Sunday, January 9, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Fake Out Your Dead

One of the most fruitful things you can do to feed the story-generator in your head is to read general histories of specific subjects. Whatever anyone has ever done to make a living or pursued as an interest has generated intriguing dramas, most of which are poorly recorded and ripe for exploration, either as an in-depth non-fiction article or book or as fiction.

So this week I've been reading The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,by Clermont Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, and Sophie Schmit and published by the Yale University Press. It deals with the history of psychic and spirit photography between 1860 and 1930, dates which are not quite arbitrary, and approaches the subject from a historical rather than an aesthetic or a scientific angle; which is by far the best way to extract the underlying story. I'm only about halfway through and have noted half a dozen potential storylines, only one of which I'll go into here.

In the early 20s, a 58-year old cleaning woman with three children, named Ada Emma Deane, of London, began producing spirit photographs. To the modern eye these look like pathetic fakes, with the "spirit extras" looking exactly like pictures cut from magazines and pasted onto the negative, with a little gauze to cover up the outline, but she had a tremendous following in her day and became famous for taking pictures of Armistice Day national silent times showing the faces of dead soldiers hovering in the air above the crowds. The best-known of these shows a cloud of faces above the Cenotaph in White Hall, published in the Daily Mail and later re-published in the Daily Sketch alongside the pictures of the living sports figures who supposedly can be recognized in the cloud. I have yet to find a reproduction at sufficient scale and resolution to allow me to make a good comparison even if I were any good at seeing resemblances between photographs, and even those who had the originals in front of them disputed the identifications endlessly. Most spirit photographs that don't look like cut-outs are indistinct enough to allow even people with good facial-recognition skills to project any number of identifications onto them, anyway.

The thing that caught my notice, and which is not addressed in the book or even mentioned in any of the online articles I've found in a quick search, was that Mrs. Deane worked in collaboration with her children. Her daughter Viola also worked as a medium and produced photos with her, and one picture showing an Indian "spirit guide" who was the spitting image of a picture of an Indian published in a magazine some months before, was actually taken by her 11-year-old son. This makes me sit up, not only because I write for young people and the presence of young people in a historical anecdote automatically makes me sit up, but because of the story possibilities this opens up.

We may take it for granted, even if we believe in the basic tenets of spiritualism, that spirit photography does not show spirits. Either the picture quality is so bad you can project anything you want into it, or the fake is transparent, or the effect is one readily produced by the available special effects technology or ordinary camera accidents. There's no particular reason to think that a phenomenon not visible to the naked eye can be captured by photographic processes developed to capture images visible to the naked eye.

So the obvious line to take about the involvement of the children is, that Mrs. Deane taught them how to make fake spirit photos. Parents have done such things before and will do so again, much as we all hate to remember that having children does not necessarily grow a conscience in people who lack one. But is that the most interesting possibility? Most fraudsters either produce one-off jokes or become committed to the process of fraud, either clinging to an established hoax long after common sense would dictate dropping it, or moving from con game to con game. Mrs. Deane was a cleaning lady before she became a spirit photographer, let the business drop after the controversy about her cenotaph picture, and ended her days breeding dogs. Moreover, she apparently was told initially by a medium that she would produce spirit photographs, and spent about six months trying to do so before she began to succeed.

Here's what I'm thinking. Mom gets into spiritualism (possibly because Dad died; the sources I've skimmed so far have no information on Mr. Deane at all) and becomes obsessed with producing a spirit photo because the medium told her she would. What if the kids are the ones producing the fakes, hoaxing their mother either out of a misguided desire to give her the satisfaction she craves, or from darker motives? With more than one child involved, there's no reason to confine ourselves to a single motive. Once begun, the hoax takes on a life of its own and becomes harder and harder to stop doing, less like play and more like work; and perhaps prompting a desperate contempt for the public that is so easily fooled that culminates in the cynical use of easily-recognized, live persons as stand-ins for the dead.

And aren't there potential mighty themes in the equation of sports heroes with war heroes, the juxtaposition of sincere personal mourning and the maudlin manipulation of grief at a national scale, the commercial uses of sorrow and self-deception?

Yeah, somebody could do something wonderful with all that...


  1. Interesting. Kind of reminds me of those two girls who photographed fairies convincing the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that they were real.

  2. The Cottingley Fairies is one of my favorites, and is mentioned in this book, too. What people keep forgetting, when they tell this story, is that when Frances confessed that the photos were faked - which she did, in the 80s, after Elsie died - is that her story was that the pictures were faked, but the fairies were real. Which is far and away the most interesting way for that story to pan out.