Getting a Rise out of Ectoplasm

 This essay is an adaptation of three blog posts - "A Moldy Tale" and its sequel, and "Getting a Rise out of Ectoplasm." I have also incorporated some material that came up in the comments threads.


In his book After Death -- What? Researches in Hypnotic and Spiritualistic Phenomena (1909; Aquarian Press edition 1988), turn-of-the-century scientist Cesare Lombroso recounts the experiments that led him from a strictly materialist worldview to a belief in spirits and life after death. One of the most striking chapters is Lombroso's account of "seventeen séances held in Milan in 1892 ... séances in which the most marked precautions were taken, such as searching the medium, changing her garments, binding her and holding her hands and feet, and adjusting the electric light on the table so as to be able to turn it off and on at will." (pp. 40-41)

The subject of these experiments was the controversial Sicilian medium Eusapia Palladino, who was said to be able to levitate tables, make musical instruments play themselves, produce cold winds in a sealed room, and materialize hands and faces. Eusapia was an eccentric character known for her propensity to cheat when she thought she could get away with it, a tendency that discredited her in the eyes of many researchers. (The fact that she was a coarse, uneducated, and flirtatious peasant woman also factored into the disrepute in which she was held in genteel circles.) Nevertheless, when properly controlled and observed, she produced some remarkable phenomena, which are difficult if not impossible to explain by any normal means. Indeed, the premier magician of the day, Howard Thurston, witnessed one of Eusapia's séances and stated publicly that her phenomena could not be duplicated by any trickery known to him.

It's also worth noting that Lombroso was a serious and careful researcher, not in the least naive when it came to Eusapia. Here's what he had to say about her:

Many are the crafty tricks she plays, both in the state of trance (unconsciously) and out of it - for example, freeing one of her two hands, held by the controllers, for the sake of moving objects near her; making touches; slowly lifting the legs of the table by means of one of her knees and one of her feet, and feigning to adjust her hair and then slyly pulling out one hair and putting it over the little balance tray of a letter-weigher in order to lower it. She was seen by Faifofer, before her séances, furtively gathering flowers in a garden, that she might feign them to be 'apports' by availing herself of the shrouding dark of the room.

What follows are a few excerpts from Lombroso's treatment of the Eusapia sittings. It should be noted that the table used in the experiments was not Eusapia's; it was "made expressly for the purpose" by the researchers. (p. 41)

After recounting some partial levitations of the table Lombroso writes:

It was natural to conclude that if the table, in apparent contradiction with the law of gravitation, was able to rise on one side, it would be able to rise completely. In fact, that is what happened, and these levitations are among those of most frequent occurrence in experiments with Eusapia. They were usually produced under the following conditions: The persons seated around a table place their hands on it and form the chain there. Each hand of the medium is held by the adjacent hand of the neighbor on each side; each of her feet is under the foot of her neighbor; these furthermore press against her knees with theirs. As usual, she is seated at one of the short sides (end) of the table, -- the position least favorable for mechanical levitation. After a few minutes the table makes a lateral movement, rises now to the right and now to the left, and finally is lifted wholly off its four feet into the air, horizontally, as if afloat in a liquid, and ordinarily to a height of from 10 to 20 centimetres (sometimes, exceptionally, as high as 60 or 70), then falls back on all four feet at once. Sometimes it stays in the air for several seconds, and even makes fluctuating motions there, during which the position of the feet under it can be thoroughly inspected. During the levitation the right hand of the medium frequently leaves the table with that of her neighbor and remains suspended above it. Throughout the experiment the face of the medium is convulsed, her hands contract, she groans and seems to be suffering.

In order better to observe the matter in hand we gradually retired the experimenters from the table, having noticed that the chain of several persons was not at all necessary, either in this or in other phenomena. In the end we left only a single person besides the medium, and placed on her left. This person rested her feet on the two feet of Eusapia, and one of her hands on the latter's knees. With her other hand she held the left hand of the medium, whose right lay on the table in full view of all, or was even lifted into the air during the levitation.

Inasmuch as the table remained in the air for several seconds, it was possible to secure several photographs of performance. [Two of these are included in the book.]

