Search for Truth  by Harry Price  (1942)


Chapter 6  .  Behind the Scenes in the 'Spirit World'

THE profession of 'vaudeville medium,' of the physical variety, has almost died out - at least in this country.  In the first place, their tricks are well known among those interested in such things.  Secondly, they cannot stand up to the tests by the public that theatre managers would now insist upon.  Thirdly, the managers themselves realise that it is 'bad business' to offend a large section of the public which sincerely believes in spiritual phenomena and 'survival,' and who are - rightly - disgusted at seeing their religion ridiculed and travestied upon the stage.  The members of any other faith - e.g. Roman Catholic - would be equally hurt at seeing their own religion made a mockery of, and no manager would dare to stage such shows.  Fourthly, the public now take an intelligent interest in psychical research, which is fast becoming a science, almost an official science.

The foregoing remarks do no apply to such turns as those made famous by Stuart Cumberland, Magdeleine G., the Zancigs, the Zomahs, the Trees, Marion, or Maloïtz (all of whom I have tested), who provided entertaining and clever shows, with no pretence that their powers were of spiritual origin. I ndeed, some of these 'mental mediums' were - and still are - members of conjurers' organisations.

J. N. Maskelyne and Maskelyne and Devant (1) were also largely responsible for driving from the music-hall stage the vaudeville physical medium, whose shows were regularly duplicated at the Egyptian and St. George's Halls, under much better conditions of 'control.'  These famous conjurers performed the same tricks and did them much better.  It was only when the Maskelynes attempted to duplicate the phenomena of the genuine physical medium under identical conditions (and they never succeeded) that the public became disgusted with the conjurers too.  To sum up, it does not pay the music-hall manager of to-day to stage either fake phenomena or to parody the genuine.  The public now realise - together with orthodoxy in the shape of official science - that genuine manifestations have been produced by good mediums, and theatre-goers would now resent the ridicule that was formerly heaped upon all mediums, good and bad, by stage magicians.

But in the days before the 'war that was to end all wars,' i.e. before 1914, music-hall mediums were fairly common, if not particularly

1. David Devant died on Oct. 13, 1941, aged 73 years.


popular.  And I think I might have added a fifth reason to those given above, why the stage medium has now disappeared.  A wave of emotion swept over the country during the war on account of the slaughter that was taking place in Flanders and elsewhere.  Many of those who lost their dear ones turned to spiritualism as a solace and a hope - and spiritualism benefited accordingly.  This same poignant emotional reaction that added to the ranks of the spiritualists had also the effect of killing the vaudeville physical medium stone dead: the public were in no mood for that sort of thing, and this type of show faded out.

Personally, I rather miss these old-time stage 'mediums,' as the really clever ones were, to me, a source of information which I found useful when tackling the professional physical medium.  Although some of the 'psychic' variety artists could not have produced their effects except on a stage, as we shall see later, others gave private séances when not appearing in public.  These were the more skilful ones.  I will now relate a few experiences with vaudeville mediums whom I saw during the years before the Great War, 1914-1918.

It was, I think, in 1902, at one of the South London music halls, that I saw Mr. and Mrs. Mayo, who hailed from Australia.  They were billed - as they all are - as the 'World's Greatest Mediums - Any Test Permitted.'  It is curious how these entertainers usually go about in pairs, the male partner acting as manager.

As the curtain went up on the Mayos' act, I at once realised that a certain well-known principle used by illusionists would be employed: The stage was completely hung with black velvet, with a back-cloth of the same material.  Mr. Mayo came forward and, in introducing his wife as the 'greatest medium who had ever appeared on any public stage,' stated that the séance would be held under the strictest test conditions.  He invited a committee from the audience to assist.

I very promptly made my way up the steps leading to the stage, together with eight other persons, among whom were three or four ladies, specially asked for.  Mayo informed us that under their stage clothes they wore only skin-tights and invited two persons of each sex to step into the temporary dressing-rooms in the wings and to confirm the fact that the mediums would take nothing into the cabinet except the clothes they stood up in.  Two ladies thereupon accompanied Mrs. Mayo off the stage, two male members of the committee following her husband to the opposite wings.  I was not invited to help in this fore-control of the mediums.

