Frank reveals the history of the mysterious ghostly goo…

During the heyday of spiritualism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dead chose somewhat curious ways of communicating with the living. Through their mediums, they rapped on tables, shifted or levitated furniture, caused sudden drops in room temperature, played unearthly music, produced bunches of flowers from nowhere, and manifested themselves in various other ways, almost exclusively in very dimly-lit rooms.

That the spirits of the departed seemed unwilling or unable to reveal their presence more directly led many to dismiss the whole business as a charade, the mediums as tricksters and charlatans. The dead therefore devised a way of making their presence physically apparent. The psychic energy by which they communicated with mediums took on definite physical form, as ectoplasm.

Ectoplasm was described as “sometimes vaporous, sometimes a plastic paste, sometimes a bundle of fine threads, or a membrane with swellings or fringes, or a fine fabric-like tissue”. Generally, it was white, faintly luminous, and gooey. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle noted that it “appeared to differ from every known form of matter in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes”. Clearly, it was not of this earth, and must originate from the realms beyond.

The increasing production of ectoplasm at séances ought to have shut up the doubters and the skeptics. Unfortunately, however, certain scalliwags learned how to make their own ectoplasm. The American medium Mina Crandon (1888 – 1941), known as “Margery”, used the lung tissue of various unidentified animals. The shameless Hungarian rogue Laszlo Laszlo (1898 – 1936), whose career as a medium was bookended by periods as a bank robber, gave an account of his own methods:

At first I used gauze which I soaked in water and then immersed in oil for several days. Later I ran out of oil and started to use goose-fat instead . . . I used to take the piece of gauze or cotton-wool from my accustomed hiding-place and put it in my mouth. Then the curtain was drawn apart and they could all see the ‘mysterious ectoplasm’ hanging from my lips. No one ever dared touch it because Schrenck-Notzing had warned about this in his book, saying that it might cause the death of the medium. In any case, I accompanied it with such horrible noises that the sitters all shook in terror. . . After each séance I hid the greasy cotton-wool in my pocket and then threw it into the river on my way home.

It might be thought, then, that all ectoplasm was produced by similar subterfuge. Luckily, we have the incontrovertible photographic evidence of the British medium Minnie Harrison. Minnie, from Middlesbrough, had this snap taken in 1948 [below]. It shows

ectoplasm emanating from the Medium’s mouth. Taken in complete darkness using Kodak infra-red plate. Exposure by means of powerful ‘Sashalight’ bulb through ‘Wratten’ glass filter – extremely deep ruby-red colour. The Ectoplasm is emanating from her mouth and in this form it is quite transparent, very similar in appearance and texture to chiffon.

Those of you who think Minnie is sitting there with a net curtain stuffed in her mouth are sadly deluded. What you can actually see is a spirit from the Other Side making its eldritch presence manifest in a Middlesbrough sitting room.




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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

3 thoughts on “Ectoplasm!

    November 8, 2013 at 11:29

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not really the best judge of these matters. The American writer Martin Gardner has remarked on the odd contrast between Sherlock Holmes’s skeptical eye, and Doyle’s readiness to be taken in by any old spiritualist.

  2. Worm
    November 8, 2013 at 15:57

    I love stuff like this – all credit to Charles Richet for coining such a damn cool name for it as well

    for those interested there are some more laughably ridiculous photos on the wikipedia ectoplasm page

    jonathan law
    November 8, 2013 at 17:14

    The pioneer psychic researcher Harry Price gives a long and very funny account of his attempts to investigate the ectoplasmic medium Helen Duncan –now best-known as the last Englishwoman to be prosecuted for witchcraft — in his Leaves from a Psychist’s Case-Book (1933):

    At this first séance the medium wore her own garments (a pair of black sateen knickers, a man’s coat made of the same material, and a pair of black stockings), which she brought with her. We examined them carefully, and Professor McDougall and others examined the medium’s body externally …

    The medium having donned her special garments, she was led into the séance-room … and placed in the curtained recess known as the cabinet. This was at 8.7 p.m. In a few seconds the medium was in trance, and within a minute the cabinet curtains parted and we beheld the medium covered from head to foot with-cheese-cloth! There appeared to be yards of it. Some of it was trailing on the floor; one end was poked up her nostril; a piece was issuing from her mouth. It moved, it writhed, it waggled, it squirmed on the floor, it spread itself out like an apron. Then the medium closed the curtains and the spectacle was hidden from view …

    Then we heard the voice of “Albert Stewart,” Mrs. Duncan’s chief “control.” “Albert” is supposed to be the spirit of a Dundee pattern-maker who emigrated to Sydney, N.S.W. “Albert” had a lot to say, and spoke with a drawl.

