Spiritualism – the belief that the living could contact the dead – became popular in England in the mid 19th century. One way to communicate (‘spirit rapping’) was through ‘table turning’: a group of people sit round a table, their hands placed palms down on the top, and the piece of furniture in question appears miraculously to rise and move. The activity – which would now be called a séance – was even celebrated in a popular song.
Prominent Victorians who subscribed to spiritualist beliefs included the pioneer evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) and the author Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930). Firm sceptics included the scientist and experimenter Michael Faraday (1791–1867), and the most prominent showman magician of the day, John Henry Anderson, the ‘Wizard of the North’ (1814–1874).
Anderson’s popular shows ran for over 20 years, and he became known for the trick of apparently catching in his mouth a bullet fired at him. In 1854, he switched to concentrate on exposing spiritualist frauds and charlatans, using his daughters to reproduce spiritualist hoaxes.
In his books, Anderson not only describes a variety of simple magic tricks to be learnt at home, and exposes the tricks used by cardsharps and gamblers, but also thoroughly denounces spiritualism as ‘humbug’. With his magician’s knowledge and showman’s savvy, he describes in detail how the effects of spirit rapping and table turning are achieved – a tradition of rationalism and scepticism that thrives today with figures such as James Randi.