An Artistic Hoax

By all accounts, the Victorian age was one of many dichotomies. The most striking to me have always been the strange combination of reason and superstition that tending to dominate the thoughts of even the most learned individuals. As science and industry were combining to remake the very earth around them, the Victorians were still powerfully bound to concepts of spiritualism and arcane mystery.

Faeries and the souls of their dear depart abounded in the quiet places of the Victorian mind, usually untouched or undeterred by more artistic scientific thoughts entertained elsewhere in their brains. In fact, often the two extremes went had in hand. A perfect example of this marriage of art, craft and spiritualism can be found in the so called Spirit Paintings which had a brief, brilliant vogue until they were denounced as the hoaxes they were…however, how they were achieved, how they deluded some of the greatest men of the time, and how they were at last exposed is quite the tale indeed.

The following is reposted from the Skeptical Inquirer.

Spirit Painting

Joe Nickell

During the heyday of spiritualism, among the “physical phenomena” commonly manifested were so-called spirit paintings. These were portraits and other artworks, done in various media and produced under a variety of conditions but always ascribed to spirit entities. During 1998 and 1999 I was able to examine several of these at Lily Dale, the western New York spiritualist colony, and to thereby shed light on some century-old mysteries.

Full-fledged spirit paintings, often portraits of the dearly departed, were typically rather elaborate renderings in oils or pastels. Although looking for all the world like artworks done by professionals, they were produced under remarkable conditions: e.g., during a short time, in complete or near darkness, etc. The most famous spirit-painting mediums were the Bangs sisters and the Campbell brothers.

Although there are myriad discussions of spirit painting (e.g., Coates 1911; Carrington 1920; Mulholland 1938), I have come across no real history of the alleged phenomenon and nothing to establish its origin or chronicle its development. The following few paragraphs are my attempt to fill this void.

Soon after modern spiritualism began in 1848 with the spirit rappings of the Fox sisters (who confessed their trickery four decades later), spirit pictures began to appear in a very simple form. The earliest ones of which I am aware were drawings produced as an extension of “automatic” writing, whereby messages were supposedly dictated by otherworldly entities or the medium’s hand was allegedly guided by them. For example, in 1851 John Murray Spear (b. 1804) produced séance writings and “also geometrical drawings and strange unintelligible figures, of which no interpretation was vouchsafed” (Podmore 1902, 1:216).

In the mid 1860s, a Glasgow cabinetmaker and spiritualist named David Duguid (1832-1907) began painting small landscapes while being observed, according to psychical investigator Frank Podmore (1902, II:130), “apparently in deep trance, and with his eyes apparently closed”-emphasis on the word apparently. Podmore (1902, II:131) was “disposed to regard Duguid’s trance utterances as probably not involving conscious deception,” but his later mediumistic demonstrations are another matter. Magician John Mulholland in his Beware Familiar Spirits (1938, 158), says Duguid was among the mediums who employed “simple substitution of painted for unpainted cards.”

After the debut of slate-writing-a phenomenon claimed to have been “discovered” by “Dr.” Henry Slade (d. 1905)-spirit pictures also began to appear, sometimes accompanying writing (see figure 1), sometimes separately. These pictures could be done (like the messages) with a simple slate pencil, but more ornate ones were rendered with colored chalks or paints. The slate effects were done under conditions that supposedly precluded trickery, thereby seeming to prove they were authentic spirit productions. In fact, however, they were easily produced by a variety of conjuring techniques, and mediums were repeatedly caught faking the phenomena (Houdini 1924).

Although spirit painting is distinct from spirit photography, there was actually some overlap. Interestingly, early photographic techniques-daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, etc.-did not yield spirit portraits; those awaited the advent of glass-plate negatives which facilitated double exposures. After spirit photography became established in 1862 (by Bostonian William H. Mumler1), painted portraits or other artworks obviously served on occasion as the basis for photographed spirit “extras.” Some mediumistic photographers produced photo images with artistically added “veils,” “shrouds,” and other funereal trappings (see examples in Permut 1988). And David Duguid expanded his repertoire from spirit paintings to spirit photographs and even “psychographs” (supposedly non-camera spirit or psychic photos) (Coates 1911, 65). One way the latter were produced involved using seemingly unprepared paper that actually contained a chemically bleached-out image. At the appropriate time the paper would be secretly pressed against a blotter dampened with a developing solution (Carrington 1920, 220-221).