A little before the levitation it was observed that the folds of the skirt of Eusapia were blown out on the left side so far as to touch the neighboring leg of the table. When one of us endeavored to hinder this contact, the table was unable to rise as before, and was only enabled so to do when the observer purposely allowed to contact to occur. It will be noticed that the hand of the medium was at the same time placed on the upper surface of the table on the same side, so that the leg of the table there was under her influence, as much in the lower portion by means of the skirt as in the superior portion through the avenue of the hand. No verification was made as to the degree of pressure exerted upon the table at that moment by the hand of the medium, nor were we able to find out, owing to the brevity of the levitation, what particular part was in contact with the garment, which seemed to move wholly in a lateral direction and to support the weight of the table.

In order to avoid this contact it was proposed to have the levitation take place while the medium and her coadjutors stood on their feet, but it did not succeed. It was also proposed to place the medium at one of the longer sides of the table. But she opposed this, saying that it was impossible. So we are obliged to declare that we did not succeed in obtaining a complete levitation of the table of all four of its legs absolutely free from any contact whatever, and there is reason to fear that a similar difficulty would have been met in the levitation of the two legs that stood on the side next the medium. [pp. 43-46]

While performing some experiments with a balance, the same "blowing out" of the medium's garment was observed.

In this experiment of the balance, also, it was noticed by some of us that success seemed to depend on contact of the garments of the medium with the floor upon which the balance was directly placed. The truth of this was established by a special experiment on the 9th of October. The medium having been seated on the balance, that one of our number who had taken upon himself to watch her feet soon saw the lower folds of her dress swelling out and projecting in such a way as to hang down from the platform of the balance. As long as the attempt was made to hinder this movement of the dress (which was certainly not produced by the feet of the medium), the levitation did not take place. But as soon as the lower extremity of the dress was allowed to touch the floor, repeated and very evident levitations took place, which were designated in very fine curves on the disk that registered the variations of weight. [pp. 47-48]

The movement of the dress naturally gives rise to suspicion that some sort of fancy footwork was at play. But the researchers swore that Eusapia's feet were not responsible for the movement. If there is any reality to ectoplasm, then it may be the case that some sort of invisible ectoplasmic protuberance was causing the dress to move, and that contact between this ectoplasmic rod and the floor or table was necessary in order to achieve results.

In any case, the preceding observations pale in comparison to a phenomenon that Lombroso titles "The Levitation of the Medium to the Top of the Table."

Among the most important and significant of the occurrences we put this levitation. It took place twice, -- that is to say, on the 28th of September and the 3rd of October. The medium, who was seated near one end of the table, was lifted up in her chair bodily, amid groans and lamentations on her part, and placed (still seated) on the table, then returned to the same position as before, with her hands continually held, her movements being accompanied by the persons next her.

On the evening of the 28th of September, while her hands were held by MM. Richet and Lombroso, she complained of hands which were grasping her under the arms; then, while in trance, with the changed voice characteristic of this state, she said, "Now I lift my medium up on the table." After two or three seconds the chair with Eusapia in it was not violently dashed, but lifted without hitting anything, on to the top of the table, and M. Richet and I are sure that we did not even assist the levitation by our own force. After some talk in the trance state the medium announced her descent, and (M. Finzi having been substituted for me) was deposited on the floor with the same security and precision, while MM. Richet and Finzi followed the movements of her hands and body without at all assisting them, and kept asking each other questions about the positions of the hands.

Moreover, during the descent both gentlemen repeatedly felt a hand touch them on the head.

On the evening of October 3 the thing was repeated in quite similar circumstances, MM. Du Prel and Finzi being one on each side of Eusapia. [pp. 49-50]

The researchers' impression of being touched by "a hand" during this levitation is particularly interesting, and perhaps adds weight to the hypothesis of ectoplasmic extensions at at work.

Now, I'm well aware that there are ways of tilting a table and making it appear to levitate, though it would seem that the researchers' precautions were sufficient to prevent fraud in these particular tests. But even if Eusapia managed to fool them with regard to the table, how in the world could she simulate the levitation of herself and the chair she was sitting on -- transporting it from the floor to the table itself, and then back again, while closely observed?

