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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gambols with the Ghosts

Recent discussions with Marc Demarest and Pat Deveney revealed an interesting bit of knowledge I'd not previously known—the existence of “Blue Books” for mediums containing names, addresses, and biographical information on a region's more gullible Spiritualist customers. These books would, of course, have proved invaluable to out-of-town mediums seeking ready-and-willing clients, containing as they did a wide array of personal information that, once committed to memory, would serve a medium well once the lights dimmed and hands were joined. They were rare indeed, and only exist now in piecemeal form reconstructed by researchers hungry to get their hands on a copy, so eyes peeled, folks!

The conversations brought to mind another “secret book” in circulation around the turn of the century, one said to also be printed to aid mediums in their spirit-communication efforts. And, in keeping with a return to the more artifact-based nature I intended for the Mysterious Planchette blog, I'd like to present Sylvestre & Company's catalog-for-séance-tools-and-manifestation-effects: Gambols with the Ghosts

 I first became aware of the Sylvestre catalog through the esteemed Eugene Burger's seminal work on modern séance performance, SpiritTheater. My early practice as a bizarre magic performer and pursuit to fine-tune the perfect haunted antiques show led directly to my later collecting and research on talking boards, and Spirit Theater was an important influence on those days, providing, as it does, a canny overview of the history of séances, an introduction to the most important mediums of the age, the tactics they employed, and the singular effects that only Mr. Burger's demented mind can conjure. The sage was kind enough to include, nestled as a sidebar in the book's appendix, some tantalizing facsimiles of an important work of which ghost hunter Harry Price once said was “so excessively rare that during a lifetime's search for a specimen...I came into possession of a copy, the only one in Great Britain.”

1902 Ad for Gambols with the Ghost in Suggestion
That book was, of course, the diminutive catalog, Gambols with the Ghosts. Gambols is actually more of a chapbook or pamphlet, really, and measures only 4x6 inches, with 40 pages nestled between two brittle, fancifully illustrated covers. It was printed in 1901 by Ralph E. Sylvestre & Co, a magic dealer located at 25 Ashland Blvd, Chicago, Illinois, purportedly to service the underground fraudulent medium trade. Within, the catalog offers a staggering array of tools, tricks, and items to facilitate everything a medium might need to pull off a séance to an anxious customer's satisfaction, from fake spirit rapping devices, table-tipping assists, gaffed slates, and materials for full-form manifestations. According to Harry Price, the catalog was only ever loaned by the proprietors, and was not meant for distribution, therefore protecting the secret of the warehouse's existence and protecting the means of accomplishing séance effects from a suspect public.

The catalog is amazing, and after a years-long search that began when I first spied its evocative illustrations in the back pages of Burger's Spirit Theater, I have finally acquired a copy for myself. Let's take a look at some of the items it offered and the history of this clever little volume.

photo courtesy

Of immediate interest is, of course, the planchettes and talking boards offered by the catalog, and it does not disappoint with very revealing illustrations. Identifying the talking board is a fairly easy matter given the imprint and trademark, as well as the indicator's shape and leg style—a classic board of the era: a William Fuld Manufacturing Company board produced in their 1208Federal Street factory. The writing planchette isn't quite so easily resolved. The “despair of science” crack is, of course, an allusion to the seminal work on writing planchettes by Epes Sargent, but gives us no clues to its manufacture. But given the shield shape is so classically indicative of the identical boards produced in huge quantities E.I. Horsman and Selchow & Righter in this period, it seems likely that this most popular of planchettes is one or the other company.

One sticking point for collectors is where to draw the lines in our definition of “spirit communication tool.” Right off, myself and many collectors dismiss most pendulum boards and other random-effect devices, such as spinner wheels and chance fortune-tellers, as they do not rely on any sort of singular or group interaction to achieve their “communications.” In other words, cooperative messages spelled out on a writing planchette or ouija board counts, flicking a spinner for a random response does not. That lines blurs when it comes to items such as talking skulls and rapping hands. I can find no evidence that these gaffed devices were ever seriously used in a genuine séance setting. At most, they were used in “Spiritualism Exposed!” acts in the wake of the public drawback from Spiritualism, as espoused by Houdini, Dunninger, and others. And there was a good living to be had exposing the tricks of mediums. And Sylvestre carried both variations of these rapping devices—multiple types, in fact. Nestled among the illustrations of lingering spirits and frame-bedecked halls is Item #137: the Talking Skull. This item was popularized in the 1940s by Abbott Magic Company, and is most well known in that variation, though it seems they have an earlier history here than we once supposed which begs further investigation.
1930-40s Talking Skull


