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Portraits from Beyond: The Mediumship of the Bangs Sisters

Publication Details: 
White Crow Books, ISBN 978-1-910121-65-8
Publish date: 
September, 2016

Lizzie and May Bangs were sisters living in Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through whose mediumship slate writing and ‘precipitated spirit paintings’ occurred.  Little has been written about them and N. Riley Heagerty has sought to fill the gap by gathering contemporary accounts from books, journals and newspapers, both for and against the pair, with examples of the portraits produced during their mediumship.  This is not a formal biography of the sisters but more a compilation of contemporary accounts with commentary.

According to Heagerty, Elizabeth Bangs (known as Lizzie) was born in 1859, and Mary (known as May) was born in 1862.  Their mother was a medium and they themselves became mediums in childhood, allowing a lengthy apprenticeship before they struck out on their own.  In 1874 they appear to have experienced a poltergeist, and according to their mother Meroe this was the beginning of their communication with spirits.  They exhibited a wide range of phenomena, including materialisation; they practised clairvoyance and clairaudience, automatic writing, slate writing, and even communication by typewriter, messages appearing on the machine with no apparent human intervention.  Heagerty devotes part of the book to messages conveyed by means of writing on blank pages inserted between two slates along with specific questions, often in an envelope, the slates then secured by stout rubber bands.  Intelligible responses to questions posed by sitters, ostensibly written by spirit communicators, were obtained.  But the precipitated paintings, beginning in 1894, are the most noteworthy aspect of their mediumship

Precipitated art is defined as spirit art formed without the intervention of the medium.  The portraits produced during the Bangs sisters’ séances were produced generally by propping a pair of framed canvases on a table in front of a window, with the curtains pulled around them.  A picture would gradually appear, sometimes the details being altered, or the eyes opening, as the sitters watched.  For example, in one case a portrait appeared with the subject sporting a full beard; however when the sitters pointed out that in his later years he had trimmed his beard to a goatee, the portrait changed, so where a full beard had been before, now there was a goatee.  In another case, a sitter had a photograph of the deceased in his pocket, but this was not shown to anyone else.  The portrait was identical to the photograph, but the individual depicted, while he had been in the habit of wearing a Masonic pin, had not had it on when posing for the photograph, and hence it was not present in the painting.  In response to a mental request by the sitter, a pin was added to the portrait in the same position it was worn in life.  It is difficult to account for such effects in terms of pre-prepared canvases so the choice is between a genuine paranormal effect, possibly involving telepathy as well as spirit communication, and sleight of hand plus malobservation in subdued light and in an atmosphere of heightened emotion.

Heagerty has Spiritualistic sympathies and is dismissive of those who sought to debunk the sisters’ mediumship.  The women had their share of problems with the authorities, a hostile press, and critics who put forward non-paranormal theories to account for the portraits.  Notable among the latter were Hereward Carrington, the Rev. Stanley Krebs, and David P Abbott.  A paper by Krebs, ‘A Description of Some Trick Methods Used by Miss Bangs, of Chicago’, was read to the Society by Frank Podmore and printed in the January 1901 issue of The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research; Abbott published The Spirit Portrait Mystery, Its Final Solution in 1913.  Abbott found that with two canvases placed parallel to each other and facing the sitters – the general procedure with the Bangs – it is possible to have a painting on the one furthest away from the sitters, but when the canvases are held some distance apart the painting is invisible even when backlit, an effect that would have been assisted by light from the window leaking around the canvas.  When the canvases are moved together, at about three inches the painting on the rear canvas becomes visible through the front one.  The painted canvas would have been substituted for a blank one previously examined during the session.  May and Lizzie would normally sit either side of the table holding the canvases, so such manipulation would be feasible (yet one account states that they did not touch the canvases, only the sitter did).  Placing themselves by the curtains would facilitate substitution of a hidden pre-prepared canvas, and as no reason for this method rather than say propping a single canvas on an easel in good light is given, the procedure seems suspicious.  This does assumes either a cunning hiding place for the prepared canvas or marked obtuseness by the dupes (the suggestion that one of the sisters waddled in with a large framed canvas under her dress undetected seems unlikely)

