“There is more than heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy” –Hamlet
At some point we decided that the Wonder Show should feature a magician, a likely antagonist for a performance attempting to evoke awe and wonder in a decidedly more disillusioned world. Our search for a leading man or woman led us to the John H. Percival Magic Collection in the Special Collections, donated by the performer known as “Mysterious John” or “Rene” throughout the clubs, churches, and lodges of New England at the turn of the century . Of his more than a thousand books assembled, great names like Houdini are inscribed inside a few. The books bear the traces of infamous masters; contain the secrets of the trade; and document instances of the occult. It is the former that interested me most as I waded through the card catalog indexing everything from card tricks to thought transference to evening amusements. I wanted to find evidence of an experience stretching beyond the boundaries of the ordinary, a confrontation with something untethered to the powers of human reason.
The Spiritualist movement began with the “knockings” in Wayne County, New York, in the small town of Hydesville on March 31st, 1847. The Fox sisters – who would grow to become the poster children of the movement, and later, disenchanted drunks – heard the kind of extraordinary sound that could only be attributed to a supernatural occurrence, the spiritual residue of perhaps a long-dead peddler. I imagine the girls in a wooden house in plain dresses, the cold ground beginning to thaw. It is a house scraped of joy, the desires of its residents neatly shelved. One of the authors of the late 19th century books I read speculated that perhaps the girls’ story, told by candlelight, had been only a spontaneous act of fancy shored up by adult corroboration . In other words, a white lie that would come to determine the rest of their lives.
But why would such a story gain traction in this time and place? It is hard to imagine something like this happening today. Professional mediums began giving séances across the world, sparking a widespread interest in the manifestation of unseen spirits. Even Pierre and Marie Curie took an interest in the Spiritualists, looking for the particle of magic to explain the chemical mysteries of radioactivity, “the glowing tubes [that] looked like faint, fairy lights” . The Encyclopedia Britannica stated: “if correctly observed and due neither to conscious or unconscious trickery nor to hallucination on the part of the observers, exhibit a force hitherto unknown to science.” What’s hard to imagine is the authoritative admission of anything existing beyond science.
And yet the movement still had its detractors: the ones who claimed the knockings had their reasonable cause – such as “the repeated displacement of the tendon of the peroneus longus muscle in the sheath in which it slides behind the outer malleolus.” With the thick of Latin staking a claim to a greater truth, the statement declares that the noise could simply be caused by a knee bumping up against a chair, or the “snapping the toes in rapid succession.” Nothing more than the usual clacks and murmurs of the body.
After this brief exploration of perusing such intriguing titles as On the other Side of the Footlight and Hours with the Ghosts, I wondered where enchantment lives now. Where is wonder in a world where science, art, and mysticism have been so thoroughly cleaved from one another? And isn’t all this research — pouring over the whispery paper of old books, peering into black and white photographs — isn’t this its own form of communion with the spirit world, the world of the past, these hours spent with ghosts?
2. Hours with the Ghosts, Henry Evans Ridgley (1861).
3. From Marie Curie’s diary. The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914, Phillipp Blom (2008).
4. Sarah Helen Whitman, Providence native daughter and erstwhile lover of Edgar Allan Poe was a believer in Spiritualism, practicing automatic writing from her home on Benefit St.