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April 18, 2021

The Fake Spirit Photographs of Magician William S. Marriott With “Ghosts”

In the early 1900s, William S. Marriott, also known by the stage name Dr Wilmar, was a British magician who became well known for exposing fraudulent spiritualist mediums. Pearson’s Magazine, which specialized in speculative literature, politics and the arts, commissioned Marriott to write a series of illustrated articles investigating mediums so that readers could “judge for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously important subject.”

Alongside Marriott’s articles, he posted photographs of himself demonstrating several effects commonly produced during séances. Levitating tables were often raised by the medium’s foot to make it appear as though they were floating.

Marriott also discovered the methods used to create ghostly shapes and movements in the dark. Often, mediums were tied to their chairs to convince participants that they could have no possible involvement with the paranormal activity. In the dark, however, the restrained medium still had access to poles attached to objects, which he or she could move surreptitiously. An example of this is “spirit hands” that appear to surround the medium, however, with the lights on, it is possible to see the dummy arms attached to sticks and poles, which are being controlled by the medium’s hands, almost like puppets.

In his exposé, Marriott also debunked spirit photographs. Some photographers claimed to have captured evidence of a ghost on film, which materialized during the development processes. Sitters claimed no one else was present and yet a ghostly figure could clearly be seen in the background of portraits, family photos and so forth. Whilst many believed these were the result of a psychic force, sceptics suggested there may have been fluid on the plate of the camera, which produced the ghostly appearance. Marriott, however, discovered the truth about this fraudulent trickery.

At the same time that society was lapping up paranormal activities and psychic experiments, others set up the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge to investigate and try to understand these events and abilities. In 1893, the world-renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) joined their ranks and paid witness to William Marriott’s demonstration and explanation about spirit photography.

Marriott produced his own spirit photographs, all the while explaining to Doyle how he had manipulated the images to make it appear as though a spirit was present. Publically, Doyle stated, “Mr Marriott has clearly proved one point, which is that a trained conjurer can, under the close inspection of three pairs of critical eyes, put a false image upon a plate. We must unreservedly admit it.”

Unlike today where smartphones and digital cameras take a photo instantly, the oldest cameras involved using plates, special papers, development fluid and many more elements. If, for example, a plate was to be used more than once, it would pick up two different images, creating a double exposure. This way, photographers could take a photo of a “ghost” and combine it with another (ghost-free) photograph.

William Marriott demonstrating a method of producing fake “spirit” hands, 1910.

William Marriott with simulated spirit hands.

William Marriott demonstrating a levitation of an object with an invisible thread.

William Marriott with fake materialization spirits.

Here, Marriott with some of the “ghosts” that he bought from a catalog that sold tricks to phony spirit mediums.

William Marriott demonstrating a slate writing trick.

William Marriott demonstrating a slate writing trick.

William Marriott demonstrating a fraudulent method to levitate a table.

In this photo, he showed how small tables could be easily levitated with nothing more than his foot – which was virtually undetectable in a dark room.

William Marriott demonstrating how this could have been done with invisible thread.

A fake materialization demonstrated by the magician William Marriott.

William Marriott revealing a fraudulent method of levitating a banjo.

The magician William S. Marriott stands in the background, ostensibly witnessing the emergence of a female apparition carrying a “spirit” bird and flowers. This was one of many glass lantern slides used by the psychic investigator harry price in his talks, to demonstrate the methods and equipment regularly used by fraudulent mediums at the time.

(via Hazel Stainer)


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