Since several witnesses were present, a skeptic would have to posit a collective hallucination that persisted for a fairly extended period of time. I suppose mass hysteria could account for such a thing, but there is no reason to think that these investigators were hysterical.

What if the investigators simply misremenbered the event? It seems absurd. Sucgh aa dramatic devlopment would make a strong - perhaps indelible - impression. Besides, researchers in these situations typically write up their notes immediately after the event. And all of the researchers would have to suffer the same memory lapse.

Could the researchers have lied? This is probably the only non-paranormal explanation that makes any sense. But there is no reason to suspect the researchers of dishonesty. They had nothing to gain by promoting Eusapia; quite the opposite - their endorsement of her abilities hurt their reputations and careers. At least two of them (Lombroso, Richet) were skeptical materialists by training and predisposition, who came to a belief in the paranormal only reluctantly. Lombroso's report reads like a sober record of facts, with Eusapia's occasional failures and attempts at deception plainly noted. Besides, other researchers reported similar phenomena from Eusapia on other occasions, so they must have been lying, too.

Skepticism of physical phenomena in the seance room is often warranted, as the long history of fraud in this area makes clear. But when a case is as well observed and carefully reported as this one - with the effects occurring in good light over a period of several minutes - I don't think any skeptical explanation holds up.

Eusapia Palladino was by no means the only medium to produce inexplicable effects of a "physical" (as opposed to mental) nature. Another example is Franek Kluski, who first came to my attention via Arthur Conan Doyle's History of Spiritualism. This well-known book, in two volumes (complete text available online: Vol. I and Vol. II), makes rewarding reading for anyone interested in the early years of parapsychology.

That's not to say there aren't problems with the book. Doyle's dogged commitment to the reality of psi phenomena, especially as pertaining to life after death, led him to endorse some questionable characters. In Volume I, he goes to some lengths to establish the Davenport Brothers as legitimate, even though most observers then and later have made then out to be clever frauds. He endorses such dubious activities as slate-writing and spirit photography, and seems genuinely peeved at the efforts of the Society for Psychical Research to tighten up the experimental controls on mediums.

Despite these caveats, the two volumes contain many fascinating anecdotes, and a good deal of seemingly solid evidence is presented. Doyle's smooth, lucid prose style makes the pages turn quickly.

In a chapter in Volume II titled "Voice Mediumship and  Moulds," Doyle discusses the practice of producing paraffin molds of spirit forms - faces and hands, usually - in the séance room. Skeptics dismiss such claims, saying that the medium or an accomplice made the impressions surreptitiously, or that pre-made molds were smuggled into the room and substituted in the dark. This is undoubtedly true in some cases; one instance often cited is the infamous case of "Margery" (Mina Crandon), who produced a spirit thumbprint that turned out to belong to her all-too-living dentist. People argue to this day about Margery's mediumship, and the case may not be as clear-cut as it appears. Still, that exposure and others like it have made researchers understandably cautious.

But consider the case of Franek Kluski. It seems that every reasonable precaution against fraud was taken, yet positive results were obtained. According to Doyle, the following series of tests were reported in the magazine Revue Metapsychique in June, 1921: 

Dr. [Gustave] Geley carried out with Kluski a number of remarkable experiments in the formation of wax moulds of materialized hands. He has recorded the results of a series of eleven successful sittings for this purpose. In a 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 a test the wax was impregnated (unknown to the medium) with the chemical cholesterin, this to prevent the possibility of substitution. Dr. Geley writes:

The feeble light did not admit of the phenomena being actually seen; we were aware of the moment of dipping, by the sound of splashing in the liquid. The operation involved two or three immersions. The hand that was acting was plunged in the trough, was withdrawn, and, covered with warm paraffin, touched the hands of the controllers of the experiments, 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 the characteristic reaction of cholesterin. Dr. Geley shows twenty-three photographs of the moulds and of plaster casts made from them. It may be mentioned that the moulds exhibit the folds of the skin, the nails and the veins, and these markings in nowise resemble those of the medium. Efforts to make similar moulds from the hands of human beings were only partially successful, and the difference from those obtained at the sittings was obvious. Sculptors and moulders of repute have declared that they know of no method of producing wax moulds such as those obtained at the séances with Kluski.

