Is there life after death? What does it look like? Humans have attempted to answer questions like these through the ages in the most direct way possible; by attempting to communicate with the spirits of the deceased.
The term séance comes from the Old French word seoir, meaning sitting or session. Among English-speakers however, it came to be associated with groups of people gathered to communicate with the dead through a person acting as a medium, or using some sort of “channeling” device.
Though its origins as a practice can be traced back to ancient Greece and Egypt, spiritualism and séance gatherings reached peak popularity in the late 1840s through the 1920s. Many credit the mysterious Fox Sisters for the birth of the Spiritualist Movement. On March 31st of 1848, Margaret and Kate Fox claimed publicly that they had made contact with the spirit world through audible rapping, with no visible source. The sensational news took America by storm and the young sisters quickly became celebrities, traveling from town to town and performing their ability to communicate with the dead in townhouses and salons. The Fox Sisters and their activities cemented the interest in séances through the figure of the female medium. The Civil War (1861-1865) with its over 500’000 estimated casualties largely shaped the Victorian period, putting death and grief in the forefront. For a lot of well-to-do Victorians attending and organizing gatherings to contact the spirit world became an intriguing and fashionable pass-time.
Imagine you are in a darkened room. Silk shawls are draped over the table lamps. The window is open, letting a light warm breeze rush in. Your companions are all sitting around a round table, quietly joining hands. Though it could take many forms, a séance was such a gathering of friends and acquaintances there for the sole purpose of making contact with the world beyond death. One of the seaters would be a self-proclaimed psychic medium, charged with the gift and responsibility to conduct the session and get in contact with the spirits. The medium would invite the spirits and perhaps be used as a vehicle for a spirit to communicate with the other seaters. Evidence of such a possession manifested in a variety of sensational ways. Mediums like Eva Carrière and Stanislawa Tomczyk would swallow and regurgitate ectoplasm, others would use music, rapping, various spirit-channeling devices and table-tilting to manifest spirit activity.
Practitioners of Spiritualism held that spirits would announce their arrival in the “circle” (the seaters usually sat in a circle, joining hands) with observable signs, like sounds, changes in temperature, voices, lights, smoke, and visions. William Stainton Moses (1839-1892), an Anglican priest and medium active in the late 19th century London, recorded in detail his experiences during seances and described another manifestation of the visiting spirits: scent. According to Moses, “perfumes and waves of scent-laden air” were a common occurrence in his circle’s seances. He explains that when a responding spirit wanted to announce themselves “then the room is pervaded by odours of subtle and delicate, or strong, perfume”.
Moses describes seaters being greeted with the beautiful scents of sandalwood, rose, lemon verbena and other floral notes. Waves of “cool-scented air” would circle the seaters, perfumed droplets would anoint as they fell from the ceiling above them: “During a seance the scent is either carried, as it seems, round the circle, and is then accompanied by cool air, or it is sprinkled down from the ceiling of the room in liquid form.”
Moses occasionally reports a “luminous form” accompanying the scented air. Other times, the perfumed air would suddenly appear with no apparent source, and other times a smell already in the room, like a bouquet of flowers in a vase, would get intensified, filling the room with the floral scent.
But not all such spiritual scenting was pleasant. Moses recounts: “On certain occasions, when conditions are not favourable, the scent is pungent and most painful if it gets into the eye. […] I have seen the effect caused on another [Mrs. Speer] by a similar occurrence. The pain caused was excruciating, the inflammation was most severe, and the effects did not pass off for twenty-four hours or more. In fact, whatever the liquid was, it caused severe conjunctivitis.”
Seaters in Moses’ group relate the scent apparitions as common occurrences: “Scents of various descriptions were always brought to the circle — the most common being musk, verbena, new-mown hay, and one unfamiliar odour which we were told was called spirit-scent. Sometimes breezes heavy with perfume swept round the circle, at other times quantities of liquid musk would be poured on the hands of the sitters and, by request, on our handkerchiefs. At the close of a seance scent was often found to be oozing out of the medium's head, and the more it was wiped away, the stronger and more plentiful it became”.
Other 19th century psychics and spiritualists talk about similarly elusive odors that would visit the séance parlor to announce the presence of a spirit. Some go so far as to say that certain odors, like musk and tobacco were the harbingers of a male spirit, whereas the wafting scent of roses, lilies and other flowers meant that a female spirit was attending the circle. Specific perfumes would be associated with recently dead relatives or spouses of the sitters. Scents were an essential tool in the medium’s bag of tricks and in some cases the thread between this world and the next.
Header Image: Séance scene from the 1922 film "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler"(German: Dr. Mabuse der Spieler), directed by Fritz Lang.
The Experience of William Stainton Moses.— I. By Fredeeic W. H. Myees., Society for Psychical Research,
Proceedings: Volume 9, January 1, 1894
The Proofs of Spirit Forces, By George Henslow, London, 1920
by Evi Numen, writing for Werther & Gray