Malcolm Gaskill- "Ectoplasm: raising the dead in inter-war Britain"

Dave Evans

This is based on notes taken from a public talk given at Exeter last year (2001) on the history of mediumship. Malcolm Gaskill is a well-known academic historian, his most recent book being “Hellish Nell”; the story of Helen Duncan. His talk was based around the larger themes from the book. NB/ My spellings of names given are ‘as heard’, so may not be absolutely correct.


The popular characterisation of the period stereotypically gives us a post World War I, world in economic slump, with a rise of extremism, Nazism and eventually leading to World War II. However there was also a burgeoning domestic culture of information spread, via the tabloid press, the cinema, the wireless and the Church. Spiritualism was in its heyday. It is important to note that Spiritualism was across classes and across genders, not just something of the lower or upper classes. 

Mediums who could physically materialize things were the most popular; for a visual aspect of entertainment as much as anything that was psychically ‘needed’. Some mediums even produced solid manifestations that clients could touch. Sadly there remains no really good definition of ectoplasm.

Most séances were held in public rooms, village halls, scout huts etc, with the windows blacked out. As World War II approached, such places were fitted with blackouts anyway, which was handy! Clients had different needs; ranging from the distressed bereaved who needed contact, to the thrill-seekers who were just after a weird evening out. Indeed, the colloquialism of the time for going to a séance was “going to the spooks”

The media impact at the time was high: see the films “Blythe Spirit” and “Spellbound” (see links to both below). Also there was a major Spiritualist Press in operation. The mainstream press coverage was usually either of the tabloid expose style, or else reporting details from trials of fraudulent or extorting mediums. 

Overall there seems to have been a lot more open-mindedness about the spirit world than today. 

Historically, spiritualism seems to have derived from the Fox family in upstate New York in the 1840s. It spread rapidly over the USA and came to the UK in the1850s. Spiritualism was popular in a materialistic world that seemed to be throwing Xianity out with the bathwater produced by science. Spiritualism offered “proofs”. 

Spiritualism was closely aligned with utopian Socialism and Xianity: it was highly idealistic; aiming for equality of enlightenment for all. 

Mediumship can also be seen as giving agency to women at a time when they were very unequally treated; the ideal woman and the ideal medium were seen as very similar = sensitive, passive, caring, intuitive etc. Séances also gave women a group focus and place to meet. In darkness… which equated with the witches sabbats, and the darkness was also cited as encouraging sexual dalliances (with men or women). 

Many educated men and women attended séances and became involved with spiritualist groups. Trinity College, Cambridge was a hotbed of spiritualism in the 1880s, and it is from this that the Society of Psychic Research (SPR) was founded in 1882. Many highly-regarded empirical scientists were involved. At the time, proof of the spirit world would have been a guaranteed Nobel Prize for any scientist who got there first. 

There are several types of mediumship:

  • Clairvoyance
  • Clairaudience
  • Direct voice reception- i.e. voices heard by clients as well
  • Automatic writing, automatic drawing
  • Psychometry- the “reading” of objects
  • Physical manifestation- transmediumship; which is very rare

A typical session with a transmedium would include flying trumpets, dancing coloured lights, apports of strange objects, apparitions and then a materialization of someone from the other side. 

In 1887 the University of Philadelphia found “widespread fraud” in mediumship. At the time in the UK the famous mediums were DE Hume, William Eglington and Elizabeth Hope. William Crookes of the Royal Society became so involved with researching mediums that he was almost in love with one of them (which was pretty scandalous at the time). Oliver Lodge was a major public representative for spiritism, as was Arthur Conan-Doyle (most famous as the Sherlock Holmes author). 

European mediums were a lot more “ecstatic” in their trances, with a very sexual and almost decadent air; their ectoplasm seen as ovarian or seminal in nature. Two big names were Palladino and Carriere. Palladino was examined by Cambridge University and found to be a fraud. After a few high-profile exposes of frauds the SPR became more interested in mental mediumship. And with a million UK dead in World War I there were plenty of messages being claimed to be received. A very common motif of the time was dead soldiers returning to blame the generals, “a generation lost” etc…. with (according to Conan Doyle) these war dead needing a reckoning before judgment day came. 

In January 1924 Doyle sent a photograph of the Cenotaph (Central London War Memorial), taken the previous Armistice Day, to the Royal Society. It showed hundreds of spirit faces within a miasma surrounding the obelisk. Doyle claimed he could see his own dead son’s face, and that of other relatives who had perished in the war. Even before the war ended “Raymond” by Oliver Lodge was published (1916) and was a best-seller; a collection of spiritualist case-studies. The interwar period led to a large rise in mediumship; with great demand for their services from the bereaved, in tandem with renewed scientific and journalistic interest. It was possible to be very famous (and rich) as a medium. 

A new class of spiritualism emerged, with powerful ideas for post-World War I enlightenment, and alliance with science. High class and an education gave the SPR members a social respectability, authority and cachet that other researchers often did not have. William Crawford, an engineer, investigated a family of Belfast mediums for several years, writing best-selling books about them, including good ectoplasm photos, but killed himself in 1920, for no apparent reason. 

While the SPR accepted that some mediums were frauds, the public views were malleable; from gullible to complete sceptic; the Crewe Circle of spirit photographers were exposed as frauds, as was the ecstatic medium Carriere, whose ‘ectoplasm’ was found to be merely chewed-up paper. The police and courts were operating from the purely materialistic stance- if the bereaved were being defrauded or exploited then the Law acted; fraud is fraud. The 1824 Vagrancy Act was the law used, as it contained section 4; re: fortune telling. This could be lucrative: in 1916 Almera Brockway was imprisoned for fraud, having earned £24 per week. At the time a labourer in a munitions plant would be making £1 a week. 

