Ghostbusting, 100 Years Ago — Guest Post by K.B. Owen

Today we welcome historical mystery writer K.B. Owen to tell us about Ghostbusting in the early 20th century. K.B. taught college English at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature.  A long-time mystery lover, she drew upon her teaching experiences to create her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells. She currently lives in Virginia with her husband and sons and is busily planning the lady professor’s next adventure.

K profile pic 2014

Historical Mystery Author K.B. Owen

You’ll find K.B.’s latest release, Unseemly Pursuits, at the links below. Be sure to enter her Big Giveaway for a chance to win the Swag Kit.

Ghostbusting, 100 Years Ago

By K.B. Owen

Among the joys of writing historical mysteries is running across cool nuggets of research. While writing Unseemly Pursuits, I needed to learn more about late-19th century spirit mediums and their tricks, which inevitably led me to some ghostbusters and absurd situations that I like to call “gotcha” moments. The public exposure was sometimes funny, sometimes pathetic. I thought I’d share some with you today.

Ghostbusters

Almost as plentiful as fraudulent mediums were the debunkers who sought to catch them at it.  Below are some of the most well-known of their time, made up of earnest scientific researchers as well as flamboyant entertainers.

John Nevil Maskelyne, 1839-1917

John Nevil Maskelyne image by wikimedia commons

John Nevil Maskelyne 1839-1917
image via wikimedia commons

After watching the Davenport brothers exhibit their “spirit cabinet,” purported to manifest spirits while the brothers were tied up inside, Maskelyne suspected fraud.  He built his own cabinet and in 1865 launched a career of stage magic that lasted decades, whereby he demonstrated how to artificially create many of the spiritualists’ effects. The picture below gives you an idea of what a spirit cabinet looked like.

Davenport Brothers 1870 image via Wikimedia Commons

Davenport Brothers 1870
image via Wikimedia Commons

Harry Houdini 1874-1926

Harry Houdini 1874-1926

Harry Houdini 1874-1926
Image via Wikimedia Commons

image via Wikimedia Commons

image via Wikimedia Commons

Harry Houdini was the ultimate showman.  We associate him primarily with escape artistry, but many of his shows were based on re-creating spiritualists’ effects and demonstrating the fraud behind them. He was particularly impressed with researcher Harry Price’s work (below) in exposing the tricks behind spirit photography. Price’s findings enabled Houdini to duplicate the effect. Below is a photo of Houdini with the “ghost” of Abraham Lincoln (1920-30), created by Houdini to prove how easy it was to perpetrate the fraud.

Harry Houdini and the "Ghost" of Abraham Lincoln image via Wikimedia Commons

Harry Houdini and the “Ghost” of Abraham Lincoln
image via Wikimedia Commons

Harry Price Testing 1930

Harry Price 1881-1948 image via Wikimedia Commons

Harry Price 1881-1948
1930 image via Wikimedia Commons

Price had an impressive credentials list: he was a member of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, London, belonged to the Society of American Magicians, and was Librarian for the Magicians’ Club of London. He authored many well-respected journal articles documenting the fraudulent techniques of spiritualists, including spirit-writing and spirit-photography. A master-conjurer himself, he could spot sleight-of-hand and other maneuvers. However, unlike other “ghostbusters,” he deeply believed in psychic phenomena and did endorse some spirit mediums. Think of him as a believer in the psychic world – as long as he could first subject it to strict scientific controls.

Slade vs. Lankester

Owen Lankester 1908 image via Wikimedia Commons

Ray Lankester
1908 image via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Henry Slade (1835-1905) was an American medium who specialized in spirit writing on slate blackboards.  “Spirit slates” consisted of two chalkboards bound together that, when opened, were said to reveal messages written by spirits.  The trick was performed by putting a blank slate on an audience member’s head, or asking him/her to hold it under the table.  Then, after a suitable interval, a chalk-written message would be revealed.  It wouldn’t be that difficult to switch out a pre-written slate, or for the medium to hold a piece of chalk in a ring and become proficient at writing under the table.

During Slade’s tour in Britain, Professor (of Zoology, of all things) Ray Lankester (1847-1929) set out to expose him.  During Slade’s seances, Lankester and another witness watched carefully. At the second séance, Lankester snatched the supposedly blank “spirit slate” to find that it had been pre-written.  Lankester published an account of the incident in a letter to the Times, and sued him. Slade was convicted and sentenced to three months of hard labor (in England, they typically used an old statute of vagrancy, originially meant for gypsies). However, upon appeal the sentence was dismissed, whereupon Slade fled England.