Geley sums up the result thus:

"We will now enumerate the proofs which we have given of the authenticity of the moulds of materialized limbs in our experiments in Paris and Warsaw.

"We have shown that quite apart from the control of the medium, whose two hands were held by us, all fraud was impossible.

"1. The theory of fraud by a rubber glove is inadmissible, for such an attempt gives crude and absurd results which can be seen at a glance to be imitations.

"2. It is not possible to produce such gloves of wax by using a rigid mould already prepared. A trial of this shows at once how impossible it is.

"3. The use of a prepared mould in some fusible and soluble substance, covered with a film of paraffin during the séance and then dissolved out in a pail of water, will not fit in with the actual procedure. We had no pail of water.

"4. The theory that a living hand was used (that of the medium or of an assistant) is inadmissible. This could not have been done, for several reasons, one being that gloves thus obtained are thick and solid, while ours are fine and delicate, also that the position of the fingers in our moulds makes it impossible that they could be withdrawn without breaking the glove. Also that the gloves have been compared with the hands of the medium and of the assistants, and that they are not alike. This is shown also by anthropological measurements.

"Finally, there is the hypothesis that the gloves were brought by the medium. This is disproved by the fact that we secretly introduced chemicals into the melted wax, and that these were found in the gloves.

"The report of the expert modellers on the point is categorical and final."

Nothing is evidence to those who are so filled with prejudice that they have no room for reason, but it is inconceivable that any normally endowed man could read all the above, and doubt the possibility of taking moulds from ectoplasmic figures.

rebuttal of Geley's work was presented by two Italian researchers, Massimo Polidoro and Luigi Garlaschelli, who cast doubt on some of his claims. In particular, they showed that thin molds could be obtained rather easily, and that it was possible for a person to twist his hand free of the paraffin without breaking the mold. Their work is important and interesting, but it does not address the most significant claims made by Geley - namely, that the medium's hands were controlled throughout the séance, and that the paraffin had been pretreated with a certain chemical (without the medium's knowledge) to expose any attempted substitution.

If substitution is eliminated as a possibility, and if the medium's hands were properly controlled, then the only remaining non-paranormal explanation is the action of an accomplice, who would make a mold of his own hand. Could Geley have been careless enough to allow a potential accomplice into the séance room, and would this person's actions pass unnoticed in the dim red light? It seems doubtful.

Skeptics will probably say Kluski fooled the experimenters into believing they had control of both his hands, when actually they were controlling only one. But remember that one of the molds was of a foot, and another was of a partial face ("chin and lips"). Maybe, just maybe, Kluski could have lowered his face into the paraffin, though it seems likely that this action would have been observed, and that some traces of the paraffin would cling to his face afterward.

More important, how would he get his bare foot onto the table and into the trough of paraffin?

After I wrote up this part of the story, a reader named Renaud Evrard pointed me to an excellent article by Mario Varvoglis on the Kluski materializations. This piece goes into more detail about the experiments and clearly shows the weaknesses of Polidoro and Garlaschelli's skeptical explanation. It appears that in presenting their case, they left unmentioned a number of crucial points.

Polidoro and Garlaschelli write,

Strictly following Geley's instructions, we prepared two basins (each had a diameter of 10 inches): one with hot water (approximately 5 litres at 55ºC), in which we poured a layer of molten paraffin (approx. 1 kg, previously melted in a pan with boiling water on a kitchen stove), and the other with cold water (5 litres), which we later used to immerse our hands and allow the paraffin to solidify. In turn, we immersed our hands first in the basin filled with paraffin and then in the one containing water.

But this is quite misleading, as Varvoglis' article makes clear. In the Kluski tests, there was no basin of cold water. Varvoglis:

Rather than using a second bowl for cooling, the IMI [Institut Metapsychique International]researchers preferred to allow the wax moulds to rigidify on their own, this being, as we shall see, a precaution against fraud.

