5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead


We like to think that we know everything about the world, that we're two and a half iPhone launches away from unlocking all the secrets of the Universe. But the truth is that we know nothing. We can't even agree on what happens to us after we die. Do we spend eternity rotting in the ground, or do we ascend/descend (cross out where appropriate) to the spiritual plane that we deserve? Luckily for us, there have been plenty of spiritual pioneers who have taken it upon themselves to (pretend to) pierce the veil and ask the only people who know the answer: the dead.

Spirit Photography Was A Scam To Fool Widows

Us modern folk with our fancy selfie machines often forget what a true miracle photography is. We can take the past and imprison it forever in a tiny box, or a bunch of albums our moms are always tries to whip out on every visit. But like any technology that feels more like magic than reality, it took about five whole minutes for someone to turn photography into yet another way to swindle people.

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
National Media Museum via BBC
Which is still four minutes longer than it took for it to become another medium for penises.

In the old days of photography, when every picture looked like its own illegal low-rez download, you couldn't take one without some weird smudge or shadow invading the frame. So of course, it didn't take long for people to start claiming that those smudges were in fact ghosts and/or other supernatural beasties photobombing you. Before long, spirit photography became the trend du jour of the late 19th century, though the reason was a bit more depressing than, say, why the selfie stick caught on. After the Civil War, there were plenty of grieving Americans wanting something to remember their fallen loved ones by. Spirit photography promised to connect the bereaved living to the probably annoyed dead in return for nothing except the satisfaction of knowing that they'd helped to cure someone's emotional pain ... and lots of money.

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
National Media Museum via The New Yorker
"Sorry, your tears seemed to have smudged the ink on this check."

The most famous of these scam artists was amateur photographer William Mumler. In the 1860s, visitors to his studio often found themselves sharing the shot with a long-dead relative dropping in. Over time, he grew more infamous, somehow managing to survive several attempts by skeptics to debunk his photographs. At the height of his career, even Mary Todd Lincoln dropped by to see if she could have a picture with her husband, bringing Abraham Lincoln back for one last encore -- the irony of which was clearly lost on the poor grieving woman.

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
Lincoln Financial Foundation via Smithsonian
"Wait, he doesn't have the top hat in heaven? Dealbreaker."

The resulting photo became world-famous, but also proved to be the death of Mumler's enterprise. Claiming to have captured the ghost of Lincoln drew the attention of several powerful critics, including famous showman P.T. Barnum, who went to court and testified against Mumler, exposing the overexposer. When the courts became involved, they quickly uncovered that the amateur photographer was also an expert burglar, and had been breaking into people's houses ahead of their sessions and stealing photographs of the deceased. He then placed those pics onto a glass plate hidden inside the camera and superimposed them on the ones he was supposed to take. And he would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for that meddling millionaire.

Edison And Tesla Tried To Commune With The Dead Via Telephone

The invention of the telephone in 1876 was a revolution in communication. No longer did you have to wait for days or weeks trying to inch along a primitive text message via telegraph so you could say hi to your uncle in the old country. With the telephone, you could summon the voice of distant relatives and have them tell you in real time how many of your cousins died from cholera that morning. But what if, some asked, you could build a phone to contact those dead cousins?

One of the people who attempted to cold-call your ancestors was Thomas Edison. In 1920, he blew the monocles from people's eyes when he announced that he was "building an apparatus for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us."

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
National Park Service
Who knows how many more inventions could he have patented if he'd been able to steal from long-dead inventors?

Unfortunately, Edison missed his deadline, by which we mean he died, leaving no plans, no prototypes, not even the digits of some hot ghost piece of ass. Only many years later did someone find hitherto unseen chapters of his diary outlining his theories on the spirit world and how his device could theoretically work. Maybe he figured out that having a phone that calls ghosts would be useless if ghosts didn't have a phone to answer with, so he went ahead to sort things out on the other side

However, Edison wasn't the only clever "phone-voyant" of his time. Another was nerd culture's favorite pigeon enthusiast and madman, Nikola Tesla. He had already documented an experience with the other side after tinkering around with a device that translated electromagnetic waves into sounds, but the noises he started hearing scared the living hell out of him. "My first observations positively terrified me as there was present in them something mysterious, not to say supernatural," he observed between pants changings. Listening to his "spirit radio" for years, Tesla had a hard time convincing himself that he wasn't hearing "human voices conversing back and forth in a language I cannot understand," even "real voices from people not of this planet."

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
Dickenson V. Alley
"It may have also been a side effect from the pigeon poop."

Automatic Writing Was Your Brain Pretending To Be A Ghost

There are so many questions we would like to ask ghosts -- the location of buried treasure, the identity of their murderers, how often they banged old-timey starlets ... the list goes on. Therefore, the idea of automatic writing was a godsend. No longer would we have to wait hours for a medium to interpret a ghost's knocks like it was the world's most drawn out game of 20 questions; they would simply grab a pen and give these voiceless spirits a hand, literally.

One of the most famous practitioners of this art was Pearl Curran. In 1913, she became the flesh avatar of Patience Worth, a 17th-century Pilgrim murdered by Native Americans, after she played around with a planchette (basically, a pencil on an Ouija board) and suddenly felt compelled to write the message: Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth, my name.

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
G.W. Cottrell
Quite poetic for someone who spent their entire life slowly dying of exposure and tainted beaver meats.

