Is Anybody There? NO; JOINED-UP THINKING: Guests Try to Contact the Spirit World in a Scene from Fritz Lang's 1922 Film Dr Mabuse, der Spieler

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Is Anybody There? NO; JOINED-UP THINKING: Guests Try to Contact the Spirit World in a Scene from Fritz Lang's 1922 Film Dr Mabuse, der Spieler


For some reason, Victorian cranks and charlatans had much more exoticnames than our own. In this book about spiritualists and mesmerists, you willfind a Jesuit professor of astronomy called Maximillian Hell, alongside hismiracle-cure patient, Maria Theresia von Paradis. Then there is the mesmeristBaron Jules Dupotet de Sennevoy, who ('look, no hands!') could make a parrotfall off its perch just by looking at it; Baron de Guldenstubbe, who introducedtableturning to France and enjoyed direct communications with St Paul; theReverend Stainton Moses, who could levitate to the sound of accordion music;and Madame Augusta de la Rue, who captivated Charles Dickens with her abilityto see ghosts.

Sad to say, the best our own age could come up with was Doris Stokes. But inmany other respects, Doris Stokes had a good deal in common with herpredecessors, including a passion for what one might call ghostlyname-dropping. She had regular chats with the dead Elvis, for instance, andonce introduced him to the dead Marc Bolan. This set up a heavenlychain-reaction. 'Marc introduced Elvis to his mother and Elvis introduced Marcto his mother, who was with him on the other side,' Stokes revealed in one ofher many autobiographies, Voices Of Love.

The pioneering spiritualists were every bit as star-struck as Stokes, perhapseven more so. The dead poet Robert Burns was forever popping up at seances inBingley and surrounding areas and the star spiritualists on both sides of theAtlantic seemed to have an uncanny knack of homing in on dead celebrities.

Through her Indian spirit-guide (who answered to the unexpected name ofChlorine) Mrs Piper from New Hampshire was in regular touch with Bach, Lutherand Abraham Lincoln, while Baron de Guldenstubbe could boast an address bookcontaining not only St Paul but also Plato, Cicero and Juvenal. The choice ofghostly bigwig is peculiarly indicative of the preoccupations of each age:somehow, it doesn't surprise me that Stokes never got in touch with Plato, orvice versa.

Servants Of The Supernatural, by Antonio Melechi, is a brief history, sometimesbafflingly dense, of the extraordinary popularity of psychics, mesmerists,mediums and somnambulists in the Victorian era. It is a fascinating and oftenhilarious subject, but Melechi is, alas, not a born storyteller: manyparagraphs are as meandering and hard to grasp as ectoplasm.

It kicks off with the pioneering Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) who gave his name tomesmerism and spent a lifetime dressed in lilac, scattering magnets on hispatients, stroking them with an iron wand, dunking them in a tub of magnetisedwater or tying them to a large oak tree.

Mesmerism was given a degree of respectability in Britain when it was taken upby Dr John Elliotson, the inventor of the stethoscope. Elliotson wasparticularly excited by Elizabeth Okey, a 16-year-old housemaid who, once in atrance, would turn into an all-singing, all-dancing dynamo of a type that mightthese days be a runnerup on The X Factor in a poor year.

Okey then extended her range to the psychic; Dickens and his illustrator GeorgeCruikshank were among those who flocked to University College Hospital to watchwhile the blindfolded Okey was asked by Elliotson: 'How many fingers am Iholding up?' To me, her replies ('such a many', 'such a much') lack a certainsomething but perhaps you had to be there: most of the audience came awaygasping with amazement.

One night in 1838, Okey was walking through a hospital ward with Dr Elliotsonwhen she stopped at a patient's bed, shuddered and announced she could see'Great Jack, the angel of death' by the poor man's side. By the morning, he wasdead. Bingo! Dr Elliotson was now convinced Elizabeth could foretell death, herheightened vision lending her the ability to spot a peculiar effluviumemanating from the soon-to-bedeceased, undetectable by others.

Around this time, the Fox sisters gave birth to spiritualism after successfullychatting to the ghost of a murdered pedlar (one knock for yes, nothing for no)in their house in Wayne County, New York.

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