Otherwise known as Slate Writing Spirit Slates were commonly used during the Victorian era during seances. A person would receive a hand written answer that would magically appear on a slate board in chalk and was believed to be from a spirit. They would soon discover that there were in fact being deceived.
Here are some of the most common methods spiritualists mediums would use during slate writing sessions.
How it works
During a seance or even just a normal sitting, a medium would ask a person to write down a message to the spirit or even ask it verbally or think of it mentally. They would have two 'blank' slates and a piece of chalk.
The piece of paper was then put in between the two slates along with a piece of chalk for spirits to 'write' with. The slates sat on top on one another. Some mediums would hang the slates from a light fixture, others would place it on the head of the person asking the question. The medium would then sepearate the slates to find a special message delivered from the spirits
The trick of this particular method is that the message is written on the slate by the medium before the session begins and it was concealed by either a piece of black cardboard through to more elaborate magentic boards so that when a person would inspect the slate, they wouldn't see the pre recorded message.
The message would be written on one of the slates and then concealed by the black board. When the slates are put on top of one another, it allows the medium to perform a trick of slight of hand and transfer this extra card over to the other slate and reveal the hidden message.
It is now quite commonly known and promoted as a magic trick and is available through many magic stories. A century ago however, people were not aware of this deception and took it to mean there was a message coming through from a spirit. This method demonstrated above was the most commonly used and was referred to as the 'flap slate'. There were other methods used which were a lot more elaborate which included special tables with hidden compartments as well as locked slates that were unlocked with a key hidden in the medium's cloth (that they would use to clean the slate). One of the most famous slate writing mediums who used such methods and the person credited with its inception is Henry Slade.
Slade was a famous spiritualist medium whose claim to fame was his discovery of mysterious spirit writings - otherwise known as slate writing. Famous for using many different methods with some quite elaborate, Slade would eventually be found out by a few different psychical researchers looking to understand his claims.
Image Source: Public Domain
In 1876 Sir Ray Lankester who was a zoologist that went onto exposing spiritualist mediums along with Sir Horatio Donkin sat in a seance with Slade. In the middle of the trick, Lankester managed to grab the slate before the spirit communication was supposed to commence. He found that the spirit message had already been written on the slate. Many argued that it was impossible to know at what point in the seance the spirit would write communication and others criticized Lankester of not having a lot of experience when it came to psychical research. Slade was reported to authorities and sentenced to 3 months of prison through the Bow Court on the basis of fraud. Slade was able to appeal the sentence on a technicality and was released on bail.
Further people would go on to have dealings with Slade. Remingius Weiss gave Harry Houdini a signed confession from Slade when he was able to replicate different methods in the presence of Slade and gave him the option to either sign the confession or he would be reported and sent to jail. Weiss wrote the confession and had Slade sign it. Weiss claims he never released this confession while Slade was alive so that other mediums did not use these methods for their own financial gain. Harry Houdini claims that Weiss gave him a full expose of his dealings with Slade along with the written confession.
Slade himself had quite a strong standing within the spiritualist community and someone Sir Arthur Conan Doyle advocated for. While his deception was caught out, there are others who believe he had genuine abilities.
In his book 'A Magician Among The Spirits', Houdini goes into great detail to expose the many methods used in slate writing.
Another sort of double slate intended for producing a similar effect in dark seances or cabinet work also has a loose end which instead of moving a quarter of an inch draws out to any length, bringing the slab with it. After the lights are out or the cabinet closed it is an easy matter to draw out the slab and write a message on it.
Writing is sometimes produced between two perfectly honest slates which have been fastened together at the corners by inserting a wedge of hard wood between the frames, thus separating them enough to slip between them a piece of wire with a bit of slate pencil fastened to its tip. By this means a message can be produced at a dark seance in a few minutes without breaking the seals.
A Magician Among The Spirits - Harry Houdini
Image Source: A Magician Among The Spirits by Harry Houdini
In other methods, sometimes a medium would pace around the room and swap the slates with one hidden in their jacket. In the below photo, Harry Houdini is demonstrating with his wife Bess and his assistant Mr Teale how often an assistant would sneak into the room to swap slates. Remember above how I spoke about a medium placing the slates on a person's head? In a very well timed swap, an assistant would sneak in and steal the slate that was sitting on the person's head and hand to the medium a pre written slate. To the person sitting in the chair, it would just feel as if the medium was taking the slate off their head.
Image Source: A Magician Among The Spirits by Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini gave Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a demonstration with spirit slates causing Doyle to believe that Houdini had powers that he would not admit. While not revealing to Doyle how he did it, he wanted his friend to understand that it was an act of deception.
Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion ... I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily “supernatural,” or the work of “spirits,” just because you cannot explain them....
Slate writing is not something that used as much today in the modern paranormal world. With all of the deception surrounding this, it is commonly known and referred to now as a magic trick. In fact, I bought one for as little as $7 AUD. I hope it would make Harry Houdini proud!
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