Rival Mediums: Cook vs. Guppy 

Florence Cook image via Wikimedia Commons

Florence Cook
image via Wikimedia Commons 

Sometimes a jealous rival or the skeptical onlooker can prove to be one’s undoing, which was the case with medium Florence Cook.

Florence Cook (1856-1904) began her career as a medium at 15, when she apparently levitated off the floor while with a group of friends.  Soon after, she was causing the ghost of Katie King to materialize.  Katie King was rather notorious in spiritualist circles, as she was supposed to be a murderess who, to atone for her sins in the afterlife, returned to convince people that the spirit world was real.  (I think Jacob Marley had better justification for returning to save Ebenezer Scrooge, but that’s just my opinion).  Being able to produce Katie King on demand became a profitable venture for Florence Cook. The spirit cabinet was Cook’s go-to device for perpetrating the trick.

However, success is not without its drawbacks.  Rival medium Mrs. Samuel Guppy (1838-1917), an older and, by some accounts, a less attractive woman (couldn’t find a picture to bear this out, sorry), decided to give her rival a come-uppance.  Of course, Mrs. Guppy couldn’t attend a seance of Cook’s – she was too well-known – so she enlisted the aid of William Volckman (who later became her husband).  He bribed his way in with jewelery. When the spirit appeared, he grabbed her and proclaimed the fraud. However, other attendees at the séance fought back and assisted Cook’s escape (one of them was Cook’s fiance at the time).  Volkman got a bloody nose and no proof out of the deal, for by the time they looked back in the spirit cabinet, there was Florence Cook tied up again, although her clothes were disarranged.

Cook was caught for real later, when she was pretending to be the spirit of a young girl. One of the sitters noticed the spirit was wearing a corset – not something your young Victorian girl would wear – and decided to grab the lady the next time he got the chance. He did, and the spirit cabinet was found empty, except for boots and outer garments. When the lights were turned on, there was Florence Cook, in her underwear.

So what do you think of these daring ghostbusters and their undergarment-clad targets? What fraud-perpetrators today get caught with their pants down?

Piper and Holmes, thanks so much for hosting me today. I had a blast!

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Unseemly Pursuits: A Concordia Wells Mystery

 KB Owen Unseemly Pursuits Cover

A deadly secret that won’t stay buried…

It is the fall of 1896, and Miss Concordia Wells is hip-deep in the usual tumult of a lady professor’s life: classes, clubs, student pranks, and the unending drama generated by the girls she lives with on campus.  Complicating this normality is the new Lady Principal, whom the students have nicknamed “the Ogre.”  The woman seems bent on making Concordia’s life miserable.

And then there’s the exotic spirit medium, Madame Durand, who has befriended Concordia’s mother and has started a “Spirit Club” on campus.  Madame’s prognostications of doom are at first only mildly irritating – until events take a sobering turn.  An ancient Egyptian amulet donated to the college mysteriously disappears, the donor is found murdered, and his daughter – Concordia’s best friend – confesses to killing him.

Desperate for answers, Concordia unravels a 20-year-old secret, closely guarded by men now dead.  But such secrets can be dangerous for the daughters left behind, including Concordia herself.  Can she make sense of the mystery that has bound together their fates, before it’s too late?

Available as:

KindlePaperback, Nook, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks

Unseemly Pursuits is the second book of the series.  The first book, Dangerous and Unseemly, was published in early 2013.

KB Owen SwagKit

An Unseemly Giveaway:

During K.B.’s Unseemly Pursuits book tour, which goes through the first week of March, there’s a giveaway at each blog stop (including here!).  The winner, randomly drawn from the commenters at each stop, will get a free ebook copy of Unseemly Pursuits.  At the end of the tour, she’ll hold another random drawing from among the ebook winners for the final prize: a special Concordia Wells series swag package! It includes customized mug, keychain, JellyBelly mini-tin, and signed paperback copies of the first two mysteries: Dangerous and Unseemly and Unseemly Pursuits. You can read, sip your coffee, and snack on candy in unseemly style. Check the sidebar on the home page of kbowenmysteries.com for the full tour schedule and other info.

