Spiritualism is a religious and philosophical movement based on the belief in life after death and the possibility of communicating with the spirits of the dead via specially gifted mediums. Although the theory and practice of communicating with the dead date back to ancient times, spiritualism in its modern sense is believed to have emerged on March 31, 1848, the day on which sisters Kate and Margaret Fox reported having contact with a spirit. This instance gave rise to an entire movement that saw communication with spirits not as a means to an end but as its main goal.
According to spiritualists, contact with the world of the dead was possible under two conditions: the presence of a medium and the spirit’s willingness to communicate. As the number of people who wanted to talk to the dead greatly exceeded the number of mediums, the format of spiritualist séances1 appeared, in which mediums helped individuals communicate with spirits by means of table-turning, automatic writing, drawing or trance speaking. There were other methods of communicating with spirits, which required the presence of the medium but not their direct involvement.
Spiritualist experiments varied in terms of details, but they were structurally similar. A medium (one or several) and everybody who wished to be involved gathered in an enclosed space with dimmed lights or in complete darkness. If the medium succeeded in contacting the spirit, participants witnessed manifestations ranging from sound and light effects to vibration or movement of furniture and materializations.2 The medium could also use a Ouija board to communicate messages from the spirit.
Spiritualism quickly became popular across the United States, and later spread to Europe and Russia. In the Russian Empire of the mid-1850s it did not extend beyond fashionable salons, but within two decades a new resurgence sparked a lively debate and created a mass movement, which has continued in various forms to the present day.3 The main champions of spiritualism in Russia were the writer and state councillor Alexander Aksakov, St. Petersburg University zoologist Nikolai Wagner, and chemist Alexander Butlerov.
Aksakov, Butlerov, and Wagner founded a group that organized séances and studied psychic phenomena in St. Petersburg. Articles about the group’s research into spiritualism and their active support of the movement were sensational not only as a result of the subject matter but also because the protagonists were acclaimed scientists.
In January 1881, Wagner was present at Russia’s first stereo photography session organized to document psychic phenomena invisible to the naked eye. The stereo method (taking simultaneous photographs from different angles) was used as a safeguard against inaccuracies common in early photography. As a scientist, Wagner saw spiritualist photography primarily as a means of proving the possibility of capturing otherwise invisible psychic phenomena and various stages of phantom materialization.4
The first spiritualist attempts to document the materialization of spirits (and thus prove the existence of the afterlife and the possibility of interacting with the dead) were made almost immediately after photographic technology started becoming widely available.
Phantoms could be captured in a variety of ways. In one technique, a long exposure was used and at the last moment a person playing a ghost appeared. As their time in front of the camera was very brief, the photograph featured a clear yet semi-transparent ghostly figure, which was exactly what was required.
Alongside spiritualist photography, another technique for proving the existence of the afterlife involved making wax moulds of ectoplasmic figures (ectoplasm is a substance apparently produced by mediums). Such moulds often led to lengthy and heated debates in society.
Doctor Gustave Geley, who conducted experiments together with the famous Polish medium Franek Kluski, described the technique in the following way: “The séance took place in dim light. The medium’s right hand was held by Professor Richet and his left hand by Count Potocki. A trough containing wax, kept at melting-point by warm water, was placed two feet in front of Kluski, and for the purpose of the test the wax was impregnated (unknown to the medium) with the chemical cholesterin, to prevent the possibility of substitution. [...] The operation involved two or three immersions. The hand was plunged into the trough, withdrawn, and, covered with warm paraffin, touched the hands of the controllers of the experiment, and then was plunged again into the wax. After the operation the glove of paraffin, still warm but solidified, was placed against the hand of one of the controllers.
In this way, nine moulds were taken: seven of hands, one of a foot, and one of a chin and lips. The wax of which they were composed on being tested gave a positive result for cholesterin.”5
The moulds in Geley’s photographs feature folds of skin, nails, and the veins that are different to those of the medium. Experienced sculptors and moulders of the time declared that they knew of no method of producing similar wax moulds. To exclude falsification, Geley organized trials with hands of living humans and rubber gloves. Chemicals such as cholesterin were added to the melted wax at the last moment before the experiment.
Geley concluded that “the experiment of the mould, coupled with that of the so-called spirit photograph, gives objective proof of the operation of an intelligent force outside of any visible organism, and offers a fair basis for scientific investigation.”6
1. Elnara Akhmedova, “Spiriticheskii seans v literature Velikobritanii vtoroi poloviny XIX – nachala XX veka,” Filologiya, zhurnalistika, 17, 3, 2017..
3. Alexander Panchenko, “Spiritizm i russkaya literatura,” Trudy Otdeleniya istoriko-filologicheskikh nauk RAN, 2005.
4. Vladislav Razdyakonov, “‘Velikoe delo’ uchenykh spiritov: istoriya russkogo obshchestva eksperimental’noi psikhologii i spiriticheskii kruzhok N.P. Vagnera,” Vestnik RGGU, 2013.
5. Arthur Conan Doyle, Istoriya spiritizma (St. Petersburg, 1997), 364.
6. Arthur Conan Doyle, Istoriya spiritizma (St. Petersburg, 1997), 364.