From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All
Ectoplasm is stuff that allegedly oozes from ghosts or spirits and makes it possible for them to materialize and perform feats of telekinesis, such as lifting tables in the dark (the stuff was sometimes called teleplasmic mass).
In the heyday of séances—the 19th and early 20th centuries—ectoplasm oozed from various orifices of mediums (known as physical or materializing mediums). A bit of white cloth-like (very cloth-like) material oozing from someone's mouth, ears, or nose was considered strong evidence for the afterlife by those who think spirits are not dwelling in Heaven or Hell or some other distant gated community but are floating around the earth trying to give us material hints of their existence. Most photographs of ectoplasm make it look like the kind of stuff you could pick up at the local yardage store or buy from Amazon.
One of the more notorious materializing mediums in America was Mina Crandon, wife of Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a physician who had been mesmerized by the story of the belle of Belfast, materializing medium Kathleen Goligher (Christopher 1975: 192). Goligher's story was told by William Jackson Crawford, a rather odd paranormal investigator—Houdini thought he was insane—with an underwear obsession (Roach 2005: 132 ff.). Whether he was mentally unbalanced or not, Crawford was not the most astute investigator. He gives a detailed description of what he felt in the dark during a study of Goligher: "...the part I felt was like bones, close together...or toes of feet" but rather than conclude he was feeling her foot (which she was probably using to produce some sort of material effect), Crawford thought he was touching her "psychic structure" (Roach 2005: 133). When he examined imprints on putty that had been placed under the séance table and found imprints of a woman's shoe, a stockinged heel, or a big toe, it did not occur to Crawford that the imprints might have been made by a woman's foot. He thought they were made by psychic rods.
According to Crawford, the psychic rods were mainly gaseous, and only the free end appeared hard and capable of organization. Geley [Dr Gustav Geley, "Ectoplasmie et Clairvoyance"] notes that the ectoplasm is very variable in appearance, being sometimes vaporous, sometimes a plastic paste, sometimes a bundle of fine threads, or a membrane with swellings or fringes, or a fine fabric-like tissue. It may be white (the most frequently observed colour, probably because it is naturally the most visible), grey or black in colour; and it may even be luminous, as if phosphorescent. Its visibility may wax or wane, and to the touch it may feel soft, elastic, fibrous or hard. It has the power of self-locomotion, and moves generally with a slow reptilian movement, though it is capable of moving with extreme rapidity. It is capable of both evolution and involution, and is thus a living substance. It is extremely doubtful whether it ever, even in its most perfect formations, actually loses contact with the medium and pursues an independent life, even momentarily, though such a supposition must be borne in mind as being a possibility. (Materializations by G. C. Barnard)
Apparently, it was ideas like the reptilian movement of gossamer that inspired Dr. Crandon to encourage his wife to try her hand at getting in touch with these earthbound spirits. The rest, as they say, is history. Mina Crandon, known to us as "Margery," would "become the most versatile psychic every known" (Christopher 1975: 193). She was especially versatile with the ectoplasm. Some of her followers "believed that a mysterious spirit rod extruded from between her legs to produce phenomena" (Christopher 1975: 206). Skeptics suspected the ectoplasm was coming from her vagina (Christopher 1975: 212).
A committee to investigate Margery's psychic abilities was set up by Scientific American. Harvard psychology professor William McDougall wrote:
There is good evidence that "ectoplasm" issues, or did issue on some and probably all occasions [from] one particular 'opening in the anatomy' (i.e., the vagina). (quoted in Roach 2005: 137)
Not all on the scientific investigating committee agreed with McDougall and even McDougall didn't consider the vaginal ectoplasm to be conclusive evidence that Margery was a fraud. Houdini, another member of the committee, and independent investigator J. B. Rhine both thought Margery was an obvious fraud. Rhine's evaluation is especially interesting since shortly after he and his wife Louisa went to Duke in 1927 to work with William McDougall, they investigated an allegedly telepathic horse called Lady Wonder. They declared that they could detect no trickery and that the horse was genuinely telepathic. In a follow-up study, the horse couldn’t perform and the Rhines declared that Lady Wonder had lost her psychic ability.
One member of the Scientific American team, Dr. James Malcolm Bird, publicly proclaimed that he was convinced of Margery's psychic abilities in a book called "Margery" the Medium. Houdini called Bird a "super liar" and wrote that "he is so gullible that he can not see through the simplest parlor tricks of magic" (quoted in Christopher 1975: 219). Bird claimed that the Crandons were willing to allow "a full anatomical probe" of Margery before a performance, a sign that they had nothing to hide. Houdini announced that Dr. Crandon had "emphatically refused to allow any such examination to be made ... and if anyone demanded an anatomical examination of Mrs. Crandon, he would stop the séances." In 1930, Bird resigned from the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) shortly after he submitted a report in which he admitted that he actually thought Margery was a fraud. He also admitted that Mina Crandon had approached him to produce fake results to fool Houdini. The ASPR suppressed Bird's report for a number of years (Williams 2000: 205), showing they had just as much integrity as Dr. Bird.
In 1924, Eric John Dingwall of the British Society for Psychical Research, arrived in Boston and began to assist in the testing of mediums. He requested that Margery perform in tights. No can do, she said. However, mediums "active in the 1930s were subjected to thorough body cavity searches by researchers before each séance" (for details see Roach 2005: 141). To avoid this rather major invasion of privacy and yet provide an adequate safeguard against fraudulent vaginal or rectal ectoplasms, magician and medium investigator Harry Price invented the "séance garment." It covered the medium from head to foot, including her hands, so that only her head stuck out. Who knows if even that would work. Hiram Maxim tells the story of a materializing medium who was put in a garment which had been sewn tightly at the neck. The medium ripped open the neck of the outfit and stuck flowers under her breasts for later materialization (Christopher 1975: 212).
Price was the author of Regurgitation and the Duncan Mediumship. He suspected that some mediums were swallowing stuff and regurgitating it during the séances. The feasibility of this rather nauseating stunt is explained by Mary Roach (2005: 144 ff.). Roach also offers a much simpler explanation for the production of ectoplasm. Have your husband sit next to you during the séance. Make sure he has stuffed his shirt or pants with stuff to slip to you under the table when the lights are out.
Williams, William F. (2000). Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. Facts-on-File. "Margery Controversy," pp. 204-205.