Of Dinosaurs and Phantoms: The Sequel

A short time ago, in a perhaps uncharacteristically skeptical frame of mind, I posted an essay speculating that some well-known paranormal phenomena -- the ectoplasmic materializations in the early 20th Century credited to the medium Marthe Beraud, also known as "Eva C." -- had been produced by trickery.

After posting this essay, I read more about the later stages of Marthe's career and began to have second thoughts. I was particularly struck by a series of experiments carried out in Munich by the medical doctor and psychiatrist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing under the sponsorship of a wealthy widow, Juliette Bisson. These experiments are described in some detail in Brian Inglis's Natural and Supernatural and its sequel, Science and Parascience. Although I was aware of these tests and even mentioned them in the first essay, I had given them little consideration, preferring to focus on Marthe's earlier work with the physiologist and psychical researcher Charles Richet.

In his two massively documented volumes, Inglis takes pains to establish his credentials as an objective historian of the paranormal, but it is clear that he is sympathetic to the claims of psychics and mediums, and impatient with the objections raised by skeptics. He puts the best possible face on Schrenck-Notzing's investigations of Marthe Beraud, and in the process makes those who have criticized her look petty and narrow-minded.

Having just placed myself in the company of the critics, I felt the sting of this implied rebuke. Could it be that I had defamed Marthe without cause? Could she have been genuine after all?

To address this question, let's first take a look at some of the phenomena photographed by Schrenck-Notzing. Here are two widely reproduced photos of ectoplasmic faces purportedly being extruded from Marthe's head:



As is immediately obvious, these phantom faces are not very realistic. In fact, they resemble crude sketches. In the second photo, the material - perhaps cheesecloth or muslin - on which the portrait is displayed has visible creases, as if it had been folded up for concealment prior to the seance.

In this connection, a comment by British skeptic Susan Blackmore may be relevant: "In the archives of the Society for Psychical Research in London, there is still a piece of [mid-20th Century medium] Helen Duncan's ectoplasm. This looks very much like a large piece of fine muslin and even has stitching around the edges."

Even in Marthe's day, skeptical investigators and magicians argued that ectoplasm was actually paper or fabric regurgitated by the medium or expelled, via abdominal contractions, from her vaginal cavity. Seances were nearly always performed in darkness or very dim light, and Marthe's were no exception. In those conditions, even crude portraits on muslin could look genuine. But when photographed in the light of a popping flash bulb, the phenomena looked markedly less persuasive.

The unconvincing faces in Schrenck-Notzing's photos are bad enough. Worse, in another photo from the same period, the letters MIRO can be seen on the back of an ectoplasmic shape issuing from Marthe's head. MIRO was part of the masthead of the newspaper Le Miroir, from which many of the faces seem to have been taken. The obvious implication is that Marthe simply cut out a sketch from Le Miroir and "manifested" it during the seance. (This photo is included in Science and Parascience; I haven't found it reproduced on the Web.) In other cases the face appears to be a hand-drawn copy of a published sketch or photo -- perhaps a copy drawn by Marthe on fabric which was wadded up and concealed on (or inside) her person.

Surely Schrenck-Notzing guarded against such fakery? Yes, he did. Marthe was undressed and subjected to a search before each sitting, a search that even extended to a gynecological examination. Sometimes she was fed an emetic to eliminate the possibility that she was regurgitating previously swallowed items. Given these efforts at preventing deception, it is hard to see how Marthe, unaided, could have smuggled anything into the seance cabinet.

But who says she was unaided? It is not impossible that she had an accomplice -- namely, the sponsor of the experiments, Madame Bisson.

It was Juliette Bisson who undressed Martha and performed the gynecological exam. And it was Juliette who hypnotized Martha to put her into a mediumistic trance. At the very least, Juliette appears to have had a psychological hold on Marthe. One author refers to Bisson as "Eva's Svengali," adding, "Schrenck-Notzing was struck by the medium's passivity, the most memorable evidence of which were physical examinations per rectum et vaginam ... to check for concealed materials. Schrenck-Notzing watched as Bisson probed Eva's vagina; but he himself consented to feel her body only through her leotard ..." (Malcolm Gaskill, Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches, pp.91-92; the quoted excerpt is online here.)

Juliette Bisson was a widow, Marthe Beraud an unmarried woman in middle age. What was the nature of their relationship? I would speculate that it may have been one of intimacy. I will immediately add that I have no evidence to support this speculation. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what evidence for or against it could come to light after ninety years. Still, let us accept this hypothesis, for argument's sake.

In those days a romantic relationship between two women could not be made public without serious repercussions. Some pretext would have to be found if Marthe were to live in Juliette's house and spend a great deal of time with her. How about a series of sober scientific investigations? Such tests, especially if presided over by a respected medical doctor like Schrenck-Notzing, would be sufficient to forestall any questions.

