Edward Brackett's Materialized Apparitions
Between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century several books were published that had as their topic the phenomena of materialization and their investigation. They are probably the most extraordinary events that psychical research has dealt with. This page reports the testimonies and experiences of Edward A. Brackett, an American sculptor active in Boston, described in his book Materialized apparitions published in 1885.
At present it seems more important to me to highlight the psychic reactions aroused in human consciousness by paranormal phenomenology, and in particular by mediumistic phenomena, rather than irrefutably validate their veracity. This last task has already been undertaken and carried out with due diligence, both in the past and in more recent times, by many researchers who have ascertained the reality of these phenomena. However, for some reasons that will be examined later, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many events of a mediumistic nature occurred, that in the following decades became more rare, until disappearing almost entirely in our days, or at least being relegated to circles not open to experimental tests. This fact leads many skeptics to consider as a result of fantasy or as a testimony of naivety towards fraudulent tricks much of what is reported in the literature about mediumistic phenomena of the past. But although both these aspects (naivety and fraud) are true for most of the phenomena presented as paranormal, one would do wrong to the authors of some of these testimonies – as we have seen in the previous pages and as we will also see about Brackett – giving them a label of people in bad faith or, if their sincerity is not in doubt, naives ready to be easily deceived.
Edward A. Brackett
Edward Augustus Brackett (1818-1908), was an American sculptor active mainly in Boston since 1841. As an artist, especially as a neoclassical sculptor, he was rather well-known in his homeland (one of his works is still exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), even if to make a livelihood he had to do other jobs alongside his artistic activity. In any case, he was a public personality, and – as he said – in 1885 he wrote Materialized apparitions in the free moments that the work left him, as a sincere testimony of the investigations he conducted experimenting with different mediums. He did not attribute to this book any literary value, but thought it was his duty to make public the content of the notes he took in the field. In fact, when he began to be interested in mediumistic phenomena, Brackett defined himself as a person endowed with a natural skepticism, who had «a thorough abhorrence of fraud» whether in the séance room or in the pulpit, and claimed that «any one who would trifle with the most sacred feelings of our nature deserves the severest punishment». He was very sensitive to nature, and published poems of romantic intonation that had as subject different aspects of the natural world. As for his character, this is how he is represented by one of his contemporaries: «Though kind, generous and genial he has an indomitable will which cannot be changed if once set. Brought up in strict Quacker faith, the abit of independent thought has mede the dogmas of religion especially distasteful to him. In matters social and religious, and also in matters of dress he is a law unto himself».
In the introduction to another of his books, The World We Live In, Brackett so expressed himself: «If you have swamped your individuality in the habits and customs of a sectarian life, you will probably find yourself dominated by inherited ideas – vagabonds that have come down from a barbarous age. They have teken possession of your intellect, blinding your intuitions. Whether you like them or not you cannot annihilate them. You may try to kick them out and think for a time that you are rid of them, but they return, dressed in new garments, labelled Higher Criticism. If, by any circumstance, you are so fortunate as to escape this bondage, in the opinion of the majority you are nothing but a cranck, subject to the despotism of public opinion agains which so few have the backbone to stand up and be counted». In light of the moral firmness shown by these words, it seems very unlikely that Brackett has invented in whole or in part what he wrote in Materialized Apparitions. Let us therefore examine the events of which he left his testimony.
In 1841 Brackett, discussing with a friend about mesmerism (a phenomenon on which he was initially skeptical), witnessed some hypnosis experiments, conducted almost for fun, which led to the discovery of a clairvoyant subject whose revelations struck a lot Brackett. For some time he participated in weekly meetings with the aim of deepening his knowledge of mesmerism. He also carried out experiments aimed at verifying, through the use of galvanometers, the possible passage of electromagnetic currents between the hypnotist and the subject. Nothing was detected, but this kind of experiments are testimony to an era in which both physical and paranormal phenomena exerted the same charm and expectations: those of a mystery that could be unveiled. When the news about those phenomena that could happen during that particular mental state known as psychic trance began to spread, Brackett began to be interested, thinking that it could be some form of mesmerism. In the following years he was able to participate in several séances with some mediums, receiving communications mainly from a member of his family. At first he was not convinced that such communications were of otherworldly origin: he decided therefore to investigate more deeply the materializations, as it was said that when they manifested, it seemed that visible and tangible entities formed from nothing. He believed that his research in the field of mesmerism would help him, and above all that his perceptive faculties, sharpened by his skill as a sculptor, would enable him to distinguish the most subtle differences between materialized entities and human subjects.
