Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XXXII - An "Indescribable Phenomenon"

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WHEN the bulk of the London Press elects to gush  over anything or anybody, there are at all events,  prima facie grounds for believing that there is something  to justify such a consensus. When, moreover,  the object of such gush is a young lady claiming to  be a spirit-medium, the unanimity is so unusual as  certainly to make the matter worth the most careful  inquiry, for hitherto the London Press has either  denounced spiritualism altogether, or gushed singly  over individual mediums, presumably according to  the several proclivities of the correspondents. Of  Miss Annie Eva Fay, however - is not the very name  fairy-like and fascinating? - I read in one usually  sober-minded journal that "there is something not of  this earth about the young lady's powers." Another  averred that she was " a spirit medium of remarkable  and extraordinary power." Others, more cautious,  described the " mystery" as " bewildering," the  "entertainment" as " extraordinary and incomprehensible,"  while yet another seemed to me to afford  an index to the cause of this gush by saying that  "Miss Fay is a pretty young lady of about twenty, [-251-] with a delicate spirituelle face, and a profusion of  light hair, frizzled on the forehead."
    I made a point of attending Miss Annie Eva Fay's  opening performance at the Hanover Square Rooms,  and found all true enough as to the pretty face and  the frizzled hair. Of the "indescribable" nature of  the "phenomenon" (for by that title is Miss Fay  announced, a la Vincent Crummles) there may be two  opinions, according as we regard the young lady as a  kind of Delphic Priestess and Cumaean Sibyl rolled  into one, or simply a clever conjuror - conjuress, if  there be such a word.
    Let me, then, with that delightful inconsistency so  often brought to bear on the so-called or self-styled  "supernatural," first describe the "indescribable,"  and then, in the language of the unspiritual Dr.  Lynn, tell how it is all done; for, of course, I found it  all out, like a great many others of the enlightened  and select audience which gathered at Miss Annie  Eva Fay's first drawing-room reception in the Queen's  Concert Rooms.
    Arriving at the door half an hour too early, as I  had misread the time of commencement, I found at  the portal Mr. Burns, of the Progressive Library, and  a gentleman with a diamond brooch in his shirt-front,  whom I guessed at once, from that adornment, to be  the proprietor of the indescribable phenomenon, and  I was, in fact, immediately introduced to him as  Colonel Fay.
    [-252-] Passing in due course within the cavernous room  which might have suited well a Cumaean Sibyl on a  small scale, I found the platform occupied by a tiny  cabinet, unlike that of the Davenports in that  it was open in front, with a green curtain, which I  could see was destined to be let down during the  performance of the phenomenal manifestations. There  was a camp-stool inside the cabinet; a number of  cane-bottomed chairs on the platform, and also the  various properties of a spirit sťance, familiar to me  from long experience, guitar, fiddle, handbells, tambourine,  &c. One adjunct alone was new; and that  was a green stable bucket, destined, I could not  doubt, to figure in what my Rimmel-scented programme  promised as the climax of Part I.- the  "Great Pail Sensation." Presently Colonel Fay, in a  brief speech, nasal but fluent, introduced the subject,  and asked two gentlemen to act as a Committee of  Inspection. Two stepped forward immediately - indeed  too immediately, as the result proved; one a  "citizen of this city," as Colonel Fay had requested ;  but the other a Hindoo young gentleman, who, I  believe, lost the confidence of the audience at once  from his foreign face and Oriental garb. However,  they were first to the front, and so were elected, and  proceeded at once to "examine" the cabinet in that  obviously helpless and imperfect way common to  novices who work with the gaze of an audience upon  them. Then, from a side door, stage left, enter the [-253-] Indescribable Phenomenon. A pretty young lady,  yes, and with light frizzled hair to any extent. There  was perhaps "a spirit look within her eyes ;" but then  I have often found this to be the case with young  ladies of twenty. Her dress of light silk was beyond  reproach. I had seen Florence Cook and Miss  Showers lately; and,- well, I thought those two,  with the assistance of Miss Annie Eva Fay, would  have made a very pretty model for a statuette of the  Three Graces.
    Miss Fay, after being described by the Colonel  vaguely enough as "of the united States," was bound  on both wrists with strips of calico ; the knots were  sewn by the European gentleman - as distinguished  from the Asiatic youth. He was not quite au fait  at the needle, but got through it in time. Miss Fay  was then placed on the camp-stool, her wrists fastened  behind her, and her neck also secured to a ring screwed  into the back of the cabinet. A rope was tied round  her ankles, and passed right to the front of the stage,  where the Hindoo youth was located and bidden hold  it taut, which he did conscientiously, his attitude  being what Colman describes "like some fat gentleman  who bobbed for eels."
    First of all, another strip of calico was placed loosely  round Miss Fay's neck; the curtain descended. Hey,  presto! it was up again, sooner than it takes to write,  and this strip was knotted doubly and trebly round  her neck. A tambourine hoop was put in her lap, [-254-] and this, in like manner, was found encircling her  neck, as far as the effervescent hair would allow it.
    The audience at this point grew a little fidgety;  and though they did not say anything against the  Oriental young gentleman, the 'cute American colonel  understood it, adding two others from the audience  to the committee on the stage, and leaving the young  gentleman to "bob" down below as if to keep him  out of mischief.
    The other "manifestations" were really only different  in detail from the first. The guitar was placed  on the lap, the curtain fell and it played; so did the  fiddle - out of tune, as usual - and also a little glass  harmonicon with actually a soupcon of melody. A  mouth-organ tootle-tooed, and what Colonel Fay described  as a "shingle nail" was driven with a hammer  into a piece of wood. A third of a tumbler of water  laid on the lap of the Indescribable Phenomenon was  drunk, and the great Pail Sensation consisted in the  bucket being put on her lap and then discovered slung  by the handle around her neck. The last "manifestation"  is the one to which I would draw attention;  for it was by this I discovered how it was all done.  A knife was put on Miss Fay's lap ; the curtain  lowered, the knife pitched on to the platform, and  behold the Indescribable Phenomenon stepped from  the cabinet with the ligature that had bound her  wrists and neck severed.