When the Mayos reappeared a few minutes later, the examining


members of the committee informed the audience that they had, respectively, thoroughly examined the performers - who now appeared in the regulation flesh tights - and that nothing could possibly be concealed upon them.  How little they knew of the possibilities of concealment under such conditions!

A number of stage hands now came forward and spread a thick carpet upon the boards.  We were invited to inspect it, and everything, as we wished, and to ask any questions.  The attendants then erected on the carpet, well back-stage, a sort of rectangular bathing tent, about ten feet square and ten feet high, formed of four upright steel tubes which supported a thin board roof covered with black velvet.  A dark red curtain was then hooked round the set-up, enclosing the whole.  The curtain openings were facing the audience.  Wire strainers leading from the four uprights to the floor kept everything taut and rigid.  During the erection of the cabinet the Mayos had been 'guarded' by the committee.  Then a further little speech by Mr. Mayo, who asked members of the audience to notify him should any of the materialised 'spirits' be 'recognised.'  Madame did not speak at all.  He then asked two men and two women of the committee to stand guard at the wings on either side of the stage in order to make sure that no one approached from these quarters.  Those appointed (I was not asked) took up their allotted positions, from which the four sides of the cabinet were in full view, though the upper part was shrouded in darkness.  Mayo then called out 'Lights! '

I must now say a few words about the lighting of the stage and auditorium.  During the previous turns, all the house lights, full on, had been in use, with the footlights about half on.  When Mayo gave his order, all the lights in the auditorium were extinguished, together with those in the wings, flies, etc.  But at the same time the footlights were turned on to their full capacity.  These lights were not the same as those used for the previous - or later - turns. They had their reflectors facing the audience, who thus had the lights shining full in their eyes.  By this arrangement the stage and cabinet were only faintly illuminated, the dark hangings absorbing the few rays reflected from the auditorium.  This system of lighting confirmed my suspicions as to how the trick would be worked.

When the lights were satisfactorily adjusted, Mayo threw open the curtains of the cabinet and invited those of the committee who were not guarding the wings to make another search.  We went in and made a perfunctory examination.  Under the conditions, we could not do more.  There was nothing in the cabinet.  He then


dismissed us to our seats.  He and Madame then entered the cabinet and drew the curtains.

Before one could have counted ten, the subdued notes of a piano were heard coming, apparently, from the cabinet.  Then a woman's voice was heard singing very sweetly the refrain from 'Love's Old Sweet Song.'  Both music and song ceased abruptly, at the same time as the curtains parted and a woman, attired in what appeared to be a white satin ball dress, with train, stepped in front of the cabinet.  She was tall, slim, and was carrying a bouquet of flowers in one hand, and a sheet of music in the other.  In a sweet, low voice, she asked if 'Edith' were present.  Immediately, a young woman in the audience acclaimed her as 'mother.'  A few words of greeting passed between 'mother and daughter,' and an attendant came on the stage and handed the bouquet to 'Edith.'  The figure - which by the way, did not look a bit like the medium's - then said some touching words of farewell and re-entered the cabinet.

A moment later, the audience heard someone playing a rollicking Southern melody on a banjo, the curtains again parted, revealing an old negro and negress, of the typical Uncle Tom's Cabin variety, complete with 'piccaninny,' all very black, standing between them.  They were dressed in light cotton garments.  The old man sang a Negro song about 'mammy and Sammy' and 'moons and coons' and accompanied himself on the banjo.  He made a few remarks in typical Negro-English; the child waved to the audience; and the three then disappeared into the cabinet.

Then a girl, apparently aged about twelve years, in a short white skirt, and holding a doll, appeared 'in front' and asked for 'mother.'  There was no response from the audience.  Then a tall man, with a fierce black moustache and wearing a light-coloured uniform (complete with pith helmet) came forward.  He said a few words, to the effect that he was sorry for his past life and hoped that 'Lulu would forgive him.'  I think he represented the typical 'remittance man.'  Then he disappeared.  There was no response from 'Lulu.'

After one or two more female figures with children (all of whom waved their hands) had 'materialised,' a schoolboy, wearing a straw 'boater,' and riding a bicycle, emerged from the cabinet, made a complete circuit of the stage, waved his hand to the audience, and disappeared into the cabinet.  A few moments later the Mayos themselves, clad in tights, appeared and announced that the séance was at an end.  They then invited the original committee to examine everything.

