“The Capture of a Spirit” (1880)

Capturing a phony spirit This historic antique wood engraving, titled “The Capture of a Spirit – Sketches at a Recent Spiritualistic Seance,” represents the dramatic exposure of a fake spirit medium named Florence Cook (1856-1904).

During the first heyday of Spiritualism, Cook became one of the its most famous practitioners. She was noted for her purported ability to produce full-form spirit materializations of “Marie,” her spirit guide.  During a seance, Marie would step out of the “spirit cabinet,” often singing and dancing to the delight of clients.

At a materialization seance in 1880, one of the attendees, Sir George Sitwell, reached into the spirit cabinet and grabbed Marie. When the lights came up, Marie was found to be Florence Cook, clad only in her corsets and petticoat and wrapped in white drapery.

A classic case of “pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain” …

Houdini and Doyle, Episode 6: The Monsters of Nethermoor (reviewed)

Edwardian-social-issue-of-the-week: Xenophobic bigotry

“Supernatural” crime of the week: Alien abduction (‽ )

The Monsters of Nethermoor mixes some playful narrative tropes with serious social commentary on the evils of racial and cultural prejudice.

The scene is set in the countryside at night as two young lovers, Daniel and the pregnant Rosie, lie on a blanket whispering sweet nothings and watching the stars.  Their rural idyll is violently disturbed by the nearby crash-landing of a large glowing object that falls from the sky, trailing a fiery tail.  Investigating the crash scene, they are suddenly beset by a group of pale, thin, seemingly humanoid creatures!

The next morning, Daniel wakes up stripped of most of his clothes and confused as to what happened to him.  There’s no sign of Rosie …

Houdini, Doyle and Stratton arrive by train in the small village of Nethermoor, determined to solve the mystery of Rosie’s disapperance.  They discover that Daniel, who is of African ancestry, has been locked up in the local jail, at least partly for his own protection; Rosie’s belligerent uncle Jim is convinced that Daniel has harmed her and that he invented the story about monsters to cover his tracks.  Houdini tries to make peace with Jim, but is harangued for being an American; clearly, some of the citizens of Nethermoor don’t take kindly to strangers of any stripe.  Doyle is also suspicious of Daniel, reading his confusion and certain other symptoms as signs of alcoholism.

Houdini hypnotises the traumatised Daniel to help him recover his memory of the night’s strange events.  Daniel recalls that one of the “creatures” wore a distinctive medallion, and also remembers the smell of a particular local flower.  The team’s investigations then lead them to the crash site.  In an odd reversal of their normal roles, Houdini is initially of the opinion that an alien space-craft may have landed there, but Doyle scoffs at the idea and is proven correct when they discover a large meteorite crater.

Returning to the village, the team interviews “Mad Martha”, an elderly local woman who also claims to have seen the creatures and who believes them to be harmless goblins.  Martha, it transpires, is a refugee from the European pogroms (anti-Jewish purges) of the previous century.

Later, Houdini has an angry run-in with Jim, who challenges the magician to a fight.  Houdini retorts by challenging the bigot to punch him in the stomach; after Jim sucker-punches him across the face instead, Houdini ruthlessly beats the man into submission.  We learn that Houdini’s tough childhood as a member of a poor Jewish family in the American Midwest has especially sensitised him to racial intolerance.

Doyle, out for a night-time stroll, is accosted by one of the strange pale beings and wakes up the next morning, as Daniel did, with his outer clothing stripped away and with confused memories of the encounter.

Returning the next morning to the crash site, Houdini and Doyle discover a nearby cavern whose walls are decorated with unusual pictograms.  They are suddenly attacked and bound by the pale beings, who, it turns out, are actually descended from Martha’s fellow pogrom refugees, who had worked in the area as miners until they were driven out of the village by xenophobic locals many years before.  The cave-dwellers are now suffering badly from emaciation and lead poisoning.

They, too, are afraid of “outsiders”, but they are not actually violent, preferring to maintain their legendary status to frighten off intruders or, if necessary, to render them unconscious with a chemical compound.  The cave-dwellers had actually rescued young Rosie, who had gone into labour the night she “disappeared”, and have been sheltering and helping her ever since.

Houdini, Doyle, Rosie and the cave-dwellers emerge just as a mob of angry villagers approach the cavern.  An impassioned speech on tolerance from Rosie stills her neighbours’ rage, and Doyle plans to help the cave-dwellers get the medical assistance they desperately need.


