A little more than a century ago, western society became fascinated by the possibility that spirits of the dead could communicate with the living. Young women calling themselves mediums promised to summon ghosts of lost relatives via séances, during which spirits would demonstrate their presence by shaking a table or ringing a bell. Many people became convinced that the mediums’ powers were real.
Meredith Reddy (PhD 2015) thinks of those mediums as artists, or performers. Her doctoral research in art history looked at old photographs, such as the one at left, to investigate how mediums were able to baffle even the scientists who tried to document the séances. She speculates that the women used a variety of tricks, including secret assistants. The mediums also required séances to be conducted in total darkness, which made it difficult for cameras to record what was occurring. “The scientists would use flashlights, but it was a game of cat and mouse,” says Reddy.