Spirit Photography

My mother in law is a Spiritualist. Every week, she goes to a meeting where a medium claims to pass messages to the living from the dead.* Some years ago, she was given a spirit photograph, which she showed to my sister in law, visiting from Australia. I peeked over her shoulder to see a photo of an electric cooker with scorch marks on one of the rings. “Look,” my mother in law insisted, “Joan swears that’s the face of her dead mother in there.”

Sister in law examined the photo with care. “Bit of elbow grease, some Jif and a Brillo pad will fix that”, came the tart reply. “All I can see is a filthy hob that wants a good clean.”

And there is the best illustration of the two opposing views when it comes to this subject. You either see something there, or you don’t.

Spirit photography has existed for as long as photography itself. The Victorians were great fans and had no problem with claiming that photographs showed images of deceased relatives – or strangers, come to think of it. Nothing has changed, as even the most cursory glance of the internet will demonstrate. The only question is – how true are these photos?

At this point, I find the truth to be entirely subjective and depend entirely on how much you believe in life after death. One thing I have noticed about my mother in law’s Spiritualist friends is that they all seem to be elderly. I wonder if they have reached an age where, faced with their own imminent mortality, they become desperate to believe that death is not the end. Consequently, any evidence to support this, such as a ghostly image in a photograph, very quickly becomes a symbol of hope.

On the other hand, non-believers or people at peace with their mortality tend to see thumbprints, double exposures, reflections, glare or dirty marks where “believers” see faces or people. If the mind wishes to see a pattern there, it will.

Another problem with spirit photographs is that they are very easily faked – again, any cursory glance at the internet will confirm this, but it was a point proven long ago with the Cottingley Fairies. In this era of computer manipulation, it is all too easy to insert a ghostly image of Great Auntie Edna into a much more recent photograph. What is seen is not always to be believed.

However, some of the older photographs do make interesting curios, especially if the cameraman has managed to get the ghost to pose.

* I say “claims” because (1) I’ve never been to one of these meetings and (2) I have no idea what these mediums do.

Romantic Mountaineering

I have just finished reading “The Stress of Her Regard” by Tim Powers, which has turned out to be an interesting variation on the well-worn vampire theme. Interestingly, Mr Powers has also taken the opportunity of bringing in the Romantic Poets, and suggests that their relationships with those of a vampiric nature brought with it the payoff of great poetry. I remain to be convinced of this, but it’s an entertaining thought nonetheless.

At one point in the novel, the reader is invited to follow Lord Byron and his party on an excursion through the Swiss Alps, with the ultimate aim of climbing the Jungfrau. Now I’ve never been to the Swiss Alps but I suspect that a certain amount of climbing gear would be useful; at the very least some protective clothing. But it seems that His Lordship has taken to the hills with nothing more useful than a flask of hock and his thick coat. It sounds unbelievable, and I’m sure it is, but…

At Victoria Station I found myself facing a poster advertising a new exhibition of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, one of whose best known works is this, The Wanderer Above The Fog:


This can’t be Lord Byron, surely! But it seems apparent to me that for the Romantics, going up a mountain with anything other than a pack mule loaded with bonbons and fine claret is really not the done thing.

Fore-Edge Paintings

“Oratory of a Pilgrim”, she read off the spine of one of the volumes.
Lucille almost grinned. “Sounds quite virtuous, doesn’t it?” She paused as if for dramatic effect. “Have you heard of a fore-edge illustration?”
Edith shook her head and Lucille took the book. “They are images hidden in the book’s fore edge, carefully dissimulated as a pattern until you bend the pages so…”
She bent the side of the book so that it curved, revealing a colourful painting of a Japanese couple in flagrante delicto – performing sexual acts upon each other.

Crimson Peak novelisation by Nancy Holder, p. 158.


In his latest film, Guillermo del Toro introduces the viewer to one of bibliophilia’s best kept secrets – the fore-edge illustration. It is only fair to say, however, that while quite a few of the illustrations were certainly erotic, landscapes, cityscapes and classical allegories were also popular scenes.

Even now, fore-edge illustrations are extremely rare; to have had a library full of them would have been expensive to compile but glorious to behold. It’s not something one would usually find in a mass produced hardback, and certainly not in a paperback. This is because producing a fore-edge illustration is a laborious process. The pages have to be tilted at a certain angle and held at that angle in a vice for the illustration – usually a watercolour – to be completed and dried. Without ruining the book, obviously. Consequently, they are most often found in limited edition, rare hide-bound, gilt-embossed volumes that in themselves cost a small fortune.