  • While it is, in a sense, refreshing to see Houdini take the role of the believer and Doyle play the skeptic, and while both of them a given at least semi-plausible, character-based motivations for the role-reversal, it still comes across as being a little trite.
  • It’s difficult to avoid the impression that this episode tries too hard regarding red herrings.  The exercise of retro-fitting modern UFO tropes such as alien abduction, repressed memories revealed by hypnosis, etc. to the Edwardian English countryside is fun, but the coincidences of timing and circumstances become distractingly implausible.   The use of the term “spaceship” was also jarringly anachronistic, despite Houdini’s references to H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, etc.
    It’s possible that the story would have been more successful without the overt science-fiction elements; if, for example, the writers had allowed the cave dwellers to be perceived as goblins or elves rather than as aliens, perhaps drawing from the case of the so-called Cottingley Fairies.
  • Other possible historical inspirations include the famous mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit, who may have been a pair of Flemish immigrant children who wandered off from their own settlement in the English countryside, the greenish hue of their skin being explained by disease and/or diet as they wandered through the unfamiliar forest.
  • Speaking of plausibility, it’s hard to reconcile the enfeebled, sympathetic pogrom survivors we meet at the end of the episode with the agile, frightening creatures they had appeared to be in earlier scenes.
  • Houdini challenging Jim to punch him in the stomach refers to his purported real-life habit of making the same challenge to prove his strength and toughness, and especially to the infamous scenario in connection with his untimely death.
  • Constable Adelaine Stratton still doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do, with most of the emotional and narrative weight again being borne by Houdini and Doyle. However, the ongoing mystery of her past, and most especially her relationship with her husband, are clearly being developed as series-long plot arcs.  We worry that becoming too much of a “woman of mystery” may rob this potentially exciting character of her agency, though.

    ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ _ _ _

    Seven ibangs out of ten for this unusual and imaginative but not entirely successful story.


Houdini and Doyle: World of Wonders

Each short episode of this promotional webseries for Houdini and Doyle showcases a different magic trick, escapology feat or exposure of spiritualistic fakery with some connection to either Harry Houdini or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Hosted by Rebecca Liddiard, who co-stars in H&D as Constable Adelaide Stratton, the webseries is a co-production between Smokebomb Entertainment, Shaw Media and the Canada Media Fund.

In the interests of education, it’s worth noting that the “demonstration of hypnosis” in Episode 10, involving Miss Liddiard standing upon a “hypnotised” subject’s body while they lie supported by two chairs, is a feat quite easily performed by any reasonably athletic person as long as it is carried out carefully; no hypnosis is required.


Houdini and Doyle, Episode 5: The Curse of Korzha (reviewed)

Edwardian-social-issues-of-the-week:  Spiritualism and the deep emotional bond between parents and children

“Supernatural” crime:  Spiritualism (?)

H&D has really hit its stride, with another strong story following last week’s lively Spring Heeled Jack caper.

We open by following the mysterious Madame Korzha as she leads a group of police constables and distraught parents through the shadowy streets of London in search of a kidnapped child named Julia.  Madame Korzha certainly seems, in this scene, to possess some sort of preternatural powers, as she unerringly guides her followers into the subterranean tunnels, where they discover the girl, clutching a doll and upset but unharmed, along with a note written in blood:


Houdini, Doyle and Stratton are naturally intrigued to learn that a psychic appears to have been of actual use in a police investigation. Harry and Adelaide are sceptical of her abilities and suspect that she may have had inside knowledge of the kidnapping, but Doyle is, inevitably, more open to the possibility of spirit guidance.  The enigmatic Madame Korzha further ingratiates herself with Doyle by revealing that she is a fan of his Sherlock Holmes stories.

We then meet dock worker Mitchell Pearce, the father of a girl who was kidnapped and murdered under similar circumstances about a year previously.  Suspecting some connection between the two cases, the police ask Madame Korzha to investigate alongside Houdini, Doyle and Stratton.

The team learns that the message on the wall was not written in Julia’s blood and that the doll she was found clutching was not hers.  After having purportedly consulted with her spirit guides, Madame Korzha then guides them to the kidnapper’s deserted lair in an abandoned doll factory.  Houdini is ever more convinced that she must somehow be in cahoots with the kidnapper(s).

The normally phlegmatic Inspector Merring, who seems to be taking these abductions very much to heart, reveals that yet another girl has been kidnapped. Young Julia, fortunately, has now recovered from her ordeal enough to be able to reveal that the masked man who took her was bearded and that she had managed to scratch his face.  Houdini notes darkly that Madame Korzha’s assistant has a beard …

Shortly thereafter, Doyle, Houdini and Stratton attend a seance at Madame Korzha’s residence. Despite Harry’s ability to predict some of her pronouncements via his knowledge of cold reading, she also appears to be unaccountably privy to certain details about Doyle’s life and his relationship with his wife.  At the dramatic climax of the seance, Madame Korzha and her assistant appear to instantly and impossibly swap places in the room; but Houdini remains unconvinced.  Later, Houdini returns to Korzha’s residence, apparently so as to expose her as a fraud, but they end up sleeping together.  Houdini steals her passport, then realises that Korzha has stolen his wallet.

