William S. Marriott’s Gambols with the Ghosts – Notes on a Strange World
“Is Spiritualism a fraud? Are the spirit-rappings and the spirit-forms of the seance, the prophecies of the palmist and the clairvoyant, the visions of the trance mediums, genuine evidence of a spirit-world, or are they mere catchpenny tricks, engineered by charlatans to charm money from the pockets of the credulous?”
These are the questions by which the editor of Pearson’s Magazine introduced, in March 1910, a series of articles investigating Spiritualism, “in order that readers of Pearson’s Magazine may judge for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously important subject. If Spiritualism is genuine, it ought to be a vital factor in the lives of us all: if false, then it and its high priests should be ruthlessly exposed and believers in it disillusioned of a faith that is altogether vain.”
On such a quest, the editor declared of having been “fortunate in securing the co-operation of Mr. William Marriott, who has made a life-long study of the occult.”
Some readers of this magazine may be familiar with the name of Marriott, however it is very likely that the majority has never heard of him. This is quite unfortunate, since Marriott proved to be a very capable magician and skeptical investigator of psychic claims well before Houdini turned to the same subject. The Spiritualist journal Light, the then-official organ of the London Spiritualist Alliance, called him “the best exponent of the theory of fraud in Spiritualism in this country.”
Information on him, however, is quite sparse and hard to find. For this reason I would be very grateful to any reader who could provide additional details on his life. This, then, is some of what is known.
Gambols with the Ghosts
William S. Marriott, a likeable fellow with a pair of well-waxed moustaches, was a British professional magician who performed under the pseudonym of “Dr. Wilmar.” One of his best known illusions was known as “Dr. Wilmar’s Spirit Paintings” and consisted in the production of apparently paranormal paintings, duplicating the claimed psychic phenomena of the Chicago mediums the Bangs sisters (Nickell 2000). According to writer Leslie A. Shepard, author of Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology (1991), this illusion so impressed a fellow magician P. T. Selbit that he agreed to pay Marriott a weekly royalty for the use of the illusion. However, Marriott himself was not entirely straightforward in claiming rights on the illusion, since he had obtained the secret from David P. Abbot, an amateur magician. When Selbit presented the illusion at the Orpheum Theatre in Omaha in 1911, Abbott saw the show and visited Selbit backstage, when he learned that Selbit had already paid Marriott some $10,000 in royalties!”
One of his first valuable scoops consisted in locating and publicizing a rare copy of Gambols With the Ghosts: Mind Reading, Spiritualistic Effects, Mental and Psychical Phenomena and Horoscopy, a secret catalog of spiritualistic paraphernalia and tricks then circulating among mediums. The catalog was issued in 1901 by Ralph E. Sylvestre of Chicago and was designed for private circulation among mediums, on the understanding that it would be returned to Sylvestre when tricks had been selected from it.
The catalog had an introductory note which stated: “Our experience during the past thirty years in supplying mediums and others with the peculiar effects in this line enable us to place before you only those which are practical and of use, nothing that you have to experiment with. We wish you to thoroughly appreciate that, while we do not, for obvious reasons, mention the names of our clients and their work (they being kept in strict confidence, the same as a physician treats his patients), we can furnish you with the explanation and, where necessary, the material for the production of any known public ‘tests’ or ‘phenomena’ not mentioned in this, our latest list. You are aware that our effects are being used by nearly all prominent mediums of the entire world.”
This notorious catalog (a copy of which is still preserved in the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at the University of London) included equipment for slate-writing, self-playing guitars, self-rapping tables, materializations, and a “Complete Spiritualistic Seance.” Marriott obtained a number of these illusions and had himself photographed posing with them.
A Spirit on My Knees
In 1909 Marriott was approached by Pearson’s Magazine in order to conduct, on behalf of the magazine, a series of investigations on mediums, clairvoyants, and healers the results of which was afterwards published, in 1910, in four issues of the magazine. All of the articles are wonderful exposes of several then (and still now!) popular fads.
In “The Realities of the Seance!,” the first installment of the series, Marriott takes aim at Spiritualistic seances and, on the basis of his experiences, writes:
At many of the seances I was particularly struck by this fact. A very large proportion of the regular clientele of the mediums was invariably composed, as one could judge by the questions asked, and by their sombre dress of people who had recently suffered bereavement. It is on emotions and affections that ought to be sacred that the mediums trade, holding out the hope of possible communication with the departed friend or relative. I believe that a great proportion of conversions to Spiritualism are traceable to undue influence used at times like these; and I am certain that this factor operates very largely to make the medium’s profession as profitable as it often undoubtedly is; for, while the ordinary seance fee may be anything from half-a-crown to half-a-guinea, cases have come under my notice of mediums extorting considerable sums by foisting alleged messages from the other world on credulous people. In cases of this sort, of course, the mediums are bringing themselves well within reach of the arm of the law, but the cases where evidence is obtainable are unfortunately few.