Since it was Juliette who stripped Marthe and searched her body cavities, Schrenck-Notzing had to take Juliette's word that the she had found nothing. If Juliette had been untrustworthy, Schrenck-Notzing would never be the wiser.

As I said, the actual nature of Marthe's relationship with Juliette can never be known. We can, however, take a look at some of the other precautions that Schrenck-Notzing reported. It is often stated that Marthe was sewn into "a close-fitting garment" (Science and Parascience). Was she? Look at these photos from the Munich experiments:



The outfits worn by Marthe in these shots do not look especially "close-fitting," much less "skintight," as some have described them. Nor does either qualify as a "leotard," a word used in some material quoted earlier. Indeed, the outfits, especially the one on the right, would seem to afford copious possibilities for concealment.

Perhaps the "tights" were put on first, with the heavy, loose dress donned over them for modesty. This would still be an unsatisfactory arrangement. The dress itself could have had muslin "ectoplasm" loosely sewn into it, and its heavy folds could have covered up any number of bodily movements.

Another argument made by Marthe's supporters is that she produced ectoplasm even with a veil over her face. Obviously, however, she didn't always wear a veil. No veil is apparent in the photos above, for example, or in the other widely circulated photos of her ectoplasmic manifestations.

Even when she was wearing a veil, did she actually extrude anything through it? Harry Houdini, who witnessed a performance by Marthe, said she did not. Now, it must be admitted that Houdini was not always a reliable witness. His well-known hostility to mediumship almost certainly biased his observations on some occasions, and in one instance he may have resorted to framing a medium (Mina Crandon, a.k.a. "Margery") when he was unable to properly discredit her.

Still, for what it is worth, here is Houdini's report on a sitting with Marthe, which he recorded in a letter to Arthur Conan Doyle:

Well, we had success at the séance last night, as far as productions were concerned, but I am not prepared to say that they were supernormal.

I assure you I did not control the medium, so the suggestions were not mine. They made Mlle. Eva drink a cup of coffee and eat some cake (I presume to fill her up with some food stuff), and after she had been sewn into the tights, and a net over her face, she "manifested,"

1st. Some froth-like substance, inside of net. It was about 5 inches long; she said it was "elevating," but none of us four watchers saw it "elevate." ...

2nd. A white plaster-looking affair over her right eye.

3rd. Something that looked like a small face, say 4 inches in circumference ...

4th. Some substance, froth-like, "exuding from her nose." Baggally and Feilding say it protruded from her nose, but Dingwall and I are positive that it was inside of net and was not extending from her nose; I had the best view from two different places. I deliberately took advantage to see just what it was ...

5th. Medium asked permission to remove something in her mouth; showed her hands empty, and took out what appeared to be a rubberish substance, which she disengaged and showed us plainly; we held the electric torch; all saw it plainly, when presto! it vanished.

Later, in print, Houdini dismissed the disappearance of the "rubberish substance" as sleight of hand and concluded, "I have no hesitation in saying that I think the two [i.e., Marthe and Juliette] simply took advantage of the credulity and good nature of the various men with whom they had to deal." It is perhaps significant that Houdini implicated both Marthe and Juliette in the scheme.

Still, we may wonder if the two women would have persisted in such a complex hoax for years, when other ways of concealing a romantic relationship could have been found. After all, they made no money off the work -- but then, Madame Bisson did not need money. She was already rich. What she and Marthe did get, perhaps, was the pleasure of fooling a succession of eminent, worldly men who attended their seances and went away baffled. People have been known to conduct elaborate hoaxes for more slender reasons.

Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, Schrenck-Notzing's experiments were not the end of the story. Additional tests were performed by other investigators -- but although Schrenck-Notzing was not always involved, Madame Bisson continued to play the role of Marthe's hypnotist and, often, was the one who stripped and searched her before a sitting.

One of the strongest reports in Marthe's favor was issued by Gustave Geley, a researcher who claimed to have seen "a substance at first amorphous or polymorphous [exuding from] the natural orifices [with] a crawling reptilian movement" and producing fingers, hands, and "a living head, whose bones I could feel under a thick mass of hair ... Here and there from the mass appear temporary protrusions, and these for a few seconds assume the form of fingers, the outline of hands, and then re-enter the mass ... I can see then the extremity thicken like a swelling, and this terminal swelling expands into a perfectly modelled hand. I touch it; it gives a normal sensation. I feel the bones, and the fingers with their nails. Then the hand contracts, diminishes and disappears in the end of the cord. The cord makes a few movements, retracts, and returns to the medium's mouth."