    Now, all through this portion of the entertainment [-255-] the audience, instead of sitting quiet, amused themselves with proposing idiotic tests, or suggesting  audibly how it was all done. One man behind me  pertinaciously clung to the theory of a concealed boy,  and trotted him to the front after every phase of the  exhibition. He must have been infinitesimally small ;  but that did not matter. It was "that boy again"  after every trick. One manifestation consisted in  putting a piece of paper and pair of scissors on Miss  Fay's lap, and having several "tender little infants"  cut out, as the Colonel phrased it.
    Hereupon sprang up a 'cute individual in the opom,  and produced a sheet of paper he had marked.  Would Miss Fay cut out a tender little infant from  that? Miss Fay consented, and of course did it, the  'cute individual retiring into private life for the rest  of the evening. Another wanted Miss Fay's mouth  to be bound with a handkerchief, and there was no  objection raised, until the common-sense and humanity  of the audience protested against such a needless  cruelty on a broiling night and in that Cumaean cave.  An excited gentleman in front of me, too, whose  mission I fancy was simply to protest against the  spiritual character of the phenomena (which was never  asserted) would interrupt us all from time to time by  declaring his intense satisfaction with it all. It was  a splendid trick. We tried to convince him that his  individual satisfaction was irrelevant to us, but it  was, as Wordsworth says, "Throwing words away." [-256-] It was a beautiful trick; and he was satisfied, quite satisfied.
    The Dark Sťance, which formed the second part of  the performance, was a dreadful mistake. It was not  only unsatisfactory in result, but - and no doubt this  was the reason - it was so mismanaged as to threaten  more than once to eventuate in a riot. Twelve or  fourteen persons were to form a committee representing  the audience, and to sit in a circle, with the  Indescribable Phenomenon in their centre, while we  remained below in Egyptian darkness and received  their report. Of course we all felt that we - if not  on the committee - might just as well be sitting at  home or in the next parish as in the cave of Cumae.  The method of electing the committee was briefly  stated by Colonel Fay to be " first come first served,"  and the consequence was a rush of some fifty excited  people on to the platform, with earnest requests on  the part of the proprietary to be "still." There was  no more stillness for the rest of the evening. The  fifty were pruned down to about fifteen of the most  pertinacious, who would not move at any price; in  fact, the others only descended on being promised  that the dark sitting should be divided into two,  and another committee appointed. The Indescribable  Phenomenon took her seat on the camp-stool in the  centre, where she was to remain clapping her hands,  to show she was not producing the manifestations.  The gas was put out and darkness prevailed - dark-[-257-]ness, but not silence. The disappointed and rejected  committee men-and women-first began to grumble  in the freedom which the darkness secured. The  committee was a packed one. They were Spiritualists.  This was vigorously denied by somebody, who said  he saw a Press man in the circle, and therefore (such  was his logic) he could not be a Spiritualist. All this  time the Indescribable Phenomenon was clapping her  hands, and now some of the more restless of the  audience clapped theirs in concert. The guitar and  fiddle began to thump and twang, and the bells to  ring, and then again the more refractory lunatics  amongst us began to beat accompaniment on our hats.  The whole affair was worthy of Bedlam or Hanwell,  or, let us add, an Indescribable Phenomenon.
    The committee was changed with another rush, and  those who were finally exiled from the hope of sitting  took it out in the subsequent darkness by advising  us to "beware of our pockets." When Colonel Fay  asked for quietude he was rudely requested "not to  talk through his nose." It was not to be wondered  at that the sťance was very brief, and the meeting  adjourned.
    Now to describe the indescribable. If it be a spiritual  manifestation, of course there is an end of the  matter; but if a mere conjuring trick, I would call  attention to the following facts. The fastening of  Miss Fay's neck to the back of the cabinet at first is  utterly gratuitous. It offers no additional difficulty [-258-] to any manifestations, and appears only intended to  prevent the scrutineers seeing behind her. A very  simple exercise of sleight of hand would enable the  gallant Colonel to cut the one ligature that binds the  two wrists, when, for instance, he goes into the  cabinet with scissors to trim off the ends of the piece  of calico in the opening trick. The hands being once  free all else is easy. The hands are never once seen  during the performance. The committee can feel  them, and feel the knots at the wrists ; but they cannot  discover whether the ligature connecting the wrists  is entire.
    The last trick, be it recollected, consists in the  ligature being cut and Miss Fay's coming free to the  front. If my theory is incorrect - and no doubt it  is ruinously wrong - will she consent to omit the last  trick and come to the front with wrists bound as she  entered the cabinet? Of course, if I had suggested  it, she would have done it as easily as she cut out the  tender infants for the 'cute gentleman behind me ; so,  to adopt the language of Miss Fay's fellow-citizen, I  "bit in my breath and swallered it down." I adopted  the course Mr. Maskelyne told me he did with the  Davenports, sat with my eyes open and my mouth  shut. It is marvellous to see how excited we phlegmatic  islanders grow when either spirits are brought  to the front, or we think we have found out a conjuring  trick. I am not going to follow the example  of my gushing brethren, but I can safely say that if [-259-] anybody has an afternoon or evening to spare, he  may do worse than go to the Crystal Palace or the  Hanover Square Rooms, to see a very pretty and  indescribable phenomenon, and to return as I did, a  wiser, though perhaps a, sadder man, in the proud  consciousness of having "found out how it is all  done."