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.