During September 1726, in rural England, Mary Toft gave birth multiple times to animal parts and fully grown animals. These included cat legs, a rabbit head, around a dozen dead rabbits, and more. Due to a theory that emotions could cause birth defects, Mary convinced many doctors that these “births” were real and became a local celebrity. Eventually mounting evidence and the threat of court-appointed experimental pelvic surgery led to Mary’s confession that it was indeed a hoax. Essentially, Mary put these animals (and parts) into her vagina when doctors were not looking, and then faked natural birth. The doctors who fell for this hoax were mocked for their gullibility and one of the key medical professionals attached to the case, Nathaniel St. André, lost his patients and died in poverty.
This would not be the last time a woman put items into her vagina to trick rationalists and people of science. At the height of Spiritualism (late 1800s and early 1900s), mediums performed seances with knocks, moving tables, and a mysterious white substance called ectoplasm, which sometimes entered the world through their vagina.
Spiritualism and Female Sexuality
The Spiritualism movement did not discriminate based on socioeconomic class or gender, both in the world of the living and the afterlife. Spiritualists believed “the spirit world existed on a continuum with the world of the living” (Dickey, 73). There was no hell, and the dead resided peacefully in the afterlife or what they called, Summerland. Spiritualism, unlike stricter religions, provided the living comfort in knowing the dead were not condemned to punishment in the afterlife and were available for conversations.
Mediums were mostly women and their position as spiritual leaders that helped facilitate these conversations gave them substantial power and respect. Many members of the American suffrage movement were also Spiritualists and even Susan B. Anthony supported the assertion that Spiritualism was the only religious sect to acknowledge the equality of women (Dickey, 74).
Spiritualism gave women the space to move their bodies and speak in ways they had not before. In Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places, Colin Dickey writes, “Spiritualism tended to valorize traits that were elsewhere labeled as women’s psychiatric diseases, including convulsions, incoherent babbling, open displays of sexuality, and other violations of Victorian decorum” (74). Behaviors that would usually get a woman locked up became evidence of otherworldly communication. During seances, mediums’ open displays of sexuality also revealed to observers another mystery: the vagina.
Medical professionals were already confused about female sexuality and were using new tools and procedures to explore what Freud called “the dark continent.” In “Bawdy Technologies and the Birth of Ectoplasm,” Anne L. Delgado writes:
Ectoplasm emerged at a time when women’s bodies were under special scrutiny [involving surgeries] designed to treat phantom ailments like nymphomania and hysteria.
Society’s misconceptions about female bodies and a desire to understand the afterlife set the stage for a fascinating and elaborate hoax. Using the tool of ectoplasm, women convinced many they were giving birth to a new biological order.
Spiritualism was a threat to patriarchy and it didn’t help matters that mediums were using fraudulent practices. Central to the ongoing public debate on Spiritualism were two famous men: Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini used his knowledge of illusions to develop a task force to disprove dishonest mediums. As his adversary stood Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle who was a staunch proponent of mediumship and a believer in ectoplasm.
Ectoplasm: The Female Magician’s Secret
Ectoplasm, a term coined by French physiologist Charles Richet, is the materialization of spiritual energy that extrudes from a medium during a seance. This milky white substance varies in description and its make-up may change throughout the ectoplasmic process, beginning as a vapor and solidifying into a plastic substance (Doyle). It may be snake-like, web-like, sticky, airy, smokey, doughy, moist, dry, cold, or warm. Furthermore, ectoplasm is sensitive to light and any flash of light might “drive the structure back into the medium with the force of a snapped elastic band” (Doyle).
Ectoplasm enters the world of the living through the orifices of a medium’s body: pores, mouth, ears, nipples, and vagina. Once ectoplasm is released from the body, it may form into limbs, faces, or entire bodies. During one seance led by medium Madame d’Esperance, observers watched as a cloudy patch moved along the floor, gradually expanding. Then, near the center, something began to rise from underneath the material, forming what looked like a five-foot humanoid figure. In another example, Mina Crandon produced a ectoplasmic hand from her navel.
It turns out Ectoplasm was not the materialization of your dead uncle, but was cheesecloth, egg whites, or similar mundane materials. The hand that came from Mina’s navel was found to be animal tissue and trachea cut and sewn together.
