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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lippitt's Last Stand, 1873-76

The Boston booksellers Colby & Rich produced--or distributed--a number of spirit communication devices during their tenure as a prolific publisher of Spiritualist texts. They produced planchettes long after the fad had faded, still advertising them for true believers as late as 1877, and in that same year offered the "Mediometer," which was some as-yet undiscovered device meant to attach to a planchette--perhaps a shield or cover of some sort--to prevent fraud.

And there's a strange undercurrent among their devices that users of them must be protected from using them fraudulently to preserve the veracity of communications received through them. One such device, and perhaps their most intriguing, was Lippitt's Psychic Stand & Detector. The apparatus was invented by lawyer and Civil War veteran General Francis J. Lippitt, a close friend and confidant of Helena Patrovna Blavatsky who corresponded with him frequently in the 1870s regarding spirit communications with the ever-present spirit guide, John King.

Psychic Stand inventor, Francis J. Lippitt.
Lippitt reflected on the contrivance in 1881 in the January 8 edition of Mind & Matter as an "oval stand, the size of a small cardtable, the top of which would tilt up under pressure." The operation took two people: the medium, who "sat at one end, with her hands placed lightly on the top" and an observer, who sat opposite and watched "a small metallic aperture or window on the under side of the stand, always invisible to the medium." Lippitt goes on:
"The movements of the stand top under the medium's hands caused letters of the alphabet to appear at this little window, by which communications were spelled out with more or less rapidity; no one besides the medium touching the table. The communications came sometimes in answer to oral questions. Sometimes in answer to mental questions, and at other times spontaneously, without any questions being put at all."
The operation brings one other device immediately to mind: Hornung's Emanulector. There are some differences, of course: Hornung's apparatus was built to attach to a pre-existing table, the tilting of which caused the inner disk to rotate and expose a selected letter shielded from the user and only observable by a second party. The Psychic Stand ad hints that the device may have also had interchangeable alphabet disks ("an alphabet the medium cannot see, and the location of which may be changed at the pleasure of the observer"), which the Emanulector also boasted, though it just may be that the observer could reset the alphabet's starting point with a quick turn. So, it seems in application is was essentially an Emanulector-like device built into a tabletop.

The invention has an interesting and particularly troubled history. The first hints of the device come not long after its conception, in summer of 1873, when Lippitt sought to patent the idea using his working prototype. The resulting mess became national news when the patent office declined his patent, as the officer's statements (published by Lippitt and Robert Dale Owen in multiple public sources) sparked a flood of bad press from Spiritualists when the rejection letter admitted the device's novelty, but then stated "the Office cannot concede the truth of spiritualism; as, though individual scientists may have given the phenomena some attention, scientific men as a body or in any great numbers have never conceded their reality," and derided such admissions as "injurious to society." The patent office conjectured that by approving a device meant to facilitate spirit communication (though Lippitt strongly reminded them his test device might also disprove the reality of Spiritualism), they would be giving government endorsement of such beliefs. The office was kind enough to suggest to Lippitt that if he tempered his application and downgraded the device's claims to a "game table" or other amusement device, he stood a much larger likelihood of patent approval.

The November 12, 1873 Boston Evening
covered some of the patent controversy.
But Lippitt rejected the notion of soliciting his serious scientific invention as a mere amusement or parlor game, and instead appealed the decision, and was again--and finally--rejected. The patent office cited other examples of patents rejected on the same basis, including an application by Isaac Pease for his Spiritual Telegraph Dial, which is going to be fun to investigate. Lippitt failed to yield where others had or would. The 1868 Jennings planchette patent, the 1880 Becker talking board patent, and, most importantly, the Elijah Bond Ouija patent in 1890, all (among others) made patent claims on a "toy fortune telling device" or, in the case of Ouija, a "toy or game," and left more spiritual interpretations of their operation to the imaginations of consumers.

After the patent setback and public feud, the device goes underground for a couple of years, from the perspective of modern evidence. And while there are no known records that mention the device in 1874, in 1875 Lippitt shows up again testing and refining the device, which he reported to none other than his friend, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Letters to Theosophy's founder indicate that Lippitt was immenently concerned with the device's fool-proof veracity. His writings report that he performed a series of tests during "daily sittings" in Boston between May 28 and June 28, 1875, "with that excellent medium Mrs. M.A. French" of Washington D.C.

DETOUR: You may be wondering if this is perhaps May French, the daughter of celebrated medium Elizabeth J. French (who developed Emma Hardinge Britten). It's a good guess, and would have been an intriguing tangle of prominent Spiritualists, but it is not meant to be. The medium is Monisa Antoinette French, described in 1871 as "visionist and clairvoyant" working in Boston, and later listed as a trance medium and clairvoyant working out of Washington D.C. in the May 15, 1880 edition of the Religio-Philosophical Journal.  So we never need plow this field again, my colleague Marc has broken down all the evidence for your consumption over on his ever-reliable Chasing Down Emma blog.

Lippitt recollected the seances in the January 8, 1881 edition of Mind & Matter, when he wrote in to  publicly defend charges that his friend Blavatsky had never controlled spirits. And the contents of those recollections are verified by Lippitt's contemporaneous correspondence with Blavatsky herself, who at the time was seriously ill after suffering a fall in Philadelphia that threatened to have her infected leg amputated. The communications are curious because Lippitt notes in his return correspondence to Blavatsky that a mysterious "overscript" in blue pencil--messages from John King--appears as scrawled postscripts in Blavatsky's correspondence, which Lippitt noted with curiosity "was probably written by J.K. after your letter was sealed."

So it comes as little surprise that the main focus of the Psychic Stand test seances are the communications with John and Katie King, who was at that time making her rounds in spiritualist circles, first materializing with Florence Cook in London in the early-to-mid 1870s, and more recently, equally controversially--and closer--with Jennie and Nelson Holmes in New York, which Blavatsky railed against in her letters to Lippitt, chastising Francis for assisting in fundraising efforts for the couple who had recently been turned out as frauds.  [MP: It is also worth noting that these very well may be the same people behind the Holmes & Company Alphabetic Planchette from the 1868 craze, but that'll take some digging to confirm.]  

What is curious is that Lippitt actually wrote to Blavatsky's kind-of-sort-of-husband, Michael Betanelli, on June 2, and asked him to petition the severely-ill Blavatsky to send John King to the test sessions at French's home, and requested she send the spirit the following day at 5 pm. Right on queue, John King showed up, as "the stand began to work with a rapidity and precision never before witnessed, indicating a new and powerful control." King introduced himself, and shared some dire news about Blavatsky's health, which improved over the course of the seances.