He records some hilarious episodes. At one seance the medium took a position inside a curtained enclosure, the so-called “spirit cabinet,” and the gaslight was put out. After a while the curtain parted and a stately form emerged from the cabinet. He was partially luminous, and carried a luminous globe in his hand which he held near the face to make it more visible. The sitters recognized him as “King Draco.” He gave a gracious inclination of his head, moved his hands as if to bless, and retired into the cabinet. I will let Marriott continue the story:
This should have closed the seance. Tonight an unrehearsed effect was in store for the believers. As the form entered the cabinet, he sat down on what he thought was the settee. It happened to be my knees. I had quickly slipped into the curtained inclosure and was sitting, waiting for him to come back. As my arms went around him he gave a yell followed by language which I will not repeat. My friend had the light up in a moment. And there for the faithful was the edifying sight of the medium, clothed in flimsy white draperies, struggling in the arms of myself!
Marriott then went on detailing how the various effects seen at the seance had been accomplished by trickery. On visiting the house the following day, the magician found that the birds had flown. The medium had vanished into thin air; though, as Marriott later found, “they contrived to keep in touch with some of the circle they had gathered round them, who still, strangest of all, maintained their faith in these incapable charlatans.”
However, as Marriott himself observed, true believers can’t be shaken in their dearly held beliefs: “Only the other day,” the magician observed, “I was talking to a prominent Spiritualist, whose belief is absolutely fixed; and, in reply to all my arguments and demonstrations, he merely shook his head, and, with a smile, observed: ‘Ah, my friend, you haven’t seen what I have seen.’ He was wrong. Fortunately, I had seen very much more than he had seen; and in that fact lies the whole explanation of one man’s belief and another man’s disbelief–one sees too little; one too much.”
Embracing a Ghost
One of the things that most impressed Marriott during his investigation of psychic matters was the fact that illustrious scientists were ready to stake their reputation in favor of some badly observed demonstration by a medium. But, he advised, “scientists, however eminent, are emphatically not the people to investigate these matters.” Being a magician himself, he knew perfectly well that a physicist is no match for a competent trickster: “The scientist who sits where he is told to sit and looks where he is told to look is the ideal subject for the wiles of the conjuror or the medium; and before him effects can be brought off that would be impossible before an audience of schoolboys.”
To illustrate this fact, Marriott describes the experiments conducted by physicist William Crookes on famous mediums and observes: “Brilliant as he is in investigations where chemical precision and insight only are required, he proved himself totally unable to make any allowance for the human equation.”
Crookes’s experiments with the medium Florence Cook, who claimed to be able to “materialize” a spirit called Katie King, illustrate this fact. She was photographed on several occasions, and Sir William Crookes wrote at the rime: “But photography is as inadequate to depict the perfect beauty of Katie’s face as words are powerless to describe her charms of manner.” And he proceeds to quote:
Round her she made an atmosphere
The very air seemed lighter
from her eyes,
They were so soft, and beauti-
ful, and rife
With all we can imagine of
Her overpowering presence
made you feel
It would not be idolatry to
Marriott was quite impressed: “In view of this panegyric, one cannot be surprised at the following naive account of the wonderful seance, found absolutely convincing by Sir William Crookes,” who wrote as follows: “Katie never appeared to greater perfection, and for nearly two hours she walked about the room, conversing familiarly with those present. On several occasions she took my arm when walking, and the impression conveyed to my mind that it was a living woman by my side, instead of a visitor from the other world, was so strong that… I asked her permission to clasp her in my arms. Permission was graciously given, and I accordingly did–well, as any gentleman would do under the circumstances.” Exclamation marks, italics and all the stereotyped forms of wonder would be wasted on this amazing revelation. “Sir William, after walking and talking with a young woman for two hours; after holding her in his arms and presumably kissing her; after emphasizing the strength of his impression that she was a living wo man, still prefers to believe, not that she was a mundane being in collusion with the medium, but that she was–a spirit!”
Catching the Medium’s Foot
In the last article for Pearson’s Magazine, Marriott commented on the controversial Italian medium Eusapia Palladino: “More has been written about her and her phenomena than about any other medium. She has been detected in trickery again and again, but she has undoubtedly succeeded in mystifying quite a large number of scientific men.
In his paper Marriott excluded any interest in going after Eusapia: “I am constantly being told that I really ought, in the interests of truth, to go out to investigate this woman’s phenomena. I certainly do not propose to waste months or even weeks on a journey to add to the exposure of this fraud, whether in Italy or in America.”
