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Coming Out of The Closet: Victorian Spiritualism and the Vaudeville Striptease

Coming Out of The Closet
Victorian Spiritualism and the Vaudeville Striptease

(First Published: Erotic Review. Issue 66, 2004.)

A grand parlour room bathed in the dim and eerie glow of phosphorus and magnesium lamps hosts an arrangement of ladies and gentlemen, seated on edge. They eagerly await the emergence of the fine figure of the scantily clad, nubile maiden anticipate (but not billed) to appear before them…

Through some mysterious ritual, the audience witness a noble girl of teenage form fall into a helpless trance as she is led amongst the shadows and shapes of the room, to the dark enclosure intended for her alone. Parted lips are licked in anticipation of an unknown -known and to quell the dry speechless mouths of anxiety as she is willingly bound by her wrists, ankles and neck and secured in a seated position in a cabinet just big enough for one body. A heavy curtain is slowly drawn across the front, obscuring this vision of blind submission from the onlookers who squirm and stretch their limbs in sympathy or frustration.

A gentleman of note stands near the girl, please with his bondage and set but he too now awaits the phenomenal ‘emergence and her big reveal.

She is the perfect picture of innocence, a tableaux of substitution as she sits in silence, patiently bound to an era of scandal.

The chanting and gentle, nervous singing of psalms masks the true emotion of the group while the master of ceremonies begins to perspire in anticipation of the climax of this absurd eroticism.

Then, it happens.

The onlookers are in awe and dare not move, nor speak so loud as to disturb Her.

She is coming.

Perfect, snow white feminine hands with long tapered fingers peel their way through the motionless folds of the curtains where they adjoin so seamlessly. She begins to emerge from one world in to the next and inch by ivory inch, the silky figure of Katie King materialises as from the fabric itself.

This apparition, the 23 year old daughter of legendary 17th century pirate John King has arrived. No one moves. This petty criminal, adulteress, murderess, long since dead and now repentant visitor at this moral class gathering, is now the ironic guest of honour.

The audience gasp in disbelief, some in fear, others in awe or ecstasy as they each realise their long-coveted spiritualist dreams.

“By God, it’s true!?”

“It cannot be so!?”

“It is. It is.?!”

The corsetry of some of the ladies is suddenly too tight by too many inches of truth and learned men struggle and grapple with language as they each flounder and grasp at any rationale for their own embarrassing social delirium. However, no one takes their eyes of Katie and the gesture is reciprocated as she commands the audience with silent stares which whisper echoes of the other side.

Suddenly she moves and appears to draw a young man out from the audience with her ghostly fingers, now parted lips and spellbinding stare. She beckons him away from the safety and sobriety of his seat and like a skilful puppeteer, she pulls his ethereal strings and he follows her; both now gliding toward the other side, of the curtain.

Within inches of touch, exotic lips pass a gentle breeze of warmth on his burning cheeks as they travel to whisper secrets to his throbbing temples and recumbent ears, deaf from the din of his own pulse inside.

The atmosphere is charged to its limit and catharsis is imminent. One man cracks with desperation and lunges forward through the quaking voyeurs. His lust for the truth has overcome his dutiful sense of propriety and he lunges forward in a clumsy grope for knowledge. He grabs at the Spectral Beauty in seconds as shrieks of horror and gasps of panic rip the meditative concentration of the room to shreds in even less time.

But it is too late.

The ghastly crime of such a wanton individual has already been committed exposing his real motives for bearing witness to the proceedings and exposing hers for her ill though- out parlour trick.

The women faint, passing judgment (but on whom they are not sure) and others ‘feign a faint’ to avoid making such a decision. The men lung at the lunger but stop dead and flummoxed until they realise the big reveal before them; she lies gripped in the arms of her exposer, semi clad in semi opaque cloth that is slipping off as she struggle to free her limbs and dignity.

Everyone is silent, staring and no-one says a word. The young medium is aflush with the heat of vexation and her round eyes stare up accusingly as her shallow rapid breathing grows slower and louder.

There is no applause – no hero to cheer for, no victim to cry for and no conclusion that anyone wishes to draw, except the curtains on the empty cabinet in the dark.

>End Scene<

If you had been privy to a mediumistic session of the 19th century, the above scenario is a likely interpretation of what you might have seen. To commune with the dead was the ultimate Victorian parlour game, many a scientist’s line of enquiry and a window to God and the sociable Dead to those of varying societal class and rank.