The reported communications are about what you'd expect, but one, in particular, I found pretty amusing. On June 30, Blavatsky responded to Lippitt's inquiry about a confusing jumble of letters received through the Psychic Stand (according to the 1881 recollection, it looked something like "IESH at des MINSE RHINGO URSLA TOLK TSHE BOS TIS VY LKIST"). Blavatsky's reply was that the jumble was actually written in a cyphered alphabet, in 4-5 different languages, including “the Kabbalistic employed by Rosicrucians and other Brotherhoods of the occult sciences,” and hints that John King “knew how to write that way, of course.” [MP: Emphasis mine]

It is also noteworthy that HPB is not allowed to reveal the translated communications because she is not at liberty to share them, though she eventually "translated" the messages and confirmed the presence of the spirit of "Omniloff," a "Russian officer in Caucasus...killed in last war with Schamill." The correspondences further state that King has “done all that he could do towards helping you with your stand—but he is not allowed the poor fellow to do more,” proposing that Lippitt’s device was refined with suggestions of the spirit first summoned by Jonathan Koons in 1853. Also curious to note that HPB states “he [King] is not even permitted to manifest himself any more, except by letters he writes or words he spells—unless I [HPB] am alone with him.”

So, finally, after patent disputes, seance trials, and input from some of Spiritualism's most prominent influences and spirit guides, the device did make it to market, with ads appearing in 1876. It sold for $3.50, which is equivalent to approximately $75 these  days.

What's curious is that Francis J. Lippitt wrote extensively on his own life before his death, publishing his autobiography, Reminiscences of Francis J. Lippitt, written for his family, his near relatives and intimate friends, in 1902 just before his death that year at the age of ninety. Surprisingly--or not--that book contains not a single admission of his advocacy or enthusiasm for Spiritualism, much less any hint of his invention. Even the book where he did write about his seance experiences, 1888's Physical Proofs of Another Life, there's nary a trace of the device, communications with it, or the patent controversy, which is unusual in that the book is a retort to the Seybert Commission, and Lippitt certainly had an axe to grind with the government. And, sadly, the text contains no illustration of the device, and I've found none in the references sources here or on, where the gettin' is best. So, for now, this is what we know--now on to the patent archives to see what's what!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Invisible Girl: Houdini Evaluates Koons, 1922

In this photograph, made for Popular Radio magazine in 1922, Houdini
demonstrates the concept of the "Invisible Girl," the hollow Buddha
receiving radio transmissions from a nearby confederate. Houdini was
convinced Koons used a similar method in the 1850s.
Posting a curious artifact stumbled across while putting all the puzzle pieces of the Koons family together, uncovered while researching Koons' "Spiritual Machine." It appears Houdini weighed in on the table's true purpose--though generations later and wholly incorrectly--when he claimed in the October 21, 1922 Literary Digest that Koons' table was merely an elaborate transmitter for a hidden accomplice, which demonstrates his failed understanding of the reported phenomena, more than anything:
"...the first application of the principles of radio to spiritualistic manifestations was in 1852, when Jonathan Koons, a farmer of Dover Village, Ohio, installed a “spirit machine”—described as a “crude structure of zinc and copper for localizing and collecting the magnetic aura.” But in the magician’s detailed account of this ancient trick he tells us that the apparatus consisted merely of hidden speaking-tubes that led to a confederate in the next room, known as the “invisible girl."
It's an interesting theory, anyway, and one that Houdini himself was able to aptly demonstrate. But as we've come to expect from Houdini's séance-busting efforts, the means are overly-elaborate, and a reflection of the magician's reliance on mechanical means to produce manifestations. Houdini must not have known that the spirit room was not located in the proximity of the Koons' farmhouse, and was a simple freestanding, dirt-floored log cabin routinely inspected by hundreds if not thousands. And he likely didn't research the accounts of the crowds that often assembled around the room during seance sessions, hampering any chance of an outside confederate. No, as is usual for Houdini and his other like him--as much as I love them the whole motley crew--the magician resorts to grand mechanical theories to explain relatively simple psychical phenomena, and fails to account for the skills of a talented medium in a dark room filled with believers. But it's an act I'd most certainly like to experience.
The same article includes another variation of the wirelessly-transmitted
spirit communication apparatus, in a spirit trumpet we would dearly love
to document should any readers know of its whereabouts.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Mysterious Planchette in the Papers

It's been a busy Halloween season here at Mysterious Planchette. We had the pleasure of filming with Ronni Thomas' Midnight Archive series last month.  Ever-amazing, I am absolutely thrilled at the prospect of seeing my collection documented by this amazing filmmaker. Though not yet out, the trailer is below for your enjoyment.

Then there's the latest issue of the SPR's Paranormal Review. I wrote the lead story for this issue, which deals with the important topic of preserving archives and artifacts in the spiritual and occult disciplines, and features articles from the attendees of this summer's "Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology" conference in Utrecht. I hope you'll enjoy my contribution: "Ghosts in the Machines." Thank you to Dr. Leo Ruickbie for having me on board!. You can head over here and see what you can do about getting yourself a copy.

Click here to get your copy!
Another article--oddly enough with the same great title--was just released online by Collector's Weekly, and can be found here. It features the fruits of an incredible 2-hour interview I had with the author, Lisa Hix, and has quite a few device shots from the Mysterious Planchette archives. Do check it out!
Click here to read! 
Stay tuned, true believers. The madness never ends!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

More Bang for My Buck: The Bangs Williams Restoration

A beautiful and complete box for the N. Bangs Williams Insulate Planchette from Michael McDowell's "Death
Collection" housed at Northwestern University.
I use strange internal nomenclature in my collection, and it is patently obvious when I handle one of my most treasured planchettes. Items I acquire from other collectors get tagged with that collector's surname--it helps me keep track of credit and favors--preceded by any historical names attached to the item (which is rare, but it does happen), then the actual manufacturer, if known. For that reason, there's no item in my collection with a more convoluted name than my Burgum-Vespia N. Bangs Williams Insulated Planchette.

If you are familiar with my site, you should already know the Bangs Williams "Insulated Planchette." Besides the colorful character that produced it, it is one of the more elegant and unusual products of the First Great Craze, and went through several variations. There's what appears to be a standard model (at least, more commonly encountered model)--unadorned back, label underneath, and intricately-cast apertures and castors, which come in either single-post or double-post wheel housings. The "insulated" moniker comes from the sleeve of bright red rubber nestled between the castor and the plank, to insulate the wood, of course, presumably for purposed of channeling vital energy and animal magnetism. There's also a more rare variant, which includes a couple of cast metal tubes on the planchette's topside, possibly for further "insulation." Regardless of model, the shield-shaped device is well-constructed and really an incredible relic in its own right.

