The second book in my series featuring photographer Beatrix Spencer and detective Fergus Blair in 1900 Sydney is called “The Dark Room”. I wanted to introduce “spirit photography”, the phenomenon of photographs which appear to feature ghostly forms that was so popular in the Victorian era and early twentieth century.
In 1900 Sydney was preoccupied with death. New South Wales had sent soldiers to the Boer War and even in Sydney people weren’t safe from the bubonic plague, which eventually killed over 100 people that year.
Even so I was surprised by the abundant evidence of spiritualism when I started researching. In 1894 T. Shekleton Henry, a Sydney barrister, wrote an expose of a Sydney spiritualist medium in his booklet “Spookland”. He attended a number of seances held by a Mrs Annie Mellon. Here is a description of a seance he attended:
“I saw an irregular luminous appearance on the right side of the curtain. It gradually increased in length, and then shifted its position to the centre, and shortly assumed the form of a man about six feet high,enveloped in white drapery…
The effect of this apparition was indescribably weird, and whatever the impression may have been upon those to whom it was not a novelty, it certainly seemed to me to be a most awesome thing.
Here before me was a form resembling and yet not resembling a human being, and said to be a denizen of another world – a shadowy substance which seemed to gaze upon the company with passive dignity…”
Eventually he exposed the tricks that Mrs Mellon used to create these effects. She would conceal herself behind the curtain, and use mannequins, mimicry and gauze to create the “spirits”.
Nonetheless I found an advertisement for seances conducted by Mrs Mellon in 1901 in Queens Hall, Pitt Street, for 2 shillings and sixpence admission. Could it be the same woman?
In March 1900 Mr Henle was advertising a ‘trance address’ and ‘clairvoyant descriptions’ in Newtown for ladies.
A young medium named Alice Praed fell foul of the law and was tried in the Criminal Court in 1900 for false pretences. The prosecution alleged that she told a Mrs Catherine Parry “that she had power to cause the spirits of the deceased’s husband and the deceased children of Catherine Parry to speak to her. As the result of these conversations it was alleged that Mrs. Parry was induced to buy accused a suite of furniture, dresses, and various articles of jewellery, and to make a will in her favour. According to Mrs. Parry, accused, who practised as a spiritualistic medium, shut her eyes at the first trance, made a couple of jerks, and then the daughter of witness spoke through the medium and told witness to be very kind to the medium. At the second seance witness had an interview with another daughter, who said she was teaching school in Heaven and wearing a black dress,and that the medium must have one like it.”
A sad story that shows the power of spiritualism at this time.