The Divine Sarah at a Séance: 1892

sarah bernhardt in coffin

BERNHARDT RAGES AT A SPOOK SÉANCE

Not Being Able to Understand How Spirits Are Materialized She Denounces Members of Her Company as Confederates

DRAMATIC DISPLAY OF TEMPER

Darmont, Her Leading Man, Locked the Medium in the Cabinet, but the Actress Said He Had Been Duped.

VERY QUEER MANIFESTATIONS

Scientific Frenchmen Engineered the “Circle,” Which Broke up in Something Very Much Resembling a Row.

Mme. Sarah Bernhardt began by being an ordinary spectator at a spiritualistic séance on Thursday night, but before the close she was the “star performer,” and every one else, including the medium, the members of her company, the French scientific men present and perhaps the spirits, sank into insignificance when she stalked up and down the room in tragic rage.

Those who had the pleasure of witnessing her outbursts declare that they excelled anything she had done the previous evening in “Leah the Forsaken.” She was not acting at the séance. Even magnificent Sarah can’t beat nature, and her natural fury is a trifle more interesting than her stage rage.

Madame was taken sick at the soiree mendier at the Manhattan Athletic Club on Thursday evening. It was given as a benefit by members of her company, and her indisposition brought it to an abrupt close. The disappointed spectators imagined that Sarah went at once to her hotel and took to her bed. She didn’t. She had made a tryst with the ghosts of the departed and she meant to keep it.

Two carriages drove up to the house of Mrs. Carrie M. Sawyer, a materializing medium at No. 232 West Twenty-first Street at half-past eleven o’clock. Mme. Bernhardt jumped out of one; two imminent French scientists resident in New York followed her, and out of the other carriage emerged M. Albert Darmont, her leading man; a young lady of the company with big blue, frightened eyes and straw colored hair, and a stout gentleman who takes old men’s parts in the show.

In the second story front parlor a little group of people were awaiting the advent of Mme. Bernhardt. There was a tall, thin Frenchman of high position, with his good-looking French-American bride; an attractive young lady of “The Great Metropolis” company, a little fat man with a red face and pink mustache and a young lady from Australia. When Mme. Bernhardt went in she shook hands with all these people and then took a seat in a low and luxurious armchair.

THE STRONG CABINET

In one corner of the parlor stood a cabinet built of strong framework and wire netting. It is what is known as a “test” cabinet, having been built at great expense by Henry J. Newton, president of the First Society of Spiritualists. Mr. Newton considers this cabinet the crowning glory of a lifetime devoted to psychical research, and he offers $1000 to any one who can get out of it without aid from the other world.

Mme. Bernhardt was attired richly, being in the tight fitting sort of dress which she uses so much on the stage. Her thick hair of burnished gold was thrown to the breezes like the flowing locks of Paderewski and she wore no hat or bonnet when she entered. Her pose was that of Cleopatra on her throne.

There were no formalities after the introductions and the Professor, at whose invitation the séance was given, explained to the company that spiritualism was undoubtedly a wonderful force. He thought it was well worth investigating from a scientific standpoint and he was devoting a great deal of his time and some of his money to the study of it.

“I have made a thorough examination of this cabinet,” he said, “and that there may be no mistake I have brought a padlock of my own.” The medium was then seated in a chair in the cabinet, and the Professor and M. Darmont proceeded to lock her in. There was a quiet smile upon the face of Mrs. Sawyer as the two enthusiasts applied the tests to her. They padlocked the door, and then M. Darmont got a two cent postage stamp, wrote his name upon it and pasted it over the keyhole of the padlock.

“If anyone gets out of that cabinet,” M. Darmont remarked, “I’ll get some sauce tartare, pour it over my hat and eat it.

Then they turned out the gas and the audience began singing religious songs. The only light was from a candle covered with tissue paper. Then it transpired that the eminent professor, at whose request the séance was held, was provided with a lantern which lighted itself when the holder pressed a button. The man who takes the senile parts in Mme. Bernhardt’s company, and who was sitting on a lounge behind the tragedienne, had in his overcoat pocket a revolver, a box of matches, a pair of handcuffs and a false beard. M. Darmont was armed with matches, a lasso with which to catch ghosts and a small wax candle. It looked as if the Bernhardt contingent were investigators in earnest.