The Burgum-Vespia N. Bangs Williams Insulated Planchette in its unrestored state, from the Hodge Collection. Note
the broken posts and missing upper wheel housings.
The prefix of my specimen's name comes from the planchette's historical owner, John Fulton Burgum. Mr. Burgum (1854-1933) was a cabinetmaker, painter, and wood-worker in New Hampshire, and son of a famous carriage painter and inventor whose work is still admired today. We don't know much about John F. Burgum's spiritual beliefs or a measure of his planchette enthusiasm, but he was kind enough to leave the remnants of a smeared ink stamp on the underside of this particular specimen: John F. Burgum, 40 Central Square, Keene, NH. It's that nearly-imperceptible black stippling right there between the castors in the pics above. The date is too smeared to determine accurately, but appears to be 1887. We're lucky, at least, that the planchette survived the shop fire that unfortunately killed Mr. Burgum in 1933.

I acquired the planchette from my good friend Andrew Vespia. Andrew and I go way back, and our meeting as fellow talking board enthusiasts and our subsequent bonding with Bob Murch helped spark a collaboration and unprecedented cooperation among collectors that persists to this day, and for that I will always be eternally grateful. It was, in fact, at a reunion of the 3 of us last year at Andrew's Houston home that we made the long-overdue trade, and I brought the Burgum planchette home to nest. Thank you, Andrew!

Another Bangs Williams planchette variation with tubes that act either
as insulators or to charge Odic force.
When Andrew originally acquired the item, its upper wheel housings were long gone--snapped off right at the post. This just left the base frames and a tiny nub of the central swivel post, and I can only imagine when and where in its history someone sat or stepped on this treasured item and heard two tiny snaps reverberate through their backside. I had long sought to restore the item to its original--and functional--state, but how?

I already knew the Bangs Williams was rare. Andrew's was one of a few I had allowed to slip through my fingers at auction over the years before I got more serious about things, and, of course, the minute I got serious about acquiring one for my own, they stopped appearing. So, I had to be content with visiting Andrew's in Houston a few times a year for a while there. Knowing it would one day need a restoration in any case, I made notes of where those others might have wound up on the off chance I would have an opportunity to perhaps take a casting of the upper wheel housing so I might restore it on the chance I acquired it.

One possible source was the Strong Museum of Play, which houses one Bangs Williams. And, as luck would have it, Murch took a research trip there last year to document their catalog holdings. But as good of pals as we are, asking him to cast a mold in the middle of an important research trip wasn't reasonable, and I wasn't able to join him there as I usually do. I got lots of incredible photographs, though, and was able to note a few manufacturing differences (different label print, metal wheels) thanks to Murch's efforts. Thanks, Bob!

The Bangs Williams planchette, with box, from Michael McDowell's "Death
Collection" housed at Northwestern University.
Then another, previously unseen, specimen popped up on my radar. The amazing Michael McDowell "Death Collection" now housed at Northwestern University's McCormick Library of Special Collections contains an Insulated Planchette. What's better, this one was complete in an original box. On top of that, the McDowell collection houses thousands of spiritualism-related photographs and ephemera, so a was a fantastic opportunity to not only get a possible casting, but do a favor for the research community by documenting and sharing those important holdings. After viewing that amazing collection, I only wish I'd had the chance to meet Michael McDowell while he were alive. He had an amazing passion for his collection that I certainly understand.

Within a week of the discovery, I planned the trip for the following month. Once on the ground there, I spent the first day taking over 1,500 photographs of the collection's Spiritualism contents--primarily an amazing trove of spirit photography we'll soon be debuting on for research and comparative purposes. After the photographs were done, I started begging the amazingly accommodating curators--Benn and Scott--to allow me to take a mold of their specimen's wheel housing. Their preservationists were away at a conference, however, and an answer would have to wait until the following morning. So with dwindling hours on my second and final day there, I showed up to fantastic news--they would let me take the mold I needed!

The goal! Would it be possible to take an exact mold of this wheel housing without disassembling it and restore
the Burgum-Vespia specimen to its former glory?
There were a few rules, of course. I wasn't able to disassemble the device in any way, and I had to take some extra steps to ensure the molding compound wouldn't harm the item. This meant I would have to mold the entire wheel housing--wheel and all--and later trim a casting to get just the parts I needed. I took two moldings, just to be sure, and took slightly different approaches to each hoping that one or the other would be accurate. While I normally prefer a liquid compound that you can pour around the molded object, I wasn't going to be able to take that stuff on the plane with me, it being liquid and all, and so I used a two-part, malleable dental compound that had a decent working time.

Taking the mold! Some index cards help me keep the apparatus balanced as each half of the compound was applied,
creating a two-part mold, half of which can be seen, right.
It was harrowing. There was no way to know if I'd gotten a good mold until I got home to cast it, and I'd come a long way to get it with no promises. I secured the two molds, packed up my things, and left to spend the afternoon with a great new friend, Court, a Ouija collector from the golden age who had amassed an impressive collection of Chicago-area boards in the early 80s, and was nice enough to sit with me over lunch and swap tales of collecting, acquiring, and our mutual paranormal interests. It was the highlight of the trip, and I wish we lived closer for more great visits like that one! With a few boards in hand from Court's collection headed to my own, I departed for home with a hard drive full of spirit photographs and high hopes that my own Bangs Williams planchette would soon be restored. The original plan was to cast the wheel housings in plaster, shave off the wheels and hollow out the inner housing, then remold the modified piece and recast in metal. After several attempts, it became obvious that plaster wasn't working out too well, so I opted for another material: Smooth Coat 325 "Liquid Plastic."

Casting the housing! Works in progress with drying molds, left.
Center: a few attempts before and after cleanup. Right: a fresh casting right out of the mold!
The liquid plastic, like the silicon molding, is a two-part material that pours in smoothly as a liquid, which is important when you are doing detail work, then quickly turns viscous before hardening. When my trial run produced a near-perfect casting of the housing that was easy to work with a razor after the initial setting, but cured to a surprisingly rock-hard, durable consistency overnight, I rethought the trials of metal casting and elected to just stick with the base substance. It was perfect in heft and weight, was tough and dense, and ultimately comparable to the cheap pot-metal the original castors were manufactured from. And I do plan on doing that in the future. But as it was, this material had just a touch of flexibility, which would allow for press-fitting, which was an important endgame consideration to not modify the planchette from its unrestored state.

Which brings up an important note. When undergoing restorations that are anything more intrusive than repairing separated veneer, my first consideration, always paramount, is to not modify the original device in any way just to make it work. It was the same consideration I took in restoring Haffner's Wanda Tipping Table last year, and this non-intrusive philosophy of restoration was the topic of my lecture to archivists at my Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology conference in Utrecht. It's a simple philosophy: if you can't restore an item in such a way that it can quickly and easily be restored to its original, pre-restoration state, then simply don't do it. And that's the approach here--the goal was to have a set of replacement wheels and housings for display, that could be easily removed to restore the item to its original state--exactly like museum dinosaur skeletons have replacement bones to show complete specimens.

