Psychical Research seems to have been a step too far for this worldly-wise couple and their colleagues.