Instead of burning down her home and fleeing, Pearl leaned into the madness, and over the course of nearly a decade, Patience revealed her story to the world. But it wasn't just her autobiography that she'd spent hundreds of year drafting. It turned out that Patience had quite the literary talent. Through Curran's hand, Patience wrote down many poems and novels, and the pair soon had their own magazine and a five-volume book series. What luck that Curran's pen was possessed by such a talented writer and not a ghost that wrote like a bored teenager trying to flesh out a flimsy report due the next day.

There was also Helene Smith, a medium who claimed that she traveled the astral planes with the help of her spiritual guides, Leopold and a dead Italian sorcerer called Cagliostro. Being the queen of crazy nonsense, of course Smith decided to kick it up a notch, producing not the writings of dead farmers, but strange symbols which she insisted came from long-dead Martians who had contacted her through her astral travels. The fact that these writings were found to be structurally similar to French when they were examined by linguists is, we're sure, a big coincidence.

hyok2 26G den e Ly2 CS? ?c IcLS
Helene Smith
"Assurez-vous ... de boire ... votre Ovaltine?"

It's easy to explain all of these people as frauds, but there's a great deal of evidence that suggests that often, these poor living souls couldn't help themselves. These automatic writings were more likely nothing but the streams of consciousness of the slightly disturbed or repressed. It's either that or the ideomotor effect, a phenomenon wherein people who are convinced they are being haunted subconsciously start writing shit they can't recognize as their own words. And when you put it like that, what's scarier? Ghosts or our own fucked up subconscious?

Victorian Seances Were A Fun Night Out

In the 1800s, spiritualism was the coolest religion in town. Instead of constant kneeling and praying and feeling guilty about masturbating, spiritualism was all about joining hands, starting seances, and trying to get in touch with the beyond. And unlike those lame sleepover parties where we would ask the Ouija board which boys liked us the most, Victorians got really wild and wacky while screwing around with the fabric of the Universe.

Movies always portray seances as terrifying events where everyone always seems to accidentally open up a portal to the serial killer dimension instead of the slice of heaven where grandpa lives. Back in the day, however, seances were hilarious affairs. They were veritable spectacles of theater, complete with disembodied voices, levitating tables, automatic writing, and musical instruments floating around and being strum by spirits like a bunch of ethereal buskers.

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
"He's says he's doomed to eternal nothingness until he can learn a song other than 'Wonderwall.'"

One Ohio farmer even went so far as to build a "spiritual machine" stocked with instruments such as drums, guitars, horns, bells, and tambourines. Why? Because the spirits told him to. So the farmer started his garage band with the grateful undead, and witnesses claimed that when he started to play his fiddle, the other instruments would rise above their heads and start playing as well. And while this has "con" written all over it, the farmer never charged visitors for the privilege of witnessing his floating ragtime band.

via Jenn McQuiston
"I'm ... I'm just lonely."

Another mainstay of seances was table tipping, wherein tables would come to life and start to sway, rock, and rise up as if every ghost seance-goers contacted used to be a furniture mover in a past life. People were convinced, so famed scientist and inventor Michael Faraday had to step in to disprove this spiritual nonsense. He quickly exposed that seance-goers were subconsciously moving the tables with their own hands, like an Ouija board. Imagine if modern scientists felt they needed to take time out of their schedules to disprove people's harmless entertainment-based misconceptions. That would be so ridiculous, right?

Ectoplasm Was Animal Mush Covered In Spit

What's the creepiest way that a ghost could make contact? Writing on your bathroom mirror? Hovering over the bushes outside your window? Auto-writing an inappropriate message about your dress? No, it has to be ectoplasm, the gooey essence with which the undead inform you of their unfinished business by finishing their business all over your living room.

In the middle of the 19th century, a slew of mediums were suddenly afflicted by embarrassing discharges. During seances, a Slimer-like ooze would drip out of their orifices, often pooling together to form the faces or bodies of the very deceased they were trying to contact. Mediums explained this phenomenon as spirits leaving behind some of their essence while interacting with the material world. A physiologist by the name of Charles Richet coined the term "ectoplasm," not realizing that the proper name for the phenomenon is "ghost jizz."

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
Ronald Edwin Cockersell
"Do you need a Kleenex? A beach towel?"

Quite coincidentally, mediums discovered this magical ability around about the same time that biologists came up with the idea of protoplasm, a supposedly life-giving substance that exists within our cells. Protoplasm's bad science stuck around for over a century, giving crackpot ghost biologists around the world plenty of time to piggyback on its popularity by pretending "plasms" also proved the physical existence of ghosts. Of course, protoplasm was eventually disproved, at which point mediums had nowhere to turn when someone asked them what nasty shit they were spewing out of their orifices.

As it turns out, what they were vomiting up was vaguely sinister-looking household items that they used to fake some plasm like they were making a horror movie on a budget. On occasions when they needed a little extra pizzazz to seal the deal, mediums would regurgitate everything from cheesecloth and muslin to strands of offal, and hold this spit-coated vomit up mid-seance. But the grossest ectoplasmic con artist of all had to be Mina Crandon, as her trick was producing an "ectoplasmic hand" from her navel. It turned out to actually be a shriveled piece of animal liver. And if your life's work of cheating grieving families out of money requires you to walk around with spoiled animal meat in your purse all day, maybe it's time to reconsider your career choices.

5 Delightfully Crazy Ways People Tried To Contact the Dead
Mina Crandon
And good god, have a doctor check out your navel.

Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook. He also has a newsletter about depressing history, if you're into that sort of thing. You are. Just admit it to yourself.

Friendly reminder that Ecto Cooler is back from the dead.

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