Left: the cast wheels carefully separated from the housing. Center: the results!  Perfect castings of the
wheel housing in a hard and durable substance.  Right: initial press fitting of the housings. Great fit!
The result of the casting were fantastic, capturing every detail of the wheel housing--every curve, every bump and imperfection and every miniscule pit--fantastically replicating both the shape and texture of the original. The final cast was one-piece, and included the wheels, so with a careful carve of the Exacto knife I removed the cast portions of the wheels, which left me with the holy grail of the project--two complete, flawless castings of the Bangs Williams wheel housings! I drilled them and carefully popped them over the nubs of the base's central shaft for a test fit. I started to get very excited when I saw how tight they fit without having to make any modifications whatsoever to the planchette!

Anticipation swells! Left: the first couple of coats! Center: matching paint with Rub n'Buff and wargame hobby paint.
Right: the final press-fit led to an incredibly strong fit that's difficult, but certainly not impossible, to remove.
Matching the paint turned out to be a fairly simple affair. I have painted miniatures for use in tabletop RPG games since my high school years, so I turned those years of experience--and years of accumulated materials--toward constructing a matching paint scheme. As it turned out, the Antique Brass "Rub'n'Buff" was a near exact match, so I undercoated with that, and then applied a slightly darker mixture of a bronze metallic wargame hobby paint. Just before the paint dried fully, I grabbed some dark dirt out of the back yard, and gave it a good, harsh, grinding tumble in my hands to help further roughen and dirty it up to match my planchette's less-than-pristine castor bases. I opened my palm, plucked them out, and PERFECTION! The wheel housings soaked up the paint perfectly, the tone matched exactly, and the dirt-aging was spot-on. The ever-so-slight flexibility of the plastic meant that by drilling a hole just slightly smaller than the base's protruding mounting post, I could hold the post in place with some padded pliers and jam the wheel housing onto the post to mount it. Nothing else was needed--the press-fit was incredibly snug, and it takes some effort to pop them off!  Now I just needed wheels to get this planchette rolling!

Turning new wheels! Left: harvesting blanks from period wood recovered from the frame of an  antique portrait.
Center: comparing shapes, sizes, and angles to the wheel castings. Right: the blanks mounted for shaping, with one
specimen already completed--a perfect match to the original!
I have accumulated an incredible stock of period materials to work from on projects like this, primarily harvested from demolished homes, but also from picture frames and other antiques destined for the junk heap. That was where I acquired the solid piece wood panel that was perfectly matched to construct my replacement wheels--an antique frame. The material was consistent with the cheaper, porous wood used in the original wheels of the McDowell specimen, and using my rotary tool in combination with various sandpaper grits made for a fairly quick and easy wheel construction that allowed me to match the angles and sizes of the originals perfectly.

Mounting the wheels to the wheel housings was a fairly easy affair as well. From the same frame where I'd harvested the wood, I gathered up a couple of slim mounting nails that had the perfect diameter and patina to match the original axles of the McDowell planchette. I used press-fitting again, snipping them off at just the right length, and the entire unit just came together so quickly once I had all the components that I forgot to stop and take pictures for posterity until I was done!

The restoration COMPLETE!
I am incredibly happy with the restoration. There may come a time when I revisit casting the wheel housings in pot metal like the originals, but for now, any difference is simply not noticeable. The planchette wheels around wonderfully, and I was surprised at just how smoothly it actually operates. It was a fun challenge that took me halfway across the country to meet some great folks, and a project I had looked forward to for some time. I like to think that the planchette's former owner, Mr. Burgum--himself a woodworker--would be proud of the effort and the results. I can't thank my hosts at Northwestern enough for the opportunity that made this all possible, and Court for the fantastic chance to make his acquaintance and break bread with him while I was on my quest. Thank you!
Thanks again to my friend Court for some wonderful hospitality during  my trip to Northwestern. Court collected
Ouija long before most of us, and even tried to establish a talking board collector's club in the 1980s. His
collection fantastically documents Chicago-area boards from the 1930s-40s--and I'm happy to have had the
chance to meet him after a long trial tracking him down!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Ghosts in the Machine: Koons' "Spirit Machine"

My research into Jonathan Koons and his family's "spirit room" has brought me down some unexpected avenues, including making some fantastic new friends that just-so-happen to be the direct descendants of Jonathan Koons. Beyond a brief blog post on a curious observation made during some deep research, I've posted surprisingly few accounts of my research work on Koons. I've fallen so far down the well, from formulating a 15,000-word spirit room timeline document, to mapping out the historical boundaries of the Koons farm, to locating Jonathan's fiddle and the precious family photographs of the major personages in the flesh (even handling an original letter written by Nahum!), that it has all just seemed too much to break down into little posts along the way. There'll be a big payoff, for sure, particularly in my spirit communication device book, but for now the file just keeps bigger and bigger, until I'll probably wind assimilating it all in a comprehensive biography or something. We'll see. 

I'd very much like my work to correct the sensational blog posts and seasonal news stories that are great about cherry-picking some of the more exciting (and often exaggerated) bits, but fail to recognize just how important the Koons manifestations were in the birth of a new phase of Spiritualism--one that is at once the dawn of a new era, and at the same time the first knell of the death-bell that will signal Spiritualism's great downfall as a major power some decades later. At the very least, the Koons family is finally beginning to get its due, thanks to the work of some enterprising occult historians who I'm proud to associate with (that's Marc Demarest there, along with Lis Warwood, but we've also got John Buescher and Pat Deveney in the mix here), so here's hoping that a decade from now, the formative influences of Jonathan, Nahum, Abigail, and the rest (and let's not forget their neighbors and collaborators, the Tippie family) get the proper historical recognition they deserve.

But here, if I stick to my roots, I tell myself, and focus on the artifacts that sparked your interest, I'll be OK revealing a little here without opening a too-big can of worms and feeling I have to write a new post for every new discovery, because there's a lot going on, and not all of it ready for the public just yet. But let's do that. Let's talk devices. Let's finally talk Koons' "Spiritual Machine."

