The Business of the Macabre in the 19th and early 20th Century

   It has always fascinated me the weirdness of the early late 19th/early 20th century.  We were, as not only a nation but a new country, trying to grow into our own pants, sort of speak.  AND, as a new country, we of course had a new found “melting Pot” of people from other countries that came here for a new start, a new way of culture, a new way of diplomacy…funny thing is, some of these new immigrants, (us being the first) brought nothing new.  Just old myths, superstitions and dogma that wasn’t needed.  Everything from gypsy beliefs to Irish folklore came in to meld with everything else, not to mention the tidbits of things that the first immigrants,again us, were already picking up.   Everything from tales and treasures from the first Americans, the Native of a type, to what we ourselves carried over from good old England of pre-USA, that we couldn’t quite shake off our shoulders.   So that’s sort of where this story starts.  As mentioned earlier, the whole turn of the century is fascinating to me for more than one reason. We were building machines finally…building better cities…building a country from the ground up, but something else we were building in the very very faint background, was a nice foundation for keeping the weird…. well let’s say, weird.  Let’s start our journey.

First one on the list was the seances.  So as much progression that was made for our industrial revolution during this time, we were sorely lacking in science and fact.  And because of this, as well as adding different cultures and beliefs into one ecosystem as mentioned previous, we were still desperately clinging on to what felt familiar to us.  The problem was (and I guess still is), was the almighty dollar.  It’s funny how the first thing that can compromise ethics is cash.  Anyhoo, people realized that there was a sucker around every corner, which I suppose came way before the 19th century, but it seems people might have grasped onto more of the proverbial “sucker” title during this time.  So let’s set up a scenario:  a lonely widow goes to an old woman to see if she can “talk” or “conjure” up her deceased husband that she so badly misses.  “Said” old woman sees her coming from a mile away, and already has a plan, as well as props set.  During the séance, everything from so called ectoplasm, to sounds, table shakes, etc., and this lonely woman knows…. SHE KNOWS…that her husband has been contacted and he’s at peace.  As the tables turn, it puts the woman at peace as well, and of course the old gal running the séance is really at peace…and a little richer.  There were many encounters such as this, and I should mention some notables. Among people worthwhile to mention, who conducted séances during the 19th century were the Fox sisters, whose activities included table-rapping. Or the Davenport Brothers, who were famous for the spirit cabinet work. Both the Foxes and the Davenports were eventually exposed as frauds. Other ones, notable trance mediums also include Edgar Cayce and Arthur Ford.


    In the same bucket as premeditated Seances, so called charlatans also took pride into continuing the lie with photography.  It seems as soon as photography was invented, it soon got hacked.  I found hundreds of pictures with not only staged ghosts (double exposure), but actual Ectoplasm coming from mouths of these so said Seance’s.  And then when you think were done, Bring in Post mortem photography.  Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or a mourning portrait) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased

These photographs of deceased loved ones were a normal part of American and European culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Commissioned by grieving families, postmortem photographs not only helped in grieving, but often represented the only visual remembrance of the deceased and were among a family's most precious possessions. There can be considerable dispute as to whether individual early photographs show a dead person or not, but again, damn.  I’m not sure I miss anyone that much to take a selfie while their dead.  But, let’s go back a tad bit farther.  While doing research on Seances and clever pictures featuring tricks and dead members., I bring you a little-known art I stumbled crossed.  Welcome the infamous “Sin Eaters”. 


 Since at least the early 1600’s and all the way to the earliest years of the 20th century, “sin-eating”, a rather macabre profession that arose from folklore legends and peculiar supernatural beliefs, was a common line of work across the rural areas of the British Isles.  Grieving family members of the recently deceased would pay the village sin-eaters to rid their departed loved ones from all the sins they had accumulated during their lives, and the sin-eaters would then perform an eerie ritual that supposedly allowed the dead to enter Many people believed that a piece of bread or pastry, which was placed on the chest or the face of the dead person, was able to absorb all of the deceased’s sins: family members gathered around the corpse to drink ale and mourn, and a sin-eater would literally eat the sins of the deceased by consuming these funerary snacks.  While eating, the sin-eater would recite a special prayer: “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.” …. Damn. What’s funny about this profession of sorts, is that it was based in Christianity.  Go figure. And to add to the insult, sin-eaters were those who not only enabled the souls of the dead to safely ascend to Heaven but also as those who prevented the sin-plagued dead from returning to Earth in spectral form as ghosts or wraiths, they were usually shunned from their communities and forced to live in isolation.  Let’s give props to the last known Sin -Eater, Richard Munslow.  Died in 1906 with all those sins swallowed.  Rest in peace sir.


So, with all that under the bridge, Scientific skeptics and atheists generally consider both religious and secular séances to be scams, or at least a form of pious fraud, which, of course. The exposure of supposed mediums whose use of séance tools derived from the techniques of stage magic has been disturbing to many believers in spirit communication. In particular, the 1870s exposures of the Davenport Brothers.  So, this is the final thing I bring into the game.  Magic.  Some people think this talent belongs in the same realm as everything we talked about, but ironically, magicians were the first ones to call these shenanigans out.  Houdini was very vocal on these subjects, and when he wasn’t trying to escape from a safe, he was busy trying to debunk the whole “spirit” phenomena.       As late as 1976, M. Lamar Keene described deceptive techniques that he himself had used in Seances. We of course continue to run down this road of the Macabre, but for me, the old turn of the century is beautiful…. almost sexy, if that makes sense. As we continue to evolve and forego some of these well-known facts in history, keeping alive the “macabre of the 19th/20 century has a stronghold into our history that cannot…. cannot, be forgotten about. Long live ingenuity.

Close the Gates….