At Lily Dale, I was able to examine several pictures by the Campbell brothers-or I should say, “brothers,” since they were unrelated. (According to my sources at Lily Dale, they were a gay couple in a time when differences in sexual orientation were less tolerated.) They were Allan B. Campbell (1833-1919) and Charles “Campbell” (born Charles Shourds, who died August 23, 1926). They lived at Lily Dale but traveled widely, reportedly making twenty-two trips to Europe. Their mediumship involved slate writing and spirit typewriting (produced in a portable cabinet), but they are best known for their spirit portraits and paintings (“Campbell Brothers” n.d.).

The Campbells’ “spirit” artists produced pastel and oil portraits. I inspected examples of both with an ordinary magnifying glass and a 103 illuminated loupe and found them indistinguishable from works produced by the human hand. Some writers claim the pictures “have no brush marks” (Jackson 1975). That is true of the pastels which were of course done without brushes or paints and which in fact have the characteristics of pastel drawings. The oil paintings do indeed have brush marks which may easily be found by the use of oblique light-a technique used to enhance surface irregularities (Nickell 1999).

One of the oils is a striking 40 x 60-inch painting of Allan Campbell’s alleged spirit guide, Azur. It was produced on June 15, 1898, in a single sitting lasting only an hour and a half. In a signed statement, six witnesses (all of them apparently spiritualists, some of them prominent) described the conditions under which the picture was produced:

On the evening mentioned we met at the cottage of the Campbell Brothers on the hill and proceeded to their Egyptian séance room. Across the bay window at the end of the room was hung a large silk curtain, where stood a small table and a canvas 40″360″. Each one in turn went up to the canvas and magnetized it by passing his hands over the surface. We then placed whatever marks we pleased on the back, some placing names, some numbers, some marks to suit their fancy. Mr. A. Campbell then invited one of the circle to sit with him in the impromptu cabinet and the silken curtain enclosing them; each member of the circle in turn sat within the cabinet with Mr. Campbell. Every time the curtain was withdrawn we saw the partly finished picture of Azur. During the entire séance there was light enough for us to see everything perfectly and note the gradual growth of the painting on the canvas. Mr. A. Campbell was entranced and Azur, using his organism, gave us some very beautiful words of welcome and lessons of a high order. He spoke of the stars and their significance, which we fully realized afterwards.After some music, additional lights were brought, the curtain withdrawn, and lo! The picture was complete. It represented Azur with arms uplifted as in the act of speaking and fully life size. While we were admiring it, there came at the back of the head a six-pointed star, which is now distinctly seen. (Prendergast et al. 1989)

One notes that the picture was only observed in stages, but how was it done under the conditions described (assuming them to be true) and in so short a time for a large oil painting? To begin an answer we turn to Hereward Carrington (1920, 222) who describes the two major techniques used for spirit paintings rendered in oils:

One method is for the medium to take an ordinary oil-painting, as fresh as possible (so long as the oil is quite dry), and over this lightly gum, around the edges, another piece of blank canvas, seeing to it that it looks neat at the edges. Now, as soon as the medium is alone in the cabinet, he carefully peels off this outside piece of canvas, secreting it about his person, and exposing the under canvas (the one upon which is the painting) to view. In order to produce the impression of the painting still being wet, he quickly rubs over the painting with poppy-oil, and there is your spirit painting!

The second method Carrington describes as a “chemical means,” but that is something of a misnomer. As he explains:

The oil-painting in this case is first varnished, and, after this is thoroughly dry, it is covered with a solution of water and “zinc white.” The canvas will now have the appearance of being blank, and may be inspected. All the medium has to do, in order to restore the painting, is to wash over the canvas with a wet sponge, when the painting will appear as before.

