A Lost Story of Psychic Power & an Italian Séance…

Who was Eusapia Palladino and what did she see?

In 1908, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) appointed a committee of three to examine Palladino in Naples. The committee comprised Mr. Hereward Carrington, investigator for the American Society for Psychical Research and an amateur conjuror; Mr. W. W. Baggally, also an investigator and amateur conjuror of much experience; and the Hon. Everard Feilding, who had had an extensive training as investigator and “a fairly complete education at the hands of fraudulent mediums.”

Three adjoining rooms on the fifth floor of the Hotel Victoria were rented. The middle room where Feilding slept was used in the evening for the séances. In the corner of the room was a séance cabinet created by a pair of black curtains to form an enclosed area that contained a small round table with several musical instruments. In front of the curtains was placed a wooden table.

During the séances, Palladino would sit at this table with her back to the curtains. The investigators sat on either side of her, holding her hand and placing a foot on her foot. Guest visitors also attended some of the séances; the Feilding report mentions that Professor Bottazzi and Professor Galeotti were present at the fourth séance, and a Mr. Ryan was present at the eighth séance.

Sketch showing the layout of a séance in the 1908 Naples investigation (Wikipedia).

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Although the investigators did catch Palladino cheating, once, they were convinced Palladino produced genuine supernatural phenomena such as levitations of the table, movement of the curtains, movement of objects from behind the curtain and touches from hands. Regarding the first report by Carrington and Feilding, the American scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce wrote:

Eusapia Palladino has been proved to be a very clever prestigiateuse and cheat, and was visited by a Mr. Carrington… In point of fact he has often caught the Palladino creature in acts of fraud. Some of her performances, however, he cannot explain; and thereupon he urges the theory that these are supernatural, or, as he prefers it “supernormal.” Well, I know how it is that when a man has been long intensely exercised and over fatigued by an enigma, his common-sense will sometimes desert him; but it seems to me that the Palladino has simply been too clever for him… I think it more plausible that there are tricks that can deceive Mr. Carrington.

Frank Podmore in his book The Newer Spiritualism (1910) wrote a comprehensive critique of the Feilding report. Podmore said that the report provided insufficient information for crucial moments and the investigators representation of the witness accounts contained contradictions and inconsistencies as to who was holding Palladino’s feet and hands. Podmore found accounts among the investigators conflicted as to who they claimed to have observed the incident. Podmore wrote that the report “at almost every point leaves obvious loopholes for trickery.” During the séances the long black curtains were often intermixed with Palladino’s long black dress. Palladino told Professor Bottazzi the black curtains were “indispensable.” Researchers have suspected Palladino used the curtain to conceal her feet.

The psychologist C. E. M. Hansel criticized the Feilding report based on the conditions of the séances being susceptible to trickery. Hansel noted that they were performed in semi-dark conditions, held in the late night or early morning introducing the possibility of fatigue and the “investigators had a strong belief in the supernatural, hence they would be emotionally involved.”

In 1910, Everard Feilding returned to Naples, without Hereward Carrington and W. W. Baggally. Instead, he was accompanied by his friend, William S. Marriott, a magician of some distinction who had exposed psychic fraud in Pearson’s Magazine. His plan was to repeat the famous earlier 1908 Naple sittings with Palladino.

Unlike the 1908 sittings which had baffled the investigators, this time Feilding and Marriott detected her cheating, just as she had done in the US. Her deceptions were obvious. Palladino evaded control and was caught moving objects with her foot, shaking the curtain with her hands, moving the cabinet table with her elbow and touching the séance sitters. Milbourne Christopher wrote regarding the exposure “when one knows how a feat can be done and what to look for, only the most skillful performer can maintain the illusion in the face of such informed scrutiny.”

In 1992, Richard Wiseman analyzed the Feilding report of Palladino and argued that she employed a secret accomplice that could enter the room by a fake door panel positioned near the séance cabinet. Wiseman discovered this trick was already mentioned in a book from 1851, he also visited a carpenter and skilled magician who constructed a door within an hour with a false panel.

The accomplice was suspected to be her second husband, who insisted on bringing Palladino to the hotel where the séances took place. Paul Kurtzsuggested that Carrington could have been Palladino’s secret accomplice. Kurtz found it suspicious that he was raised as her manager after the séances in Naples. Carrington was also absent on the night of the last séance. 

Massimo Polidoro and Gian Marco Rinaldi, both of whom analyzed the Feilding report, came to the conclusion that no secret accomplice was needed—as Palladino during the 1908 Naples séances could have produced the phenomena by using her foot.<

Childhood, Youth, Dependency w/ Tove Ditlevsen

Ditlevsen’s gorgeous memoirs, first published in Denmark in the 1960s and ’70s and collected here in a single volume, detail her hardscrabble upbringing, career path and merciless addictions: a powerful account of the struggle to reconcile art and life. She joined the working ranks at 14, became a renowned poet by her early 20s, and found herself, after two failed marriages, wedded to a psychopathic doctor and hopelessly dependent on opioids by her 30s. Yet for all the dramatic twists of her life, these books together project a stunning clarity, humor and candidness, casting light not just on the world’s harsh realities but on the inexplicable impulses of our secret selves.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30. | Read our review

(Farrah, Straus & Giroux 2021)

Jeffers’ Tale of Cultural Wrongs Steeped in Old Revelations & Unsettling Prose…

(Harper Collins 2021)

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The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” the first novel by Jeffers, a celebrated poet, is many things at once: a moving coming-of-age saga, an examination of race and an excavation of American history. It cuts back and forth between the tale of Ailey Pearl Garfield, a Black girl growing up at the end of the 20th century, and the “songs” of her ancestors, Native Americans and enslaved African Americans who lived through the formation of the United States. As their stories converge, “Love Songs” creates an unforgettable portrait of Black life that reveals how the past still reverberates today.