SPIRITS OF THE DEPARTED

After a lapse of twenty minutes spirits of the departed began to emerge from the cabinet in large numbers. The “spirit control” of Mrs. Sawyer is a child named “Maudie,” who speaks in a babyish voice, and this spirit took charge of the proceedings and explained to the audience what was coming.

Mme. Bernhardt was very much impressed with the conversation of the baby spirit “Maudie.” When the spirit first announced its presence she said in English.

“Is that you, Maudie? I would like to go up to de cabine and kees you. May I kees you, Maudie?”

The spirit replied: “You promised my medium to give her your photograph. If you will do so you can get a picture of Maudie. Presently you will be able to go into the cabinet when the forces become strong enough to materialize.

“Tank you, Maudie; you vera good,” said Mme. Bernhardt.

Then the audience sang: “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching,” a favorite of a spirit named Elan, the uncle of “Maudie,” who is one of the medium’s “controls.” The spirits seemed to like this and a banjo which heretofore had taken no part in the proceedings began to sail through the air playing the tune.

“I do not know how zat is done,” said Bernhardt. “Zat is vare funny.”

After a dozen spirits had come from the cabinet, careened through the atmosphere and then vanished into space, a particularly depressing scene took place. A cold air seemed to rush into the room and a presence appeared twenty feet from the cabinet. Everyone felt “spookish.” “That is the woman who was drowned in the steamer Ville de Havre,” whispered the Professor with bated breath.

“Help, help! Save me, save me!” screamed the form, and then it vanished through the floor.

It reappeared in a moment. It asked to speak to Mme. Bernhardt, and the actress advanced to the cabinet and took its hands. The form looked like a corpse and its hands were wet, madame said. It gave a gasp and disappeared. Sarah dropped back into her seat.

“I take her hand,” she said. “I scratch. I try to make the spirit cry. I tear de flesh with my nails. She no scream at all.”

DEPARTED FRENCHMEN.

The French Professor and all the others recognized forms as departed relatives. They went up to the cabinet and talked with them. Mme. Bernhardt asked questions about the phenomena. While she was talking a pair of handcuffs that had been sitting on the piano suddenly jumped in the air and threw themselves at the feet of M. Darmont. If they had fallen on his toes he would have uttered an agonizing yell, of they weighed about six pounds. There was a feeling of consternation all around.

“The medium no do that,” exclaimed the Professor. “I lock her in the de cabinet myself. It is a thing quite remarkable.”

Oui,” joined in M. Darmont, ”et moi j’ai la clef.” Or in English, “Yes, and I’ve got the key, see?”

“Let us sing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’” suggested the Professor. “It requires the music for to make the spirits come some more.”

Oui, chantons,” said madame, “pour faire venir les apparitions.’”

Every one joined in the chorus. By this time the room was close and suffocating, all the doors and windows being hermetically sealed. Mme. Bernhardt was reeking with perfumes and they filled the room and possessed the senses of the audience. It was a spice-like odor, very captivating.

More spirits emerged from the retreat of the captive medium and every one made exclamations of surprise. The Professor was very explicit in his definitions of the limit of the power of spiritualism. The members of Mme. Bernhardt’s company asked questions frequently and accepted the explanations gratefully and with much politeness.

“I would like to know if it is necessaire for de young lady at de piano to sit before me in front so I no can see,” said the actress with the straw-colored hair humbly when the Professor inquired if there was anything any one wanted to know.

The mistake was corrected and the actress was given a better view of the apparitions.

The last phenomenon was the passage of the medium through the locked door of the cabinet. A young lady and the fat man with the pink mustache were called up to join hands so that the spirits might draw from them sufficient “forces” to perform the wonderful act. There was a rattling as if of chains and the medium suddenly appeared. The gas was lighted and the séance was over.

SLIGHTED THE ACTRESS.

It had been apparent for some little time before the finale that Mme. Bernhardt didn’t like the way the spirits were treating her. They distinctly slighted the great actress, making revelations to everyone in the room but her. Instead of being the centre of attraction, she seemed to hold a second rate position spiritually, and it made her mad.

Immediately after the close she made a demonstration. “You didn’t do this thing properly,” she screamed, addressing M. Darmont and the professor. “You didn’t have the medium locked up. It was an optical illusion. You thought she was in the cabinet, but she was not. If she was locked up these manifestations could not have occurred.”