We all went on the stage again and found everything as we had left it before the show began.  The cabinet was completely empty,


and the Mayos were in their skin-tights as before the séance.  The 'spirits' had left not so much as a safety-pin behind them.

How were these 'miracles' produced?  I had already formed an opinion as to how the illusion was worked, based on my knowledge of stage and lighting effects.  As I made my exit, I confided to the attendant outside the hall my views on the Mayos' act, and, with a grin, he admitted that I 'was not far wrong.'

The following account is, then, a complete explanation of how the trick could have been worked.  In fact, how I am certain the trick was worked, though I may be wrong in a few minor details.

As the wings were guarded by four persons, the various effects must have been introduced into the cabinet either via the roof or via the floor.  Although 'traps' can be made in apparently seamless carpets, I closely examined the one used by the Mayos and could detect no join.  I was certain that the various properties had been smuggled into the cabinet through a trap in the black velvet-covered board forming the roof; or by the edge of the roof farthest from the audience being lifted partially off its supports by two invisible wires; or by the roof being completely raised from off these supports by four invisible wires.  The fact that the upper part of the stage was in complete darkness; that the roof was of black velvet; and that the stage hangings were also of black velvet, the raising of the roof would not, and could not, be detected by the audience or by those on guard in the wings.  The front lights would dazzle the eyes of the audience and would prevent their seeing what was going on above the cabinet.

As to how the various effects and properties were introduced into the cabinet, there was only one possible way, and that was by lowering them through the roof, or through the roof-trap, by means of a black velvet-covered box or bag, which would be quite invisible to the audience or to anyone on the stage.  The clothes (all light in colour, in order to reflect as much light as possible, and of the clip-on variety, as used by protean quick-change artists), wigs, banjo, and other effects could be invisibly and silently lowered from the flies in the way I have suggested.  The bicycle - probably of the folding variety - could have been lowered by the same means, perhaps covered with a black velvet cloth.  The piano was not in the cabinet at all, but in the flies: an aural illusion impossible of detection by the audience, who could not possibly tell exactly where the notes were coming from.  The effect was heightened by the fact that, as the last note died away, the singer appeared at the cabinet opening carrying her music.  It is possible, though I think unlikely, that the singer, too, was 'off-stage.'


The 'children,' all carefully led out of and into the cabinet, were, of course, articulated dummies, which waved their arms at a pull of a string.  The 'boy' on the bicycle was, undoubtedly, Mrs. Mayo.  The various characters were cleverly impersonated by the Mayos, both good actors.  The fact that they were in tights, worn in order to give an air of verisimilitude to the proceedings, would actually be an advantage when quickly attiring themselves in the various disguises.  The young woman who answered to the name of 'Edith' was, undoubtedly, a 'plant' or 'floor-worker,' the flowers artificial, and I suspect that a different 'materialisation' was 'recognised' at each performance.

So much for the Mayos.  For their very slick performance they depended upon principles well-known to illusionists and to those versed in methods of deception.  Their undoubted success as entertainers depended really upon their showmanship.  But there is another class of vaudeville medium who depend upon their own ingenuity, and not upon any stage effects, for fooling the public.  These are of the brazen variety who should be ruthlessly exposed.  The Tomsons belong to this category.

Mr. and Mrs. Tomson, who described themselves as 'American materialising mediums,' descended on London in the early summer of 1910 and were engaged by Mr. Moul to give séances at the Alhambra Music Hall, of which he was manager.  I went to two of these performances, and will now describe one of them.  Their act varied only in detail.

On the stage was erected a light 'cabinet' or small room, under which was placed a thick carpet.  Just in the wings was a similar erection, used as a dressing-room.  Mr. Tomson was the 'manager' and, in his 'spiel,' declared that Madame was 'the greatest medium in the world - any test permitted.'  He then invited a mixed committee to go upon the stage and examine everything.  I did not want asking twice, and joined about a dozen other members of the audience in scrutinising the cabinet, etc., which contained only a chair.  Actually, it was not possible really to examine anything, under the conditions.  For example, the tubular supports (framework) of the cabinet might have contained yards of cheese-cloth, crepe hair for beards, etc.  Such things have been known!