In summary, Geley announced, "I do not say 'There was no trickery.' I say 'There was no possibility of trickery.'" (Quoted in Science and Parascience)

This certainly sounds definitive. After Geley's death, however, his investigation was called into question when, as Inglis recounts, a researcher named Osty "found some photographs which appeared to show that some of the materialisations had been faked -- attached to her by threads, or wires. He showed them to some psychical researchers, but did not publish them; on the advice, he claimed, of Schrenck[-Notzing] and [Charles] Richet. Thirty years later Rudolf Lambert, a German who had been a psychical researcher in the 1920s, explained what happened ... According to Lambert, Osty had shown him the photographs but pledged him to secrecy about them on the ground that it would be disastrous if the story [got out. The consensus formed that the] photographs Osty had found must surely have shown that the phenomena had been faked. All the research carried out with Marthe Beraud in her role as 'Eva C.,' it was assumed, must be set aside as discredited."

Inglis is careful to make the point that other suspicious-looking photos of Marthe's ectoplasmic manifestations had been published by Bisson, Schrenck-Notzing, and Geley (including the MIRO picture), so there was nothing necessarily incriminating about Geley's decision to withhold these particular photos. Nevertheless, as Inglis acknowledges, "the outcome... was that 'Eva C.' was effectively discredited in psychical research circles, along with her investigators." (Science and Parascience)

Parapsychologist George P. Hansen makes reference to this development in his article "Deception by Subjects in Psi Research." "Previously," he writes, "it has been common practice not to report a subject’s known ability and practice of deception. In the case of Eva C., several prominent researchers protested publishing discoveries of fraud (e.g., see Lambert, 1954)." Hansen gives further examples: "In the very first issue of theJournal of Parapsychology, Pratt (1937) did not report that he had caught Mrs. M. cheating in one of his sessions ... Similar practice continues to the present day. For instance Subject #4 in Baumann, Stewart, and Roll’s (1986) study was Tina Resch, who had received extensive media coverage and had admitted to trickery in the past ... yet none of this was mentioned in the report. In the papers at the 1986 PA convention involving reportedly fraudulent subjects, none of the authors acknowledged the fact in their reports ... I am personally acquainted with the authors of these recent papers and am sure they had only the best intentions (believing their controls to be adequate). However, to those not familiar with the researchers, such practices can appear to be deliberate attempts to mislead the reader. This has long been understood. For instance, Verrall (1914), speaking of reports of Eva C. wrote: 'The omission of any such statement [regarding alleged trickery] would naturally be interpreted as implying that she had [an absolutely clean record]'."

All such criticisms, however, lay in the future. At the time when Geley published his report, he created quite a stir. In an attempt to settle the controversy, the Society for Psychical Research investigated Marthe. This time, though, there was a significant change in procedure. Madame Bisson's involvement appears to have been curtailed.

"On arrival for a seance," Inglis writes, "Marthe was stripped and examined for possible concealed objects by a doctor [note bene: a doctor, notJuliette Bisson], who 'examined the oral cavity, ears, and hair' (a gynaecological examination was considered, but thought unnecessary ...) During the seances, investigators sat on either side of her, each holding a wrist ... The seances were conducted in a faint electric light, but with two flash-light cameras prepared for action at any moment, and a torch [i.e., flashlight] which could be used whenever there were signs of a materialization."

Such precautions, especially the examination by a doctor, were entirely sensible. And the upshot was that, under this protocol, Marthe was not able to produce anything close to her usual range of phenomena. "On a number of occasions," Inglis continues, "what appeared to be saliva oozed from her mouth, solidifying into ectoplasm and taking curious shapes. A photograph showed what looked like a bony hand placed on her shoulder; another revealed what looked like a locket under her chin, on which there was a portrait." These effects were a far cry from the more dramatic and much larger-scale phenomena reported in earlier seances, though they were still sufficient to convince some of the investigators.

To me, what is noteworthy is that when the role of Juliette Bisson was minimized, the materializations were minimized also.

Clearly, the controversy over Marthe Beraud will continue. Various opinions are possible, and any argument can be met by a counterargument. As is true of many subjects in parapsychology, the topic does not lend itself to casual or superficial study. It would take years to wade through all of the literature pertinent to the various investigations of Marthe Beraud. I make no claim to having the necessary patience or leisure time to undertake such an effort, and so I can only report a provisional opinion.

On balance, given the unconvincing nature of the photographs, the fact that the seances were conducted in darkness or near darkness, the apparently less-than-skintight garment, the ambiguous relationship between the Marthe and Juliette, the abatement of the phenomena when Juliette Bisson was not closely involved, and the photos by Geley that cast additional doubt on the materializations, I am content to stand by my original conclusion.

Marthe Beraud, a.k.a. "Eva C.," was a fraud, though an uncommonly good one.

I do, however, reserve the right to change my mind.

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