Harper/HarperCollins. $28.99. | Read our review | Listen to Jeffers on the podcast

Black Christmas 2: A Frightful Folly

Photo (c)2021 by Sanguine Woods.

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…just in time for the holidays…

After Olivia Hussy ran out of the Black Xmas murder house in 1974, long after, in fact, a year on to be precise—a man renting a room in the house (the one where they found Miss Margot Kidder impaled in the heart by a glass unicorn) thought he’d heard a sound. It was coming from somewhere above him in the attic. It made him nervous; and, being nervous, he began to crave his favorite candy—hot cinnamon fireballs. He was all cozy on this late winter afternoon in a fuzzy electric blanket. The noise became a scuffling as of rats or cats (or worse) mucking about upstairs. The man was very sad because he wanted a cinnamon fireball so badly. To ease his nerves (how many coeds died in this house again?) and calm his mind. But, alas, the journey to his sweet tooth’s delight was long, and perilous, since one would have to ditch one’s electric blanket and set out barefoot over the Floor of Lava to reach the little desk drawer in which the fireballs were kept. Why had he put them all the way over there? The man cursed quietly. Then a scuffling directly over his head. “Hello?” Something tinkled from the hallway: the Christmas tree; cats jingling a bell. He called again, this time more morosely (he wasn’t used to not getting just what he wanted, just when he wanted it, just when he needed something to soften his nervous condition like a perfectly red round hot cinnamon fireball): “Hellooo?” The call hung in the air, soft ascending Os, the sound of which grew tight at the end, like a kitten mewling. From his soft memory-foam bed, he began to be frightened, and admittedly threw a temper tantrum of sorts—at the fear he felt, the dim moon shadows in the dusty room, and his nagging sweet tooth most of all…“Hello?? Helloooo???” “Why won’t anyone AHNSWER ME???!!” The sound of a hot cinnamon fireball wrapper crinkled in the silence like a firecracker! (Were they rattling around in there, by themselves?) His eyes found the little desk drawer. Fancies. Ministrations. Machinations. Brooding. All brought on by a frivolous, frenzied, unsweetened temperament. A heavy dragging sound came from the bedroom ceiling; and, after what felt like an hour, mewling like a mad cat to no one but the wind screaming in the eaves, the man rolled once and then half of another time and he was off of the bed and falling, dragging himself—his body, his soul; his fuzzy electric blanket, the drawer full of hot cinnamon fireballs (and possibly an unfortunate gray cat who may or may not have found itself caught up in the foray) into the Sun-colored lava. The front door of the murder house opened, creaked, closed again with a soft click, and a tall shadowy figure moved quickly away from the house…his large footsteps already beginning to fill up with snow.

Photo (c)2021 by Sanguine Woods.
Original film poster 1974 (Pinterest).

A dead man no one will discuss…

Timothy Buchannan buys an abandoned house on the edge of an isolated village on the coast, sight unseen. When he sees the state of it he questions the wisdom of his move, but starts to renovate the house for his wife, Lauren to join him there.  

When the villagers see smoke rising from the chimney of the neglected house they are disturbed and intrigued by the presence of the incomer, intrigue that begins to verge on obsession. And the longer Timothy stays, the more deeply he becomes entangled in the unsettling experience of life in the small village.  

Ethan, a fisherman, is particularly perturbed by Timothy’s arrival, but accedes to Timothy’s request to take him out to sea. They set out along the polluted coastline, hauling in weird fish from the contaminated sea, catches that are bought in whole and removed from the village. Timothy starts to ask questions about the previous resident of his house, Perran, questions to which he receives only oblique answers and increasing hostility.

As Timothy forges on despite the villagers’ animosity and the code of silence around Perran, he starts to question what has brought him to this place and is forced to confront a painful truth.  

The Many is an unsettling tale that explores the impact of loss and the devastation that hits when the foundations on which we rely are swept away.

Ominous, subtle and beautiful – an intensely resonant trawling of suffering’s deep currents.’

— MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH

 ‘In this beautiful and frightening novel, Wyl Menmuir understands that loss is an enormous anchor from which everyone swings on the tide. His characters know they can never hoist this anchor, they only know they must try; otherwise the lifting lines become heavy chains dragging them to the bottom. The Many then captures the ecstasy observed on the faces of the drowning in the moment they surrender themselves to the sea.’

— MARK RICHARD, author of Fishboy