The craftsmanship that went into many of these illustrations is worthy of any miniaturist; some of the paintings are extraordinarily detailed and very finely done. The fact that they were hidden from all but the knowing eye means that, sadly, many have almost certainly been lost. I can only consider this a tragedy.


Was Lizzie Borden Epileptic?

The most recent Real Crime Magazine Friday lunchtime Twitter case dealt with Lizzie Borden and her role in the Fall River Axe Murders. It set out the facts as they are known and then linked into the Magazine’s review of the case, which can be found online at http://www.realcrimedaily.com/realcrimefriday. The facts, briefly, are as follows:

Andrew Borden and his second wife lived in a large house in Fall River, Massachussets, with Andrew’s two daughters from his first marriage, Emma and Lizzie. Andrew Borden was known to be miserly despite being a successful businessman; yet both his daughters were heavily involved in charity work and philanthropy. In early August 1892, New England was hit with a severe heatwave and something of a drought. In the early afternoon of 4 August, Lizzie Borden called down to Bridget, their maid, saying that her parents had been murdered. Both bodies had been attacked with an axe in the front parlour of the house. Although Lizzie was always the main suspect in their murders, she was acquitted by the jury and nobody else has ever been charged. The evidence given by herself and other witnesses was so contradictory, any conviction “beyond reasonable doubt” would have been impossible.

The question Real Crime Magazine asked its readers (and Twitter followers) was – why was Lizzie Borden acquitted?

I was led on Saturday evening to Angela Carter’s short story, “The Fall River Axe Murders” in which she, like Real Crime Magazine, assumed that it is generally accepted that Lizzie did murder her father and stepmother. Interestingly, she not only offers motive – the oppressive behaviour of her father and the callous attitude of her stepmother – but an explanation. For Carter suggests that Borden may have been epileptic.

She reinforces this by recounting an earlier episode where the Borden house was burgled while Mr and Mrs Borden were away. The intruder had rifled through Mr and Mrs Borden’s belongings, soiled on the bedlinen and painted obscenities on the mirrors and windows with soap. Some jewellery had been stolen (and was never found) and Mr Borden’s suits were sliced with nail scissors – which had also been used in an amateurish attempt to jemmy open the safe. This burglary, like the murder, was discovered by Lizzie – who, at the time, was standing in the room holding a bar of soap and no idea why.

Many of Lizzie’s friends were well used to her “little turns”, when she would suddenly seem vacant and distant without realising. These, to me, sound like some form of seizure, where the sufferer is conscious and ambulant but not in control of his or her actions. They are sometimes known as a “fugue” state, and it is conjectured that Lizzie was in such a state both when she committed the burglary and murdered her parents. This would explain the incriminating evidence against her, but also her complete lack of knowledge of the events.

Unless, of course, she was just an exceptionally good liar.


Lemons, lemons and lemons
Lemons and
Lemons and… a lime?

How Does Lady Macbeth Die?

It’s quite odd that, despite seeing at least three murders onstage, the deaths of the female characters – Lady Macduff’s murder in Act 4 and the death of Lady Macbeth in Act 5 –take place offstage and are referred to by other actors. Consequently we are told by Malcolm that she has committed suicide (we are earlier told by Seyton only that the Queen is dead) but he declines to say how.

Act 5, Scene 1 is a very telling scene if we are exploring the question of how Lady Macbeth meets her demise. The scene is, essentially, written through the eyes of her attendant and the doctor, who observe Lady Macbeth as she “sleepwalks” – although allowing for Shakespeare’s need for dramatic tension, a combination of sleepwalking, talking and obsessive compulsive disorder is what actually happens. It is apparent to the audience that Lady Macbeth is deeply worried about something. Of course, the audience already know of her complicity in the deaths of Duncan and Banquo and the exile of Malcolm, Donalwain and Fleance. It seems she also knows of the plot against Macduff, and the deaths of his wife and children. So she has a good half a dozen murders on her conscience. For a contemporary audience, that would be enough to grant a sleepless night – fears for one’s mortal soul were a very real concern for the average Tudor or Stuart. And this is before we account for the treasonous intentions behind the first murder and possibly very real concerns for her military husband.

The attendant reports to the doctor that Lady Macbeth is now afraid of the dark and insists on retaining the light. The audience will recall that the murder of Duncan back in Act 2 was committed in pitch darkness; Macbeth himself complained that he couldn’t see where he was going. Is it that she fears that someone will murder her in her bed while she sleeps in the dark?