She stalked up and down in tragic rage, growing more furious every moment. “No, it cannot be!” she screamed. “You must be in league with the medium. It is impossible.” She perambulated from north to south, followed by M. Darmont, who was greatly agitated.

“Madame,” he exclaimed, “I swear to you that I locked the medium in the cabinet. Believe me, madame, I am not mistaken. She was there, and I closed the door.”

“No,” screamed the actress, “it cannot be! It is impossible! It must be the work of the devil. You are all fools or confederates.”

“But, madame,” put in M. Darmont, “I beg of you. I am not a fool or a confederate. I am a member of your company. The professor is engaged in a great scientific work and he would not deceive you.”

Mme. Bernhardt was livid with rage. She made a rush at the cabinet and tried to find out if it was ghost proof. She ran all round it and banged at it with her firsts.

“AH, SARAH! C’EST TOI!”

“There must be a confederate,” she howled. “It is a trick. You say that the medium cannot speak French. Bah! One of the spirits said to me, ‘Ah, Sarah, c’est toi!” How can that be? You must all be confederates. I cannot believe it.”

One of the French scientists drew himself up.Mon Dieu!” he exclaimed. “I wish it was a man who said I was a confederate. He would not live; no, not one day. Madame, you insult me. I have never been before here, and I am a gentleman.” “Madame,” screamed the professor, keeping pace with her in her frantic march up and down the room, “you are unkind. I have acted in good faith. What do you want? You saw the medium locked in the cabinet. You think it is a trick. You are angry because you cannot find out how it is done. You will be sorry for having accursed your friends.”

Ou a fait la nuit!” shouted madame, throwing up her left arm and letting it fall upon her hip with a thud. “I have not seen anything. You assist the medium. You think you locked her up, but you didn’t. Ah, you think you are smart, but you are not.”

“Do not insult us, I beg of you, madame,” exclaimed M. Darmont. “I assure you that what I say is correct. I do not try to explain it, but I know that the medium was in the cabinet when I locked the door. I am not a madman, and I can rely on what I see. The postage stamp is intact and the lock is just as the professor left it.”

“It seemed as if she was in the cabinet,” screamed the actress, “but there must be some deception.”

Madame. Bernhardt left the house in a towering rage. The members of her company followed her, greatly chagrined at her conduct and humiliated at the suggestion she had made that they were in a conspiracy to deceive her.

The most miserable man in New York was the French professor, who has been her intimate friend for years and who was heartbroken at the suggestion that he had been hoodwinked or was a confederate.

New York Herald 23 April 1892: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is difficult to say how much Sarah Bernhardt truly believed in the occult. Like many artists of her time, she over-dramatised her enthusiasm for death and its trappings. The photograph above of her “sleeping” in her coffin caused a scandal. She was known to have attended séances at Alphonse Mucha’s studio and elsewhere, but it is difficult to escape the suspicion that she sought drama and sensation more than spiritual enlightenment.

Some of the background: Mrs Carrie Sawyer was a well-known materialization medium, although one investigator said of her “Mrs. Sawyer is a gentlewoman and a strong medium, but she is surrounded by a coarse magnetism, the baleful influence of which she seems powerless to resist. [Source: Materialized Apparitions: If Not Beings from Another life, What Are They?, Edward Augustus Brackett, Boston: Colby and Rich, Publishers, 1886]

Mr Newton, the provider of the test cabinet, was well-known in Spiritualist circles. When the Fox sisters confessed that the raps had been caused by the girls cracking their toe joints, he refused to believe and announced that the manifestations he had seen could not have been caused by fraud.

“Leah the Forsaken,” was a popular tear-jerker play about a Jewish maiden in love with a Christian youth in a small Austrian village. The heroine rages and pronounces a curse on the man who betrays her. It was the perfect “meaty” role for a scenery-chewer like Madame.

“Maudie” is typical of the child “spirit guides,” so popular during this time. The child’s prattle could disguise the medium’s voice and we have previously seen how mediums might purchase child-sized figures to be used in the séance room or go down on their knees in the dark to impersonate a toddler.

SS Ville du Havre was a steamship running between France and New York. 22 November 1873, Ville du Havre hit a Scottish clipper and sank in only 12 minutes. 226 people died.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

 

Advertisements

One thought on “The Divine Sarah at a Séance: 1892

  1. Pingback: Sarah Bernhardt and the Dying Costumer: 1880 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s