Emily Ruth Verona
Weird History: A Recipe for Ectoplasm
Most historical accounts of Spiritualism start with the Fox Sisters in 1848. The Fox sisters were three preteen and teenage girls in Rochester, New York who claimed that they heard tappings and rappings from the other side. By the 1860s, Spiritualism as a movement was in full swing. Séance and mediums were familiar concepts to the general public and the popularity was compounded by nationwide grief in the aftermath of the Civil War. Photography was on the rise, which meant photographs from seances could be circulated. Spirit photography grew in popularity thanks to silver-engraver-turned-spirit-photographer William H. Mumler.
Now, we're not here to argue whether or not there are legitimate mediums capable of reaching beyond the veil. Whether you believe or not is irrelevant to this discussion. The fact of the matter is that there were proven frauds operating as mediums in the 19th and 20th century. Famed escape artist Harry Houdini had a particularly intense passion for exposing false mediums during the 1920s. He even wrote books (yup, books plural) about it.
There are all kinds of "tricks" used by self-proclaimed spiritualists that have been debunked over the years. Spirit rapping, which led to the Fox Sister's fame, is an easy one to fake. But the weirdest and most fascinating one, at least for me, is probably the recipe for ectoplasm.
What is ectoplasm? Well, it was known as a type of "spiritual energy" that would come out of a medium's nose or mouth during a séance. "Oozing" is the term often used to describe how it would exit the body. This ethereal, gauze-like substance was captured frequently by spirit photographers during the early to mid 20th century Spiritualism resurgence. Was any of it authentic? Again, it does not matter. What we're here to talk about is the manmade ectoplasm created to enhance the theatricality of a séance experience. So, what was coming out of a medium's mouth if not certified, Grade-A ectoplasm? Regurgitated cheesecloth. I'm not kidding. Really, I'm not. But wait, it gets grosser.
According to Scots Magazine, the London Spiritualist Alliance investigated séance ectoplasm in 1931. A sample was taken and the scientific properties were analyzed. The conclusion was that the substance was a combination of cheesecloth and paper mixed with egg. More disgusting than having the physical manifestation of spiritual energy oozing from your body? Debatable.
One of the people examined by the LSA was Helen Duncan, a medium from Scotland famous today for being the last person to be convicted in Britain of the Witchcraft Act of 1735. She was convicted in 1944 and released in 1945, continuing to hold illegal séances until her death in the 1950s.
There are different variations of the cheesecloth formula in existence. Some performers took it further, attaching rubber gloves or paper-made ghostly faces to the cheesecloth in order to add dimension and realism. Pictures of these "beings" are still around today, though photographs of these acts look more like creepy vintage Halloween decorations to contemporary eyes. Still, you have to respect the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and general weirdness of regurgitated egg-soaked cheesecloth. That was commitment, ingenuity, and resourcefulness all rolled into one. You've got to appreciate the creativity.
So, anyone hungry?