The Indescribable Phenomenon by Barry H. Wiley
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2005)
Ever since I was a boy, and first read about Houdini and his exposures of spirit mediums, I have been intrigued by the subject of spiritualism. Not about whether it is possible to commune with the dead, but rather, what it might have been like to have lived at a time when the possibility of encountering ghosts, spirit rapping, and "things that go bump in the night" firsthand was a regular part of American and British popular culture. In a time without electric lights or radio, much less film or television, communing with the dead was popular entertainment, and why not? Swathed in the solemn wrappings of theology and science, you could also have a damned fun evening.
If the Fox Sisters were the first rappers to become pop stars, Anna Eva Fay was a superstar. Mr. Wiley began researching "The Life and Mysteries of Anna Eva Fay," as his new biography is subtitled, in 1968. In concise but insightful prose, the author now delivers both the intricate detail and the broad perspective that are required to create a compelling portrait of his subject, who, despite having been billed as the indescribable Phenomenon" in her day, the author succeeds in vividly describing.
Mr. Wiley brings an even and rational temperament to his reportage, presenting the often outlandish events of the era from a clear-eyed vantage that is neither strident nor condescending. He never gets in the way of the story but his voice is a distinct presence nonetheless; in one nice turn of phrase he mentions a sitter at one of Anna's séances who, when a misplaced curtain failed to conceal all the action, "happened to catch a glimpse of Annie deputizing for absent spirits." There is plenty of historical back-ground and cultural context provided, the better to aid the reader in formulating a realistic grasp of the times. Many an account of spiritualism has ignored the fact that in the era of that religious vogue, "la) woman had no right to hold property, no right to her children in the unlikely case of a divorce, no right to vote, no right to work, [and) no right to her earnings even if she did find work," as the author points out in the opening lines of his book. In his discussion of the Crookes investigations of Annie, Mr. Wiley observes that the scientists looked upon "the medium herself as only a passive feminine observer, waiting for the great men to make their decisions. This attitude of medium passivity has been uniformly accepted by all previous writers on the history of Spiritualism, which in the case of Annie could not be further from the truth."
We meet a colorful cast of characters in the story of Anna Eva Fay, including the likes of Alexander ("The Man Who Knows"); the aforementioned hokum maestro, P.T. Barnum; the medium Daniel Dunglas Home; medium and Theosophy founder, the bizarre Madame Blavatsky; the muscle-reading mentalist and spiritualism exposer, Washington Irving Bishop, who worked for the Fays for a time; the journalist, John Truesdell, author of The Bottom Facts Concerning the Science of Spiritualism, who was friendly enough with the Fays to serve as the namesake of Annie's son; and magicians including J.N. Maskelyne, Karl Germain, and Harry Houdini, who maintained a friendship with Annie until the end of her life. Although many of these characters and their improbable exploits have been recounted elsewhere in the literature of spiritualism, the author always seems to have something fresh to offer about players both major and minor.
Mr. Wiley provides ample and thorough footnotes, clear-ly identifying every player who makes an entrance, no matter how briefly. Included in one such note is the voice of Thomas Huxley, who, when asked to take part in an investigation of spiritualism, demurred with these words: "The only good that I can see in a demonstration of the truth of 'Spiritualism' is to furnish an additional argument against suicide. Better live as a crossing-sweeper than die and made to twaddle by a medium hired at a guinea a séance." Along similar lines, Charles Dickens is quoted as writing to a friend that "Although I shall be ready to receive enlightenment from any source, I must say I have very little hope of it from the spirits who express them-selves through mediums; as I have yet observed them to talk anything but nonsense." Timelessly true, but it hasn't stopped predators like John Edwards and his ilk from living high off the misery of others.
By 1876, Annie was living in New York City, performing regular séances in richly appointed rooms. The New York Graphic reported that Annie Eva Fay was "The most successful spiritualistic medium in New York." Twenty years later she would trod the boards at the country's leading music halls as a mentalist and mindreader, performing her "light séance," i.e., the Spirit Cabinet, and "Somnolency," her version of the question-and-answer act. The Q&A act, the history of which is detailed by Mr. Wiley, was invented by magician Samri S. Baldwin, a.k.a. "The White Mahatma, and continues today as a staple of modern mentalism. On occasion Fay would add an extra item such as the "Dancing Handkerchief" (which would later become a signature magic trick for Harry Blackstone), and even the Asrah levitation! She also frequently used a Rapping Hand apparatus, and was not afraid to garner some laughs with it in the course of the performance.
This is the best new book about spiritualism that I have read in years, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The production is beautiful, complete with two sections of color plates that reproduce posters, handbills, broadsides, tickets, and other rare items, most of which few readers will have seen before. There are nine appendices, and 47 pages of bibliography, with the latter divided into 11 sub-headings, focusing on the various key players as well as such subjects as magic and mentalism.
Whether you are a relative newcomer to spiritualism or a veteran enthusiast, you will be delighted by this often revelatory account, filled to the brim with new information. And if you have any interest in contemporary mentalism, then your roots can be discovered in these pages along with thought-provoking issues that continue to be germane for any modern performer. Above all, the extraordinary character of Annie Eva Fay, previously little more than a name and a face to me and many readers like me, finally comes alive in these pages. I am now left that much sorrier that I never had the chance to see her in person, but I can happily declare that I enjoyed this visit with her immensely.