Bangs Sisters, Lizzie and May (early 1900s)

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Bangs Sisters, Lizzie and May (early 1900s)

Chicago mediums who specialized in direct writing and direct drawing and painting. In sealed envelopes that were brought by the sitters and enclosed between two slates, messages in ink were produced in bright daylight. The sitter placed the envelopes between a pair of slates and held them under his or her hand while the medium sat on the opposite side of the table. After waiting from a few minutes to an hour, raps signaled that the message was ready.

On behalf of Dr. I. K. Funk, who investigated the mediums several times himself and had a high opinion of their powers, Hereward Carrington went to Chicago in 1909 and, as narrated in the Annals of Psychic Science (July-September 1910), found fraud. He addressed a letter in a sealed envelope to "Dearest mother, Jane Thompson" (who never existed) and received a reply addressed to "Dearly loved son Harold," signed by his "devoted mother, Jane Thompson." Admiral W. Usborne Moore, who had many sittings with the Bangs sisters in 1909 and later in 1911, defended the sisters.

In the course of the controversy that ensued Carrington told in a letter to Light (May 13, 1911) that David P. Abbott had succeeded in duplicating the Bangs sisters' phenomena exactly by trickery. Moore replied that he made a number of tests, that he read carefully an exposé by a Dr. Krebs, that he knew the method employed by Abbott and that it surpassed in skill almost every conjuring trick he had witnessed but that the conditions were as different from those at the séances of the Bangs sisters as a locomotive is different from a teapot. In fact, it was the conjuring performance that finally convinced him that the Bangs sisters must be genuine, he said.

In telling the story of his investigations in Glimpses of the Next State (1911) Moore narrates how he took his own slates and inkpot to the sitting. On the advice of Sir William Crookes he added lithium citrate to the ink. He obtained a message of eight pages, signed by his spirit guide, "Iola." By later spectrum analysis the presence of lithium was in fact discovered in the ink. This proved to his satisfaction that in some mysterious way his own ink was instrumental in preparing the message in the sealed envelope between his own slates.

Furthermore, he laid his visiting card on top of the slates and tore off one corner for identification. He also wrote a postscript to his questions on a separate piece of paper and placed it alongside the visiting card. The former found its way into the envelope, while the card, in accordance with a message on the outside of the envelope, was discovered in another room in Moore's hat.

The "direct spirit portraits" that the Bangs sisters produced as early as 1894 in color, before the sitters' eyes, and in daylight was an even more mysterious phenomenon. At first a locked box or curtained-off space was used and several sittings were required. Later they were openly precipitated, as if by an air-brush, as quickly as within eight minutes. The arrangement was as follows:

Two identical, paper-mounted canvases in wooden frames were held up, face to face, against the window, the lower edges resting on a table and the sides gripped by each medium with one hand. A short curtain was hung on either side and an opaque blind was drawn over the canvases. With the light streaming from behind, the canvases were translucent.

After a quarter of an hour, the outlines of shadows began to appear and disappear as if the invisible artist were making a preliminary sketch, then the picture began to grow at a feverish rate. When the frames were separated the portrait was found on the paper surface of the canvas next to the sitter. Although the paint was greasy and stuck to the finger on being touched, it left no stain on the paper surface of the other canvas, which closely covered it. The sitters were requested to bring a photograph of their departed friends, but they were not asked to produce it. The portraits were not copies of the concealed photographs, but the facial resemblance was apparently an imitation. Reportedly the tone often grew richer and deeper afterward.

Moore noticed in his experiments that details were added if he did not look, and when once he mentally desired that a gold locket should be enlarged and decorated with a monogram, the thing was done as requested. He often brought his own frames, sealed the window, searched the premises, and closely watched every movement in the room, yet the picture was obtained as before.

The Bangs sisters also produced these phenomena in public halls before great audiences. Apports of flowers were a frequent occurrence; objects disappeared incomprehensibly; and chemical effects, like ink changing into dirty water, were witnessed.

An early slate-writing séance with Lizzie Bangs is described by A. B. Richmond in What I Saw at Cassadaga Lake (1888):

"Soon I heard a faint noise between the slates. It did not sound like writing, but more like the crawling of an insect imprisoned between them, in a few moments there came three distinct raps. I opened the slates and found two messages written in the Morse alphabet, one of them signed by the one to whom the interrogatory was directed, and who could not in this life read or write telegraphy, the other by a prominent jurist who died a number of years ago."

After a trial of many days Richmond obtained three communications between two screwed-together slates. One was signed by Henry Seybert, and the handwriting was the same as that he had obtained a year before in a séance with Pierre Keeler.

The most spectacular direct-writing demonstration by Lizzie Bangs was the direct operation of a typewriter. As described by Quaestor Vitae in Light (January 25, 1896), the machine kept on working when held up in the air by four of the men present. The hand alleged to have done the work also materialized.

In his investigation of the sisters' phenomena, Hereward Carrington refers to an exposé regarding the letter writing inside a sealed enveolope (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 10). The writer claims to have seen the tricks by means of a small hand mirror that he held beneath the table. He found that, under cover of the writing pad placed against the edges of the slate resting on the table, May Bangs, one of the sisters, wedged open the slate by means of a small rubber wedge; the letter, when abstracted, was dropped on to a sort of "gridiron" arrangement that lay on the carpet. It was promptly drawn backward under a slit in the door into the next room, where Lizzie Bangs, the other sister, steamed the envelope. In the meantime the ink in the cup had time to evaporate so that it appeared to have been used.

A number of testimonies vouching for the Bangs sisters are printed in James Coates 's Photographing the Invisible. But there is no doubt that some of the charges of fraud brought against them in their early career were well borne out. In 1880 and in 1891 they were seized as masquerading materialized spirits under very damaging circumstances, and in 1890 a Colonel Bundy charged them in the Religio-Philosophical Journal with fraud in slate writing. Dr. Richard Hodgson made a thorough investigation of the respective documents. His findings were against the mediums (Light, 1899).

A collection of portraits produced by the Bangs sisters has been preserved in the gallery at the Spiritualist Camp at Chesterfield, Indiana.


Abbott, David P. Behind the Scenes With the Mediums. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing, 1909.

. Spirit Portrait Mystery; Its Final Solution. Chicago, 1913.

[Bangs Sisters]. The Bangs Sisters' Manifesto to the World. Chicago, 1909.

Moore, W. Usborne. Glimpses of the Next State (The Education of an Agnostic). London: Watts, 1911.