Wonders of the late Nineteenth
It was not until the mid-1880s that Brackett was able to attend the sittings of a Boston medium capable of producing materializations, Mrs. H. B. Fay. There is little news left today about this medium born around 1855, not to be confused with Annie Eva Fay, a famous American medium and conjurer who performed in European theaters and on whom Crookes carried out some experiments with the galvanometer. Apart from the scant information given by Brackett himself, Mrs. H. B. Fay is mentioned by Florence Marryat in her book There is no Death. Mrs. Marryat had the opportunity to attend a séance with Fay in Boston during an American stay, and wrote that she had been able to observe in the séance room «two of the most extraordinary materializations I've ever seen», in addition to a large number (30 or 40) of more or less complete apparitions.
The medium is described as a petite woman, quiet and humble-looking: she was a paid medium, and she held her séances – as it was common in America at the time – in a large room in front of an audience of thirty or more people. However, she performed in a popular neighborhood, and the price fixed for attending the séances was modest, so much so that someone had warned Marryat not to expect too much, as the entities that manifested were too physical and of a non evolved level, in tune with the poor quality of the audience. Marryat, however, being a trained and honest investigator, noticed that the spectators, though of humble condition, followed what was happening in silence and with respectful attention: they were, evidently, people of faith. Sitting next to her, she noticed a young man and a girl of five or six, both dressed in mourning, who looked sad and absorbed, and she thought they had come to see someone they had recently lost. The medium sat down in a cabinet in a corner of the room, formed by two simple curtains of white and transparent cloth, while the audience sat in the hall in the light of a gas lamp. According to Marryat, if there had been any movement inside the cabinet, due to changes in clothes or masking, this would have been immediately evident to everyone. We'll see later how Brackett was able to observe at his ease and on several occasions the mediumistic cabinet from the inside, even when materializations occurred.
Only a few minutes had passed since the medium had sat, when two extraordinary figures jumped out of the cabinet and began to walk in the room. Both were very different from the medium: one looked like an Irish charwoman, with a brown, wrinkled face, a broken nose and tangled gray hair. She wore a crushed bonnet and looked dirty and untidy: she spoke a broad Irish and had a very sharp tongue. Biddy – so she said she was named– was accompanied by Teddy, described as «a street newspaper boy – one of those urchins who run after carriages and turn Catherine-wheels in the mud», who talked gutter-slang in a style that was utterly unintelligible to the decent portion of the sitters. These two went on in a manner that was undoubtedly funny, but not at all – in Marryat's opinion – edifying and calculated to drive any enquirer into spiritualism. That either of them was represented by Mrs. Fay was out of the question. In the first place, she would, in that instance, have been so clever an actress and mimic, that she would have made her fortune on the stage. Added to which the boy Teddy was much too small for her, and Biddy was much too large. Besides, no actress, however experienced, could have made up in the time. The medium remained visible, sitting beyond the curtains. Brackett, during the séances in which he took part, even took precise measurements of both the medium and the entities that materialized.