In the second technique, the zinc white might be sponged off incrementally so that the picture seems to develop in stages. And it would be appropriately damp when brought forth (Gibson 1967). With either method employed, the sitters’ placing their names and other identifying marks on the back of the canvas to prevent substitution-a common ploy of spirit-painting mediums (Gibson 1967)-was a disarming but irrelevant act since the main canvas on which the marks were placed was not switched.

In examining Azur, I detected no traces of zinc white residue that might be expected to remain. However, I did discover-in each of the four corners-evidence of surface damage, seemingly consistent with the first scenario Carrington described. Although unmistakable, the damage is much less apparent to the unaided eye than is seen in an oblique-light photograph intended to reveal it. In fact, the damage would no doubt generally go unnoticed, and, indeed, I had seen the painting on previous occasions without observing it. My eventual discovery reminds me of an exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Gregory, in “Silver Blaze” (Doyle 1894), concerning a clue, a “wax vesta [match], half burned”:

“I cannot think how I came to overlook it,” said the inspector with an expression of annoyance.”It was invisible, buried in the mud [Holmes replied]. I only saw it because I was looking for it.”

“What! You expected to find it?”

“I thought it not unlikely.”

If my observation of surface damage in the four corners of Azur means what I think it does (no innocent, alternate explanation comes to mind), then Allan Campbell seems to have had a blank canvas covering the finished Azur, lightly glued at the corners. There may actually have been two or more overlays so that intermediate stages of the painting could have been prepared in advance. Or there could have been a partial rendering on the back of the blank canvas for the same purpose (although that would have required reattachment after reversal). Allan Campbell might even have had a brush and paints available so that he could have produced on the overlay the first several stages of the painting until ready to reveal the finished product. (These could have been kept in a drawer of the “small table” referred to.)

How do we explain the star-shaped halo that afterward appeared on the painting, as the sitters attested, “while we were admiring it”? I suggest that the star, which is not particularly bold, was not at first noticed. When the sitters’ attention was called to it, and they then focused on it, they were deceived by the power of suggestion into thinking it had spontaneously materialized.

What about the members of the circle having taken turns sitting with the medium in the makeshift spirit cabinet (the curtained-off bay-window area)? Would not the presence of even a single observer have precluded trickery? Hardly. The painting may have had a covering placed over it, which was used to conceal the removal of the (hypothesized) canvas overlays. And Charles “Campbell” might have played an important role. It is curious that his involvement was not described; he might, for example, have been the first to sit with Allan Campbell, making removal (or reversal) of one overlay a cinch. He could have sat more than once, or one of the other sitters might have been a confederate. Again, we do not know that a sitter was always present or that the picture advanced to a new stage during each sitting. No doubt, whatever the actual conditions, they were insufficiently stringent to prevent deception.

Even if I am wrong about the implications of the surface damage in the corners, the hypothetical scenario I have sketched remains a valid explanation, since it would be possible to attach an overlay without such damage. (One version of the trick calls for tacks to be used to attach the blank sheet [Gibson 1967].)

Given the evidence, the painting of “Azur”-indeed the entire body of spirit paintings, like other physical spiritualistic phenomena-can scarcely be taken as proof of a transcendent realm.

In addition to the Campbell “brothers”, the other major spiritualists whose mediumship produced “spirit” paintings were the Bangs sisters of Chicago.

Misses Elizabeth S. and May E. Bangs were reportedly mediums since childhood, but their “gift” of spirit painting did not appear until the fall of 1894 (Chesterfield 1986). They offered clairvoyance, séance trumpet effects and spirit “materializations,” “direct” (or so-called automatic) writing, spirit typewriting, and slate effects. But they were most famous for their allegedly ghost-rendered paintings. Their business card advertised, “Life Sized Spirit Portraits a Specialty” (“Bangs Sisters” n.d.; Swann 1969). Indeed, they appear to have made something of a racket of it, as indicated by an Associated Press story of 1908. A woman who alleged to be the wife of a Chicago millionaire accused May Bangs of enticing him into a bigamous relationship, the man having been, it was claimed, “inveigled into the marriage through the instrumentality of a ‘spirit portrait’ of his dead mother”-produced by the Bangs sisters (“Spirit” 1908).