Mr. Tomson, who shepherded the committee about the stage, then asked four of the ladies to take his wife into the dressing-room, strip her, examine her, and put her in the special garment provided.

I understood one of the ladies to say that she was a doctor.  In a few minutes (during which Tomson was continuing his spiel) the examining party returned with the medium, who was led into the


cabinet, around which we sat in a semicircle, facing the audience.  The ladies informed us that the medium had nothing upon her except what they had dressed her in.  The curtains of the cabinet were then closed.  The stage was fairly well illuminated, though not all of the lights were employed.

In a very few minutes the cabinet curtains parted and a draped form appeared at the opening.  The head was shrouded in some flimsy material.  At this juncture Tomson remarked that if any member of the audience 'recognised' a form (he carefully avoided using the word 'spirit') would he or she please 'walk up.'  Almost immediately, a lady came on the stage and was led to the cabinet.  A few words of tender greeting, and the lady walked off as the form passed from our view.  Then came a number of other figures, including that of a child (effect produced by the medium kneeling), one or two of which were 'recognised.'  One of the forms had a bunch of real flowers, which she threw among the audience.  No male figures materialised on the nights I was present.  The séance concluded with a white dove flying out of the cabinet, which we then examined.  The floor was strewn with leaves and flower petals.

The show was not a patch on that given by the Mayos - for obvious reasons: Mrs. Tomson had to work alone.  How she produced the various effects will emerge later.  But I will add here that, under the conditions, she could have surreptitiously obtained all she needed for the 'materialisations ' in a number of ways.  One of the examining committee could have been a confederate, who could have passed to her the various articles after she was examined.  The drapery, flowers, etc., could have been delivered by hidden mechanism in the structure of the cabinet or chair legs.  The reader will remember the Anna Eva Fay stool.  And I can think of other ways.  But actually all the 'properties ' were almost certainly hidden upon the medium herself, proving that the fore-control or examination by the ladies was a farce.  They always are.

And now for the sequel.  Sir Hiram Maxim, whom I knew slightly, also saw the Tomsons at the Alhambra.  He was interested and the management offered to give him a private show.  This took place on the stage of the music-hall.  It was not in the nature of a real test just a private demonstration.  It was entirely unsatisfactory.  Sir Hiram searched the cabinet, which was quite empty.  Three ladies accompanied Mrs. Tomson into the dressing-room and searched her.  At least, they attempted to do so: she would not submit to a minute examination.  When she emerged from the dressing-room - 'enshrouded in a cloud of black chiffon' - she was led into the cabinet and Sir Hiram closed the curtains.  In two


Mrs. Tomson, the American medium, in one-piece black tights (which enclosed her feet) after her examination by a committee of ladies, and just before donning the special fore-control séance garments. (Reproduced from Price's Search for Truth)

minutes he was asked to open them and he found 'a small white dove, very tame, its feathers ruffled up, its tail feathers being broken and turned in the wrong direction, showing it had been confined in very close quarters.'  The curtains were again closed and a very large bouquet of flowers, quite fresh and dripping with water, was discovered.  Some of the stalks were a foot long, and covered with long and sharp thorns.  A further 'demonstration' was Mrs. Tomson herself enveloped in a cloud of white chiffon, in a dim blue light.

Under the conditions, these manifestations meant nothing to Sir Hiram, and he arranged a real test at his inhaler factory at Norwood.  He made a cabinet of three-ply wood, and after his secretary and her sister had searched Mrs. Tomson, she was asked to put on some black tights, which also covered her feet, so that there was no opening at the ankles.  A ribbon was drawn through a band in the neck of the tights and tied, the knots being sewn together.

Mrs. Tomson was then dressed in strong red cotton combinations, the seams of which had been carefully stitched.  The ends of the legs were sewn up tightly about the ankles, and large men's socks were drawn over the feet, and the top of the socks strongly stitched to the combinations.  The neck of this garment was drawn together by a solid brass chain, which ran through a tubular neckband, and locked at the back with a Yale padlock.

The back of the combinations was then laced and a strong piece of material was sewn over the lacing.  Then the wrists of the garment were sewn together, leaving no room for an object to be extracted from the medium's body by this route.  Her head was enclosed in a chiffon bag, the edges of which were sewn to the top of the combinations.  The medium was then very carefully weighed, her weight being 147¾ pounds.  She was then asked to step into the cabinet, the curtains of which were closed.  During the period of the test, Mrs. Tomson's husband and son were 'controlled' by being locked in a cage, made of wire-netting.