Marryat remained rather disconcerted by the fact that it was allowed to such low-level entities to materialize, but after a while the two disappeared, and a little girl named Gipsy appeared, who looked indeed like a gypsy, lively, restless and dark skinned. Later the young man in mourning was called into the cabinet, and was seen talking openly with a female-looking entity, whose hand then he took, escorting her out of the curtains and calling by name the little girl who had remained seated in her place. The little girl looked up and jumped up yelling: «Mamma! Mamma!» and flew into the arms of the spirit, who knelt down and kissed her, while the child was heard sobbing and saying: «Oh, mamma, why did you go away? why did you go away?» It was a very affecting scene: the instant recognition by the little girl, and her perfect unconsciousness but that her mother had returned in persona should – according to Marryat – have been a more convincing proof of the genuineness of spiritualism to skeptics, than fifty miracles of greater importance, unless they want to hypothesize a complicity between the young man, his child and the medium to perform a fraudulent staging.
When the spirit mother had to leave again the child's agony at parting was very apparent: «Take me with you», she kept on saying, and her father had actually to carry her back to their seats, when they both wept in unison. Afterwards the man said to Marryat, in an apologetic sort of way, that it was the first time that his daughter Mary had seen her poor mother, but he wanted to have her testimony to his wife's identity, and he thought she gave it pretty plainly, poor child! She would never be content to let him come alone to the séances thereafter. The writer replied, however, that in her opinion it was not a good thing that such a small child took part in mediumistic séances.
More testimonies from Marryat
Marryat hoped to witness the materialization of Florence, an entity corresponding to one of her daughters died at a young age, who had frequently appeared in various sittings with other mediums, but who in this circumstance did not show up (later Florence told her that the atmosphere was too rough and had prevented her from appearing). Instead, at one point, a man dressed in the shape of the sailors came out of the cabinet and began to dance in front of her a hornpipe (a typical dance that English sailors danced also on board the ships, entering one at a time in the middle of a circle of companions who clapped their hands in time). The sailor danced very well, waving his legs and vigorously snapping his fingers to mark the time, and when he finisced he made a leg stopping before Marryat, who asked him: «Have you come for me, my friend?». «Not exactly – the seaman answered – but I came with the Cap'en. I came to pave the way for him. The Cap'en will be here directly. We was in the Avenger together». All the world knew – noticed Marryat, whose family was well-known in England – that her eldest brother, Frederick Marryat, was drowned in the wreck of the Avenger in 1847. She was a little child at the time, and had no remembrance of him, nor had she never dreamt of seeing him again. He was a first lieutenant when he died, so she didn't know why the seaman gave him brevet rank, calling him Captain.
After a minute or two Marryat was called up to the cabinet, and saw her brother Frederick (whom she recognized from his likeness) standing there dressed in naval uniform, but looking very stiff and unnatural. He smiled when he saw her, but did not attempt to kiss her. She said: «Why! Fred! is it really you? I thought you would have forgotten all about me». «Forgotten little Flo? – he replied – Why should I? Do you think I have never seen you since that time, nor heard anything about you? I know everything – everything!». «You must know, then, that I have not spent a very happy life». «Never mind, – the entity answered again – you needed it. It has done you good». Marryat, however, had the impression that her brother's words were devoid of life, as if he were speaking mechanically, perhaps because it was the first time that materialized. After greeting him, Florence was about to leave when she heard a voice calling her name: «Flo! Flo!». On turning, she saw her sister Emily: she looked like herself exactly, but she had only time to hug her, kiss me and gasp out: «So glad, so happy to meet again»», when the entity appeared to faint. She melted away: perhaps this is the term that best explains the way in which entities vanished, as we will see better when we'll examine Brackett's observations. Her eyes closed, her head fell back on Marryat's shoulder, and before she had time to realize what was going to happen, she had passed through the arm that supported her, and sunk down through the floor. Marryat tells that the sensation of her weight was still making her arm tingle, but Emily was clean gone.
