A Séance Synopsis

The locations for Psychic activity in Christchurch were many, but a particular locus of Psychic Life was no. 5, Chancery Lane, a discreet alley between Cathedral Square and Gloucester Street. Some newspaper notices and letters refer to ‘no. 3’. It is difficult to tell whether the alternative address reflects a shift in location, an additional séance room, or simple error. However, the address is, in a way, symbolic of New Zealand spiritualism; hidden, yet in the very centre of the city, just below the surface of public life.

One Friday night, at 8 p.m., the spirits of a cultured nun and a Native American girl materialised for a rapt audience on Chancery Lane. Mrs. Lily Hope, the Psychic News had asserted in 1937, was a woman of ‘the highest integrity’, unassuming and earnest in her sacred work. This could easily be attested by the undersigned on the account, including Edgar McLeod Lovell-Smith, head of the Canterbury Psychic Research Society.

As was usual, the séance room was entirely dark, except for a red light. Mrs. Hope was sewn into a chair in her ‘cabinet’, curtains across the northwest corner of the room, held up with safety pins. Indeed, black cloth covered the walls and ceiling. The especially dim light would not ‘disturb’ any of spirits, who were notoriously shy. Mediums in the early twentieth century described their work as a ‘science’, yet complained that efforts to validate the apparitions empirically disturbed the spiritual atmosphere and made the materialisations feeble. Yet the spiritualists also framed their work in explicitly Christian terms; many séances began with the Lord’s Prayer and copious Signs of the Cross, and Lovell-Smith’s papers included a list of biblical references supposedly supporting spiritualism in the modern sense, probably to counteract religious opposition. ‘One should start with ‘a prayer through Christ for protection and guidance…if it is his will’. This kind of spiritualism operated on the border of science and religion, not entirely at ease with either, yet appropriating strains of both. Within these conditions, the ritual of the séance unfolded.

Mrs. Hope was sewn into a wicker chair in the cabinet, lengths of ribbon holding down her arms and legs to the closest part of each chair. These guards against natural explanation set in place, others sat in a circle, and ‘two or three’ verses of Abide with Me and the Lord’s Prayer. Two greetings were heard in the darkness, requesting that the safety-pins be undone, but asking the gathered to continue singing. Puzzled by this request, Mrs Edles stalled, asked to feel the medium’s hands, felt head and face, sliding hand from neck and shoulders down arms to fingers. The medium was warm, but her hands were cold. The wrists strapped in, no room to lift hands. The curtains were pinned again, and the assembled began singing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty’.

Subsequently, two personalities, Sister Monica and Sunrise, appeared.

Nora Foster, who had seen Sister Monica in Wellington, was enrapt by her appearance. She ‘has a beautiful, cultured voice, sweet facial expression’, and a drawing of the materialisation reveals a plump, youthful, slightly pouting face under the black veil. The nun was quite willing to show her feet, and, according to Nora Foster, all the toes were intact; Mrs Hope had part of a toe amputated. At another point, having held ‘a luminous slate’, high to the ceiling, two carnations fell from the ceiling. Sunrise, the native American girl who frequently accompanied her, was claimed to have sprinkled pinks as a way of marking her presence; although also captured in a similar drawing to Sister Monica, she was less willing to appear, preferring to make herself known florally. What did these carnations symbolise? An answer may be found from a departed woman who appeared in the Wellington séance: ‘Don’t put flowers on my grave. I’m not there’.

Even deceased members of the society could make an appearance. A nameless woman wrote to her sister on the slate, and her husband was greeted by his late father. The content of these messages was quite typical; an undescribed ‘bliss’ awaited the dead, one more accurate than stereotyped choirs of angels. Such edification was immensely comforting to the bereaved, with promises of meeting again, meanwhile keeping contact. After this conversation, the ribbons were cut. It was found that Mrs. Hope’s feet were crossed and strapped, within the sateen confines.

If this was typical to séances in New Zealand – and similar reports in Wellington indicate as much – then why did people go to the spirits who, we are led to believe, materialised before Mrs. Hope and crossed her arms and legs, within the delicate confines of stitched ribbon? The answer lies in two motivations; a search for meaning, and practical gain.

Scrapbook of the Christchurch Psychical Research Society Inc., Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury Manuscript 165, 94

Ibid., 106

Ibid., 94, 126

Ibid., 90.5.iv

Ibid., 102

Ibid., 107-108, 110

Ibid., 116

Ibid., 18

Ibid., 104

  • Southern Spirits
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    New Zealand