The Queen of Ectoplasm: Eva Carrière
Like the mystery of female sexuality, ectoplasm baffled science, leading to many intrusive experiments involving the examination of orifices for hidden “ectoplasm.” It was not uncommon for mediums to have their vaginas searched before experimental seances.No one was more intimately studied than French Spiritualist, Eva Carrière (1886-1943).
Eva C (born Marthe Béraud) was so prolific in producing ectoplasm and ectoplasmic bodies that she was nicknamed the Queen of Ectoplasm (Jaher, 47). Her most notable seance character was Bien Boa, a 300-year-old Brahmin Hindu that would rise from her ectoplasmic emissions. She attracted the attention of many critics and believers, including Houdini and Doyle.
Physical researcher Juliette Bisson and German physician Bardon Albert von Schrenck-Notzing would perform the most thorough and titillating examination of Eva’s body and her vaginal excretions in the early 1900s. They took turns before sessions examining her vagina for any evidence of hidden material. Sometimes, even after Bisson thoroughly checked her genitalia, Eva would invite Schrenck-Notzing for a second examination.
In a letter to Schrenck-Notzing, Bisson describes the erotic dance between Eva and the spirit world.
a large spherical mass, about 8 inches in diameter, emerged from the vagina and quickly placed itself on her left thigh while she crossed her legs. I distinctly recognized in the mass a still unfinished face, whose eyes looked at me.
And months later in another letter:
Eva allowed me to undress her completely. I then saw a thick thread emerge from the vagina. It changed its place, left the genitals, and disappeared in the navel depression.More material emerged from the vagina, and with a sinuous serpentine motion of its own it crept up the girl’s body, giving the impression as if it were about to rise in the air.
Bisson and Schrenck-Notzing also took a number of erotic photographs of Eva (you know, for science), including Eva naked with ectoplasm dripping from her breasts. Many argue that Bisson and Eva were romantically involved, creating elaborate ectoplasmic performances to seduce and trick a male audience. Although it is possible that Bisson and Eva used sexuality as a method of distraction or were exploring new sexual desires, we can never know their intentions.
Photographic evidence eventually revealed Bisson and Eva as frauds. Prior to this, Schrenck-Notzing and other male researchers found out about the hoax, but kept quiet because they believed in mediumship so strongly. After one observation of Eva, Houdini said both women had taken “advantage of the credulity and good nature of the various men with whom they had to deal” (Delgado). Such women were seen as lying seductresses and naive men were victims of sexual misdirection.
The Witch of Lime Street: Mina Crandon
Another famous medium known for her alleged sexual behavior and vaginal ectoplasm was Mina Crandon (1888-1941) of Boston, known by her followers as Margery and by newspapers as the Witch of Lime Street. In The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, David Jaher describes Harry Houdini’s witch hunt against lauded medium Margery. She had convinced Doyle of her skills, so much so that he urged her to enter a contest sponsored by Scientific American. The publication promised a sizable monetary award to the first authentic medium. This began a publicity war between Spiritualism and Science, and all eyes were on Mina’s body.
While Mina was never examined to the extent of Eva C, her vagina was still under scrutiny. One member of the Scientific American committee, psychologist William McDougall of Harvard, said she concealed fake ectoplasmic hands in her vagina. He also said her husband Dr. Crandon must have surgically expanded her vagina. Houdini suggested she was in bed with investigators, winning their silence. Whatever way you look at it, Jaher writes, she was considered a “loose woman” by committee members. She did not win the award.
It is possible to look at the acts of these mediums as protests against men’s perceptions of the female body or men’s power in society. After all, mediums were convincing otherwise educated men that a piece of cheesecloth was a manifestation of spiritual energy. Maybe these mediums wanted the same opportunities men had: captivated audiences, money, and respect. We praise Houdini for his illusions, but these mediums were just as intelligent and creative. Due to the perceptions of the respected men of the day, history portrays these women as seductresses, loose women, and sexual deviants. Maybe instead they should be honored as Magicians of Matriarchy.
Delgado, Anne L. “Bawdy Technologies and the Birth of Ectoplasm.” Genders, no. 54, 2011.
Dickey, Colin. Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places. Viking, 2016.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism, vol. 2, 1926.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. Facts on File, 1992.
Jaher, David. The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in The Spirit World. Broadway Books New York, 2013.
“The Curious Case of Mary Toft.” University of Glasgow Special Collections.