by Alessandra Koch
For The Austin Séance
By the mid 19th century, the Spiritualist movement was in full swing! Table rapping, levitating objects and direct voice phenomena — all these staples of traditional séances made their first appearances during this early era. This month we explore one such staple: the spirit trumpet. Although not commonly used today, early spiritualists would have been very familiar with these mysterious objects.
The Spirit Trumpet is a cylindrical cone with a narrow mouthpiece that usually expands in three parts into a megaphone similar to the traditional “speaking trumpets” employed by cheerleaders at sporting events. Spiritualists fabricated the first spirit trumpets from cardboard or metal, but later incorporated sleeker, more expensive designs using aluminum or tin. Speciality retailers like Everett Atwood Eckel of Indiana cashed in on their growing popularity by selling the odd devices for $2 or $3 through advertisements posted in “Psychic Power” and other spiritualist periodicals.
Not unlike the Ouija board, the Spirit Trumpet was originally created by Spiritualists who claimed they could magnify the whispers of spirits present in a circle. This is why some spiritualists describe spirit trumpets as the original “hearing aids” or “ear trumpets” to the voices of beyond. In a 2014 interview in Collectors Weekly, Austin-based historian Brandon Hodge said his research suggests that it was in the spirit room in Athens, Ohio, of Jonathan Koons (and through the mediumship of his eldest son, Nahum) that the spirit trumpet was born. While the original trumpets were simple devices, about 2 feet long and 4 inches in diameter at the bell end, later ones became more portable and included retractable telescoping segments. Spiritualists also ringed some trumpets with luminous paint to create glow-in-the-dark effects.
DIRECT VOICE MEDIUMSHIP
But how does the Spirit Trumpet actually work? For believers, the act of trumpet mediumship is better termed direct voice mediumship. According to Maxine Meilleur, writing in Great Moments of Modern Mediumship Vol. 1, spirit voices “speak through a voice box of ectoplasm, a substance taken from the medium’s body, or through a megaphone known as a trumpet.” According to believers, these voices or sounds may be anything from whispers of departed loved ones to the barks of a wolfhound, and they may come from any part of the room. Usually the trumpets will be placed in the center of those gathered for the séance. Spiritualist believers then claim that spirits, under certain circumstances, can make the trumpet float in the air and then stop at a person they want to talk to. The hearing device then supposedly takes over at that point and messages are made clear.
Besides the direct voice phenomena given by the mediums, the trumpet supposedly may also gift the sitters with apports. Derived from the French word, “to bring,” an apport is any object that materializes within the trumpet itself. Take, for instance, the story of Estelle Roberts and her mediumship circle, as recounted in Great Moments of Modern Mediumship. Through the trumpet, Roberts’ spirit guide, Red Cloud, addressed the audience directly and then Roberts ended her demonstrations with “an avalanche of a dozen or more apports gushing from the trumpet like water from a tap. … Many of the gifts were much too large to pass through the narrow neck of the trumpet — as was clearly demonstrated at the end of the séance — yet pass through they did, and without any outside help.”
Reports from New York
The spiritualist Clifford Bias likewise claimed the trumpet can become an artificial larynx for the spirit to speak within or through. Writing in his book on trumpet mediumship, Mr. Bias said he used the trumpet regularly with his physical mediumship students in his New York City apartment. In his master classes, the trumpet was a regular participant and the presence of harmony grew as raps and table movements generally preceded direct voice phenomena, according to Bias. Once tapping on the trumpet has become a regular occurrence, it is usually moved about and, finally, levitated, according to the spiritualist.
Of course skeptics will doubt such spectacular claims, or suspect fraud. But spiritualists also have associated more subtle phenomena with spirit trumpets, noting that sitters or mediums likewise have reported extremely faint voices, whispers and whistling noises emanating from them. Sometimes these sounds seem just beyond the range of human hearing — and yet sitters insist they sense something.
A spirit trumpet is among the spiritualist devices on display during demonstrations by The Austin Séance. Included in the post also are photographs taken by the author of spirit trumpets from the collection at the Lily Dale Assembly Museum, located on Cassadega Lake, outside of Buffalo, New York.