However, only a few months after the publication of these words, Marriott was well on his way to Naples to sit with Palladino.
It had happened that Marriott’s good friend, psychic researcher Everard Feilding, had persuaded him to change his mind. Feilding, then Honorary Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, had sat with Eusapia in 1908 and, along with his colleagues, reached the conclusion that “some force was in play which was beyond the reach of ordinary control, and beyond the skill of the most skilled conjurer” (Feilding, Baggally, and Carrington 1909; readers interested in a critical examination of this famous paper, also known as the “Feilding Report,” can find a detailed examination of it in my upcoming book Secrets of the Psychics).
However, in 1909 and 1910, Eusapia had been caught cheating in the United States. This is how Marriott tells the story: “On this occasion, Mr. Hugo Munsterberg, an American investigator, introduced a man secretly into the cabinet behind Eusapia’s chair. From this cabinet various objects are brought forth at her seances without any apparent intervention on her part, this being the ‘evidence’–remarkable evidence, indeed–of the truth of Spiritualism, which the medium affords. When the seance had commenced, this man found Eusapia stretching one of her legs out backwards past the side of her chair into the cabinet, and groping with her toes for the guitar lying there ready to be produced by ‘spirit’ agency. He naturally seized bold of her foot, Eusapia screamed wildly, and the seance broke up in confusion.”
Feilding, convinced that in 1908 he had witnessed real phenomena, believed that Eusapia resorted to fraud only to supplement her genuine powers, and so decided to return to Naples to verify his beliefs. He wanted to be sure, however, and that’s why he insisted in having Marriott as his partner in this investigation.
The attempt was a failure; Eusapia systematically cheated as she had done in the United States, and as Feuding himself expressed it, “Everything this time was different.” The verdict on the five sittings (Marriott was present at the three last) was that they were, “in the opinion of all those present unquestionably mainly, and in the opinion of Mr Marriott wholly, fraudulent” (Feilding 1911).
Conan Doyle Admits Defeat
Marriott, along with psychic researcher Harry Price and Houdini, was also involved in the Crewe Circle drama (Polidoro 2001). In 1921 a journalist, James Douglas, had a photo of himself taten by medium William Hope, of the Crewe Circle mediumistic group, that, when developed, showed the presence of a spirit extra. Douglas was so impressed by the phenomenon that he issued a public challenge to anyone who could duplicate the feat without using psychic powers. Marriott accepted the challenge and performed not only in front of Douglas but of Conan Doyle and Everard Feilding as well. He produced a picture of Douglas and Doyle with a young woman and a picture of Doyle with little fairies dancing in front of him. He then explained in detail how he had tricked them and Doyle felt compelled to write a public statement: “Mr. Marriott has clearly proved one point, which is that a trained conjurer can, under the close inspection of three pairs of critical eyes, put a false image upon a plate. We must unreservedly admit i t.”
Marriott had not demonstrated that Hope was a fake but had shown that what had been termed by believers “impossible” to reproduce by normal means could actually be done by a clever magician. Contrary to Houdini, who offered money to anyone who could perform a psychic feat that he could not duplicate, Marriott simply showed that alternative explanations to apparent miracles existed and then invited the open-minded observers to decide for themselves which explanation was the more probable.
“If I am one of the ‘scoffers’,” wrote Marriott who was described by Harry Price as “happily still living” in 1942, “it is nor because of any original bias, but because of the arrant humbug, cheap trickery, and pathetic self-delusion that I have encountered at every point of my investigations of Spiritualism, and I combat the teachings of Sir Oliver Lodge and his co-believers because I believe them to be in defiance of the soundest of all laws–those of common sense and human experience.”
I wish to thank Hilary Evans, owner with his family of the singularly precious Mary Evans Picture Library in London (www.mepl.co.uk) for kindly passing along some interesting material on William Marriott.
Feilding, E., W.W. Baggally, and H. Carrington. 1909. Report on a series of sittings with Eusapia Palladino. Proceedings of the SPR XXIII, 309-569.
Feilding, E. 1911. Proceedings of the SPR XXV 57-69. Marriott, W.S. 1910. On the Edge of the Unknown (The Realities of the Seance!, Match; “Spirit Messages,” April; Healers who do not Heal,” May; “Physical Phenomena,” June.) Pearsons Magazine, March-June.
Nickell, Joe. 2000. Spirit Paintings: The Bangs Sisters. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 23(3), June.
Shepard, L.A. 1991. Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Detroit Gale Research Inc.
Polidoro, M. 2002. Final Seance. The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
—–, 2003. Secrets of the Psychics: Investigating Paranormal Claims. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and cofounder and head of CICAR the Italian skeptics group.
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