The Bangses were exposed as tricksters many times. For example a minister, Rev. Stanley L. Krebs (1901) sat for one demonstration that involved producing a “spirit” reply to a multi-paged letter that he had been instructed to bring, sealed in an envelope. At the beginning of the séance it was placed between two bound slates. Careful observation, and the use of a small mirror that permitted viewing under the table, allowed Krebs to see how the bound slates were secretly wedged apart and the envelope dropped into Miss Bangs’s lap from whence it was transferred to a tray on the floor and drawn under a closed door. In time, after her accomplice/sister had done her work of steaming open the envelope and penning a reply, the seemingly impossible effect was completed.

The sisters used a variety of techniques for their spirit portraits. Typically, for reasons skeptics may well imagine, “their method was to have the sitter bring a photograph of the dead person to be painted, and the following day the spirits would paint the portrait . . .” (Mulholland 1938, 158). For one-day service, the photograph was reportedly “concealed” from the sisters’ view (Swann 1969, 4), but they may have gotten access to it much as they did the previously described letter.

According to a booklet published at the Indiana spiritualist colony Camp Chesterfield (where the Bangses had a cottage for a number of years), the sisters’ earliest work involved “a locked cabinet or curtained off space” and “several ‘sittings’ were necessary.” Later, the “canvas” (actually a paper-mounted panel) was placed before a window with light streaming through, and the sitter watched the picture progress over a period of up to forty minutes or so. Still later, the sisters were able to produce artworks in “as little as five minutes” (Swann 1969).

Reportedly, the Bangs sisters’ portraits were examined by unnamed “art experts” who concluded they were not done in any known artistic medium. Rather, the colored substance “could be compared to the dust on a butterflys [sic] wings” (Swann 1969). That is, the particulate matter resembled pollen, and would thus seem consistent with a pastel “painting” (i.e., a drawing done in pastel crayons, which consist of pigment mixed with gum).

In fact, at Lily Dale, a spiritualist community in Western New York, where the sisters resided for many seasons, I was able to examine two of their “spirit” portraits that were framed and mounted under glass (as would be expected for certain media, like watercolors or pastels, but not others, e.g., oils). I used an illuminated 10X loupe for the inspection. Having myself done portraits in oils, pastels, watercolors, and numerous other media, I saw very familiar characteristics that I could not distinguish from ordinary pastel renderings (Woolwich 1996), including layering and blending of colors and even unmistakable crayon strokes (as in the hair). Indeed, although claiming that, for some pictures, the spirits under the Bangses’ mediumship furnished “their own colouring matter,” one contemporary source stated that “for the usual portraiture, coloured French pastels are placed in front of the canvas and these are used by the spirit artists-by a process called ‘precipitation'” (Coates 1911, 294).

But how were the pictures actually produced? The evolution of their techniques would seem consistent with deception. The early cabinet method suggests the pictures were simply painted by the sisters out of patrons’ view, and the latest productions (done in “five minutes”) no doubt involved the substitution of a previously prepared picture. The ‘window’ technique is interesting, and to my knowledge the secret has never been revealed publicly.

Explaining the technique is made difficult by the conflicting descriptions given by credulous observers who lacked knowledge of conjuring methods and who may have misperceived or misremembered exact details. Some accounts insist the effect was produced “in broad daylight” with the blank picture panel simply standing on a table before a window, but as May Bangs herself admitted (1910), “The room is shaded sufficiently to cause all the light from the window to pass through the canvas.” A more detailed explanation states:

Two identical, paper-mounted canvases in wooden frames were held up, face to face, against the window, the lower edges resting on a table and the sides gripped by each medium with one hand. A short curtain was hung on either side and an opaque blind was drawn over the canvases. With the light streaming from behind[,] the canvases were translucent. After a quarter of an hour the outlines of shadows began to appear and disappear as if the invisible artist made a preliminary sketch, then the picture began to grow at a feverish rate and when the frames were separated the portrait was found on the paper surface of the canvas next to the sitter. Though the paint was greasy and stuck to the finger on being touched, it left no stain on the paper surface of the other canvas which closely covered it [Fodor 1933].

