Science in the Séance Room: Stereographs, Medical Men, and the Testing of ‘Margery’ Crandon’s Extraordinary Body, c. 1925

Speaker: Dr Emma Merkling, Postdoctoral Fellow, The Courtauld

In the mid-1920s, a transatlantic team of physicians, surgeons, psychologists, and physicists gathered in the Boston séance room of the medium Mina ’Margery’ Crandon to study the extraordinary phenomena she produced in a trance state, especially the visceral, quasi-biological ‘ectoplasm’ that seemed to ooze from her body. Anxious to defend the scientific status of their research into this strange phenomena situated somewhere between the medical and mental, tangible and intangible, the all-male team of investigators produced a vast set of materials documenting and validating their research (many housed today in the Harry Price Archives at Senate House Library).

This talk centres on the stereoscopic photographs of Crandon taken by the researchers to index the ‘spiritualist’ phenomena witnessed and to supplement the poor observational conditions of the pitch-black séance room. It also considers the researchers’ use of their other senses — touch, hearing, smell — and the photographs’ material qualities to explore the complex relationships embedded in these photographs and practices between apparent polarities like trust and deception, vision and blindness, truth and illusion, proof and faith, and science and supernatural belief. The gendered dynamics of this investigation, related to issues of ‘control’ (scientific and otherwise), are also explored. What role did the photographs, and other forms of observation and control, play in the scientists’ efforts to validate, document, and (dis)prove the seemingly supernormal, yet peculiarly bodily, phenomena they witnessed? What of trust and deception? And what can the application of art-historical methods to such cases offer to the study of the relationship between science and extraordinary belief?

Dr Emma Merkling is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art as Principal Investigator on the grant project ‘Biomedicine and Belief:  Spiritualism, Observation, and Margery Crandon’s Extraordinary Body c. 1920–35′, funded by the International Research Network for the Study of Science and Belief in Society. Her research focuses on the relationships between art history, history of science, and history of heterodox belief in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She has previously held postdoctoral fellowships at the Courtauld’s Centre for American Art, the Science Museum, and the University of Stirling.

Dr Merkling’s research is generously funded by the International Research Network for the Study of Science and Belief in Society. This event is supported by the Gender and Sexuality Research Group at The Courtauld. 

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14 Nov 2022

Monday 14th November 2022, 5pm - 6pm GMT

Free, booking essential

Vernon Square campus, Lecture Theatre 2 and online via Zoom

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A stereoscopic image showing a dual image of a woman sat at a table with her head back, face covered by her wet hair, while she holds hands with figures on either side of her
A photograph prepared for stereographic viewing of ‘Margery’ Crandon exuding ‘ectoplasm’ during a test séance (1926). (Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London)

Science in the Séance Room