Koons' Spiritual Machine, as first illustrated in the November 4, 1854 Cleveland Plain Dealer.
It was November of 1852, just four-and-a-half years removed from earth-shattering events in Hydesville, New York, when Jonathan Koons had the revelation to build the spiritual machine. He'd spent the prior seven months, when not tilling the hard, rocky soil of his Athens County, Ohio farm, contemplating revelations he'd received from a medium that he'd set out to debunk many months prior: that he himself was "the most powerful medium on earth." Table-tipping, automatic writing, and spirit rapping ensued among the family séances, and eventually the message was received that led to the table's construction: length there was a promise extended to me through the mediumship of my eldest son, (aged sixteen years) [MP: Nahum Ward Koons] that if I would construct a table according to a draft drawn by the spirits through my son as the medium, and place it in a private room for their own use, that then I should have incontrovertible evidence of the existence of spirits, to which I immediately acceded, and the same was built and placed in a private room, and furnished with paper and pencils, as requested through medium agency, when the spirits commenced writing without any medium agency whatever, in said room; which fact removed every lingering doubt from my mind, for the room was kept constantly closed against the entrance of my own family, or any other person during the time the writing was performed.
In another credit-where-credit-due moment here, we see it was the "spiritual machine" itself that was instrumental to the manifestations of the spirits on the Koons farm, with their famed spirit room--which gets all the fanfare, really--merely meant to house the artifact. Thanks to the machine--as Emma Hardinge Britten put it--"collecting and focalizing the magnetic aura used in the manifestations," an amazing array of previously unheard-of phenomena took place: dark séances, a cacophony of spiritual music played on a small orchestra of floating instruments, spirit writing, luminous spectres and ghostly appendages glowing in the soft light of phosphorous, and mysterious whispers of the spirit "King" issuing forth from Nahum's tin trumpet. Phenomena all, as my colleague Mr. Demarest recently stated, "at least as important for the subsequent history of the Spiritualist movement as the Fox Sisters."

So what was the machine responsible for all of this? We are incredibly fortunate that the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and also Spiritual Universe) took the reports seriously enough to feature the machine in their November 4, 1854 edition, which was subsequently reprinted in part in the February 3, 1855 edition of Scientific American. Others documented some of its finer points as well, including the Anglo-American Magazine, so let's look at it piece by piece according to some of these sources and see exactly what's going on in this illustration.

According to the Plain Dealer [PD], which provided the original number-coded illustration, the base of the "queer piece of mechanism" was a six-legged table "about six feet long by two and a half feet high. The table and the wood portion of the machinery is cherry, which is stained and varnished."  The Anglo-American [AA], in an article authored by E.V. Wilson, noted the top was "30 inches wide, supported by six legs, in it are four drawers (GG) which contain nothing save a few dishes of paint, brushes, pencils, charts, &c., for the use of the spirits..."

Resting on the tabletop was a 4-foot high wooden framework (22) supported by an upright post topped with an ornate glass knob (A). This framework consisted of either two or four curved wooden pieces that, as Wilson described, were "somewhat in the shape of the letter f." Attached to the outside of this frame were two important components: drums--a larger bass (C) and a smaller tenor (B)--"firmly secured to the machinery and to the table by wires"[PD]. The spirits would beat mightily on these drums to announce their arrival to the room, or play them "in a masterly manner" [AA] to accompany Jonathan's fiddle playing, and are frequently mentioned in descriptions of the spirits' materializations in the room.

As described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, three rods or bars ran parallel to the tabletop, with various ornamentation of glass knobs, small bells, and wires. On the topside there was a lower "steel bar about half an inch square"(EE) and an upper "bar of wood with three glass knobs attached wound with wire and ending with a scroll"(44) that rested on the lower steel bar. Below the table, there was "an eight-sided wooden bar suspended under the table by copper wires, with a number of wires running the whole length of the bar"(HH). 

The "copper wires wrapped with zinc" are extremely important to the spirit machine's construction, and not just to bind the whole thing together. The wires were "woven into a kind of net work with copper and tin plates," that served as a sort of battery to facilitate the spirits' design of their "electrical machine."  The table, at its core, was exactly that, designed by the spirits "for collecting and retaining electricity" so that through this energy they might manifest in the charged confines of the spirit room.

The alternating tin and copper plates would, in theory, constitute a basic voltaic pile, even if it was missing the electrolyte component. There were several such stacks: "double plates of tin and copper" (33) located close to the table's center where the upper steel and wood bars converged; the much larger "double plates, fastened together, one plate of copper the other of tin" (DD) that seemed to be either hanging from the frame or supported by the steel bar's scrollwork; and the smaller copies nestled at the corners where the framework met the table, described again as "double plates of copper and tin attached to the wires" (FF).

The appearance or configuration of these copper plates are hard to realize in two dimensions. Some clues may come from the “celebrated medium from Nashville, Tennessee,” Mr. H.B. Champion, who described the table after a September 1855 visit to the room:
“The two drums are fastened with copper wires upon wooden supporters at the top of the table. This table is intersected with copper wires wrapped with zinc. On the upper cross wire hang some copper plates, cut in the form of doves, to which are suspended a number of small bells, which the spirits sometimes ring.” [MP: emphasis mine]
This description may explain the strange shape of the "plates" in the Plain Dealer illustration, though there they were described as "leg-of-mutton tin and copper plates," so that inconsistency is puzzling, given that the latter description hints the plates took the form of simple oval, raised-rim dinner plates, even if the illustration does not depict them as such, and appear more dove-like in shape.

The fully annotated illustration of Koons' "Spiritual Machine" from the more clear Scientific American illustration.
The complicated voltaic plates, copper wires, bells, glass knobs, and wooden framework where not all that littered an already busy table: "by the side of the machinery, lies a violin, an accordeon, a triangle, two drumsticks for the large and two for the small drum. There is also on the table a common sized dinner bell, an harmonica, a tambourine, and a tin trumpet about two feet in length."

Of course, that last bit there's pretty darned important, too, but more on that later.

There are a few other interesting tidbits to mention as well. Though Jonathan Koons was clearly the spiritual machine's creator, his neighbor and collaborator, John Tippie, had an identical table-machine housed in an identical room, just 3 or so miles away over a rough country road, and many early accounts of visitors show that both rooms were equally popular, with guests frequently swapping back and forth between the rather poor accommodations to experience similar manifestations, music, and messages (indeed, from the same spirits) in the Tippie Rooms that they'd experienced in Koons'. So there were two of these amazing machines.  