The effect was reproduced by stage magicians who were probably inspired by the Bangs sisters’ phenomenon. As described in Thayer’s Quality Magic Catalog (1928), two canvasses were placed face to face in a frame before “a powerful light from the rear.” Then:

With the house lights off and while all eyes are intent upon the white illuminated canvas, slowly and faintly at first, a dim shadow appears. Gradually this shadow grows larger and becomes more distinct. The outlines begin to take shape, colors appear, and in a few short moments, a perfect finished picture in all its brilliancy of color is before them.

Thayer’s catalog did not, of course, explain how the trick worked, but-significantly-prepared “spirit” portraits were sold with the apparatus. Whatever the secret, it may have been virtually identical to the method used by the Bangses. One notes that, like theirs, the Thayer method employed two canvases, and I think therein lies the crux of the matter.

After considerable experimentation, I have found a way to produce what seems a very similar effect. Someone witnessing it might well write, as one of the Bangses’ clients did (Payne 1905): “At first it was a faint shadow, then a wave appeared to sweep across the canvas, and the likeness became plainer. It was a good deal like a sunrise-got brighter until it was perfectly plain and every feature visible.” The effect is of a picture seeming to slowly materialize and gradually coming into focus. Indeed, that is just what occurs in the method I came up with.

Briefly, here is my hypothetical reconstruction of a Bangses’ spirit-picture séance. Prior to the client entering the room, the previously prepared picture (rolled up perhaps) is secreted in its hiding place (for example in a drawer on the back of the table). The sitter is invited inside, allowed to casually inspect the premises, and invited to take a seat. The two blank panels are placed face to face, stood up on the table, and held by a sister seated on either side. The aforementioned short curtains are drawn to each side and the opaque blind pulled down. The spirits are invoked, while under cover of the drawn blind, one sister uses her free hand to extract the picture from its hiding place and attach it to the face of the rearmost panel which is laid on the table behind the other panel. All is now ready for the blind to be raised.

Light is seen streaming through the blank panel, which will function as a sort of screen on which the seemingly materializing image will be projected from the rear. At a suitable time, one of the sisters, using her free hand behind the curtain, stands the picture panel upright a few inches from the other, an action which creates a shadowy, clouded effect upon the “screen.” Slowly, the picture panel is moved forward, and, as it approaches the screen, colors appear, followed by a blurry face which eventually comes into focus and is recognized. Finally, the completed picture is revealed in full light at the end of the séance.

That the Bangses employed some technique such as I have hypothesized is consistent with the overall scenario described in various accounts (Coates 1911; Fodor 1933; “Bangs Sisters” n.d.). It would certainly explain the otherwise puzzling use of two panels: the extra one serving both as a shield to hide the portrait panel from view and as a screen on which to permit rear projection of the image. The following account is also instructive:

A few minutes after they [the face and form] began to appear, the psychics (apparently under impression) lowered the canvas toward me until it touched my breast. May Bangs then got a message by Morse alphabet [supposed spirit-rappings] on the table: ‘Your wife is more accustomed to see me in the other aspect.’ Up went the canvas again and I saw the profile and bust, but turned round in the opposite direction; instead of the face looking to the right, it was looking to the left. The portrait then proceeded apace, until all the details were filled in . . . [Moore 1910]

This is consistent with the methodology I have described, it having been merely necessary to “flop” (reverse) the picture panel as it was returned to its place on the table.

In some accounts the picture behind the screen seemed to be manipulated in and out of focus. For example, one witness described how the developing image “disappeared, but came back very soon clearer than before” (“Bangs Sisters” n.d.) One case featured an illusion involving “three pairs of eyes” that “showed on the canvas at once in different poses and places” (an effect that could easily have been accomplished with a separate sheet of paper on which the sets of eyes were rendered).

