Bangs Sisters, Lizzie and May (early 1900s)
Chicago mediums who specialized in direct writing and direct
drawing and painting. In sealed envelopes that were
brought by the sitters and enclosed between two slates, messages
in ink were produced in bright daylight. The sitter placed
the envelopes between a pair of slates and held them under his
or her hand while the medium sat on the opposite side of the
table. After waiting from a few minutes to an hour, raps signaled
that the message was ready.
On behalf of Dr. I. K. Funk, who investigated the mediums
several times himself and had a high opinion of their powers,
Hereward Carrington went to Chicago in 1909 and, as narrated
in the Annals of Psychic Science (July– September 1910), found
fraud. He addressed a letter in a sealed envelope to ‘‘Dearest
mother, Jane Thompson’’ (who never existed) and received a
reply addressed to ‘‘Dearly loved son Harold,’’ signed by his
‘‘devoted mother, Jane Thompson.’’ Admiral W. Usborne
Moore, who had many sittings with the Bangs sisters in 1909
and later in 1911, defended the sisters.
In the course of the controversy that ensued Carrington told
in a letter to Light (May 13, 1911) that David P. Abbott had succeeded
in duplicating the Bangs sisters’ phenomena exactly by
trickery. Moore replied that he made a number of tests, that he
read carefully an exposé by a Dr. Krebs, that he knew the method
employed by Abbott and that it surpassed in skill almost
every conjuring trick he had witnessed but that the conditions
were as different from those at the séances of the Bangs sisters
as a locomotive is different from a teapot. In fact, it was the conjuring
performance that finally convinced him that the Bangs
sisters must be genuine, he said.
In telling the story of his investigations in Glimpses of the Next
State (1911) Moore narrates how he took his own slates and inkpot
to the sitting. On the advice of Sir William Crookes he
added lithium citrate to the ink. He obtained a message of
eight pages, signed by his spirit guide, ‘‘Iola.’’ By later spectrum
analysis the presence of lithium was in fact discovered in
the ink. This proved to his satisfaction that in some mysterious
way his own ink was instrumental in preparing the message in
the sealed envelope between his own slates.
Furthermore, he laid his visiting card on top of the slates
and tore off one corner for identification. He also wrote a postscript
to his questions on a separate piece of paper and placed
it alongside the visiting card. The former found its way into the
envelope, while the card, in accordance with a message on the
outside of the envelope, was discovered in another room in
Moore’s hat.
The ‘‘direct spirit portraits’’ that the Bangs sisters produced
as early as 1894 in color, before the sitters’ eyes, and in daylight
was an even more mysterious phenomenon. At first a locked
box or curtained-off space was used and several sittings were
required. Later they were openly precipitated, as if by an airbrush,
as quickly as within eight minutes. The arrangement was
as follows
Two identical, paper-mounted canvases in wooden frames
were held up, face to face, against the window, the lower edges
resting on a table and the sides gripped by each medium with
one hand. A short curtain was hung on either side and an
opaque blind was drawn over the canvases. With the light
streaming from behind, the canvases were translucent.
After a quarter of an hour, the outlines of shadows began to
appear and disappear as if the invisible artist were making a
preliminary sketch, then the picture began to grow at a feverish
rate. When the frames were separated the portrait was found
on the paper surface of the canvas next to the sitter. Although
the paint was greasy and stuck to the finger on being touched,
it left no stain on the paper surface of the other canvas, which
closely covered it. The sitters were requested to bring a photograph
of their departed friends, but they were not asked to produce
it. The portraits were not copies of the concealed photographs,
but the facial resemblance was apparently an imitation.
Reportedly the tone often grew richer and deeper afterward.
Moore noticed in his experiments that details were added
if he did not look, and when once he mentally desired that a
gold locket should be enlarged and decorated with a monogram,
the thing was done as requested. He often brought his
own frames, sealed the window, searched the premises, and
closely watched every movement in the room, yet the picture
was obtained as before.
The Bangs sisters also produced these phenomena in public
halls before great audiences. Apports of flowers were a frequent
occurrence; objects disappeared incomprehensibly; and
chemical effects, like ink changing into dirty water, were witnessed.
An early slate-writing séance with Lizzie Bangs is described
by A. B. Richmond in What I Saw at Cassadaga Lake (1888)
‘‘Soon I heard a faint noise between the slates. It did not
sound like writing, but more like the crawling of an insect imprisoned
between them, in a few moments there came three
distinct raps. I opened the slates and found two messages written
in the Morse alphabet, one of them signed by the one to
Baltazo Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
whom the interrogatory was directed, and who could not in this
life read or write telegraphy, the other by a prominent jurist
who died a number of years ago.’’
After a trial of many days Richmond obtained three communications
between two screwed-together slates. One was signed
by Henry Seybert, and the handwriting was the same as that he
had obtained a year before in a séance with Pierre Keeler.
The most spectacular direct-writing demonstration by Lizzie
Bangs was the direct operation of a typewriter. As described by
Quaestor Vitae in Light (January 25, 1896), the machine kept
on working when held up in the air by four of the men present.
The hand alleged to have done the work also materialized.
In his investigation of the sisters’ phenomena, Hereward
Carrington refers to an exposé regarding the letter writing inside
a sealed enveolope (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research,
vol. 10). The writer claims to have seen the tricks by
means of a small hand mirror that he held beneath the table.
He found that, under cover of the writing pad placed against
the edges of the slate resting on the table, May Bangs, one of
the sisters, wedged open the slate by means of a small rubber
wedge; the letter, when abstracted, was dropped on to a sort of
‘‘gridiron’’ arrangement that lay on the carpet. It was promptly
drawn backward under a slit in the door into the next room,
where Lizzie Bangs, the other sister, steamed the envelope. In
the meantime the ink in the cup had time to evaporate so that
it appeared to have been used.
A number of testimonies vouching for the Bangs sisters are
printed in James Coates’s Photographing the Invisible. But there
is no doubt that some of the charges of fraud brought against
them in their early career were well borne out. In 1880 and in
1891 they were seized as masquerading materialized spirits
under very damaging circumstances, and in 1890 a Colonel
Bundy charged them in the Religio-Philosophical Journal with
fraud in slate writing. Dr. Richard Hodgson made a thorough
investigation of the respective documents. His findings were
against the mediums (Light, 1899).
A collection of portraits produced by the Bangs sisters has
been preserved in the gallery at the Spiritualist Camp at Chesterfield,
Abbott, David P. Behind the Scenes With the Mediums. LaSalle,
Ill. Open Court Publishing, 1909.
———. Spirit Portrait Mystery; Its Final Solution. Chicago,
[Bangs Sisters]. The Bangs Sisters’ Manifesto to the World. Chicago,
Moore, W. Usborne. Glimpses of the Next State (The Education
of an Agnostic). London Watts, 1911.