To comment and enter for the Big Giveaway, come to 

Bayard & Holmes

Ghostbusters, 100 Years Ago by K.B. Owen

Susan Spann–Historical Mystery Author or Ninja Conspirator?

By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

It’s happened again. It starts with a twitch, and then, before you know it, Holmes and I are kidnapping another author and whisking them away to our secret blog prison.

Today, our victim guest is Debut Historical Author Susan Spann. Susan earned her bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies at Tufts University in Boston. She somehow got bamboozled into pursuing a law career—friends don’t let friends go to law school—and received her J.D. from UCLA. After years of teaching and a stint as Associate Academic Dean at Trinity Law School in Santa Ana, she now practices intellectual property law and writes historical mysteries set in 1500s Japan. Her debut, CLAWS OF THE CAT, is due out tomorrow (Minotaur Books).

Claws of the Cat Cover

We snatched Susan gave Susan a ride from her office in Sacramento. It wasn’t too hard to get her to come with us. We lured her into our black helicopter by telling her that her favorite author, James Rollins, had once been held against his will  spent a lovely afternoon in it with us.

Welcome to our blog today, Susan. Please make yourself comfortable. We had these tatami mats flown in especially for your visit . . . No, not from Japan. From Kansas. They’re woven from genuine American GMO wheat stalks. We believe in buying American. Hope you don’t have any allergies.

You’re welcome to remove your blindfold now. If you notice, it’s a Hello Kitty sleep mask to match the Hello Kitty handcuffs. Very Japanese.

Would you like some tea? I studied that scene in Shogun several times to get it right.

Let’s begin our interrogation conversation. Keep in mind that Intelligence Operative Holmes is just behind this one-way glass *waves*, and the NSA will have a permanent and complete record of your answers.

Susan Spann Historical Author and Ninja Conspirator

Susan Spann
Historical Author and Ninja Conspirator

Now, Ms. Spann—just what is your connection to the Orient?

I’d say “I’m a ninja” but if I was really a ninja this blindfold and handcuffs would be on someone else.

So, instead, I’ll say I’ve always loved Japanese history and culture, especially medieval Japan. In college, my studies focused on early Imperial China and medieval Japan, including the Muromachi period (1337-1573) when samurai ruled and ninjas really existed.

It was a dangerous time, but also beautiful and intriguing – and the Shinobi series gives me a fabulous chance to explore the era in more detail and translate it into fiction.

So your special interest is ninjas, is it? Exactly why would you be studying these assassins and their ways?

Technically, they attacked me first. I’m just returning the favor.

Hmm. The old “he started it first” line.  Doesn’t work for my kids, either. Please go on.

The moment I had the idea to write a mystery novel featuring a ninja detective, I realized a shinobi (which is the Japanese pronunciation — “ninja” is based on a Chinese word) would make the perfect sleuth. Shinobi were masters of disguise who trained in undercover operations as well as assassination – much like modern spies.

Speaking of spies … Hi Holmes! Can he see me waving?

Ahem. Holmes prefers the term “spook.” Spying is a bit seamy—its what the NSA and the Russians do.

Anyway, a shinobi seemed like the perfect sleuth, provided I could find a believable reason for Hiro to use his skills to solve murders instead of committing them. Fortunately, the mystery in CLAWS OF THE CAT offers just the right “incentive.”

I love your style in CLAWS OF THE CAT in that you weave in the setting and history of 1500s Japan in just the right amount as you unfold the story. You’ve heard me describe it as the ultimate cozy whodunit with a healthy dose of “Cool, I didn’t know that” on the side. Is there some dark force that draws you to creating intricate patterns of deception in the form of mystery novels?

I learned it from my kitten, Oobie. Who better to teach deception than a cat?

And thank you. One of my goals for the novel was to immerse the narrative in an unusual cultural setting, showing the reader the beauty and danger of samurai Japan within the scope of a fast-paced mystery romp. Each book in the series incorporates a different facet of Japanese culture, which means new and unusual settings in every one.

Also, I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed the book. I loved your novel, FIRELANDS, and it means a lot to me when authors whose works I enjoy like my book too.

I have someone here who is familiar with your novel, and who has some tough questions for you to answer. *crosses to intercom* Bring in Inspector Parker.

Inspector Parker

Inspector Parker

*enters and sniffs at Susan’s ankle* You don’t smell too suspicious, but I don’t like that large, black bag you’re carrying. I deduce that you are hiding ninja weapons in it. Your hero, Hiro, uses a number of them. Please empty your purse and explain these items.

