“Supernatural”, in their ladies and conscience

In the 1850s, a French teacher named Hippolyte Rivail became interested in the practice of turntables. During sessions of evocation of the dead, it is customary for the participants (alternating men and women, seated around a round table) to touch each other with their fingertips so that a “magnetic fluid” circulates, until the appearance of unexplained phenomena. Sometimes blows are struck by an invisible being, sometimes the table rises… Hippolyte Rivail notes that, among the participants, it is mainly the women who favor the most spectacular demonstrations.

“Snub to the patriarchy”

Convinced that the so-called “weaker sex” are much more gifted than the others, he surrounds himself with “magnetic sleepwalkers” and makes them the priestesses of a new religion which he baptizes “spiritism”. In 1857, under the name of Allan Kardec, he published the equivalent of a Bible – the spirits book –, a highly resonant work, in which he compares women, whom he qualifies as “mediums”, to telescopes. If the latter, he says, make it possible to see planets invisible to the naked eye, the mediums make it possible to hear spiritual entities. Sometimes even to materialize them.

In the years that followed, the vogue for spiritualism was carried by “showers of spirit” who accomplished prodigious deeds. Half seers, half witches, they go into a trance, make pedestal tables fly, cause the appearance of specters and, along the way, shake up conventions with a rare freedom. Some organize ceremonies during which, in a daze, they indulge in the vertigo of a macabre erotic ecstasy: the presence of the dead gives them shivers. Sometimes they convulse or say words of love, overwhelmed. Lights, smoke, vapors and noises surround them. Tearing themselves away from their condition, the most gifted militate for social progress, in favor of equality. In this puritanical society which demeans women to the rank of mere progenitors, these mediums look like revolutionaries. “A whole history or, rather, a counter-history of feminism should be made from these dissident figures, explains Philippe Baudouin. Anyway, that’s how I thought about my book. supernatural: like a gallery of strong women speaking in public (scandal!), publishing texts, exhibiting themselves in a transgressive way. Most earn their living, a big snub to the patriarchy at the time.”

Morbid eroticism

A researcher specializing in the history of occultism, Philippe Baudouin is not the first to study spiritism as a vector of emancipation. Historian Nicole Edelman (who wrote the preface to supernatural) had already underlined the subversive aspect of the profession of medium. But so far no one had “shown” this reality in a tangible way. Rich in unpublished images, Philippe Baudouin’s work is full of photos whose “two thirds have never been published”, as he points out. “Some come from the “Death collection”, that of the writer Michael McDowell who published fantastic novels. Others come from public archives such as the Hamilton Fund in Canada, considered the most important fund dedicated to spiritualism. Many images come from the American territory because it is there that the Fox sisters invented the practice of the turntables. In France, I mainly appealed to private collectors and to the International Metapsychic Institute, based in Paris. The history of this Institute is very unique, moreover. This recognized public utility foundation, created in 1919 by Doctor Charles Richet, has been placed under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior since its creation. It is the only place in France where one can officially work on telekinesis, telepathy and other parapsychological phenomena.

The result of research spread over six years, his work brings together more than 110 images. From this patient and long work as an archivist, Philippe Baudouin draws the material for a fascinating reflection on the visual history of these female mediums. “It all started with a question: why do these women dress in black? Six years ago, the magazine Practical modes, specialized in the history of fashion, commissioned me a portfolio on the clothes of mediums. I smiled at first, thinking that such a search would be futile. But the clothing appearance of the mediums was not insignificant, I quickly realized that. As he discovers, the pronounced taste of mediums for the black with which they drape themselves is a subtle art. “From their hands gloved with black mittens to the gauze veil under which hides their mysterious face, everything about mediums breathes death.” Dressed like widows, covered in English crepe, they play on the morbid eroticism of Victorian iconography, encouraging men to fantasize about their sexual availability as much as about dread: what shadow of a jealous spirit hangs over them?

male control society

However, mourning clothing does not only have an erotic value: it is, above all, a uniform intended to conceal. The more the mediums bury themselves under dark fabrics, until disappearance, the more they make possible an appearance: that of the dead. “In the first spiritualist photographs, these women do not even appear, emphasizes Philippe Baudouin. At the beginning of the phenomenon, their body is voluntarily absent from these images. When he appears, it is first in the form of a silhouette, like a blackboard on which forms from beyond the grave are drawn. “The first photos were very “wise”, explains Philippe Baudouin, because they were supposed to show the evanescent faces of the deceased. But, gradually, the body of the mediums takes a central place and the supernatural demonstrations become always more licentious, more disturbing. As if on purpose, this eroticization takes place when scholars (men) set themselves to objectivize spiritist phenomena.

The images of ectoplasm appeared in the late 1890s. Mediums began to spit white gelatinous or stringy things through their mouths or through their nostrils. Scientists worry about these overflows. “There is this rocking movement at the turn of 1900, when women are asked by the scientific community to submit to ever more invasive experiments, says Philippe Baudouin. As soon as they agree to cross the threshold of the laboratories, they become women-objects. Their charisma is altered. They are subject to protocols close to sadomasochism: under the guise of ensuring that there is no fraud, they are tied up, they are examined to check that they are not hiding anything in their orifices, they are made to swallow laxatives, emetics.” Some mediums are photographed while ectoplasm comes out of their navel, their breasts or their sex. Disseminated in the press and scholarly works, these supposedly scientific photos aroused public indignation and aggravated the plight of mediums, transformed into veritable fairground phenomena.

The more they are stripped naked to supposedly establish the “proof” that they possess genuine gifts, the more their faculties (previously considered marvelous) are reduced to being only the certified symptoms of a pathology. What the work supernatural reveals – supporting images – it’s the whole story of an aborted dream. “While they thought themselves, thanks to the practice of spiritualism, at the forefront of the discovery of a world that men did not – for once – have the means to explore alone, the women mediums will become, under the control of male scholars, simple measuring instruments. As Philippe Baudouin writes in his last chapter, the free spiritists, alas, end up losing the game. In the aftermath of the Second World War, their disappearance signals the death of a world where objects could magically fly. The society of male control triumphs.

Supernatural. A visual history of female mediums, by Philippe Baudouin, Pyramid editions, 2021.

“Supernatural”, in their ladies and conscience