Saturday, 13 March 2010

Unhappy mediums

I'm not a great listener to the radio, but this afternoon's Saturday Play on Radio 4 (Confessions of a Medium - available on iPlayer for a week) was rather nice.

Dark comedy by AL Kennedy, set in 1870s London and based on a true story.

Mr Parker is a sincere and kind man who, in search of a higher meaning to life, has moved from conventional religion to seances and spiritualism. He believes he has met his saviour in the guise of Mr Thomson, a charming, erudite and utterly mesmerising medium. But, unbeknown to Parker, Thomson is a complete and utter fake.

Part of the interest is that the play is a historically accurate take on the adept magicianship used by mediums in the Victorian era, the heyday of elaborate physical mediumship. The origin of the "true story" isn't identified in any of the schedules, but from the title I'd guess it drew on the anonymous 1882 account Confessions of a medium (Internet Archive confessionsofmed00londrich). The mechanics of spiritualism by Harry Price ("the first celebrity ghost-hunter") has a number of other accounts and titles such as Revelations of a spirit medium (Internet Archive revelationsofspi00farriala), which caused a sensation on its first publication in 1891. Price writes:

... the work itself is a brilliant and detailed exposé of most of the tricks used by fraudulent mediums, who bought up all the copies they could find and destroyed them. The book is now of the extremest rarity. During a lifetime's collecting of rare books on magic I have found only three copies. One of these I sacrificed in order that a facsimile edition could be produced by the anastatic process 1

Parker and Thomson in the radio play appear to have been inspired by the partnership of Douglas Blackburn and George Albert Smith, who had a similarly ambivalent relationship over whether what they were doing was fraud. Their telepathy double-act even managed to get accredited by the Society for Psychical Research; some years later Blackburn, thinking Smith was dead, revealed how it was done; but Smith turned up and denied it. See the Blackburn and Smith entry in James Randi's An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. The story is covered in some detail under Confessions of a "Telepathist" on pages 114- in Journal of the Society for Psychical Research for Ocotber 1911.

1. Anastatic printing produced a facsimile by destroying the original. I'm not sure what was up with just copying out the text.
- Ray


  1. I'm your opposite (an eagerly frequent radio listener) and had over the past two weeks caught about half of Hilary Mantel's Beyond black, which has an unhappy medium at its centre.

    So this one seemed clearly "meant" ... but I missed it. Having read you, I shall go and remedy that.

  2. This may well have been in my mind regarding the title: Clare's been reading Beyond Black recently. She didn't like it. I just asked why: a) she's a Spiritualist (which you may not know) and was pissed off by the common factual errors about what Spiritualists do and believe; and b) she thought sod all happened in the story. But that's just one reader opinion.

  3. I'll do my best to check this out, in the next day or so -- I used to listen quite regularly to Radio 4's plays, before I moved Stateside.

    You might find Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death interesting. There are plenty of frauds along the way but Blum herself doesn't come down on either side of the debate. Useful list of reviews over at Metacritic.

  4. I also missed this, although I have been listening to Beyond Black, which intrigued me enough to order the book. Coincidentally, I got a copy of Servants of the Supernatural; The Night Side of the Victorian Mind by Antonio Melechi as a mother's day present yesterday. I haven't started it yet, but it looks fascinating.

    Spirits and mediums must be in the air (or the ether)

  5. Talking of mediums and alternate histories: that reminds me that The Explosionist is getting extremely affordable in the UK, and may even be in libraries. Must check.