Further, Admiral W. Usborne Moore (retd), a firm supporter of the genuineness of the sisters’ mediumship, reported the image forming on the far side of the nearer canvas, which if accurate would rule out Abbott’s proposed mechanism, as the image would be visible irrespective of the position of the far canvas.  On the other hand, during that sitting the orientation of the face in the picture was changed from facing right to facing left, an effect that could have been done by manipulation, so the image could actually have been on the far canvas, as Abbott theorised, rather than the near one, as Moore assumed.  Moore prided himself on his powers of observation, but prowess at naval surveying was not necessarily going to help in the séance room without knowledge of conjuring, plus May was often reported to be restless, which could have been used as distraction.  Anyway, it would seem that on occasion only one canvas was employed, so Abbott’s theory would not apply in those instances.

Placing the canvases in the window might indicate light was a component in the formation of the image, utilising a combined photographic/painted process, but then when was the overpainting done?  Also, there were examples where the canvases were not placed in the window and an image still formed, and another where two out of three available canvases were examined for 15 minutes in strong sunlight in the garden and secretly marked to prevent substitution.  If the canvas used during the sitting was exposed to sunlight for a quarter of an hour, any photographic coating would show, and no image would be possible afterwards.  Even if a specially prepared canvas was exposed only in the window, it would be difficult to control the process to prevent overexposure given that the time in the window and strength of light would vary enormously from séance to séance and could not be accurately calculated.  There are no references to the canvases being covered when the sitters arrived so they could have been exposed to light for some considerable time.  Such theories become even more difficult to sustain when a canvas brought by the sitter was used, though for the critic there is always the handy substitution standby if all else fails.

A dubious aspect is that sitters often brought a photograph of the person whom they wished to contact.  We are assured neither sister ever saw such a photograph, as it would be kept firmly in the sitter’s pocket, but there was no reason why a photograph needed to be in the room at all.  James Coates supplied such an account from a Mr Ghose, and suggested that the medium perceived the photograph clairvoyantly and transmitted the image to the spirit artist.  In that way while the image was of the deceased, it did not necessarily originate with the subject of the portrait, though a spirit communicator was still involved.  Working against this theory in Mr Ghose’s case was the fact that the painting had captured his deceased son’s particular colouring, which could not be ascertained from a black and white image.  That implied the artistic intelligence was working from more than a photograph.

The Hett Gallery at Camp Chesterfield in Indiana has 26 of the Bangs’ precipitated portraits.  It has been claimed firstly that the sisters’ output was produced more quickly than a human painter would be able to work, and secondly has no visible brush strokes.  It is difficult to judge the first of these because it is possible the images were pre-prepared, so the length of the séance is no guide to the length of preparation (though Moore reported that paintings were still damp; for every possible explanation there is a counter-example, making an assessment of the sisters a complex business).  But the second claim could be assessed with the aid of an electron scanning microscope to help determine the structure of the pigments.

Heagerty asks why, if the sisters were frauds, they did not make more money on stage as illusionists, a less stressful career.  A ready answer is that stage magicians need to develop their acts to maintain public interest, whereas the Bangs sisters relied on a limited repertoire for many years.  They would not have had such a lengthy career as illusionists on those terms.  Also they made good money from Spiritualists for the portraits, and could not have expected to sell pictures for such sums on the basis that they were the products of an illusion.

Particularly useful is a colour section with reproductions of some of the surviving portraits.  They mostly appear to be of high quality (one of Queen Victoria looks uncharacteristically awkward), and if painted by a human hand are from a decent artist.  Sources are listed, but not specific references, and there is no index.  Ron Nagy, historian at the Spiritualist settlement at Lily Dale, New York, has contributed a foreword in which he calls the book ‘definitive’.  It is certainly not the last word, but it is a valuable contribution to the sparse literature on these fascinating characters, and should be read by anyone with an interest in the history of mediumship.