Sunday, 1 June 2014

The end of an era—a brave new century dawns

Why the Victorians saw ghosts: twelve

On the 23rd of September 2004 I was lucky enough to attend a recreation of a Victorian séance organized by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman at the Dana Center in London, a venue dedicated to encouraging ordinary people to think and talk about science. Approximately fifty of us sat around an enormous round table holding hands, and, as the lights dimmed, we were treated to an orchestrated evening of raps and knocks, and at one point a thump from the middle of the table which was so unexpected that many of us jumped in our seats. But the event was only ever partially successful because we all expected something to happen, and, armed with our noughties skepticism, nobody imagined for one instant that the sounds were produced by any supernatural agency. We were a particularly tough audience.

Twelve years prior to this in 1992, Wiseman had made a study of the last of the great Victorian mediums, Eusapia Palladino. Born of Italian peasant stock, her first husband was a conjurer, and the second a wine merchant. Yet it is the second husband who is fingered as her accomplice, entering the darkened séance room via a secret panel and assisting Palladino in her catalog of tricks: levitating tables, making objects appear to move, partial materializations of hands and faces, plus the normal gamut of ghostly pinching, touching and kicks.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

W. T. Stead—the man who forsaw his own death?

Why the Victorians saw ghosts: eleven

William Thomas Stead was born in 1849, the son of a Congregationalist minister and a campaigning reformist mother. At the unlikely age of twenty-two he was appointed as editor of the Northern Echo, a regional newspaper based in Darlington in the north of England. Seizing an opportunity afforded by the excellent railroad connections on offer at the local train station, he managed to expand the Echo's distribution to national levels. In 1880 he took a post in London as the assistant editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. Two years later he became its editor, and was responsible for many of the innovations—from simple things such as the use of maps to help illustrate a story's location, through to a number of rather questionable investigative techniques—that paved the way for the tabloids of today. He is probably best remembered now for the Eliza Armstrong case, the darkest scandal to hit London in 1885.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Mediumistic or mad?—the precarious position of women who dared to be spiritualists

Why the Victorians saw ghosts: ten

Mrs Georgina Weldon (neé Thomas, 1837-1914) was one of those extraordinary, larger-than-life characters, London-born to landed gentry but with a fair soprano voice and a sense of theatre fairly pumping through her veins. Though she married for love in 1860, she soon found her talents stifled by her husband, William, who forbade her the professional life she craved and demanded she only appear in amateur theatrics and at charity benefits. In the fourth year of their marriage, which had fast turned loveless, William took a mistress to whom he stayed faithful for the rest of his life.

By the end of the 1860s Georgina's amateur croonings had fallen somewhat out of favour and her marriage was in trouble. She conceived a plan to open a musical training school for poor orphaned children, which she did in 1870, based in her own home, Tavistock House in Bloomsbury. Tavistock House was the perfect venue for such a venture: Charles Dickens, one of its previous occupants, had added a small theatre with its own stage. Georgina had some progressive ideas regarding the education of her orphans. In addition to allowing them to run barefoot for a quarter of an hour each day, they were to be taught singing, dancing and recitation from the earliest age, raised on a vegetarian diet, encouraged to join her in her amateur séances, and taken to see opera. In return they were to pay for their keep by performing at key society events—twee musical programmes that would include a recitation of the history of the orphanage—where the whole troop would arrive in a horse and wagon with the words "Mrs Weldon's Sociable Evenings" plastered along the side. Think of Rosalind Russell's stage-mother character in the 1965 film Gypsy and you'll get the idea.