    Then the voice of a little child control was heard behind the curtains. This was “Peggy,” who apologised for not coming in front of the curtains as she “had no frock on.”

    Curtains opened again and we saw more cheese-cloth – the medium was covered from head to foot as with a large shawl. The curtains closed once more.

    At nine o’clock I asked “Albert” whether I could bind Mrs. Duncan to the chair. He said “Sure!” So Professor McDougall and I bound her thoroughly to the armchair by means of adhesive surgical tape – the stuff with which Chicago gangsters truss up their victims. The phenomena at once ceased, “Albert” afterwards remarking that I had stopped the medium’s circulation. We loosened the ties.

    Just before the binding process I asked “Albert” if I could feel the “teleplasm.” He said I could; at the same time the curtains were opened and I picked up a trail of the stuff. It was about 30 inches wide, and rather damp. It felt exactly like my summer-weight undervest. I stretched it, and the tactile impression was exactly as if I held a piece of cheese-cloth. I smelt it, and even the odour was reminiscent of a bit of ripe gorgonzola …

    The only thing that puzzled us at our first séance with Mrs. Duncan was where she kept the stuff. What we had seen was merely a length of cheese-cloth, about 6 or 8 feet long and 30 inches wide, made to take different shapes and forms in order to simulate phantoms of various sizes. Although we had examined the medium, we had not medically explored the orifices of the body – favourite hiding-places with fake women mediums.

    We arranged some further tests with the medium, and I determined to stiffen up the fore-control, and also to photograph the phantoms …Curiously enough, the medium consented to this medical examination and Mr. Duncan allowed us to take pictures of the “phenomena” as they appeared. Also, we made for her a one-piece garment …

    At the next three séances with Mrs. Duncan I took a series of photographs and our theory concerning the “phantoms” was confirmed. We secured extraordinary pictures of cheese-cloth in various formations such as veils, trails, tails, twists, sheets, and knots.The pictures of these cheese-cloth tableaux are the wonder of all beholders.

    Every length of it that was spread in front of our cameras was of about the same size. Every length shows the selvedge, warp and weft, rents in the material where it had been worn by constant use, and frayed edges. One piece reveals dirt marks where the medium trod upon it. Two pieces show crease marks where “Albert” (being Scotch) carefully folded it when not in use. The only thing missing on these cheese-cloth phantoms is the price ticket. We bought a few yards of cheese-cloth at Woolworths, draped it over our secretary, photographed it, and it was admitted that no one could tell the difference between the Woolworth and “Albert” variety of spook.

    But our photographs revealed other things: we found that a hand we had seen at one of the séances was a rubber surgical or household glove at the end of a cheese-cloth support. At another sitting we saw a child’s head which, “Albert” informed us, was the spirit “Peggy.” Our cameras revealed the fact that this particular “Peggy” was merely a picture of a girl’s head cut from a magazine cover and stuck on the cheese-cloth. We also secured pictures of safety-pins which had been used in forming the cheese-cloth into various shapes.

    During the progress of our experiments … we made the fore-control of the medium more and more severe. Every orifice of her body was medically explored – and we found nothing. But by a process of deletion we discovered where the cheese-cloth must be concealed. If one knows that something is hidden in one of ten boxes, and that only nine of the boxes can be examined, it is obvious that that something is in the tenth box. In the case of Mrs. Duncan the “tenth box” was her stomach – the one place we could not easily explore. We formed the opinion that Mrs. Duncan was a regurgitator, i.e. a person who could swallow things and bring them up again at will – a curious faculty which is not so rare as is generally supposed.

    Of course there are several ways in which medical men can examine a person’s stomach. There is the “stomach camera,” a tiny photographic apparatus which gives us pictures of our internal economy. There is the stomach pump (rather crude); a violent emetic (which is not pleasant); a medical exploration under a light anesthetic; and the X-rays.

