Faking Seances: Jennifer Ashley on Cracking Toes and Houdini

We know, we know, it's Halloween, and we're a bit monster happy on the blog. Witches and zombies and psychics, oh my! So today we've got an antidote for you: Jennifer Ashley is here to talk about the fradulent psychics of the Victorian era. Ashley has such pyschics in her latest release, the RT Top Pick! The Wicked Deeds of Daniel MackenzieWe had to know more. Even though we completely believe in psychics and monsters and ... 

My latest release, The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie, a Victorian-set Scottish romance, features a heroine, Violet, who travels Europe with her mother conducting séances and speaking to spirits of the dearly departed.

Violet and her mother were tapping into the popularity of spiritualism and medium-ism, which was all the rage in Victorian England and America. Séances, table-turning, talking boards, automatic writing and the like were highly popular pastimes. Talking boards (later known as Ouija boards) spelled out messages from the spirits, spirits also communicated by means of knocking out codes (one knock for yes; two for no; knocks for letters of the alphabet). Or a medium went into a trance and spoke to her audience through a spirit guide (as Violet’s mother does).

The most famous mediums of the age, credited for helping create the spiritualism craze, were the Fox sisters. These three young women from a small town in New York claimed they could communicate with the sprit of a man who’d been murdered in their house. Questions put to the spirit would be answered by rapping out the answers in code. The spirit’s knowledge of the sisters and neighbors were accurate enough that all who heard it were impressed.

The story of their success spread, and the Fox sisters became well-known mediums. As adults, they continued to hold séances, and traveled extensively, giving sittings to prominent people of the day.

Forty years after the Fox sisters began their first séances, Margaret Fox confessed that the whole thing had been a fraud. The rapping had come, Margaret explained, by her ability to loudly crack her big toe. (She later recanted her confession, and believers in spiritualism claimed she’d been coerced into the confession in the first place).

Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, was known for his strident work in unmasking fraudulent mediums. He investigated mediums’ claims and exposed their tricks, and offered cash prizes to anyone who could prove they had the true gift (no one ever won). Houdini penned an account of a visit to a small town, where he was asked to lead a public séance. On the night of the séance, he amazed the crowd by giving details about everyone in the town (which he’d never before visited), including details about their deceased families.

Houdini’s explanation — he’d spent the day before the séance walking through the local graveyard and speaking to an elderly man who was a prime source of town gossip. All mediums used such methods, Houdini said, along with employing assistants who gathered facts, worked special effects behind the scenes — as my heroine Violet and her maid do — and spreading the tale of the medium’s talent.

I had great fun researching techniques for faking séances, many of which my heroine employs — phosphor-luminescent paint, pulley systems and other tricks, which fascinate my hero Daniel. My heroine admits that she’s a fraud, but her mother believes her own talent is real. Violet is never quite sure about her mother — is her gift for speaking to the dead true, or is it false?

I leave it up to the reader to decide.

- Jennifer Ashley

Have we made a believer out of you? You can pick up a copy of The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie in stores and online today! And for more love stories, past and present, visit our Everything Romance page!