Exposed! The Untold Story of Harry Kellar and the Tribune Spook Case by William Pack
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2006)
William Pack could have done a second talk at the History Conference, since he offered for sale a sort of companion volume to Discovering the Magic City, namely the similarly designed work at hand, entitled Exposed! This is a terrific story that readers will not find in the recent Kellar biography, Kellar's Wonders, by Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel; Mr. Caveney was indeed heard to compliment Mr. Pack at the conference for unearthing this new material that was as much news to him as it was to the rest of the conferees.
Mr. Pack happened upon this mystery story in the course of his research in the microfilmed files of the 19,h-century Chicago Tribune. He begins by setting the scene for the early days of spiritualism in Chicago, providing accounts of spirit mediums including Carrie Sawyer, circa 1870, and later appearances of Ms. Sawyer in Boston in 1884. He then traces the work of the Bangs Sisters in Chicago, 1874 through 1893, who were the city's most visible mediums in that time, having begun as children, following in the spiritual footsteps of the Fox Sisters.
There are the usual spiritualist disputes, including for example the writings of Colonel John Bundy, editor of a pro-spiritualist journal, who is dismayed by "phony mediums" while defending the claims of those he believes to be real. All of this background is well designed by Mr. Pack to prepare us for the heart of the matter, which occurred in February of 1890, when a séance conducted by Carrie Sawyer was exposed by reporters, detectives, and skeptics, in a "dramatic scene" (as reported in the Tribune) when a spirit manifestation was suddenly grabbed in near darkness, a light was instantly ignited, and, well, all hell broke loose in the séance chamber. It must have been quite an experience for all in attendance, believer and skeptic alike.
These events, with which the newspaper was directly involved, led to a criminal prosecution, and no less than Harry Kellar, America's premier magician of the era, was called to testify before the grand jury. This led to criminal indictments (excel-lent facsimiles of which Mr. Pack includes as an appendix).
And then, oddly enough, the author sadly informs us, "This is where the story ends. The Tribune just stops writing about it." Mr. Pack concludes by examining the antics of other mediums of the time and locale, including one Harry Archer, who is also later prosecuted and eventually confesses to fraud. Thus the story exists without an ending, as the author points out in his introduction, which will no doubt keep him busy in the future and once again, we must offer our thanks to intrepid reporters and researchers like William Pack who rescue our own history from the dustbin of the past.