For questions, comments, and inquiries please email Brandon

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!

No comments:

Post a Comment