Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Precipitated Spirit Paintings, the Bangs Sisters, & Camp Chesterfield, Indiana

Psychic mediumship has become a more socially acceptable topic, at least for the popular media. Books, television programs, movies, and web sites devote considerable attention to the subject. Although scientific materialism, which discounts survival of bodily death, and so-called "mainstream" religions continue to disparage psychic phenomena, millions of people entertain at least a casual interest in the subject. Much of this criticism has been directed toward spiritualism, which became a religious movement over 150 years ago and has endured critics, many professing "the truth" of alternative faiths. Religions have a long history of sniping at one another, and, unfortunately, so does science, which itself can become a religion (commonly called scientism, which is a belief in certain scientific viewpoints as a matter of faith rather than veridical evidence). True science, of course, openly and objectively considers the facts based upon experiment and careful observation of data, regardless of preconceptions or prevalent theories.

Today is not unlike a century ago, when millions actively believed in survival of bodily death and communication with the departed. Then, as now, these pursuits were ridiculed by establishment science, with its reductionist, materialistic interpretation of life and death. Unlike today, however, the press ofyesteryear brutally attacked those inquiring into psychic phenomena. Only the most courageous scientists and investigators publicly studied the matter and published their results.

Two organizations that attracted some of the last two centuries' brightest minds were the British Society for Psychical Research and its American counterpart. Some of the most brilliant scientists of the period--Alfred Russel Wallace, Oliver Lodge, William Crookes, William Barrett, Camille Flammarion, Charles Richet, Cesare Lombroso, Gustave Geley, and William James, to name just a few of the intellectual cream-of-the-crop--investigated paranormal activities for decades, carefully scrutinizing the evidence, remaining skeptical but open-minded (for the most part), until, finally, after (it bears repeating) decades of intensive research, they were ultimately convinced of the reality and genuineness of the phenomena. Many academics, such as Frederic W. H. Myers, Richard Hodgson, and James Hyslop, as well as prominent authors, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Hamlin Garland, and Maurice Maeterlinck, and other professionals, such as Vice-Admiral W. Usborne Moore, the Rev. William Stainton Moses, and the Rev. Charles L. Tweedale, devoted enormous time and energy to psychical research. They, too, reached favorable conclusions regarding the truth and authenticity of certain of the paranormal phenomena they encountered. Along the way, these researchers and many others also discovered fraud and were prompt to discredit charlatans; but all were equally prompt to admit that they had witnessed bona fide paranormal phenomena. This pioneering exploration of psychical science has been all but forgotten today, but anyone interested may easily ferret reprints of the fascinating original publications.

One expression of mediumistic power is the spontaneous production of paintings attributed to spirit forces. The Bangs sisters of Chicago were carefully studied by Vice-Admiral W. Usborne Moore, and he received convincing proof, under ideal test conditions, that portraits of deceased persons could be rapidly painted by "spirit forces" in the sisters' presence. Usborne Moore, who began his study totally skeptical, stated in his book, Glimpses of the Next State (London : Watts & Co., 1911), that fraud or collusion could be absolutely excluded as an explanation for the Bangs sisters' precipitated portraits, given his stringent precautions in place during the creation of the artwork.

The sisters' paintings were created at many places, including a Hoosier religious community, Camp Chesterfield (Chesterfield, Indiana), which is located in Madison County and appears on the National Register of Historic Places. Many Bangs precipitated spirit portraits are displayed there. A few of the paintings may be seen in The Bangs Sisters and Their Precipitated Spirit Portraits, originally compiled and written by Irene Swann (Chesterfield, Ind. : Hett Memorial Art Gallery & Museum, 1969, rev. 1991), a digital copy of which is available in our Evergreen Indiana online catalog (click the links under "electronic resources"). These paintings are well-crafted, tasteful representations of deceased persons, some of whom allegedly were the impetus behind the artwork.

To learn the mechanics of precipitated spirit painting, you should read Usborne Moore's book, or Precipitated Spirit Paintings, by Ron Nagy (Lakeville, Minn. : Galde Press, 2006). The color images included in Swann's and Nagy's books are striking and intriguing. Readers may decide for themselves as to the likely origins of the art, but it remains another of those interesting paranormal mysteries that are, if nothing else, fun to examine.

Karl C. B. Muilliwey, guest blogger
Paranormal investigator & author of Haunting at Sycamore Lake and Shelf Doll (see book trailers below)

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