Finally, the writer tells another episode that particularly struck her, and which she greatly regretted. Toward the end of the séance a voice coming from inside the mediumistic cabinet said: «Here are two babies who want the lady sitting under the picture». Now, there was only one picture hanging in the room, and she was sitting under it. She looked eagerly towards the cabinet, and saw issue from it Gertie (a daughter of hers born dead, as often happened at that time, who had already appeared in other séances under the form of a child of about six years) leading a little toddler with a flaxen poll and bare feet, and no clothing but a kind of white chemise, walking as if moving her first steps. In the little girl, the writer thought she recognized Yonnie, another of her dead-born children whom she had often wished to see, and stood up to welcome the two entities with open arms. But as the two babies moved cautiously toward the middle of the room, Gipsy, who at that moment was acting as a control, bounced out of the curtains, saying with a certain rudeness: «Here! We don't want any children about». She placed her hand on the heads of the little ones, and pressed them down through the floor. They seemed to crumble to pieces before Marryat's eyes, and their place knew them no more. Marryat couldn't help feeling angry towards Gipsy, and exclaimed: «O! what did you do that for? Those were my babies, and I have been longing to see them so!». Gipsy replied: «I can't help it, but this isn't a seance for children». After this episode, Marryat was so vexed that she took no more interest in the proceedings. A great number of forms appeared, thirty or forty in all.
To better clarify these facts, it should be kept in mind that in the nineteenth century cases of infant mortality – as well as those of premature births of dead children – were frequent: the latter were buried without being given a name. Marryat had both these sorrows, but while she was certain of the survival of the spirit of her daughter – called, like her, Florence – who died at an early age and manifested through different mediums, she did not believe that stillborn babies could have a spirit. Florence convinced her otherwise by making materialize on some occasions girls' bodies, which she ensured were those of the stillborn Marryat's children. She told her mother that in the afterlife the name of these (not baptized) entities was assigned by the next of kin to parents, who was in charge of taking care of them: so Gertie had been named Gertrude by Marryat's mother-in-law, who had a heart friend with that name in life, and Yonnie was the way in which the child uttered her own name, Joan, given by her grandfather (the writer's father), that considered it perfect for a woman.
The first time that Brackett was admitted to one of Fay's séances, he observed that the audience consisted of about thirty people, many of whom seemed to him smart enough, as far as he could judge offhand. At the beginning of the séance the light was lowered, but not extinguished at all, so that it was possible to clearly distinguish the neighbors. Almost at the end of the séance, a lady who sat near the mediumistic cabinet announced the presence of an entity that claimed to be Maggie Brackett, although she was not sure she had correctly understood the first name, since the form was very weak and spoke in a whisper. Although Brackett didn't remember any member of his family by that name, he thought that the entity referred to him and – seizing the opportunity to get in touch with one of those beings who were supposed to come from another dimension – stepped up to the cabinet. When he reached it, the curtain parted and he could see a beautiful girl of about sixteen standing in front of him. Brackett looked closely at her, unable to trace any resemblance in the girl's features either to the medium or to any other person known to him. So he told the entity: «I do not remember you. Did I ever see you before?» The apparition shook her head and tried to speak, but Brackett could not make out what she intended to say. Noticing that she was not understood, she held out her hand, about three feet from the floor, but Brackett could not know what she meant. Seeing her great disappointment, he shook hand with her and said: «Never mind: we will find out about this some other time». Then bade her goodbye, and she stepped behind the curtain.
As he turned to his seat, a hoarse voice inside the cabinet somewhat startled him by saying: «Your wife is here!». «Very well, I shall be glad to see her», he answered. But if he had been disappointed in the first form, he was doubly so in this one. It was a much smaller person than his deceased wife, and had a tired, careworn expression, while her features strongly resembled the medium. She greeted him warmly. Holding her at arms' length, in order to better study her form, he said: «You are not tall or stout enough for my wife». «Wait», the entity said; and, stepping behind the curtain, returned in a few moments, fuller, and near a head taller. The height and general build of the form were now very good, but the face was a medley. Brackett saw, or fancied, some resemblance to his wife, but still more to the medium. The entity appeared overjoyed at meeting him; so much so that he felt it would be heartless on his part to repel her. Laying her head upon Brackett's shoulder, she talked freely with him, saying things that it seemed impossible that any one but his wife could know. Brackett knew what Mesmerism and clairvoyance meant. Was this another phase of them? Was it mind-reading? If so, it was a very clever performance. He could not realize that his wife was in front of him, and yet here was a being who had penetrated the inmost secrets of his domestic life, and who had dragged from the past the well-worn pages of his memory and read them anew.
