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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.

1 comment:

  1. the A-1, B-2 system is Pythagorean Numerology as it also translates to the Tarot / Astrology etc..