The unnaturally rapid rate of cooling of Kluski's paraffin molds was itself a sign that something unusual was going on. Without any cold water available, the molds still cooled and set within one or two minutes - much faster than should have been possible. Kluski's hands (controlled throughout) were observed to get quite cold at times, as if he could produce a change in temperature at will.

The two skeptics, Polidoro and Garlaschelli, continue:

In all of these cases, we were able rather easily to make some fairly thin moulds (a few millimeters thick) just by immersing the hands a couple of times in the basin with the paraffin. But our most significant result was that in every instance we managed to remove our hands from the solidified paraffin glove without breaking it.

This sounds persuasive until we realize that molds "a few millimeters thick" are still significantly thicker than those produced in the Kluski tests, as Varvoglis observes:

Finally, it should be mentioned that the wax moulds were less than a millimeter thick (thinner than a sheet of paper).

And again:

… the wax moulds were exceptionally delicate : at most a millimeter thick.

The thinness and fragility of the Kluski molds would have greatly complicated efforts to extricate the hand from the mold without having the mold fall to pieces - something the skeptics fail to mention.

Another fact creating difficulty for the skeptics is that Kluski's molds were much smaller than his own hands. The molded hands were child-sized; no one in the séance room had hands so small. In addition, the fingerprints of the molded hands were not those of Kluski. (It is a tribute to the thoroughness of the researchers that they actually checked this detail with the help of the police.)

Polidoro and Garlaschelli try to address this point:

It would not be difficult to conclude ... that particularly complex moulds could have been shaped with extreme care, before a séance took place, by the medium himself or his accomplices and, during the séance, jumbled up with other moulds forged at the moment of performing the spiritualist occurrence.

This won't do. The séance room was locked; only the investigators and Kluski were present. Who, then, was the accomplice? More important, there could have been no substitutions in at least three of the cases, when the investigators secretly treated the paraffin wax with telltale chemicals.

Here is one such case, per Varvoglis:   

Just prior to beginning, Richet and Geley had secretly added a bluish coloring agent to the paraffin. Control of the medium was considered excellent, with controllers regularly checking and verbally reporting ‘I am holding the right hand’, ‘I am holding the left hand’. Splashing sounds were heard about twenty minutes into the session, and one to two minutes later two warm paraffin gloves were deposited next to the controllers. Both wax moulds had precisely the same bluish tint as that of the tank, strongly suggesting that these were indeed created during the séance, and not smuggled in by the medium. An additional control was the weighing of all substance. Prior to the experiment, the paraffin was 3.920 grams, while at the end of the session it weighed 3.800 grams. The two moulds weighed 50 grams, and there was considerable wax scattered near the medium (around 15 grams), on his clothing, and on the floor 3.5 meters away from him (about 25 grams). Insofar as the sum of these weights correspond very closely to the initial weight, this further establishes that the wax gloves were produced during the session.

Moreover, Kluski's hands were held at all times throughout the sessions by investigators who were well aware of the old "substitution of hands" ploy used by fake mediums. The red light in the room, though dim, was sufficient to allow the sitters to see the outlines of the people at the table. Any gross movements occurring right in front of their faces would have been seen.

Why, then, did the researchers not see the spirit hands entering the paraffin bath? On at least one occasion, they apparently did. Varvoglis writes:

Finally, in one session the researchers actually saw the production of the wax moulds. In other words, they witnessed a continuity between the visual apparitions of luminous hands and the creation of the moulds. As Geley describes it :

We had the great pleasure of seeing the hands dipping into the paraffin. They were luminous, bearing points of light at the finger-tips. They passed slowly before our eyes, dipped into the wax, moved in it for a few seconds, came out, still luminous, and deposited the glove against the hand of one of us.

Varvoglis' complete article is well worth reading. In total, it makes a compelling case for the reality of the Kluski phenomena, and points up the extreme deficiencies of the skeptics' counterargument.

In the case of both Palladino and Kluski, multiple, trained observers using every reasonable precaution witnessed phenomena that have no credible non-paranormal explanation. There are other such cases - whole books full of them. Yet we continue to hear that there is "no evidence" for such phenomena, and that only gullible idiots believe in such things.

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