It was tough being a Victorian. In the nineteenth century, change—technological, scientific, cultural, religious—was accelerating at a previously unthinkable pace. Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born before the Regency began, and lived to see the motor car, cinema, zips, and the ballpoint pen. Just think about that: a lifetime that took you from the quill to the biro.
New ideas were hitting from every direction. The combination of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the discovery of fossils blew a hole in conventional Christian beliefs. Meanwhile technology was creating ever greater marvels, such as the electric telegraph allowing communication between Britain and America, India, and finally, in 1872, Australia. (In other words, you could send a near-instant message to Australia twenty years before you could write a note with a ballpoint pen.)
One of the weirder products of this time was the Spiritualist movement. This was basically a cross between a science and a religion, taking elements from both. It kind of makes sense. If you could send messages whizzing round the world, why not to the next world as well? If magnetism could be harnessed to create electricity, why shouldn’t animal magnetism (a natural force found in all living things) be harnessed to cure illness or do marvels?
Spiritualism began in the US in the 1840s and spread to Britain in the next decade. It found fertile ground. People whose religious faith had been shaken wanted something to believe in; people stunned by marvels of the new science were ready to listen to almost anything; and people who’d already been making a nice living from mesmerising the suggestible now saw those ££ signs you get in the eyes of cartoon characters.
Because the problem with offering mesmeric healing was, it pretty much didn’t work. Whereas what Spiritualism offered was a chance to experience inexplicable mysteries, and maybe talk to dead people—both of which were very easily arranged.
Spiritualism was basically a one-stop occult shop offering all kinds of paranormal experiences, from the quasi-sacramental to the cheapest tricks. You might go to speak to your dead loved one via a medium passing on messages from a spirit guide, or you might do it for kicks in your own home. (Victorian ladies bought crystal balls and “guaranteed” turning tables to summon their own spirits up.) Best of all, though, was a medium who could put on a show. Usually he or she would be restrained in some way—hands held, or tied, as a proof no trickery was involved even as the gaslight was turned low or completely off. Once it was extremely dark and the atmosphere suitably spooky, all sorts of strange and inexplicable phenomena might occur. Here are a few.
Apports. Objects appearing out of nowhere as though dropping from the sky. Or through a hatch in the ceiling, or indeed removed from the medium’s voluminous skirts under cover of darkness. Apports were very often vegetables, presumably for cheapness. Please take a moment to imagine a group of well-dressed occult researchers sitting round a table in the dark, paying for someone to throw cauliflowers at them.
Table-rapping. This was one of the earliest and most notorious of phenomena: inexplicable bangs and cracks even when the medium was restrained. Researchers established pretty early on that it was done by cracking the toe or knee joints, but the public seems not to have cared.
Spirit writing. This was often done on slates, where chalk messages would appear as though by magic. There were many techniques, including grey silk scarves or false tops to conceal the actual slate, accomplices listening in and sneaking prewritten slates to the medium, and the medium writing under the table, often holding the chalk in their toes.
Table tilting. A table might be tilted to a precarious angle by a medium using hooks or a harness with rods concealed under their clothing. Some of the more expensive mediums had specially constructed tables with electromagnets inside. These could be set with metal objects, or china and glasses containing embedded pieces of metal, so the table could tilt impossibly yet nothing fall off.
Inexplicable music. A medium might have a small musical box strapped to her leg (Victorian skirts coming in handy again) or inside a guitar which would thus appear to play itself. Look, it was dark.
Spirit forms. If the medium had a hand free (either by sitting next to a confederate, or by jerking one free while going into trance so the genuine sitters on either side unknowing took hold of the same hand) a glove treated with phosphor made an excellent glowing hand. Alternatively, a dummy hand puppet could be attached to the medium’s foot and waved at the edge of the table or, even better, through a secret hatch in the middle of the table, so it appeared to have materialised in the centre of solid wood.
Levitation. The Wizard of the North, DD Home, famously levitated himself in standing position out of a window of a high room, above the street, and back in through another, then did it again horizontally. Or so we’re told. The witnesses disagreed dramatically on a number of details of the story (time, height of room, location) but all stuck to the levitation part all their lives, and a couple of them were thoroughly staid and respectable. People have been arguing over this one for a century.
In my new book An Unnatural Vice, Justin Lazarus is a medium, which is to say a con artist. He uses some of the methods detailed here, as well as some quite different ones, to rip off his clients. (All of the techniques in the book are real Victorian ones: the ingenuity of spiritualists was amazing.) Justin knows he’s a bad man and isn’t planning to apologise, and when he meets Nathaniel Roy—archbishop’s son, lawyer turned crusading journalist, man on a moral mission—it’s fair to say they don’t hit it off. But when the shameless scammer finds himself in desperate trouble, with only Nathaniel to turn to, something may have to give.
I am not a big fan of people who prey on the credulous or bereaved, but I have to admit I loved writing Justin, digging into why he does what he does, and looking for a nugget of decency somewhere down there. It was a deeply fun book to write; I hope readers enjoy it!
An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities 2)
Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel—or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.
Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.
But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust—and, perhaps, the only man he could love.