Materialization is the process of forming seemingly solid spirit faces, body parts or complete spirit figures by a Medium during a séance. Full-body materializations once were considered the ultimate feat of physical Mediumship, requiring great concentration, harnessing of psychic energy and even loss of weight on the part of the medium.
In her book The Spiritualists, author Ruth Brandon speculates that early manifestations such as Rapping, ghostly hands playing instruments and spirit lights were merely the lead-in acts to the real business of Séances: bringing the whole bodies of spirits to the people. A popular handbook for mediums in the mid-19th century advised practitioners to follow the lead of their spirit guides, as not all spirits were capable of materializing. All mediums have the potential, the handbook claimed, but few can gather the necessary energy or have the patience to wait for the phenomenon to appear.
Materialization manifestations usually followed a similar routine. The medium would enter a cabinet in order to collect the psychic energy necessary to produce Ectoplasm. Soon a spot of white light, or flakes of whiteness, would appear, spreading into a cloud of vaporous whiteness. Next a face would appear, usually on or in front of the dark cabinet curtains; in fortunate circumstances, an entire person would appear. After the spirit had circulated throughout the circle, it returned to the cabinet, or with spectacular effect, melted away. The medium, always found in the cabinet, could lose substantial weight during the process and was quite weak afterward.
Author Rev. Robert Chaney postulated that the medium must project Ectoplasm from her own body, plus that gathered from the sitters through magnetization, to facilitate materialization. The spirit is then clothed in this astral substance and appears. If the transformation is incomplete, the medium takes the spirit drapery and assumes the part of the spirit, a process called transfiguration.
Although making only a brief appearance, the famous spirit control John King materialized in the light from Ira Davenport’s gunflash in 1850 (see Davenport Brothers). The first full-form materialization appeared to Robert Dale Owen in 1860 through Leah Underhill, Kate and Maggie Fox’s older sister (see Fox Sisters). Owen reported that a veiled and luminous figure materialized and walked about the room, then disappeared. Not to be outdone, Kate Fox produced the figure of a Mrs. Livermore, deceased wife of one of her clients, and frequently brought the spirit of Benjamin Franklin into her circle.
Agnes Guppy claimed to be the first English medium to materialize spirits, bringing John King’s ghost to her astonished sitters in 1872. John King also appeared in the Séances of Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Holmes and those of Mrs. Guppy’s protégés Frank Herne and Charles Williams. Sitters at a Herne-Williams Séance could even shake John King’s hand. But all of their efforts were soon surpassed in the materializations of Katie King by medium Florence Cook.
Cook specialized in materialization from the beginning, starting with faces in 1872. By mid-1873, she introduced Katie King, allegedly John’s daughter, as a white-veiled, barefoot figure who walked about the Séance room, touching and caressing the sitters and allowing herself to be touched in return. She felt warm to the touch, seemed possessed of flesh and blood, and was an instant sensation.
Katie strongly resembled Cook. In December 1873, during a Séance for the Earl and Countess of Caithness, sitter William Volckman grabbed Katie and struggled with the apparition, claiming that Katie was no ghost but Cook in costume. Katie put up a good fight, scratching Volckman’s nose and pulling out some of his whiskers. The other sitters separated the two and returned Katie into the cabinet to rejoin Cook, who was found five minutes later dishevelled but still bound and sealed. Spiritualists strongly condemned Volckman for his behaviour, saying he could have caused Cook severe injury or death. It was believed that mediums were quite vulnerable during materializations.
One of Cook’s strongest supporters was the eminent scientist Sir William Crookes, who investigated her after the Volckman affair. Crookes pronounced the materialization of Katie King completely genuine. He described Katie in rapturous terms, citing her loveliness and good nature, coupled with Cook’s innocence, as proof of the spirit’s existence. Katie even sang lullabies to Crookes’s children, telling them stories of her glory days in 17thcentury Jamaica. Crookes photographed Katie and Cook together, but unfortunately destroyed the plates. Several pictures remain of Katie alone, however, one on the arm of Crookes.
In her early days under her real name, Marthe Beraud, medium Eva C. materialized the Indian Brahmin Bien Boa. Photographs show Bien Boa as a tall man wearing a white garment like a monk’s habit, with the hood pulled over a metal helmet. He was bearded and in no way resembled Beraud. Although strange in appearance, Bien Boa was real. He would return from behind the cabinet curtains to acknowledge applause for his performance. Unfortunately, Bien Boa was a little too lifelike; his real name was Areski, and he was a former coachman, and very much alive.
Later, Beraud (going by the name Eva C.) materialized the faces and forms of several government and historical figures, most notably U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria and the actress Mona Delza. Critics found the materializations flat and two-dimensional, charging they were most likely cutouts from magazines and newspapers draped with muslin. One face even had part of the words Le Miroir, a French magazine, on the forehead. Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, one of Beraud’s investigators, attributed such coincidences to hypermnesia, very acute memory, and cryptomnesia, the ability to recall mental images buried in the subconscious. Such reproductions, dug up from Beraud’s past, were called “ideoplasts.” (See Ideoplasty.)
Recipes circulated among mediums for preparing the best ghostly effects. One required 21 yards of fine white silk veiling, very gauzy, washed carefully seven times. While still damp, the fabric was dipped in one jar of Balmain’s Luminous Paint, a half-pint of Demar varnish, one pint of odorless benzine and 50 drops of lavender oil. Then the fabric dried for three days, at which time it was washed with naphtha soap to remove all odor. Only silk would hold the paint through so many washings and look so soft and luminous in the Séance.
Rosina Showers, another young materialization medium and a friend of Florence Cook, described in a confession of fraud how to materialize the spirits: the medium should wear a dress she can easily take off in two or three minutes, wearing two or three shifts underneath. She conceals a filmy muslin veil in her underwear; this veil is her only clothing over the shifts. A pocket handkerchief conceals her hair. After emerging from the cabinet, the “ghost” circulates among the sitters, easily charming them. She then returns to the cabinet and redresses. Showers was surprised that none of the investigators thought of checking in the medium’s underwear.
In his work for the Seybert Commission, Dr. H. H. Furness attended more than 20 materialization Séances. He found some mediums more practiced than others, but applauded the charming work of most as they gracefully appeared as spirits, lightly appearing and disappearing through the cabinet curtains. Throughout it all, he never ceased to be amazed at the faith of the sitters, who recognized their husbands, fathers, mothers, wives and children in the costumed persona of the medium.
Maurice Barbanell said he considered materializations to be the most convincing form of psychic phenomena. Barbanell witnessed numerous materializations at the many Séances he attended as a sitter. Once he witnessed the Welsh medium Alec Harris, of Cardiff, manifest 30 forms at a single Séance. Some lasted as long as 20 minutes. A doctor felt the pulses of some and said they reminded him of the pulses of a baby.
Barbanell said that white light depressed materialization, while red light was conducive to it. When conditions were ideal, he said, the barrier between worlds fell away and materialized forms could move far away from the medium. The best were solid and fully formed and not covered in Ectoplasm. Materializations are uncommon in modern mediumship.
- Barbanell, Maurice. Spiritualism Today. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1969.
- Blum, Deborah. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. New York: Penguin, 2006.
- Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
- Chaney, Rev. Robert G. Mediums and the Development of Mediumship. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.
- Douglas, Alfred. Extra-Sensory Powers: A Century of Psychical Research. Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press, 1977.
- Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism Vol. I & II. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
- Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England 1850–1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Richmond, Cora L. Y. Is Materialization True? Boston: Colby & Rich, 1878.