The dematerialization of the entities
Brackett's wife had remained out much longer than most of the forms had done, when he noticed that she appeared to be growing weaker, and in spite of her efforts to sustain herself, was sinking downward. Bidding her good-night, Brackett let go her hand. As he did so, she went down directly in front of him, within a foot of where he stood, her head and shoulders being
The doubts and experiments of an honest skeptic
The artist tells of having returned home, at the end of the séance, in a state of confusion, prey to a thousand thoughts that revolved around the reality of the phenomena he had witnessed. As he pondered over this, a reaction came, and before he reached his home the probability, or the possibility even, that he had been deceived, vexed and annoyed him, and aroused a determination to know whether or not there was truth in materialization. And, as we have seen from the description of his character, he was not a person with a weak will. Brackett was not over-pleased with what he had seen. Materialization was either a great truth or a stupendous humbug. Thousands of intelligent persons believed in it, on what appeared to him uncertain evidence. Was it not a disgrace to science that this had been allowed to go on so long without any honest attempt to investigate it? If he could only get the inside track, how easy it would be to expose it? The whole thing lay in a nutshell: either the forms appearing were confederates, or personations by the medium; perhaps both. So he would if possible adopt a system of investigation so thorough that nothing should escape him. To go to séances as an ordinary visitor was, to him, to throw time away. If the manifestations were genuine, and his personal relations with the medium not objectionable, Brackett saw no reason why he should not obtain privileges without which, to his skeptical mind, it would be useless to pursue the subject. Therefore he continued his visits, having this object constantly in view. Otherwise he remained perfectly passive, neither demanding nor asking anything.
His rigorous and loyal attitude was greatly appreciated by the same spirits with whom he then came in contact, particularly from the control of the medium, Auntie (the one who spoke with a hoarse voice) who on some occasions anticipated his desires, almost reading his thoughts. For example, he had never asked to be allowed into the mediumistic cabinet during the séances, although he greatly desired it. One evening one of the apparitions approached him, saying: «You may go in with me», e mentre si avvicinavano al gabinetto la voce di Auntie disse: «You shall come in». As he entered, the control greeted him in a friendly way, saying that she liked him, as he was a skeptic, but an honest one. While talking with Auntie, Brackett had his left arm around the waist of the form that took him into the cabinet, while with his right hand he reached out and satisfied himself that the medium was sitting in her chair, entranced. At that point he had no doubt that inside the cabinet there were four beings: the two forms that appeared to be materialized, the medium, and himself. Two were certainly humans, while the other two (the entity and the control Auntie), if they were not confederates of the medium, had to be undoubtedly materialized forms. Taking advantage of the expressions of kindness on the part of the control, Brackett sought an earl opportunity to express to the medium what he desired. To his surprise, she made no objections, saying that she was entranced, and did not know what the forms were, nor was she conscious of taking any part in what came before the audience; that she was simply the instrument, not the operator.
Brackett thanked her, saying that he should do nothing which would be distasteful to her or the control; that the first step would be a thorough investigation of the cabinet, which consisted simply of a curtain drawn across the corner of the room. It was soon after changed to a light, portable structure, which could be easily moved to any part of the room. Brackett had this cabinet moved out, and thoroughly examined the floor, wall, and everything connected with it. The sculptor (who had a good practice also as a designer and builder of houses) came to the conclusion that there was no possibility for confederates who had not already been inside the room, to enter through secret trapdoors. He had since assisted in moving out the cabinet for the satisfaction of others, and had it placed in the opposite corner of the room, where it remained for weeks without in the least affecting the manifestations. According to Brackett, whatever might be the cause of the phenomena, they were certainly not due to confederates. Furthermore, he had a carefully drawn plan of the cabinet and its surroundings made by a competent architect, who had never seen any of the manifestations, and consequently was not a believer. There could be no doubt; it was impossible for anyone to enter the cabinet except through the door of the séance-room, in the presence of the whole audience. To be perfectly sure on this point, Brackett sought and obtained permission to sit next the cabinet – a place which he occupied for more than forty sittings – where he felt sure he could immediately identify any confederate who had attempted to sneak inside the cabinet: the séance-room was in fact always lit, even if with dim light.
