The Voice Box
Mary Showers - Physical Medium
British Materialisation Medium,
Daughter of General C. L. Showers of the Bombay Army.
As a child Mary conversed with invisible people. It was in the spring of 1872 that Mary first sat in the circle of her family. It was in these sittings that Mary produced raps and movement without contact, she obtained poltergeist manifestations in daylight, and saw spirit forms among which "John King" and "Peter" rose to prominence. Direct writing was another manifestation of her mediumship.
In 1874, Mary and her mother travelled from Teignmouth to London to give séances to representative Spiritualists. The test conditions in these early séances were taken charge of by the spirits. At the beginning of the séance, coils of rope or tape would be placed in the cabinet. At a signal, the curtain of the cabinet was drawn aside and the medium was discovered tightly bound.
The usual materialized spirit form was a girl, "Florence," who was eight inches taller than the medium, was able to vary her height, and was often seen by Florance Marryat together with the medium. Marryat describes these experiences in her book There is No Death (1891).
Marryat found herself so much in rapport with Mary Showers that she wrote: "We could not sit next to each other at an ordinary tea or supper table when we had no thought of, or desire to hold a séance, without manifestations occurring in the full light. A hand that did not belong to either of us would make itself apparent under the table-cloth between us—a hand with power to grasp ours— or our feet would be squeezed or kicked beneath the table, or fingers would suddenly appear and whisk the food off our plates."
An attempt to exposure Mary was made on April 2, 1874, at the house of Edward William Cox. When "Florence" appeared between the curtains of the cabinet, Cox's daughter Mrs. Edwards opened the curtains wider. The spirit resisted; in the struggle the headdress fell off and revealed Showers. Cox, however, seemed satisfied that the medium was entranced and had unconsciously impersonated the spirit.
Although Cox may have believed that the medium was entranced, the episode cast strong doubts upon the genuineness of Showers’ phenomena. Cox himself reinforced such doubts in a letter dated March 8, 1876, to the medium D. D. Home (printed in full in Home's Light and Shadows of Spiritualism, London, 1877): "I am satisfied that a large amount of fraud has been and still is practiced. Some of it is, doubtless, deliberately planned and executed. But some is, I think, done while the medium is in a state of somnambulism, and therefore unconscious. As all familiar with phenomena of somnambulism are aware, the patient acts to perfection any part suggested to his mind, but wholly without self-perception at the time, or memory afterwards. But such an explanation serves only to aquit the medium of deliberate Imposture; it does not affect the fact that the apparent manifestation is not genuine.
"The great field for fraud has been offered by the production and presentation of alleged spirit-forms. All the conditions imposed are as if carefully designed to favour fraud if contemplated, and even to tempt to imposture. The curtain is guarded at either end by some friend. The light is so dim that the features cannot be distinctly seen. A white veil thrown over the body from head to foot is put on and off in a moment, and gives the necessary aspect of spirituality. A white band round head and chin at once conceals the hair, and disguises the face. A considerable interval precedes the appearance—just such as would be necessary for the preparations. A like interval succeeds the retirement of the form before the cabinet is permitted to be opened for inspection. This just enables the ordinary dress to be restored. While the preparation is going on behind the curtain the company are always vehemently exhorted to sing. This would conveniently conseal any sounds of motion in the act of preparation. The spectators are made to promise not to peep behind the curtain, and not grasp the form. They are solemnly told that if they were to seize the spirit they would kill the medium. This is an obvious contrivance to deter the onlookers from doing anything that might cause detection. It is not true. Several spirits have been grasped, and no medium has died of it; although in each case the supposed spirit was found to be the medium. That the detected medium was somewhat disturbed in health after such a public detection and exposure is not at all surprising. Every one of the five mediums who have been actually seized in the act of personating a spirit is now alive and well. There need be no fear for the consequences in putting them to the proof.
"But I have learned how the trick is done. I have seen the description of it given by a medium to another medium who desired instruction. The letter was in her own handwriting, and the whole style of it showed it to be genuine.