Jonathan and Nahum, approximately 1857, as the spirit room came to an end and the family left Ohio. My efforts
have documented many family photographs and tintypes of Jonathan, Nahum, Abigail, and others, and will make
their more proper debut in my upcoming book on spirit communication devices.
I've always found it curious that Koons' device faded into the background. Even among the more sensational blogs and local news outlets that tend to pick up stories of the Koons spirit room around Halloween, there is little to no mention of the device. And that's likely because the cursory research performed to produce such articles skim the surface historical accounts, which themselves often either dismiss the machine or fail to mention it outright, which seems unusual given its creator's belief that the machine was solely responsible for the phenomena, and the room merely to house it. The instruments are there, often in detailed lists. The heavenly music. The glowing hands. The target pistols. The spirit writings. The trumpet messages of King. But so few mention the huge, crazy-intricate machine at the head of the room responsible for making it all happen. It is a curious observation. Why, for instance, does the disarmingly similar (and contemporaneous) New Motive Power table of John Murray Spear garner the focus that it does on the device itself while Koon's machine failed to get much recognition even in period reports? It may be that what was experienced behind that closed door was ultimately more important to visitors than any concerns of the metaphysics of how and why the spirits appeared. Even J. Everett's Communications From Angels mentions the machine only by reprinting Koon's own account of its creation, and gives no further mention of it in its 95 pages of detailed reports on the room's phenomenon. Perhaps its owners simply accepted its role and didn't emphasize its importance to visitors. Maybe it's because the Koons machine actually produced the petitioned phenomena, which in itself was more exciting than a decorated table, while Spear's machine wasn't exactly the New Messiah they'd promised, leaving only its intentions and its hollow, inanimate shell to discuss.

But the efforts of the Koons family did produce entirely new categories of phenomenon, even if "spirit machines" didn't start popping up all over the country the way spirit rooms emulating  Koons' did. Nahum's trumpet mediumship birthed an entirely new mode of mediumship, for instance. All over the country, the lights started going out in séance rooms, signaling the slow decline of the first-generation rappers and heralding the new vanguard of manifesting mediums in the vein of Florence Cook and Eusapia Palladino. New words will eventually spring up to describe the forces responsible: Teleplasm. Ectoplasm. Mumler and others will begin claiming they can capture materialized spirits on film by the early 1860s, and growing rich in the trade of spirit photography. It goes on and on, until mediums trying to satisfying the insatiable need for physical phenomenon first sparked by Koons are getting caught by the glare of smuggled flashlights or manhandled by skeptics prancing around the séance chamber in their muslin robes, signaling an increasing schism within the movement it will not well endure. 

The waterways of Koons' influence snake their way into so many classes of spiritualistic phenomena--many of which are simply so commonplace and "trope-y" in our modern era that we take their origins for granted now--that it can be difficult to trace it all back to the headwaters. But the efforts of that family in podunk Ohio in the early 1850s produced both trickling streams and rising floodwaters, all of which I'm thrilled to navigate.

So, there's our physical examination of the Koons device. In future installments, we'll more properly discuss the phenomena for which the spiritual machine was responsible, follow the breadcrumbs back to Nahum's nascent spirit trumpet mediumship, examine the Koons' lingering effects on the Modern American Spiritualism and their contributions to its decline, and, God-willing, even explore the site itself. Godspeed!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Brussels Artifacts: Christian Chelman's Surnateum

In 1996 I left my small hometown and moved to Austin to gain my degrees from the University of Texas, and began working at a small shop called Lone Star Illusions--previously a hologram store that had morphed into an eclectic gift shop. There was a magic counter there, and as the new guy, I was assigned to learn all manner of cheap red-plastic S.S. Adams tricks to perform to cajole customers into buying them. I embraced it, and before long was in charge of ordering better quality stuff, and getting better as a magician while performing to larger and larger crowds in the shop, where the small magic counter started to dominate sales. It was pretty neat.

But I soon discovered and embraced another form of magic, what I've always called the red-headed stepchild of the magic community: bizarre magic. Heralded by godfathers like Tony Andruzzi, Eugene Burger, Charles Cameron, and Doc Shiels, bizarre magic focused less on 'watch me trick you' and more on 'let me tell you a story,' which were invariably darkly and almost always occult-themed, with surprise twists and subtle magic effects that just synthesized all the life influences I had had up to that point and focused them into an intense interest in further explorations of occult history.

Surnatéum's incomparable curator, Christian Chelman.
I quickly discovered Eugene Burger's Spirit Theater. Scott Davis' Séance magazine (both available from my friends at There were Mary Tomich's amazing Thaumysta Magic Company effects. And Steve Bryant's great Little Egypt Gazette.  But the English translation of Christian Chelman's Capricornian Tales was it for me, synthesizing the storytelling aspects of bizarre magic with genuine antique artifacts in a way that played to my own antiquarian aspirations and the types of resonance I wanted with audiences. It changed everything. Before too long, I was corresponding with Christian and other practitioners and deep into developing new routines with some of the antiques that were quickly piling up in my small flat. And I acquired my first old, worn Ouija and Selchow & Righter 'Scientific Planchette' in a then-new marketplace called eBay, for use in effects for my séance-inspired show of haunted antiques

Earliest origins, circa 1997.
It's been a fair number of years since I retired the haunted antiques show, stopped practicing my Elmsley Count and Ascanio Spread, and left performance behind me. But the love of old, resonating objects and the desire to accumulate them--a trait inherited from my father--took hold, and my collection--particularly of planchettes--grew over the years. Which is what brings us here, isn't it?

So, all these years later, with the opportunity to again call upon my old friend after many fallow years, I took a train to Brussels at the close of the conference in Utrecht, and made my way through the haunted streets and ethereal alleyways there to Mr. Chelman's immaculately curated Surnatéum: The Museum of Supernatural History.

But one wing of the remarkable Surnatéum.
The draw was the unique set of artifacts in the museum's holdings. The profuse number of sacred and profane objects on display the Surnatéum would take many more blogs to cover than I am capable of producing, and many of the more important artifacts are on display in the digital galleries. No, what drew me to Christian after all of these years was something very special indeed.

We've talked about the earliest origins of table-tipping here before. It's something that my colleague Marc Demarest and I have been mapping out for some time now. The summer of 1853 was when the phenomenon hit France, and after a brief flare of popularity in the 'everybody's doing it' vein, the tables tournantes returned underground to a set of specialized enthusiasts. And we think from that body, this incredible item may have emerged.

Discovered first in a Parisian flea market then brought to Brussels by a dealer familiar with Mr. Chelman's esoteric interests, the table appears quite old, and custom-crafted as it stands--it is most certainly not a piece of ordinary furniture modified for spiritual use. It stands just under 32-inches in height and is carved of oak. The top rotates freely and comes off with a gentle tug. Christian notes that the central column is carved in the likeness of an Acanthus leaf, which symbolizes immortality via death and rebirth--an important Spiritist doctrine. While the top appears at first to be some leather overlay, it is actually an intricately-carved lace pattern on a solid piece of oak. The three small insets contain the words "Spiritisme," "Christ," and "Moïse," (representing a trinity of Spiritism, Christianity, and Judaism) and the 3 columns contain a letters and numbers correspondence system with a lowercase alphabet. The first column, for example, reads: "a-1, b-2, c-3, d-4, e-5, f-6, g-7, h-8, i-9." Curiously, the continuing alphabet on the other two columns restart the number sequence at "1," and run 1-9 for j-r and 1-8 for r-z. We'll get back to that momentarily.

