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Fake Photographs, Scary Seances, and More Spooky Spiritual Scams
Learn about the Fox sisters, spirit photographer William H. Mumler, and more infamous scammers who duped people into believing they had special powers.
While phishing emails and fake bank fraud alerts are the most prevalent forms of scams these days, back in the day, people were more likely to fall victim to scams of a different sort.
Decades ago, in the Victorian era, many were targeted in cons involving magic and mysticism. Fraudsters would claim to have some unique talent, like having contact with the afterlife, luring people in with false promises of reuniting with their loved ones or simply experiencing a frightful séance.
These scams often took advantage of those who were at their most vulnerable. Case in point: former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who was depressed over the assassination of her husband President Abraham Lincoln, was frequently duped by mystics who claimed to have access to the afterlife.
Even Queen Victoria is said to have participated in séances, in which she purportedly contacted the late Prince Albert regarding political decisions, according to History.com.
So, who are the figures who duped people like Mary Todd Lincoln and Queen Victoria? Keep reading to find out.
1. Queen Victoria And Robert James Lees
Though she was an advocate for science and common education, Queen Victoria turned to mediums following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, whose death sent the queen into a nearly 30-year mourning period. Her most trusted medium was 13-year-old Robert James Lees, who first made contact with the Queen after intercepting a message from the late Prince Albert.
“The teen performed numerous séances for the Queen at Buckingham Palace before turning over his mediumistic duties to another medium,” historian Marc Hartzman told History.com. “Victoria continued holding séances at the palace and was known to seek her dead husband’s advice in political matters.”
Later in life, Lees claimed to have seen the real Jack the Ripper in visions, which he recalled to investigators who initially wrote him off as a madman. However, Lees was adamant his visions were real, leading police to the door of a West London surgeon who confessed to having bouts of memory loss. The surgeon said he’d sometimes wake up in bloody clothes — but that’s only if you believe a 1931 report from the Daily Express, which many have dubbed a hoax, according to Encyclopedia.com.
2. Mary Todd Lincoln and William H. Mumler
Mary Todd Lincoln’s life was marked by multiple tragic deaths within her family. In addition to the 1865 assassination of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, Mary lost her sons, William “Willie” Lincoln, 4, and Edward “Eddie” Lincoln, 11, before they could reach adulthood. Later in life, Thomas “Tad” Lincoln would die at the age of 18.
Devastated by grief, Mary looked to mediums and other mystical figures for comfort, including the so-called spirit photographer William H. Mumler, who took a now-famous photo of Mary with the purported ghost of her late husband. In the portrait, a ghostly-figure stands behind Mary with his hands on her shoulders.
It’s now widely accepted that Mumler created these images through double exposure.
P.T. Barnum, renowned showman and Mumler’s biggest critic, hired photographer Abraham Bogardus to replicate the results during a trial in which Mumler was accused of fraud. While Bogardus achieved a ghostly-looking photo, the jury found they couldn’t definitively conclude Mumler hadn’t photographed spirits and acquitted him of the charge, according to Smithsonian Mag.
Additionally, the White House History organization writes that Mary hosted at least eight seances within the White House’s Red Room.
3. Ann O’Delia Diss DeBar
Famed magician Harry Houdini described DeDar, who went by multiple aliases, as “one of the most extraordinary fake mediums and mystery swindlers the world has ever known” in his novel “A Magician Among The Spirits.”
Throughout her life, DeBar masqueraded as a medium and clairvoyant, offering to perform readings for wealthy individuals. Once in their homes, she’d steal prized belongings, as reported by the New York Times in 1901 and 1893.
In one instance, DeBar swindled wealthy New York City lawyer Luther Marsh out of his Madison Avenue townhome by painting pictures of spirits, according to the New York Times via Atlas Obscura. Houdini wrote in his book that during trial, DeBar claimed the spirits told her to return the property and all its belongings to Marsh, contributing to a lesser sentence of six months in prison.
Though sympathetic of Marsh, Houdini admitted the lawyer was an “exceedingly easy mark.”
4. Daniel Dunglas Home
Home was yet another fraudster investigated by Houdini, whom he described in “Magician Among the Spirits” as “an untiring worker as well as an unflinching egotist.”
Home claimed to be a medium, frequently making contact with ghosts that would steal from clients — though the riches somehow ended up in his own pockets. As such, Houdini wrote, “He, personally, could not be held responsible for what wicked spirits might do.”
In addition, during séances, attendees would see sparkling lights, hear knocking, or even experience the touch of a spirit. In one famous story, guests reported seeing Home float out of one window to another, which Houdini was able to recreate, saying the feat “means nothing to any acrobat with a wire properly placed in readiness.”
Home was once convicted of fraud after convincing 75-year-old widow Jane Lyon to give him hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to Houdini’s writings.
5. The Fox Sisters
In the 1880s, Leah, Margaretta and Catherine Fox, three sisters from Hydesville, New York, became the biggest figures in the Spiritualist movement. From a young age, the girls pretended to make contact with the afterlife in séances attended by high-profile people, including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Initially, the girls, who acquired wealth thanks to their talents, would pretend it was ghosts making knocking noises in the quiet rooms, but eventually, their guests began to claim they, too, felt the spirits touching them. However, Margaretta, a.k.a. Maggie, would later admit to being a fraud after a group of Spiritualists, as well as her older sister Leah, began to criticize Catherine for drinking and being a bad mother.
In retaliation, Maggie told the New York World in 1888, per Smithsonian Mag, how they did it — it turns out, the rapping noise was often her and Kate cracking their knuckles or joints. As for those so-called touches of the hand or a breeze, it was just the guest getting caught up in the act.
“It is a very common delusion,” she explained. “Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”
Originally published Dec 15, 2022.