Many times the spirit-picture production ended with a very interesting effect: the portrait’s eyes-which up to that point had been closed-suddenly (or sometimes gradually) opened, “like a person awakening” (Payne 1905; Coates 294-331). Now, the same effect was actually a popular parlor diversion of the Bangses’ time (the late nineteenth to early twentieth century) with advertising cards being specially printed for the purpose. One for Stafford’s Ink, for instance, depicted a little girl with closed eyes, behind which-printed on the reverse with good registration-were a pair of heavily outlined, open eyes. In ordinary viewing (reflected light) the child slept, but when the card was held up to a window or lamp (i.e., viewed in transmitted light) the open eyes became dominant and she suddenly awoke.

This effect may have been copied by the Bangs sisters, although it would have been accomplished differently, since the portrait-side of the finished picture would have required open eyes. Having closed eyes behind (as on an overlay) would not seem to work, since the open eyes (with their dark irises and pupils) would still dominate from the beginning. There may be several ways to solve the problem: the effect might simply have been produced by tipping the picture forward so that the eyes were brought into focus, coupled with the power of suggestion; or the finished, open eyes might actually have been drawn in, in a final stage, under some pretext of pulling down the opaque blind; or by some other method. (For example it is possible to have a removable, opaque material applied on the back to the area behind the eyes so that, in transmitted light, there appear deep, shaded sockets, but when the material is peeled off the eyes open.) In any event one sitter did report that, before opening, the eyes of the spirit portrait were “indistinct and apparently closed” (emphasis added; Holland 1909).

Although, as indicated earlier, the Bangs sisters may not always have received a photograph of the deceased subject in advance of the séance, they could nevertheless proceed once they gained access (by some subterfuge) to the photo. One sister could then go off to produce the portrait while the other kept the patron distracted. For example, one wrote:

Entering the seance-room, and finding only three canvases, I selected two of them, took them out in the sunlight, in company with one of the Miss Bangs, exposed them for fifteen minutes to the strong rays of the noonday sun, examined the surface thoroughly to fully assure myself that they were not chemically prepared, at the same time to secretly mark them for identification.

Subsequently the identification marks would show that the “canvas” had not been switched (Thurston 1910). (If the panel was not marked-most accounts omit that detail-the procedure is simplified, since the portrait can be prepared on a panel that is switched for one of the selected ones, eliminating the need to surreptitiously affix the picture to a panel during the séance.)

One incident is particularly revealing: A couple who had sought a picture of their deceased son concluded that the resulting image resembled him only “in a general way” and “was not even a fairly good portrait.” In rationalizing the failure, one writer pointed out (perhaps more wisely than he knew) that the couple “had no photograph of their departed son with them” (Coates 1911, 325). Thus the Bangs sisters were apparently left with few options. They could fish for a description (in the manner of a police artist eliciting an eyewitness’s recollection) or opt to produce a generalized child’s portrait which the credulous couple might accept. In contrast, when a photograph had been brought to the sitting, the “spirit” painting might be pronounced “a perfect enlargement of the original . . .” (“Bangs Sisters” n.d.). Whatever techniques the sisters actually employed – and May Bangs (1910) acknowledged that “No two sittings” were “exactly alike” – they were obviously effective, given the many testimonials they elicited. Significantly, as physical mediumship has largely given way to mental phenomena (witness the rise of mediums like James Van Praagh who limit themselves to readings [Nickell 1998]), “spirit” paintings have all but disappeared. A few historic examples remain as reminders of an earlier, though not necessarily more credulous, time.


1 Comment

  1. Fascinating. I’d heard of spirit photography, but I hadn’t heard of spirit paintings. I admit, I’m more intrigued by the sleight of hand used in these accounts, than if it were actually “real”.

    But then, I’ve always been more amazed by the trick of how it’s done, than the trick itself.

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