Hand in...ahem...hand with the talking skull is item #136: the The Spirit Rapping and Writing Hand. This item sold for $2.50, and given the lack of board in the illustration and the all-important absence of a disclaimer that it operates without a connection, it is likely this version operated by thread-pull or hidden assistance, in stark contrast to the operation of the later Thayer hands (pictured) that relied on other methods. It is also unlikely that the device was able to write out messages on its own. The ads claims are, in typically retail-magic-product-parlance, vague about this operation, but it is extremely unlikely that the hand actually had any sort of writing ability, and that the user hand to resort to more sleight-of-hand methods to produce this particular effect.

1940s Thayer Rapping Hand

The “budget” hand pales in comparison to item #140: The 20th-Century Rapping Hand. If the price difference alone is not hint enough—the second item sold for a whopping $100 in 1901 (equivalent to $2,700 today!)—then the promised effects were likely to have caused catalog-perusing mediums and magicians to swoon. Unlike the cheaper model, this rapping hand could be operated anywhere, including its illustrated depiction suspended on a sheet of glass held by four audience members. Unlike the other model's lack of clarification, this item worked with “absolutely no connection of any kind” between anyone, and, if this claim is true, and the hints that is inspired by Frederick Eugene Powell's own effect, then this magnificent item likely operated via clockwork attuned to the magician's timed script. In any case, it was likely a prize to behold, and anyone aware of such a surviving item is encouraged to contact us immediately. 

Another rapping effect is item # 138: Raps! Here!! There!! Everywhere!! Unlike the previous items, designed to themselves move and rap in full view of an audience, this device allowed mediums to “produce raps at any time while standing or sitting, in light or dark, and in any room or circle, as often as you like.” Undoubtedly if the Fox Sister had still been alive, they would have been thrilled at the potential relief to their aching toe and knee joints! While this device is not defined, and seems unnecessarily expensive at $18.00 if our guess is correct, there is a distinct possibility that this item is a spirit rapping belt, which consisted of a leather belt outfitted with a concealed strip of thin, curved metal that “popped” like a flexed tape measure (and in our collection's case, the strip literally *is* a length of metal tape measure). Other options could include shoe-based rappers or even piston-powered table attachments, but the former seems unlikely as the firm doesn't solicit measurements as terms of purchase, and the latter requires a table, hardly a “produce raps at any time” mechanism. 


Spirit Rapping Belt

Beyond raps, fraudulent mediums unable to rely on their own ingenuity or talent to lift or tip tables in a convincing manner with the lights dim could purchase the requisite aid in a convincing performance, items #132 and 133: Spirit Table Lifting. Though the items are only illustrated in use, and the listings include both tables and devices meant to lift them, it seems obvious that they are similar to all manner of wrist-strapped hooks and hooked-ring devices revealed by Dunninger and others in various expose tomes of the period. $2.50 got you a “fine ornamental Japanese bamboo table” which, given its light weight, made for easy manipulation. And given the “sleeves rolled up” clarification found in the solicitations, it is most likely that these devices relied on a hooked-ring design rather than the more common wrist-strap variety. 

William S. Marriot displays the cheaper method.

Another requisite accoutrement of the séances of the period is the spirit trumpet, and the catalog does not fail to deliver. Item #150, nestled among other Koons' spirit room-influenced instruments such as tambourines, bells, and guitars (because nothing summons spirits like an untrained cacophony!), is most likely an Eckel's offering, as that firm was the most prominent of séance trumpet manufacturers of the era. The given dimensions correspond with the typical 3-section trumpet offered by Eckels, but could just as easily be an E.D. Dewey-produced trumpet or other manufacturer. More intriguing, however, is the $25.00 item # 152: Self Playing Guitars. The prospect is enticing, and the re-discovery of a rigged guitar of this sort would be cause for celebration.