"She informs her friend that she comes to the séance prepared with a dress that is easily taken off with a little practice. She says it may be done in two or three minutes. She wears two shifts (probably for warmth). She brings a muslin veil of thin material (she gives its name, which I forget). It is carried in her drawers! It can be compressed into a small space, although when spread it covers the whole person. A pocket-handkerchief pinned around the head keeps back the hair. She states that she takes off all her clothes except the two shifts, and is covered by the veil. The gown is spread carefully upon the sofa over the pillows. In this array she comes out. She makes very merry with the spiritualists whom she thus gulls, and her language about them is anything but complimentary.
"This explains the whole business. The question so often asked before was—where the robe could be carried? It could not be contained in the bosom or in a sleeve. Nobody seems to have thought of the drawers.
"But it will be asked how we can explain the fact that some persons have been permitted to go behind the curtain when the form was before it, and have asserted that they saw or felt the medium. I am sorry to say the confession to which I have referred states without reserve that these persons knew that it was a trick, and lent themselves to it. I am, of course, reluctant to adopt such a formidable conclusion, although the so-called 'confession' was a confidential communication from one medium to another medium who had asked to be instructed how the trick was done. I prefer to adopt the more charitable conclusion that they were imposed upon, and that it is easy to find how this was likely to be. The same suspicious precautions against detection were always adopted. The favoured visitor was an assured friend; one who, if detecting trikery, would shrink from proclaiming the cheat. But one was permitted to enter. A light was not allowed. There was nothing but the 'darkness visible' of the lowered gas rays struggling through the curtain. I have noted that no one of them ever was permitted to see the face of the medium. It was always 'wrapped in a shawl.' The hands felt a dress, and imagination did the rest. The revealer of the secret above referred to says that, when she took off her gown to put on the white veil, she spread it upon the sofa or chair with pillows or something under it, and this is what they felt and took for her body! "The lesson to be learned from all this is, that no phenomena should be accepted as genuine that are not produced under strict test conditions. Investigators should be satisfied with no evidence short of the very best that the circumstances will permit."
Cox's reference to the means by which "spirit forms" were produced fraudulently in a "communication from one medium to another medium who had asked to be instructed how the trick was done" is thought by Trevor H. Hall (in his book The Spiritualists, London, 1962) to refer to Florence Cook and Mary Showers, who were known to each other and indeed collaborated with each other in a joint performance of fully materialized "spirit forms" at the house of Sir William Crookes. It is particularly significant that at the final séance with the phantom "Katie King" on May 21, 1874, Crookes himself noted that the face of the medium Florence Cook was covered with a red shawl, ostensibly to protect her from the effects of light, and that this established the separate identity of phantom and medium, seen together.
Although some sitters at the Crookes séances with Florence Cook noted marked similarities between the medium and the phantom "Katie King," Crookes himself was at pains to establish specific differences. If the phenomena of Florence Cook was fraudulent, it is likely that her friend Showers was an accomplice at séances when the differences between medium and "spirit form" were apparent.
Both Trevor H. Hall and E. J. Dingwall are satisfied that the circumstantial evidence strongly indicates that Cook's phenomena were fraudulent and that Showers was an accomplice. Their conclusion that such fraud was known to Crookes and that he connived at it, using the séances as a cover for an affair with Cook, is much more speculative, although it is undeniable that Crookes was tremendously impressed and captivated by the beauty of the materialized phantom "Katie King."
The story of the connections between Showers, Cook, and the investigations of Crookes and Cox is a complex one. The best sources are the writings of Hall and Dingwall.
Dingwall, E. J. The Critic's Dilemma. Dewsbury, England: The Author, 1966.
Hall, Trevor H. Florence Cook and William Crookes: A Footnote to an Enquiry. London: Tomorrow Publications, 1963.
New Light on Old Ghosts. London: G. Duckworth, 1965.
The Spiritualists. New York: Heliz Press, 1963. Reprinted as The Medium and the Scientist. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1984.
Marryat, Florence. There is No Death. 1891. Reprint, New York: Causeway Books, 1973.
Thouless, R. H. "Crookes and Cook." Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 42 (1963).