    So at the fourth séance we decided to use the X-rays. We knew that the rays would not reveal the cheese-cloth, as the stuff casts no shadow, but we hoped for a safety-pin or something similar. We also knew that the psychological effect of the apparatus on the medium would be valuable, and in this we were not mistaken.

    At the conclusion of the fourth séance … we led the medium to a settee in the séance-room and gave the signal for the X-ray apparatus to be wheeled in from an adjoining room. At the sight … the medium seemed scared, and promptly went off into another alleged trance, from which she soon recovered. She refused to be X-rayed. Her husband advised her to submit, telling her that it was quite painless … The approach of Mr. Duncan [the X-ray man] seemed to infuriate her, and she became hysterical. She jumped up and dealt him a smashing blow on the face which sent him reeling. She then made a lunge at Dr. William Brown, who fortunately avoided the blow.

    The medium then said she wanted to retire to the lavatory, so Mrs. Goldney, a Council member, and Dr. William Brown accompanied her to the hall … Then the medium found that she did not want to use the lavatory and sat down on a chair. Suddenly, without the slightest warning, she jumped up, pushed Mrs. Goldney aside, unfastened the door, and dashed into the street, where she had another attack of alleged hysterics and commenced tearing her séance garment to pieces. Her husband dashed after her, followed by the other sitters.

    She was found clutching the railings, screaming, and Mr. Duncan was trying to pacify her. It was a most extraordinary scene. If the reader can visualise a woman weighing more than seventeen stone, clad in a one-piece black satin garment, locked to the railings and screaming at the top of her voice, he will have a fair idea of what we witnessed that evening …

    After the extraordinary scenes which occurred at the fourth test, I imagined that we had seen the last of the medium. But I was mistaken. Mr. Duncan came to see me and admitted that both he and his wife had done the wrong thing in upsetting us. He offered to give us another séance on June 4th, and we accepted.

    For our fifth experiment with Mrs. Duncan we decided to make the fore-control still more thorough, and to that end we asked Dr. X and Dr. Z, two medical men on the staff of a famous hospital, to make the necessary bodily examination. This they did very thoroughly. They brought a bag of tools with them, took off their coats to the job, and really got down to it. But they found nothing. Every orifice and crack where an instrument or a hand would go was thoroughly explored; every nook and cranny was examined; but at each fresh place they drew blank. This all sounds very terrible, but it is modern psychical research: a technique forced upon us by the amazing tricks of the mediums.

    There was still one place that could not be explored without an anesthetic and that was the stomach.

    The medium was led into the cabinet, the curtains closed, and in a few seconds she was in an alleged trance … We saw the medium with a long white strip or tongue of something hanging from her mouth. It was about twelve inches long and an inch wide.

    It was arranged that when we saw any teleplasm one of us was to jump up and cut a piece off. We each had a pair of scissors, and it was a weird sight to see the glint of steel round the circle as the scissors flashed in the red light. It reminded me of a sewing-bee.

    When the white strip appeared Dr. X, who was nearest the medium, entered the cabinet and caught hold of the white tongue with his left hand, at the same time cutting away with his right. Screams from the medium. At last he secured a few inches, which I immediately placed in a bottle of alcohol. Dr. X told us that, when he pulled it, the stuff broke in his hand like a wad of sodden paper. The remainder of the “teleplasm” disappeared down her throat. We got no more phenomena that night …

    Next morning we handed portions of the “teleplasm” to Mr. William Bacon, B.Sc., F.I.C., the chief analyst to the paper trade.This gentleman analysed our “prize” and declared that the stuff was merely a cheap, thin paper, like a strip of a toilet roll, soaked in white of egg and folded into a flattened tube. The paper was made partly of chemical pulp and partly of mechanical pulp. Under the microscope the marks of the machine that pulped it are plainly visible.

    A few days later we invited Mr. Duncan to have a heart-to-heart talk with us and to explain why he had taken £50 from us for some photographs of cheese-cloth and a strip of toilet paper. He pleaded ignorance of his wife’s doings, though he admitted our evidence was conclusive. He said he was still convinced that Mrs. Duncan could produce genuine phenomena, and offered us another séance at which his wife would be under a rigid physical control. The test was arranged for July 2nd, but, without informing us, the Duncans left for Scotland on June 23rd …

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