The Bangs Sisters, Elizabeth (Lizzie) and May, were born in the early 1860s. Their father was a tinsmith and mother, Meroe, a medium. By the 1870s, the sisters were conducting seances in the Chicago area. Messages from the dead appeared on slates, musical instruments were played by spirits and furniture moved.

Despite being arrested for “doing business without a license” in 1881, the sisters became prominent Chicago mediums by 1888. That led to a dramatic arrest in April of that year when two plainclothes detectives attended one of their seances. They claimed to have found a satchel filled with muslin shrouds, whiskers, wigs, and a variety of make-up. They became the “notorious” Bangs Sisters. In the 1890s, a Chicago grand jury tried to indict them, but failed on technicalities. That led to the passage of an Illinois bill that prohibited anyone “from impersonating the spirits of the dead, commonly known as spirit-medium seances, on penalty of fine and imprisonment.”

The Bangs Sisters began their careers with slate writing. Blank paper was placed between two slates and the slates were bound together with twine or rubber bands. An ink bottle was located nearby. Messages would appear on the paper while it was bound between the slates.

The first precipitated painting was demonstrated by the sisters in 1894. Spirit Portraits became extremely controversial. Some declared them to be hoaxes, but in most cases the sisters had no prior photograph of the spirit subject to work from. Although oil paints were usually present during the seance, the portraits resemble pastels or modern airbrush paintings. They often have a powdery appearance and sometimes appear to be embedded in the canvas. The portraits also changed over time, for example, eyes first appeared closed and spontaneously opened later.

The Bangs Sisters had residences in Lily Dale, NY and Camp Chesterfield, IN as well as their Chicago home. In a 1908 Chesterfield demonstration, a blank canvas was set on the stage before a large audience. Waves of mist traveled over the canvas. “Soon the outline bust form of a person began to appear in the center of the canvas, features becoming more distinct along with the hair and face and, slowly, the entire form of a young girl was clearly distinguishable for all to see.”

The eyes changed from closed to open, and when it was complete, a man in the audience, Mr. Alford, recognized the portrait as that of his deceased daughter, Audrey. When the painting of Audrey was originally precipitated, there was a locket around her neck and flowers. When the portrait was donated to Camp Chesterfield, both had dematerialized. (Before and after photos)

The Bangs Sisters created hundreds of portraits during their demonstrations. Some are on display at both Lily Dale and Camp Chesterfield today.

For more information: Portraits from Beyond: The Mediumship of the Bang Sisters, N. Riley Heagerty, White Crow Books, 2016


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