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.|
|Earliest origins, circa 1997.|
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.|
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.
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 |
tournantes, 1909. Note ghostly face over shoulder.
|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.
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?|
|The mysterious worn grooves on the table's underside. Lower right, Dunninger|
displays table-lifting apparatus that may be responsible.
|The Surnatéum's fabled curator holds his prize.|
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 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.