THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
ENERGY CHAMBERS FOR THE DEAD
INSIDE SPIRIT CABINETS WITH THE MEDIUMS OF THE SPIRITUALIST ERA
Spirit cabinets appeared during the heyday of Spiritualism and were used by mediums as part of the trappings of the physical séance. The "cabinets" as they were called were often either actual pieces of furniture, a curtained off corner of a room or even a doorway. They became the physical medium's work space and its purpose was to "attract and conserve spiritual forces". Paranormal researcher Hereward Carrington referred to a spirit cabinet as a "spiritual storage battery."
Although spirit cabinets later became the standard for mediums, it was first introduced into the American Spiritualist movement by the Davenport Brothers in the middle 1850's. None of the earlier mediums in the movement, including Spiritualism's founders, the Fox Sisters, ever used such a device. The idea behind the cabinet was so be able to section off the medium from the sitters so that they would be out of direct view when producing strange phenomena. This would prove to be both popular and astounding to audiences as the mediums were generally bound hand and foot in the cabinet while seemingly impossible phenomena manifested around them.
The Davenport Brothers, Ira and William, first got the idea for such a cabinet thanks to a suggestion from an audience member. This person asked if they could produce their phenomena in a sealed container to prevent any sort of collusion by accomplices. The Davenport's, realizing the benefits to working in secret, quickly agreed and even went so far as to create a myth as to how they realized the dimensions needed for their cabinet. According to their publicity, they contacted their family spirit guide, a ghost named John King, who had already provided them with useful information, and he instructed them as to the size and dimensions of the cabinet.
The wooden cabinet soon became an essential part of their séances and it would be widely imitated for many, many years to come. The Davenport's cabinet was seven feet high, six feet wide and two feet deep. It was always located on sawhorses that kept it about 18 inches off the floor. A hole was cut into the middle door for air (and for spirit hands to protrude). Behind the doors, the Davenport's were bound hand and foot by audience members and musical instruments were often placed on the floor. Once the audience was satisfied that the Davenport's could not move about, the doors were closed.
Within moments, spirit hands of men, women and children appeared in the hole in the door, the musical instruments began to play and musical sounds were heard coming from within. When the doors were opened though, the brothers would still be found tied up.
The act was an immediate sensation and soon no practicing medium could continue his or her séances without a similar cabinet. Many of them just hung curtains over an alcove or a section of the séance room. The mediums were usually tied up but mysterious faces continued to appear through the curtains, hands twisted about, musical instruments played and even full-form apparitions materialized.
Spiritualists hailed the Davenport Brothers, and many that followed, as genuine practitioners of spirit phenomena but critics merely regarded them as simple stage magicians. Interestingly, neither of the brothers ever claimed to be a medium, leaving that up to the audience to decide. They did bill their act as a "séance" and most Spiritualists believed their manifestations to be authentic. It should be noted however that one of their employees was once a young man named Harry Kellar -- who later went on to become a famous magician and escape artist.
For fraudulent mediums, the spirit cabinet was a great gift. With only a limited amount of skill as an "escape artist", the medium could now amaze their sitters while hidden away behind curtains and wooden doors. Ropes could be easily shed and then an assortment of "spirit phenomena" could be produced. In most cases, the sitters would be invited to inspect the cabinet ahead of time so that they would be satisfied that no secret entrances or trap doors were present. (Note: Secret entrances were usually located elsewhere in the room and accomplices would simply slip through the room in the darkness).
The medium would then enter the cabinet and be seated in a single chair, where they would often be tied up to "prevent fraud". After slipping their bonds, the phenomena would begin. There were several ways for the mediums to collect their materials for the hoax as well. Often, "spirit forms" would appear and they would usually be made up of soft cloth or chiffon, which is very compressible.
It would easily be secreted in the clothing and when unwrapped (or draped over the medium for a full materialization) would appear "ghostly" in the dim light. The cloth could also double for ectoplasm as well, a spirit substance that allegedly exuded from the medium's body. If the medium allowed himself or herself to be searched prior to the séance, the materials could also be smuggled in by the "cabinet attendant", who acts as the medium's bodyguard. Spiritualists say that this person is present to protect malicious intruders from touching the medium's ectoplasm (which could cause injury or death) but in reality, they were merely accomplices in the fraud.
The medium would be dressed completely in black and when they emerged from the cabinet with the "ghostly" cloth, it would appear to be moving on its own. The ball of material would be slowly unwound and in the near total darkness, would be eerily convincing. The medium could also drape his body in the material and then, while standing in front of the cabinet and moving the black curtains back and forth, he could create the illusion that the spirit form was moving sideways and up and down. Combined with music and chilling dramatics, it is no wonder that so many were convinced of the reality of the spirit cabinet séances.