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Séance shock queen: Spiritualist Eva Carrière and the era of ectoplasm

 For ages we’ve been dazzled by magicians performing their tricks, making all sorts of objects disappear if not dematerialize. Sometimes these illusions seem so real that we feel we have no choice but to believe them.

It’s somewhat more disturbing when manipulation of the human eye and mind is performed by someone who presents himself or herself as a medium, an individual who can supposedly communicate with the world of dead people or is capable of evoking spirits.

Making a spirit materialize during a séance conducted by a medium reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A famous case was that of Kate Fox of the Fox sisters, who was praised for her abilities to create full-body materializations, including in one instance Benjamin Franklin’s spirit. In fact, thanks to the work of the Fox sisters, spiritualism grew in popularity in the United States.

There was apparently a standard procedure a medium followed during a séance. For example, the gifted person would enter a closet or cabinet installed in the séance room in order to channel her psychic powers and generate ectoplasm, a supernatural viscous substance that takes the form of a human. In numerous situations, as attendees were sitting elsewhere in the room to observe the process, a face, or perhaps a complete body, would slowly ease out of the closet.

The spirit Bien Boa, which was discovered to be a dressed-up man
The spirit Bien Boa, which was discovered to be a dressed-up man

The alleged apparition would then move around the room before withdrawing to the cabinet or just diminishing into nothingness. As the session concluded, the medium would have to rest, being completely exhausted by the great effort of possession.

A rational mind would easily figure out the trick, by arguing that the ectoplasm was a hoax frequently made from cheesecloth. Which brings our attention to the many mediums who were fraudulent, and chief among them the French-born Marthe Béraud Carrière.

Carrière was more famously known by either of her two pseudonyms, Eva Carrière and Eva C. Carrière came to prominence sometime around 1905, when she would materialize the 300-year-old Indian Brahman, Bien Boa.

Her alleged psychic powers became evident when she was around 18 years old, also the age when she lost her fiancée, Maurice. A child of General Elie Noël, Maurice never returned from his trip to the African Congo. He contracted a disease that killed him, leaving everyone who waited for him at the family villa Carmen, in Algiers, in a state of despair. The same villa became the home of Eva, where she would begin to carry out her fake medium sessions.

Materialization of a face, by the medium Eva Carriere (1912)
Materialization of a face, by the medium Eva Carriere (1912)

One of the visitors to Carrière’s sessions was Albert Freiherr von Shrenck-Notzing, a respected German physician and researcher of paranormal activities. He would document her séances through a series of photographs, which, according to spiritualist debunker Harry Price, served as the eventual proof that the apparitions were fake rather than authentic. The figure of the Indian Brahman on some of the photographs actually looks as if it was fashioned from a large cardboard cutout.

Other visitors to Carrière’s séances remarked that Boa seemed as if he was breathing while moving around the place. Another photograph confirms this claim, by revealing Boa to be a live human, likely paid by the medium to dress for the occasion and act out the apparition of the Brahman.

Perhaps the most interesting aspects is that people still supported the claims that Boa was not fake in spite of the obvious inauthenticity, Shrenkc-Notzing included. They would affirm that the materialized spirit indeed emerged from different parts of Eva’s body and that the apparition would then gradually withdraw back inside her. That is why, for a long period, Carrière was a name among spiritualists.

Carrière with fake ectoplasm made from the French magazine Le Miroir
Carrière with fake ectoplasm made from the French magazine Le Miroir

We still might not be sure whether the acts of calling forth Boa were sincere or not,  except that there are several good methods for producing fake ectoplasm. This piece of knowledge was shared among dishonest mediums back in the day.

The medium would prepare the clothes before wearing them for the session. A female medium would frequently use a white dress of pure silk, previously washed several times over. The special treatment of the clothing would have allowed the medium to quickly take off layers of the dress, revealing a couple of layers underneath. In the case of Carrière, a fabric portraying Boa remained hidden in her underwear, the hoax reliant on the probability that no investigator would be courageous enough to search her naked body.

Records suggest Eva Carrière was certainly not shy, nor did she appear completely exhausted at the end of the spirit-evoking sessions. Before a new round was up, Eva’s assistant and lover, Juliette Bisson, helped Eva run fingers into any of her orifices to provide “empirical” proof that the whole thing was not a fraud and that there was no “fake” ectoplasm hidden anywhere.

Reportedly, in a surprising finale, a naked Carrière would even have sex, not only with her assistant but also with other interested séance attendees.

It’s possible that such examiners, even Schrenk-Notzing, were caught up in the eroticism of the entire performance.

The Society for Physical Research in London conducted a more serious inquiry into Carrière’s ectoplasm in 1920. Their investigation confirmed that the ectoplasm faces were fake, created out of paper collected from the French publication Le Miroir. Some of the produced faces included famous figures such as French President Raymond Poincaré and even U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Read another story from us: Madame d’Esperance: one of the most popular spiritualist frauds in 19th century

Carrière’s case certainly proves that there are always people in the world who are ready to believe psychic phenomena.

Stefan Andrews

Stefan is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Vintage News. He is a graduate in Literature. He also runs a blog – This City Knows.