I love doing very Christmassy types of things, but I never thought I’d be attending a Victorian literary séance. But when I saw the event hosted by the Pomona Historical Society and Pomona Library pop up on Facebook, I just couldn’t resist!
I’m fascinated by the Victorians’ obsession with death and mysticism, particularly after reading Affinity and In the Shadow of the Blackbirds, and of course A Christmas Carol puts a whole new spin on ghosts and the holiday season.
Two things you should know about me:
1. I absolutely believe in ghosts.
2. But I’m also a skeptic and well aware that a large percentage of supernatural phenomena are most likely hoaxes.
Mr. Darling and I signed up for this as a lark with more intellectual curiosity than anything else, so it wasn’t until we were sitting in the library enjoying cookies and punch that it occurred to me that I’d probably be asked if there was anyone in particular I was hoping to contact. The answer was no, but nevertheless, when the young event assistant pulled us aside and chatted with us, I still thought of someone whose death I’ve never been able to forget. It got me thinking about how painful sudden deaths can be for those who are left behind, and how that might lead to someone seeking out contact with the spirit world. Professor Gallivan, the medium conducting our séance, explained that the average life expectancy in Victorian era was only 37 years of age, so many people wanted that connection with those who had passed on. Because of this, séances were a fairly common occurrence during that time, particularly around Christmas. Another fun fact: apparently Mary Todd Lincoln hosted a number of séances in the White House.
The event was held in the chilly, dark library basement. I quite enjoyed walking through the maze of rooms, even though I wanted to stop to look at the rows and rows of books, elaborately bound county ledgers, Laura Ingalls Wilder standees, and severed rubber heads that we passed. We were eventually led into a room where chairs were arranged in a semi circle, and we were directed into assigned seats. I was in the front row along with another woman who had also previously spoken to the assistant.
The séance began with some general background on Dickens, as well as the presentation of the “completed” Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was purportedly done through a spirit pen with the help of a medium. (Referenced in this New York Times review of a Dickens play.) This was followed by a series of various parlor tricks, including Professor Gallivan guessing passages of books chosen by the audience, imagined objects, and so on.
The first really interesting interaction was with the lady seated to my left; the medium asked her to hold together two slate boards while he bound them with twine. Between the boards was a piece of yellow chalk, chosen by a different person from a bag of different colored chalks. While the slates were being tied together, the medium asked the lady to concentrate on the person who’d passed–and suddenly there was a series of creaking sounds as the medium said he felt something happening. Right after that, he asked for the name of the deceased person, untied the two slates, and revealed the name “Laverne” written in yellow chalk inside. The lady was extremely moved, and tears came to her eyes several times following that revelation.
I have to admit, I sat through most of the demonstrations with wry observations running through my head, but I couldn’t help being touched by the woman’s emotion beside me. I’m pretty sure I gave off a lot of humorously doubtful vibes as I listened to everything that came before, but I was still asked to come up to help with the “talking board.” WHICH IS THE OUIJA BOARD! Channeler of evil spirits! The one thing I didn’t want to do! Gahh. I wasn’t going to be a poor sport, though, so I went up and took a seat across from the medium. This was a lovely old wooden board in a fancy velvet-lined case, and instead of a planchette there was a teacup which both the medium and I placed our hands on. It wasn’t long before the cup started to move (I made sure I was barely touching it), and in the back of my head I was concentrating on different letters other than the real ones I had in mind, as well as different people. But the letters still spelled out the name of the person I was thinking of, and when the medium asked me if the person had passed under unusual circumstances and I responded, “Yes,” the teacup flew violently up into the air and off the board.
Well. There was a lot of gasping.
Then the lights were shut off and we sat in complete darkness as Professor Gallivan recited incantations, and then by candlelight some of the objects on the table next to him appeared to levitate, including the box with Dicken’s daughter’s image on it. The medium moaned as strange lights appeared in different parts of the room, and this went on for a little until the lights came back on and the event came to an end. The lady on the other side of me whispered, “He’s a heavy breather, isn’t he?” which made me laugh. Even though I think most people were there with more historical curiosity than anything else, everyone still seemed somewhat relieved when we were escorted out of the room.
Real or Not Real?
This séance was definitely one of the most interesting events I’ve ever attended, and I quite enjoyed it as an afternoon’s entertainment. While I remained pretty doubtful and amused throughout the whole thing, I admit that there were a couple of moments that were hard to explain.
Here’s where I tell you View Spoiler »that when I spoke to the assistant earlier, she asked me to write down the name of the person who had passed on a piece of paper. Pink ballpoint pen, single sheet, small clipboard, which I didn’t show her and folded up to put in my purse. While the clipboard appeared to be normal, it’s entirely probable that some method was used to discern the name I’d written down, particularly since my handwriting is terrible, which would explain why the first two letters of the Ouija board were correct and then there was a slight mishap. But at the same time, this would mean the person who picked the yellow chalk for the “Laverne” slate writing (from the bag of different colored chalks, if you’ll remember) was a plant in order for the slate to be pre-written for the lady next to me, no? It boggles the mind. But it’s fun to try and figure out. I really wish I’d written down a different name to see what would happen, though! « Hide Spoiler
Was this most likely a combinations of skillful sleight of hand, parlor trickery, and careful observation and planning? Probably. Was there a part of me that still wished it was true that both Laverne and the person I was thinking of had somehow crossed metaphysical planes because we were thinking of them? Absolutely. The power of that longing is something I understood intellectually before this, but attending the event added a layer of personal poignancy that I didn’t quite expect. While I never quite let go of my logical thinking brain, being there in that dark room surrounded by strangers really was an unforgettable experience. The next time I read about Victorian séances, it will be with a whole new level of understanding and appreciation.
Have you ever been to a séance, or would you ever consider attending one? I’m already plotting what I’ll do if I ever get the chance to go again!
And if you haven’t listened to Patrick Stewart read A Christmas Carol, you’re missing out on one of the best performances of all time.