The weapons on the cover of CLAWS are neko-te, which translates “claws of the cat” – a specialized weapon favored by female ninjas (called kunoichi). The claws were worn on the ends of the fingers, transforming a kunoichi’s hands into lethal weapons. In many cases, the claws were poisoned too.

This thing that looks like a stick is a ninja smoke bomb, made from a length of bamboo filled with a special powdered mixture that produces smoke when ignited. Ninjas used a variety of bombs and other explosive devices, mostly to create distractions but sometimes for destructive purposes too. Hiro doesn’t use any bombs in CLAWS OF THE CAT, but he will in some of the later books. 

That last thing is a pen. For signing books …

Surely you are aware that all the world has heard of war dogs, but no one has ever heard of war cats. It’s a proven fact that writing about war dogs increases an author’s book sales. Why would you instead choose to glorify cats in your writing?

I humbly beg forgiveness for that oversight, Inspector Parker! It’s true that dogs make any book better, but in the interests of interspecies fairness, I decided to give a kitten equal time.

When I started writing CLAWS OF THE CAT, I knew I needed to soften Hiro’s ninja edge and make him someone readers could relate to—unrepentant assassins aren’t a classic hero archetype. The fastest way to demonstrate Hiro’s gentler side was letting him rescue, and keep, an orphaned kitten.

But I didn’t want to make Hiro too soft, and I like books with plenty of tension, so I also made Father Mateo, Hiro’s Jesuit sidekick, allergic to cats.

While you’ve written an excellent book, even the name CLAWS OF THE CAT might unjustly put off your dog readership. Do you have any plans to remedy that unfortunate choice by adding dogs to your novels in the future?

Absolutely! A dog appears in the series’ second installment, Blade of the Samurai, which is scheduled for publication in July 2014. I’m afraid he’s not as nice a dog as you are, Inspector Parker, but he’s a brave Akita who does his best to protect his people.

If the series continues beyond three books, you’ll also get to see a ninja dog—but I can’t reveal any more or I’ll blow his cover!

I will look forward to reading about such noble members of my species . . . Excuse me, but may I sniff your bag again, please? . . . Is that salami? Did you bring that for me? *sticks head in Susan’s handbag*

Now, now, Inspector Parker, it’s not appropriate to beg from our subjects. If you’ll just go to Holmes, he’ll share some salami with you. Thank you for your input in this case. *Inspector Parker departs*

Ms. Spann, what is your current Work In Progress?

I’ve delivered Blade of the Samurai to my editor at Minotaur, and I’m currently working on Flask of the Drunken Master, the third installment in the Shinobi Mystery series. I love spending time with Hiro and Father Mateo.

And where do you go from here? Do you have any upcoming book tours or other promotions?

CLAWS releases tomorrow, and I’m really excited about sharing it with readers! I currently have signings scheduled in California and Colorado:

Thursday, July 18, 2013: 6:30pm Launch Event: Face in a Book Bookstore, 4359 Town Center Blvd., #113, El Dorado Hills, CA 95762

Thursday, July 25, 2013: 7:00 PM Reading & Signing: Barnes & Noble (3rd Street Promenade), 1201 Third Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401

Tuesday, July 30, 2013: 11:00 AM Reading & Signing: Towne Center Books, 555 Main Street Pleasanton, CA 94566

Wednesday, August 28, 2013: 7:00PM Reading & Signing: Barnes & Noble, 6111 Sunrise Boulevard, Citrus Heights, CA 95610

Monday, September 16, 2013: 7:30 PM Reading & Signing: Tattered Cover Bookstore
2526 East Colfax Avenue Denver, CO 80206

You can also get up to date information on these and other signings at my author events page: Find Susan–Live Events and Conferences

Thank you for your time today, Susan. I’m going to have to ask you to put this parachute on over your kimono before we leave. Don’t worry—we’ll remove your handcuffs and blindfold before we push you out of the helicopter deliver you safely to your home. You may keep the Hello Kitty paraphernalia as a souvenir of our chat, if you like, but we’ll be sending someone by to collect the parachute. Tight budget, and all.

I can certainly confirm that CLAWS OF THE CAT is a great read. Find it now in hardback and paperback at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Also find this awesome book at IndieBound, Powell’s, and at the iTunes Apple Store.