It turms out that Madame Korzha’s Romanian passport is a forgery and that she actually hails from Croydon; her real name is Edith Pilkie. Houdini is now almost certain that she has organised the kidnappings so as to cast herself as a heroine by rescuing the children, and so drum up more business as a psychic investigator.

However, re-examining the photographic evidence, Houdini then realises the Hargreaves and Pearce girls were bound differently – and recognises the knots used on Julia as those commonly used on London docks. The team confronts Mitchell Pearce, who has evidently gone mad with grief, and who confesses that he kidnapped Julia and the latest missing girl to draw attention to the failure of the police to solve his own daughter’s abduction and murder.  During a struggle with Houdini and Doyle, Pearce accidentally shoots himself and dies.

Heading to the London docks, the team finds Pearce’s latest victim bound to a ladder and about to be drowned by the rising tide, but Houdini leaps into the frigid water and is able to release her just in the nick of time.  She is revived and reunited with her parents.

Doyle, meanwhile, has deduced how “Madame Korzha” was able to function so well as an investigator – she has been using Sherlock Holmes’s methods of detection!  She hands him an enigmatic note (and returns Houdini’s wallet) before disappearing into the night.  Following clues in the note leads Houdini and Doyle to the London Public Records Office, and to photographic evidence that Adelaide Stratton has been hiding her real identity from them.


  • The highlight of this tautly-plotted episode is definitely the mysterious Madame Korzha herself.  The ultimate reveal that she is actually a genius-level detective and magician, posing as a sophisticated foreign psychic in order to help people because Edwardian Londoners would not take a working-class woman seriously as a detective, is a brilliant premise. If H&D does get a second season, we look forward to this character’s return.
  • Edith Pilkie’s masquerade as the exotic Madame Korzha is reminiscent of the imposture of Mary Baker as “Princess Caraboo of Javasu” during the early 19th century.
  • Harry Houdini’s love/hate sparring with Edith/Korzha may be a nod to his real-life crusade to expose the clever and wealthy Boston medium Mina Crandon, a.k.a. “Margery”, during the mid-1920s.
  • It’s nice to see Inspector Merring do something other than stand gruffly behind his desk.  The reveal that he lost his only son during wartime, which has especially sensitized him to missing child cases out of empathy with the parents, offers him some more depth and humanity.
  • Houdini’s guilty admission that he, himself, once worked as a fraudulent medium is historically true; it was early in his magic career and he stopped doing it when he realised the potential harm he was doing to true believers.


‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ _ _

Eight ibangs out of a possible ten for episode five, which introduces an intriguing new character, deepens the mystery of Adelaide Stratton’s real identity and offers a solid blend of mystery and action.

“Ghost Stories: Collected with a Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghosts and Apparitions” (1823)

Wrestling with the devil
Above: a soldier restrains a priest masquerading as the devil.

This unusual book is an anthology, not of “ghost stories” in the usual sense, but rather of “ghost exposure” stories; mysteries in which each appearently supernatural event is revealed to be the product of innocent mistaken identity or mischievous trickery.

Here follows the introduction by the anonymous, skeptical author/compiler (who is often mistakenly identified as F.O.C. Darley – Darley was actually the illustrator).

What is a ghost? In the popular acceptation of the term, it is a visible appearance of a deceased person. It is called also a spirit; but, if visible, it must be matter; consequently not a spirit. If it is not matter, it can only exist in the imagination of the beholder; and must therefore be classed with the multifarious phantoms which haunt the sick man’s couch in delirium.

But ghosts have appeared to more than one person at a time;—how then? Can he exist in the imagination of two persons at once? That is not probable, and we doubt the ” authentic” accounts of ghosts appearing to more than one at a time. The stories we are about to tell will show, however, that in a great many instances several persons have thought that they saw ghosts at the same time, when, in fact, there was no ghost in the case; but substantial flesh and blood and bones.


But to cut the matter short—the whole theory of ghosts is too flimsy to bear the rough handling of either reason or ridicule. The best way to dissipate the inbred horror of supernatural phantoms, which almost all persons derive from nursery tales or other sources of causeless terror in early life, is to show by example how possible it is to impress upon ignorant or credulous persons the firm belief that they behold a ghost, when in point of fact no ghost is there. We proceed at once to our stories.

We here at The Ghost Racket tend to agree with this thesis.

If you’d like to read these non-ghost stories, the anthology is freely available here.

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