October 23, 2021

The spirit of feminism

Show reveals séances’ influence on women’s movement

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Greg Moller performs a table levitation in a Victorian-style seance Friday at the 1890 House in Cortland.

As Harry Houdini read the letter — allegedly from his dead mother — he saw it was written in English and he knew the psychics were lying.

His mother could speak and write only in German.

Houdini spent much of the last half of his life outing fake psychics for their tricks, many of which he knew from being a magician.

He eventually would write a book, “A Magician Among the Spirits.” That book was used to create a séance show Friday and Saturday night at the 1890 House museum on Tompkins Street in Cortland.

As more than 30 people sat in the dimly lighted library — some around the table, others in the audience — they were introduced to spirits by multiple historical figures. Psychic Maggie Fox was played by Kimberly Grader. The hostess Ardelle Wickwire was played by actress Tammie Whitson. Jarrett Zeman, the 1890s House curator, played Harry Houdini and actor Greg Moller played writer Mark Twain.

Throughout the show, Fox introduced a number of spirits trying to rouse the audience into believing they were actually there. However, it was just a number of gimmicks, like Grader and Whitson making the table levitate using a specially made table with dowels connected to slips that went on Grader’s and Whitson’s arms. When they raised their arms, the table rose.

Syracuse residents Steve Mertens and his girlfriend, Cindy Cummings, got a front seat to all of the action happening at the séance table. Mertens said he was a skeptic before going to see the show, and after learning how they did some of the gimmicks, he is still a skeptic.

“I can see maybe back then how people might’ve been fooled by that,” Mertens said.

Maria Welch from Camillus heard about the event and was intrigued to see what it was all about.

“I read a lot about séances from this time,” she said. “I was interested in the debunking part.”

However, the idea behind the séance wasn’t just about explaining all of the tricks behind the show but the influence it had on woman empowerment, said Zeman, who created the show with Ben Sandberg, the museum director.

“We we’re both very passionate about using interactive theater as a historical tool,” Zeman said. “The story of woman, historically, is something that is very relevant to a lot of the things that are going on in our culture right now.”

Kimberly Grader of Fayetteville performs in a seance while communing with spirits Friday at the 1890 House in Cortland.

During the 19th Century women had begun fighting for their rights, including the right to vote.

Zeman said they used séances as a way to advocate for those rights, but many people don’t associate it with the suffrage movement.

“This is one of the areas in which they can have power, partly because séances only took place in the home, which of course was the woman’s domain,” he said. “Her home is her kingdom.”

During the show Grader, while in character, pretended to be possessed by George Washington. Zeman said it was a trick often used because people were more likely to believe something a powerful man said.

Zeman also said perhaps people now and people during the Victorian era aren’t so different in their beliefs and the questions that they are still trying to be worked through.

“It’s kind of easy to look at these magic tricks and think about a séance and think maybe the Victorians were silly or morbid to believe in all of this stuff, right?” Zeman said. “At the end of the day, they were struggling with the same questions that humanity’s been struggling with since the beginning of time. Is there a God? What happens when we die? Is there an afterlife?”

Zeman said that because the show was almost completely sold out this year he plans on expanding it to two weekends next year.

“We’ll probably add additional characters and we’ll also change up the tricks,” he said. “Now that we know this program can work, we’re going to be even more ambitious and try to come up with newer tricks so people can come back and see a new show.”