The Eckel's Trumpet in the collection on display in Baltimore.
The lion's share of the catalog is devoted to gaffed spirit slates, entailing the totality of items #101-114, as made infamous by Dr. Henry Slade in a much earlier era, and, more recently, by JJ Owen and Fred P. Evans in their Psychography: Marvelous Manifestations of Psychic Power book of 1893, and again in William E. Robinson's 1898 Spirit Slate Writing & Kindred Phenomenon. With these two-dozen-plus items, mediums could produce a staggering array of spirit messages with seemingly innocuous slates common then to any schoolhouse. I think these offerings are perhaps the book's strangest turn. Myself and other have always felt that the great magician-exposers resorted to overly-complicated exposures in efforts to disprove Spiritualists. Or, as Marc Demarest puts it so succinctly, “producing phenomena by Method B is not an exposure of Method A for producing said phenomena.” Books such as Spirit Slate Writing go through tremendously troublesome lengths to imagine ingenious efforts to illustrate various complicated gaffed slates and other devices, when, as my other compatriot Gene Orlando puts it, we should never underestimate the power of a skilled medium working with the lights off. Indeed, the devices “exposed” by the magician-revealers seem so much more complicated in production of their effects than any medium worth their salt should have been able to produce with an unknowingly-freed hand, some pre-prepared and hidden slates. and dim lights.


And that's where these offerings become redundant. It almost seems as if Sylvestre's producers have made reality the various devices proposed and illustrated in
Spirit Slate Writing and offered them to the public. If this is the case, then that volume provides the blueprint for gaffed slates in the form of brilliant, if unnecessarily cumbersome ideas, and isn't exposing anything except that those inspired-in-spite-of-themselves designs could work! Whatever the solution to this chicken-and-egg question, it is obvious that these slates were either popular or profitable séance items, as they are far and away the largest category of items in the catalog, and many paired gaffed slates run as high as $10. Even today, slate effects are a popular “retro-throwback” effect in the repertoire of many magicians, and it seems from the listings that enthusiasm for the effects were at least as high then as now.

A Telescopic Rod, date unknown
Another large category of offerings begins to diverge widely from the catalogs “items-for-true-mediums” premise, and veers well into the realm of mentalism and stage magic, again arousing suspicions that this catalog and its “not-for-distribution” presentation was never truly meant for the world of mediums, but rather for magicians, exposers, and their ilk. The entire latter half of the catalog, from page 26 onward, is devoted to such effects, from picked card revelations, sealed envelope divinations, ballot reading, stage hypnotism, and other similar tests still common among today's stage mentalists, and largely unheard of within the medium's cabinet.

An illustrated rapping table of the period, a not-unlikely possibility given the hefty pricetage.
This line blurred further some 9 years after the catalog's publication (which, it should be noted, all existing copies have a 1901 copyright and “Catalog #16” imprint, either in an incredible coincidence of survival or a hint that only one such catalog ever existed). In 1910, when William S. Marriott set out to expose the catalog in the March 1910 edition of Pearson's Magazine. Marriott set out to expose fraudulent mediums “in order that readers of Pearson's Magazine may judge for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously important subject,” and relied on an obtained copy of Gambols with the Ghosts to do just that. A copy of the catalog acquired, he ordered several of the effects within its pages, likely #146 Luminous Materializing Hands and Faces and #147 Luminous Materialistic Ghosts and Forms. For the former, the catalog could either sell cheap instructions for $5, or provide furnished materials for $25, which is listed to include “draperies, headdresses, and ornaments of the finest quality known.” Upon receipt of the materials, Marriott and his assistants had themselves photographed with the “spirits” in an effort to prove materializing mediums as imposters, which Harry Price himself later remarked upon when he acquired Marriott's copy of the catalog.

Marriott and a few "friends"

But was there really so much to make of Gambols with the Ghosts? Was it really a “secret catalog for mediums” or more of a clever marketing tactic to attract the attention of stage magicians and spirit-exposers to séance-themed items like talking skulls and rapping hands that have never been shown to have been used within the context of actual séances? Given the proliferation of items rarely, if ever, seen within the medium's cabinet, but common among the stage magician's trade, and with the further bolstering of back-page testimonials from magicians such as Henry Willio, the latter is the more likely possibility. It doesn't distort the fantastically fun perusal of the catalog's interior, or temper our enthusiasm for the rediscovery of such offered items as the Zairgeh Egyptian Diviner or self-playing guitars.We'll keep looking, and you let us know!

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