Identifications and transformations
In some séances Brackett was able to see up to sixty entities of various forms, belonging to both sexes, differing in age and size, from small children to people in old age: each form was in itself complete and fully individualized. His wife, who always faded the same way as she had done it the first time, showed up many other times, so much so that Brackett no longer paid any attention to it, because the phenomenon had become familiar to him. Each time his wife's features were better, and her figure was more and more like the one he remembered, while the resemblance to the medium was only rarely perceived. Brackett noticed that during his first séeance, he, like many other sitters, had been inclined to attach great importance to the resemblance of the entities with the physical appearance that the corresponding persons had been while on earth: his eyes, well trained and very observant, in many cases could find a similarity so perfect as to leave no doubt about the identity of the entities. Despite this, with the progress of his knowledge about these phenomena, he learned to no longer consider the similarity as a certain proof of identification, since the entities proved to have an extraordinary ability to modify their materialized forms at will.
During a séance Brackett observed a tall young man, wearing a full beard, claiming to be a brother of a lady who was with him, while standing before her, one hand on her waist, the other in Brackett's. Upon her saying: «I have not seen you since you were a lad; how do you suppose I should know you now?», the entity stoop, kissed her on the cheek, and raised his roguish face without the beard, at the same time diminishing in size until he was more nearly like the boy she knew. Brackett said he witnessed similar changes outside of the cabinet, in the presence of the audience, quite often. Another of his remarks was that the mental and moral tone of the audience had more to do with the character of the séance than the medium herself. Several times, by the action of a strong will, he was able to cause the forms to recede from the position which they had at first assumed. Some people, without being fully aware of it, found themselves more or less reflected in the séances. They reaped what they had sown. Their condition of mind prevented the forms from approaching them. Brackett knew persons who had visited séances many times without receiving any attention; and, on the other hand, he had seen entire strangers, coming from distant parts of the country, who had never before been in a séance-room, receive the most tender demonstrations of affection and recognition by the entities.
At the séances, the same young woman often showed up who had materialized the first time Brackett took part in it. She said she was a niece of the sculptor (of whose existence he was aware, but whom he had never met in person when she was alive, since her family lived in another state, hundreds of miles away) and to call herself Bertha Brackett and not Maggie, the name originally referred to by the lady who said she did not hear it well. Séance after séance, as the familiarity and sympathy between Bertha and the sculptor grew, the entity manifested itself in increasingly clear and lively forms, conversing smoothly and without any difficulty. Sometimes she came to him in a very beautiful illuminated dress, so Brackett asked her to appear to him at the next séance dressed in the same way. He took a friend with him to that séance, expecting to astonish him with the wonderful illumination. But instead of keeping her promise, Bertha came out in a dark dress, such as he had never seen her wear.
Greatly disappointed in the way she came, Brackett asked her: «Bertha, why do you come in this dress?». Placing her right elbow in the palm of her left hand and her index finger on her lip, in a bashful, coquettish way, she said: «I'm in mourning». «For what?», asked Brackett. She replied: «"I expect I have lost my friend». And while Brackett, confused, said to his companion: «This is something new; I don't understand it», instantly the dark dress disappeared, and she stood before them radiant in her beautiful garments. With a girlish laugh she threw her arms around Brackett's neck, kissed him and said: «It is all right now, uncle». Brackett said that the disappearance, of the dark dress was quite as marvelous to his friend as the illumination. As this episode shows, it was not rare the case in which the entities manifested their joy and their feelings even through innocent jokes or good-natured mocking attitudes towards the sitters. Anyway – as we'll see better in the following page – Brackett claimed to have never been able to detect any fraud, or any indication of it, on the part of Mrs. Fay at these séances.