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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!