From the foregoing description of the fore-control, it was obviously impossible that the medium could extract any object from her person without disturbing the various fastenings.  And after the search by two ladies, it would seem equally impossible that she could have taken anything into the cabinet except the articles provided by the investigators.

Clever as Mrs. Tomson was, it took her fifty-five minutes (during which period there was a great commotion and apparent struggling in the cabinet) for her to produce anything.  At last she gave the signal, the curtains were drawn, and Sir Hiram found the medium


Mrs. Tomson dressed in the special "control" garments, in the cabinet immediately after the séance. Note the fragments of flowers on floor and shelf, and the large "materialised" snake on the left of the photograph. (Reproduced from Price's Search for Truth)

'in a deplorable condition.'  She had perspired so much that the moisture had washed the black out of the chiffon.  She asked for water and she drank about two ounces.

But the medium did produce something.  The floor of the cabinet was littered with fragments of flowers, which were all in bits.  And on the table was a large, live snake, three feet six inches long and weighing two pounds!  Mrs. Tomson was at once put on the scales and it was found that she weighed 145 pounds: i.e. two and three-quarter pounds lighter than when she was put in the cabinet.  The medium, snake, and flower fragments weighed together 147 pounds, so that the woman had lost - due to perspiration - about half a pound during the ordeal.

Upon examination of her various controlling garments, it was found that the chiffon bag had been ripped off the combinations in the front, making a hole as large as a man's hand.  The track of the flowers (which had been dragged up through the neck opening) could be plainly seen.  When the medium was undressed, more squashed flowers were found just above the waist sticking to her bare skin.  Finally, Mrs. Tomson broke down, cried, and made a clean breast of it.  The snake had been concealed under her arm, and the pressure had stopped the circulation to such an extent that the medium thought her arm was paralysed.  Poor snake!

Photographs were taken at each stage of the test.  As I possess the original negatives amongst my records, I will reproduce a few of them. (See plates.)

I have given a resume of the above test (the details of which have been extracted from Sir Hiram's official report [1]) in order to emphasise the extreme difficulty of thoroughly searching or examining a medium - especially a woman - by ordinary methods.  And this suggests to me that I take the reader very much behind the scenes with the mediums - especially the ladies - and give him a list of the principal and intimate hiding-places in or about a woman's anatomy where, over and over again, small objects have been found secreted by women posing as mediums.  They are: all the body orifices; the nostrils or nasal cavities, in posterior nares (which communicate with the pharynx); stomach or secondary stomach (æsophageal diverticulum) if she possesses one; behind or in the ears, or in the mouth (under the tongue); under the breasts; under rolls of fat, under the arms, between the legs, in the hair (especially at the back of the neck), under the soles of the feet (secured by means of strips of flesh-coloured plaster), and so on.  Even a severe, instrumental medical exploration by doctors sometimes fails to reveal the

1. Pearson's Magazine, August, 1910


hidden 'properties' used by fraudulent mediums.  And, quite naturally, very few women will submit to such an examination.  As regards these same 'properties' or 'effects,' occasionally they are revealed by accident, witness an amusing experience that befell me some years before the First World War.

In a Brighton paper I saw an advertisement to the effect that a medium was holding séances in a top back room at a house in Waterloo Street, Hove.  Admission, one shilling.  I duly found my way there one evening and was admitted to the medium's lodgings.  It appeared that a man and his pretty daughter, Elsie, were trying to eke out a living with the help of the 'spirits.'  The man had, I think, been on the vaudeville stage during his chequered career.  There were about eight of us in the room, which had been carefully darkened to exclude all external lights.  The medium was a man about sixty years of age, and hailed from the Midlands.  His daughter was about twenty-three years old.

Having arranged us round an oblong table, on which was a battered tin trumpet, in an apartment (which also did duty as a bedroom: I was sitting on an old hair trunk), the medium opened the proceedings by playing 'Abide with Me,' 'Come, Thou Holy Spirit, Come,' and 'There is a Better Land' on a wheezy accordion.  We were asked to join in 'where we could.'  Then we sang 'Three Blind Mice,' and the girl was told to turn out the gas.  I sat on the right of the medium.