The table may be a variation of what Kardec termed a "Table Girardin" in his 1861 Le Livre des Mediums, describing a type of alphabet-engraved turning table employed by the medium Madame Emile be Girardin:
"This instrument consists of an upper movable stand, of from thirty to forty centimetres in diameter, turning freely and easily on its axis, in the manner of a roulette. On the surface, and at the circumference, are traced, as on a dial, letters, figures, and the words yes and no. In the centre is a fixed needle. The medium resting his fingers on the edge of the table, this turns and stops when the desired letter is under the needle. Notice is taken of the letters indicated, and thus words and phrases are rapidly formed. It must be remarked that the table does not slide under the fingers, but the fingers, remaining on it, follow the movements of the table."
The medium Madame E. Le Roux at play at the tables
, 1909. Note ghostly face over shoulder.
Mr. Chelman's table has many--nay, most--of these characteristics: it turns freely on its axis and contains the alphabet, though not arranged as a dial. From previous investigations of pictures of the table, I had expected the top to contain a central housing for a missing needle or index, but after seeing it in person, it is obvious that isn't how it was designed to be used--the central inset that looks deep in photographs is just a shallow lathe depression. And in any case, the alphabet columns do not lend themselves to proper pointing by an index--the letters would need to be arranged dial-like, as on a true Table Girardin, rather than stacked as they are.

The alphabet system has long since lost any highlights that would make the letters readable. To capture them, we
resorted to corn starch to fill them in for documentation.
So what to make of its use? Christian has long theorized that the table would be used in conjunction with alphabet-calling or spirit rapping, with the table turning autonomously to the proper column, and raps indicating by number which letter the spirits wished to choose. It's certainly the most reasonable possibility, if a touch convoluted, particularly compared to normal alphabet calling, as it hardly seems a more expedient method to arrive at communications. Mr. Demarest has some theories of his own that I'll try to persuade him to post, revolving mostly around the lack of a "0" binary and the resulting problem that the table can't actually signal any numbers without spelling them out, since numbers equal letters on this table. But I can't think of any other way it might be used.

Christian--who is a well-versed Spiritualism historian, mind you--has an interesting theory: one born of the mind of a true magician. The spindle and central housing for the table's top has a recess--a significant gap between the spindle's resting point and the tabletop. Christian believes this may have once allowed a small horistonotus uhlerii--a click beetle--to be secreted away there on its back to continuously produce the necessary raps. Since the upside-down beetle wouldn't be able to right itself without enough distance to flip, chances are it would keep trying and keep clicking, which is what the ones that sneak into my house do on our wooden floor. It's an interesting theory, and while there's no evidence I have seen that such beetles were ever exposed as the cause of spirit rappings, and there's no way to control those raps to ensure a comprehensible communique, it is an intriguing suggestion.

Might this recess once have housed a click beetle to produce mysterious rappings?
Another deduction by the Surnatéum's curator is why I think Christian is singularly-qualified to be this artifact's caretaker. Christian spotted a series of deep, smooth grooves in the tabletop's underside. See the picture below. We know that fraudulent table-lifting was often accomplished through the use of wrist-strap contraptions or hooks used to leverage the table while the medium or magician kept their hands on the tabletop, fingers outstretched and seemingly free from undue influence. While such contraptions were typically reserved for larger and more imposing furniture that seems by its sheer bulk to be too large to lift independently, it could have presented an incredible climax to a séance if the evidence means the table was indeed used in this manner. But there's also the problem with the table's top popping off fairly easily, and hardly being heavy enough to impose the pressure to wear down such grooves, so it may be damage totally unrelated to that idea. There's just no way of knowing.

The mysterious worn grooves on the table's underside. Lower right, Dunninger
displays table-lifting apparatus that may be responsible.
The opportunity to have this table in my hands is something I have looked forward to for a very long time. It has so many fascinating aspects, and poses as many questions as it answers. It's true age is anyone's guess, as are its origins, though it is undoubtedly French. It could date as far back to the early 1850s, or sometime well past the turn of the century. To wager an educated guess, however, and given the vogues of spirit communication in France (and the downturn of rapping as a communication medium), the 1850s-1880s is the most likely span of dates for the table's construction. If it is what we believe it is, it is just a singularly incredible artifact, and, to me, the cornerstone of the Surnatéum's holdings. 

The Surnatéum's fabled curator holds his prize.
The tour of the Surnatéum's archives was far from over for me, however. The collection and library is incredibly vast, and covers multiple stories. Within, I beheld one of the most amazing and convincing fiji mermaids I have ever seen, and one of the world's very few genuine vampire-killing kits. In fact, Christian's collection of first-edition vampire lore may be one of the most extensive privately-held collections. There's an entire wing of native fetishes and fortune-telling devices from several continents. I could have persisted there, like a stubborn thorn, for days. But with only a few spare hours, I trained my eye on the remaining spirit-related devices.

The pictures will mostly speak for themselves. Christian owns a number of glass slides similar to my own, which portray spirit photography or scenes of ectoplasm production and séances in progress. The collection also contains an ingenious set of small slides complete with a portable viewer, with film slides featuring the trumpet and physical mediumship of Leonard Stott, among others.

There was an entire folder of automatic writing and seance reports, some Spiritualism-and-fortune-telling-based games from Europe, and a ghost-hunting kit from a Belgium reporter who indulged in psychical research. A complete early Fuld Ouija on a high shelf as well.

There were at least two specimens of rapping hands, the Thayer specimen complete with a Victorian mourning ring.

And, last but not least, and sure to thrill readers who are also talking board fans, there's an amazing hand-crafted "Oui-Ja" board out of France. It is a massive specimen that could easily be a tabletop, and in fact could be made from one. The planchette is a beauty, mounted with a carved skull. The piece has a matching end table that holds the planchette, which seems an intentional companion piece. Another flea market find, nothing else is known about the item, though Christian believes it is post-war.

I could continue with the Curator's array of first edition Spiritualist texts, the massive library of esoterica magica, the room full of African tribal fetishes and sap oracles, the strange biological specimens, and the massive assemblage of occult items, but I'll leave you free to explore to the mysterious and mist-shrouded halls of the Surnatéum's digital incarnation.

I want to thank Christian not only for his long friendship and correspondences which I have not maintained as well as I should, but also his fellowship and hospitality. I can honestly say that without both his work in magic and the occult, and his guidance through my long-gone days as a young bizarrist, my interests would not have been so severely cultivated, and I likely would not be here talking about esoteric topics to the wide audience I've achieved. A million times, "Thank You." Una lingua numquam satis est!