Meanwhile, she goes through the motions of washing her hands; her speech explains that she believes they are coated with blood and this blood will not wash off. Many students are asked to compare this with her comment to Macbeth after Duncan’s murder that “a little water clears us of this deed”. The doctor correctly guesses that Lady Macbeth is guilt ridden and states that she has more need of “the divine than the physician” – the sickness is not to her body, which he can cure, but to her soul, which he cannot. Interestingly, in ordering the attendant to remove “means of all annoyance” from the presence of Lady Macbeth, he seems to be anticipating that she may harm herself, either intentionally or not, and is effectively putting her on suicide watch.

As we are later told, Lady Macbeth does indeed take her own life, itself a mortal sin, although I doubt very much by this time that any right-thinking audience member would hold out much sympathy for her hell-bound fate. But this does not address the question of how Lady Macbeth dies, and so we must speculate. I think there are two possibilities, both of which relate to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking:

1. She wanders off in her sleep and falls off a battlement/down the stairs/out of a window;

2. Later in Act 5, Macbeth gives the doctor an instruction to give Lady Macbeth all possible peace, i.e. to help her sleep. Perhaps the doctor was a little careless with the tincture of poppy seed and gave her an overdose?

I’m inclined to plump for the latter theory, mainly because of the discovery of Lady Macbeth’s body; Macbeth is onstage, dressing for battle when there is a scream offstage. Servants go to investigate and Seyton returns with the news that Lady Macbeth is dead. This is two scenes after the doctor has been instructed to help Lady Macbeth get some sleep, and does indicate to me that the good doctor has taken the law into his own hands.

Of course, I have no idea if this is correct, and I would be interested to hear any other theories. Ultimately, though, we will never know how Lady Macbeth met her end.


There’s a short section in Act 4 of Macbeth where Malcolm and Macduff, having fled Scotland, are standing around a church waiting for the English King to finish his service, unaware that part of his duties include touching sufferers of “the King’s Evil”. This was a popular name for a very nasty disease called scrofula, which is a form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes in the neck (although some very rare cases are non-tubercular, over 95% of cases are).

It starts as a chronic, painless mass in the neck that gradually grows bigger and turns bluish-purple. It’s known as a “cold abscess” because there is no localised reddening or heat that one usually gets with an inflammation. It may also be accompanied by fever, lethargy and weight loss if it is tubercular in origin. It will also be quite infectious, especially if the lesions rupture and become an open wound. These days it is usually treated with high doses of antibiotics (surgical treatment carries a great risk of spreading the disease to other organs) but for many hundreds of years, a trip to the Royal Palace would have been the thing to do.

The idea that the touch of the monarch would cure the disease stemmed from the Middle Ages, and is a direct effect of the divine right of kings. It was believed that the anointed monarch was God’s representative on earth and, as such, the touch of the monarch bestowed the same grace and benefits as a divine blessing. The 1633 Book of Common Prayer even contained a ceremony for sufferers to be touched by the monarch, although it is reported that some kings and queens found it offensive to do so. Still, duty called, and the tradition continued until George I decided it was “too Catholic” and put a stop to it. Part of the ceremony included the gift of an “angel”, a gold coin valued at about 8 shillings – a lot of money for peasants to have at any one time.

Anyway, it’s interesting that this scene, although short – and leading up to a key moment for Macduff – illustrates so much about the nature of Macbeth’s reign. We spend next to no time in the English Court – I think this one scene is it – and yet these throwaway comments demonstrate that the English king had a divine right to be on the throne, unlike the murderous and usurping Macbeth. What would James I have made of this, being also James VI of Scotland? Well, he would have agreed with it since tradition had it that the monarchs of Scotland were descended from Banquo (Shakespeare also alludes to this in Act 4, with the third apparition produced by the witches), whom Macbeth has also murdered. Macbeth is never shown with any form of divine grace at all; and it’s strongly implied that if Macbeth had tried to cure scrofula with the Royal Touch, he would have caught it as well.

With the increase in immunocompromised persons – those suffering from cancer, HIV and so on – there has been a recent increase in cases of tuberculosis, so I suspect it will only be a matter of time before we see a resurgence in cases of scrofula. Should you, the reader, be so unlucky please do not bother to go to Buckingham Palace on the off-chance. A trip to the doctors would be much better for you in the long run.