In pitch darkness the man began to go into trance and in a falsetto voice informed us that 'Prairie Flower' (the reader will remember that 'Prairie Flower' was the name of a nostrum boosted by the 'Great Sequah'), his Indian spirit guide, would manifest herself.  After a short pause a child's voice announced in broken English that 'Prairie Flower' was with us.  The medium, removing the trumpet from his lips (I could hear or feel every movement of the man), then informed the sitters that he would ask 'Prairie Flower' to show us her 'pretty spirit lights.'  This was said in his normal voice and, again with the trumpet to his mouth, the spirit promised she would.  Then, in a pretty little speech, 'Prairie Flower' told us all about the 'Summerland' and how nice it was to be there.

I ought to point out that the sitters were not holding hands and there was no control of the medium.  In a minute or so, I heard a shuffling noise by my side, where the medium was sitting, and I was astonished to see, high up above me, a round luminous patch like the full moon in a cloudless sky.  Murmurs of delight from the devotees!  Then came a most unspiritual exclamation from the medium, accompanied by a shriek from Elsie.  The 'moon' became


suddenly eclipsed; there was a hasty opening of doors and we sat there waiting and wondering what had happened.  The medium daughter had disappeared.

After a minute or so I suggested lighting the gas.  This was done and someone went in search of the daughter who, upon returning to the séance-room, said her father was ill.  The sitters departed but I remained behind to make a few inquiries.  I told the girl that the 'moon' I had seen reeked of rat poison and said I was astonished at her being a party to such an obvious and outrageous swindle.

Elsie did not attempt to deny that that part of the séance was a fake, and, with a little persuasion, explained the cause of its sudden cessation.  It appears that, as I had concluded, the man had in his hip pocket a flask of phosphorised oil which, when exposed to the air, shone with a pale, erethereal light.  During his exertions with the accordian, the flask had broken against the back of the chair on which he had been sitting, and the contents saturated the seat of his trousers.  When he stood on the the chair to produce 'Prairie Flower's' spirit lights, he felt for the bottle and found what had happened. Elsie's shriek informed him that the spirit lights were in the wrong place!  Hence the sudden stampede.

The last time I heard of the man was through his advertisement in a psychic paper, and apparently he had turned into a 'healing medium.'  He also offered to develop your psychic faculties by post.  When I saw his notice, I was sorely tempted to write and remind him of the 'phosphorised moon' which had so suddenly eclipsed 'Prairie Flower's' platitudes from the Great Summerland.

The reader will be able in the following pages to obtain further glimpses behind the scenes with the mediums.  But it has been convenient to record the above incidents at this juncture, as they all occurred during the years before the First World War (1914-1918) when I seized every opportunity of acquiring knowledge and experience of mediums, both good and bad.  I was then forming in my mind a plan for establishing a national or international laboratory where all mediums - if they wished - could be tested under ideal scientific conditions, by instrumental means, and given a cachet that would be of some value to them and to other investigators - particularly official scientific and academic investigators, whom I wanted to interest.  The War stopped the immediate consummation of the plan, but I achieved my ambition later, as the reader will see.

But before I describe my activities during the War, I must put on record an account of some interesting experiments in flying made by an inventor named José Weiss, at which I assisted.  They took


place at Amberley Mount, on the South Downs, in the summer of 1908.  Weiss had for some years (notably at Alexandra Palace) been experimenting with both gliders and powered gliders.  During this particular summer he had produced a most promising machine, made of bamboo canes and linen, which he called the 'Flying Albatross.'  It was powered with a small motor-cycle engine.  Well, the great day came for the final test.  One Saturday afternoon we all trooped up to the Mount, and among the visitors was Colonel Capper of the War Office Balloon Section.  A few of the small gliders really did glide, but the 'Flying Albatross' refused to soar higher than the nearest clump of bushes, where it crashed.  We were all very disappointed.  Weiss was unlucky because, in the year 1908, the Wright Brothers, Voisin and Farman all achieved successes in the air.  The Morning Leader 'guyed' Weiss's experiments unmercifully, the account of the tests giving one the impression that we should never fly.  I often wonder whether the writer of the article lived to be 'blitzed' in 1940.



Chapter Five              Chapter Seven


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