As an aside; Gaskill discussed the problems of writing objective academic history in this field- he finds it hard to remain on the fence but cannot be seen to be falling off to either side. He himself is a sceptic, but sees the social and historical usefulness of mediums, which is the angle from which he researches and tends to express himself. 

In 1929 the Boston socialite and medium Marjorie Crandon visited the UK; to a ‘feeding-frenzy’ of media attention- imagine Madonna going walkabouts in London today and you have the idea… But later, her ectoplasm was found to be cotton. This kind of media scrum was repeated for several other celebrity mediums over the years. There is considerably more about this in Gaskill’s book (link below). 

Harry Price, an independent psychic research expert found 99% of his subjects to be frauds, but realised that it was the 1% uncertainty that made it possible to sell books and newspapers. 

The 1938 Munich political crisis lost a lot of converts to spiritualism. All the ‘guides’, who were often dead World War I veterans, were saying “no war”, and they were profoundly wrong; leading to a major disillusionment with the field. However the culture of secrecy in World War II led to renewed interest, and membership of spiritualist churches rose again. Enter the cops: who claimed that spread of false information was a morale-lowerer, and was thus dangerous. The paper ‘Psychic News’ was warned by MI5 in 1940 to be very careful what they wrote about, with the security services using language taken direct from the 1735 Witchcraft Act, NOT the 1824 Vagrancy Law. This was a national situation; the stakes had been raised. 

In 1939, Betty Birch, a Gypsy medium was charged under the 1735 Act. As was Helen Duncan a few years later. This talk is not really central to Gaskill’s book about Duncan; so buy the book and read it :) 

Briefly: Helen Duncan was a materialization medium; who had been tested by the SPR and found to be probably a fraud (her ectoplasm may have been regurgitated cheesecloth, for example). She was tried and fined in 1933 using the Vagrancy Act for fraud. She continued to do very well financially, especially around Portsmouth. Unfortunately (for her) she had a psychic ‘hit’ about the name of a ship that had sunk, but which not been announced by the War Office yet, as it was a very bad loss of life, and a disaster strategically, so such news would have damaged morale. In Duncan’s audience was an off-duty Naval Officer, who reported her to the authorities. She was charged, and at local court she turned up with a barrister, provided by the Spiritualist Church fighting fund. This had been set up in the 1930 to aid all mediums with legal problems. The police only had a solicitor, so they asked for a deferral so they could get a barrister too. The case then was moved to the Old Bailey; with the Crown having King’s Counsel, who was oddly enough also an MI5 officer, called John Maude. Duncan’s defence against fraud charges was that she was calling up real spirits, not faking it- but as she was also charged under the 1735 Act, this claim to be calling on real spirits was an admission of guilt on the charge of witchcraft. 

She got 9 months in Holloway Prison. An appeal was considered and refused, on largely Biblical and 16th Century precedents, and the judge summed up at the very rapid rate of 3 words per second. Spiritualists campaigned for the repeal of the 1735 Act, adopting Duncan as a figurehead for the injustice. Ironically, as Winston Churchill was instrumental in building the UN and a bill of rights he was getting sacks of mail about Duncan’s case (these are extant- see Public Records Office link below). There was another trial in 1950 using the Witchcraft Act. Shortly after this, Walter Onslow, MP sponsored the bill that became the 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act, and the 1735 Act was removed from statute. It is this that all your local Wiccans would have been celebrating last year, 50 years since the repeal of the Act. 

Duncan was hassled a lot by the cops, and was raided again in 1956. She was taken very ill immediately afterwards, and no charges were pressed because (a) the cops didn’t want a martyr and (b) they had found nothing anyway. Duncan died very soon after, and there is a current Internet campaign to clear her name, see link below. 

Ironically, under the protection of the law, and not fear of it, spiritualism then declined; with the 1951 Act being seen as the final blow. There is even more irony; in that the practice of spiritualism was allowed in the Armed Forces during the war, at precisely the time that Duncan was in prison for it. Also, spiritualists were allowed to practice in prison; even though they had been imprisoned for their being a spiritualist. 

Gaskill’s conclusions

The religion-science merger was hoped for via spiritualism; but this was dashed by so many frauds. Science actually ‘disenchanted’ the spirit world. 

Class and gender were important here- the mediums and their audience had designated entrances to the buildings where they worked; much like the ‘Gentlemen and Players’ distinction between paid professionals and amateurs in sport of the time. Helen Duncan was a broad Scot, but her male spirit guide had a BBC English accent (called “received pronunciation”) to make him more authoritative. 

Mediumship and female inequality issues are worth a book on its own. Regarding war and memory- do the public need a Cenotaph in every town, or a medium in every town, or both? This is an issue of Public versus private remembrance. Gaskill makes the very good point that societies are not destroyed by grief, only families.
Reading and recreation was important in the spread and then decline of spiritualism: the new ILLUSTRATED tabloid press caused a communications revolution, this and the rise in radio and cinema, and ultimately TV caused a rise in privatized entertainment; and “spook shows” were less in vogue. Audience interaction is vital for mediums. 

There is also a major distinction between inward empowerment of self (the newer spiritualities, the whole ‘New Age’ movement) versus outward demonstration of power (mediumship). 

Ectoplasm was not the spirit world becoming flesh, but cheesecloth. It gives us very little. However the pacifist, utopian, and importantly Christian socialism of the spiritualist churches remains to the present as an important and coherent legacy. 

Buy the book- it gives a fascinating overview of a period that although very close in time, is shrouded with a lot of misconceptions. 

Buy UK
The book is not listed on Amazon US. 

The Helen Duncan Pardon page

Films mentioned:
Blithe Spirit


Public Records Office- search for ‘Helen Duncan’

Dave Evans