These seances were at the forefront of Spiritualism and Psychical Research and an emotional outlet of the mere mortals who obsessed over the macabre to the ironic point of fetishising death, perhaps in lieu of any direct sexual relief, a topic that was most abhorred. Modern critics have scoffed at these gatherings declaring them to be born of sleaze and not soul, but for a deeply sexually repressed and often confused society, this arguable pseudoscience of the day embraced all the taboo of sex and transformed it in to its polar twin and thus justified the sexual curiosities as more akin to religion than the erotic and the as the sessions were conducted by men of science, the meetings could be accepted as legitimate gatherings in the name of science and exploration.

By the 1870s, the stereotype of the medium had changed. The image of the ‘withered old crone’ teetering on the brink of death herself was replaced by a much more palatable model medium. Young women of recent puberty were generally accepted to be ideal mediums; young women and girls often under the age of consent were often selected from ‘respectable’ families were capital stock.

“We anxious investigators can scarcely complain of the change which brings us face to face with fair young maidens in their teens”
Rev. C.M Davies, 1875

The famous physicist and chemist, William Crookes made his mark on Spiritualism when he dedicated himself to testing such young mediums under scientific scrutiny such as Mary Rosina Showers and more infamously, Florence Cook.

Florence Cook was born around 1850 and between 1872 and 1874, she is credited with manifesting the spirit of Katie King on a regular basis. Florence willingly participated in Crookes? experiments where he endeavoured to study both the medium and the materialisation, Katie King.

In order to observe Florence’s behaviour, watch for trickery and to witness any spontaneous appearances of Katie King, Crookes had the young medium move in to his home to live with him.? Many people scoffed at this arrangement seeing it as a scandal; one critic (Trevor hall) even claimed that at one point that Florence ‘shared his bed as his mistress’.

To add to scandal, it was reported that Florence was only fifteen and had lied about her age but the most peculiar aspect of the reporting of this affair of science, is that Florence declared that at times she was also sharing the bed with Katie King who had promised that she would make a ‘full bodily materialisation’ within a ‘year of development’.

It is perhaps of great interest to those who prefer the ‘scandal hypothesis’ to that of ‘legitimate research’ that Katie King was known to be a long dead daughter of pirate and was a ‘notorious whore’ among other tantalisingly illicit things. This aspect of the dubious nature of the arrangement was explained (or perhaps justified) in that she was making her post-mortem materialisation so that she might repent for the sins of her life.

During her materialisations, Katie King (like many other apparent spirit forms) emerged from behind a curtain or from within a purpose build ‘spirit cabinet’ where the mediums sat bound by strings and ribbons in an attempt to prevent a fraudulent apparition. However, not all displays such as these were intended to be evidential of the spirit world; they intended quite the opposite in fact.

Ana Eva Fay was famous in the late 19th century for her ‘phenomenal’ act in which she was tied by her hands, neck and ankles to a pole, sat on a chair and secreted in a closet.

Various musical instruments were placed on her lap and after the cabinet was closed, the audience would hear various instruments being played. Within minutes, the audience would then see garments of her clothing (i.e. her hat and hoop) being cast from the cabinet.

Although this was a deliberate show piece, as the popularity of Spiritualism grew, Ana began to be billed as a ‘talented medium’. Naturally, more people began to question the general integrity of mediumship, wondering if it was all trickery – a mere vaudeville side show often peppered with a supernatural  strip tease. Mediumship became a lucrative part of showbusiness as people still came in droves. The curiosity of the debate still maintained a grip but more and more people were attending shows in the hope of catching the medium out and exposing their illusions.

Many of the young mediums were indeed exposed. Many were found to be playing both the medium and the spirit and had ‘spirit costumes’ stuffed in their knickers and petticoats for a quick change, whereas other were found to use an accomplice to act as the spirit – often a sister or personal maid.

What is more difficult to explain, however are the eye-witness accounts of other phenomena such as levitation and unfortunately the accounts of Florence Cook levitating off a table and ‘flying’ around a room vary so much from one another as to make them questionably accurate. The accounts none the less are entertaining and perhaps suggestive of witness seeing and recalling according to their desires; as one account states that Florence floated on and off a table while another states that her ‘clothes floated off’ before levitating on to the table, laying naked before her audience. Excited gossip and rumours are likely impossible to disentangle from any truth, especially when sexual fantasy was courting the fantastic.