I can think of no better coda to close this series recounting my European tour. We'll return to our regular smorgasbord of posts shortly.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Utrecht Artifacts, Part 2: Slates, Ghost Lamps & Miscellany

Continuing where I left off from Utrecht in Part One, we now arrive at the Harmonia/Beelmaterial Spiritische Museum's array of spirit slates, spirit paintings, and ghost call-bells. With the gap between blogs posts as I find time to write, more and more distance comes between now and the European tour itself. It was such a whirlwind I had little time to digest it while there, but now, looking back, it becomes more and more amazing with each recollection, from the acquaintances made to the artifacts I was able to handle and document. And I am thrilled to see that my peers were equally impressed by the experience, as well as with my lecture, "Preserving the Physical Artifacts of Psychical Research."

Leslie Price had some kind words for me in the latest issue (August 2014) of Psychic News, judging my lecture "one of the most remarkable" of the conference.  And he makes a further challenge to readers that I encourage them to take up: "In listening to this [Brandon's lecture], I thought of the hundreds of Spiritualist churches which may have such equipment, perhaps lying forgotten in cupboards. By means of photography and the internet it’s now possible to get these appraised by Brandon Hodge, who is making an international survey of such devices." Such opportunities are one of the great joys of this self-appointed task, and I would love nothing more than for the difficult job to become all the easier, with such institutions soliciting my aid, rather than me having to seek them out. Do contact me with questions about any and all items you may discover at your various churches and archives. 

Tom Ruffles gives us a similar review of the conference with a daily breakdown on his blog, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. He discusses not only my representation of IAPSOP, but also my preservation lecture, and gives a very nice summary of its main points. Similar overviews are given for the other lectures at the conference, all of which were incredibly informative. Do give it a read.

But what of the remaining Utrecht items? There are many, actually. Far too many to cover here, and far too many for me to even document in their entirety while in Utrecht. Fortunately, Wim and his compatriots have done an outstanding job of that on their own, and I was able to concentrate on those spirit communication items most of interest to me for my upcoming book. 

Ghost lamp featured in the May 1936 edition of Spiritische Bladen.
I think the single most astounding artifact in the collection is the surviving ghost lamp. The purpose of ghost lamps were two-fold. Such contraptions signaled the arrival or presence of spirits so that séances could begin, and it could serve in the same capacity as spirit raps or modern flashlight séances by blinking on and off to indicate positive and negative responses, or even respond to alphabet-calling.

Lamp switch detail.
Ghost lamps and call-bells gained some traction among Dutch Spiritualists during the 1930s. The Dutch periodical Spiritische Bladen published an article on their use and construction in its May, 1936 edition, which my lovely friend and amazing science photographer Loes Modderman was kind enough to translate for me. At its heart, the device is little more than a battery-operated bulb and a simple switch that takes the form of an easily-manipulated balance or scale, so that a slight tip one way or the other of the scale's balanced arms causes the switch to engage and the light to briefly flash. In this way, it was designed so that spirits with enough ectoplasmic fortitude could manipulate the device to signal their arrival, tipping the switch with a ghostly appendage so the bright light of the lamp flashed out into the darkened séance chamber to let the sitters know they were ready to communicate. That seems the only illustrated purpose of the device, but Wim informs me of other accounts where communication indeed took place on the alphabet-calling model.

The crudely-constructed device shown in the how-to illustrations in the Spiritische Bladen pales in comparison, however, to the artifact I was able to document. It is not the most astounding piece of carpentry, but it is obvious that great care and consideration was taken in its construction. The carved and trimmed wood box is dark-stained, and measures approximately 8-inches across and 6-inches high. The ghostlamp went through at least two evolutionary forms in its long life: first constructed to house a battery in its frame, it was modified at some point in its history and wired for electric power.

Two circular brass plates and a crooked connector serve as the balanced switch, which tips to either side with the slightest breeze to activate the small lamp. It is so sensitive, in fact, that it may go a long way in explaining why there's a loop for wall-installation on the back of the device--obviously constructed for tabletop use, it may be that the slightest nudge of the table tipped the scale and triggered the light, and its creators saw fit to hang it nearby on the wall to escape undue influence on its operation. 

We discussed plugging it in and giving it a go, but were worried we might inadvertently spark an electrical fire, so we resisted the temptation and let the historical object lie. 

Another closely-related object--though much more crude, and a much less old--is the collection's call-bell. Its use would be nearly identical to the ghostlamp, only providing a ring to signal the spirit's desire to communicate, rather than the flashing light. This device's origins or how the more modern piece came to be included in the collection are unknown, but there's some question if the device even works as one supposes--there is no switch wire or balance, and we guessed that plugging it in would either cause it to ring continuously, or to not work at all. It may be that it was never finished, is missing an integral component, or it was simply an early attempt by an inexperienced enthusiast. It's still a lovely inclusion to the collection!

The Harmonia archive holds several important spirit slates, many of them with preserved messages intact. There are more than pictured, but were difficult to photograph and document since some have a glossy film tacked over the slate in an effort to prevent the chalk spirit writing from smearing or disappearing. It seemed no matter which angle I attempted to photograph from, I either got a nice reflection of my own head and camera, the glare of lights, or a nice grid from the reflection of ceiling tiles. Such are the challenges of working in the field. I did manage a good shot of one such "direct schrift" slate, however, with a message dating from April 20, 1932:

 Another slate contains preserved writing in a number of colors--this time in English:

Another pair of slates is noteworthy for their construction. Unlike most paired slates which are identical in all respects, and usually just regular school-slates used in the period, this pair seems specially-constructed to gather spirit writing. In the picture below, note how the bottom slate is deeper and recessed. The top slate would be bound, lid-like, above the other, and the resulting space left ample room for spirits to manipulate the chalk between the slates. The method isn't novel, and is one of the most common forms of obtaining spirit writing--but the design consideration is. Just a wonderful pair that, while lacking the preserved writing of its companions, shows the time, thought, and consideration that went into the item to foster the belief in what it could accomplish.

Lastly, for just a bit of slightly-off-topic fun, the collection includes a real screen used for Rhine ESP testing. In use, the screen would be stationed between the tester and the tested, and the results shown by sliding aside the wooden slat window. Wim informs me that he has pictures of this very screen in its historical use, so I promise to share those as they become available. Just a lovely artifact that was a lot of fun to examine.

I can't thank my hosts enough for this incredible opportunity to document this amazing collection, and I'm grateful for all the new friends and researchers that attended the conference and opened their minds to other sides of our respective disciplines. Thank you again to Wim, Loes, and all of our lovely hosts for their hospitality and assistance during my stay in Utrecht. Now, onward to Brussels to examine more incredibly important artifacts in the collection of one of the world's most enigmatic magicians!