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Touching the Dead: Spooky Winnipeg

Once the transportation hub of Canada, Winnipeg was also a nerve centre of psychic investigations thanks to the work of Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton in the early 20th century. And still today, with more funeral homes than Starbucks, it remains a world capital of creepy. (Which is intended as a compliment.)

Touching the Dead: Spooky Winnipeg

After serving  many years as a veteran radio producer and video-journalist at the...

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| Séance conducted by Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton in Winnipeg

It’s no great trick to touch the dead. What you need is the right apparatus, which is the logic behind the séance: the medium can read signals in what is, to the rest of us, garble. She tunes them in like a radio, to use a concept dreamed up by British author and artist Tom McCarthy. It’s simple physics: the total energy in an isolated system remains constant over time, so, the dead leave a revenant (heat, magnetic energy, something electrical) that can, in theory, be measured. Energy doesn’t disappear but is converted, and if the theory holds, we expect it can be un-converted through some “software” (Madame Whoozitz and her crystal ball) that operates by spooky algorithm. That’s fun, or unsettling, depending on your faith and emotional wiring.

My guess is that it’s not easy, or we’d all be haunted all the time: while shaving or opening a can of soup. Some places, no doubt, are more receptive than others. On the prairie you can hear radio stations from Texas bounced off the ionosphere. Maybe that’s why prairie towns are more haunted by those other signals than, say, Toronto or Montreal, where there’s too much static. I think Winnipeg is a particularly strong receiver.

On Halloween in Winnipeg kids dress in orange and poppy-red and Scream masks, and then cover it all up with winter coats. They work the more fertile neighborhoods of River Heights and Wolseley like gleaners in a wheat field, harvesting candy: sure, it’s fun, but there seem to be heavier presentiments in play as well, as if they feel something. Grown-ups hand out Tootsie Rolls in acts of ritual appeasement. Owls fly low in cemeteries and at Oak Hammock Marsh, a nature preserve north of the city that hosts pumpkin carvings, as close as you can get to pagan sacrifice. Halloween is a kind of secular Passover: follow the protocols, hope for the best, spirits move on.

I’m not from Winnipeg but spent five winters there, long enough to feel a particular brand of death-awareness: there are more funeral homes in Winnipeg than Starbucks. In 1998 there was trouble at the Elmwood Cemetery. Bank erosion exposed a stretch of property and threatened to send caskets sliding into the Red River: 108 graves had to be moved. This was discussed in town, I’m told, not as an infrastructure problem but as folklore: that was the year they wouldn’t stay buried. W.G. Sebald wrote in The Emigrants, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” a reference to 20th-century European history and the Freudian return of the repressed. It is a suitable motto for Winnipeg.

“I came away with the conclusion that Winnipeg stands very high among the places we have visited for its psychic possibilities.”

The city used to be a transportation hub, Chicago of the north, and then trading lines and commercial preferences changed, leaving behind a rusty ribbon of neglected railway lines: a ghost of global capitalism. Appropriately, Winnipeg was also a hub for psychic activity in the early 1900s, thanks to the work of Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, a surgeon, school trustee, Liberal member of the Manitoba Legislature, and séance impresario. In 1919, after one of his twin sons died, Hamilton began to experiment with Ouija boards and table-tipping, the well-known method of decoding messages from the dead through the kitchen furniture: one called out letters of the alphabet, and when the table tipped, one moved on to the next letter until sentences were revealed. His Scottish nanny, Mrs. Poole, turned out to be a skilled table-tipper.

Investigations (and gatherings of the curious) were held in a second floor study at his home. There was no shame in it: psychic gatherings were as common in the industrial west (and as social) as scotch nosings. The famous traveled the world to see firsthand how the dead had learned to communicate with the living, or vice versa. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books, came to Winnipeg in 1923 and after a press conference at the Fort Garry Hotel, dropped in on Glendenning Hamilton, joined one of his salons. Conan Doyle met Mrs. Poole, whom he described as a “small, pleasant-faced woman from the Western Highlands.” He sat at a table, lit by phosphorous, with nine others, including his wife. The table, he said later, commenced to clattering “like a restless dog in a kennel, springing, tossing, beating up against supports, and finally bounding out with a velocity which caused me to quickly get out of the way.” In his 1924 book Our Second American Adventure, Doyle would write:

“I came away with the conclusion that Winnipeg stands very high among the places we have visited for its psychic possibilities.”

As a skeptic and scientist, Hamilton was quick to see the opportunity for research in the activities of the second floor. He fit the room with a dozen cameras, shutters open. The room was lit with a single red bulb so as not to expose the film. During the séance, if the table should tip or if Mrs. Poole should launch into a trance (by this time she was known to the psychic community as “Elizabeth M”), Hamilton would trigger a flash with an electronic device. He produced scores of glass plates, shockingly candid moments of the action. The pictures and reams of documentation on “rappings, clairvoyance, trance states and trance charts, telekinesis, wax molds [of fingertips], bell-ringing, transcripts and visions as well as teleplasmic manifestations” are still stored at the University of Manitoba, available for study. The latter are the most curious: the “teleplasmic manifestation,” or the egestion of ectoplasm, was the Grand Slam Home Run of any proper séance. The medium, in a trance, would seem to spit out some otherworldly goop in which could be seen the faces of the dead. Glendenning Hamilton had the pictures to prove it. Filmmaker Guy Maddin, no surprise, is a student of the Hamilton archive: the glass-plate ectoplasm pictures turn up in his film My Winnipeg, and an installation he created for the Winnipeg Art Gallery featured pyjama-clad teenage girls holding a séance in a mock-up of his boyhood bedroom. The Hamilton pictures are all over the internet, which itself is brimming with encrypted signals: how many long-dead faces do you encounter every day just browsing the web?

In the 1920s, Winnipeg was known as the “ectoplasm capital of the world.” Consider the context: after the Great War, 16 million killed worldwide. The afterlife, if there was one, was suddenly stuffed with the souls of those taken suddenly and prematurely. At the same time the west had become, if not more secular, then more confounded, and enthralled, by the possibilities of science, which could fathom wireless transmission. In 1926, John Logie Baird, a Scottish engineer, introduced the first television. Images and sound could be conjured from the air, not as superstitious twaddle but as electricity, real and measurable. You could believe in the stuff based on empirical proof, whereas religion, the only other conduit to theother world, still called for faith: belief without proof. Consider the allure of the former, when locked in grief.

Of course, it’s the great question: if there is an afterlife, Christian or Zoroastrian or whatever, why wouldn’t a God make it manifest, available for inspection, to cut out the mystery of faith and move instant-whammo straight to belief? Dostoevsky played this game with rigorous and disturbing rhetorical clarity in The Brothers Karamazov, with the story of the Grand Inquisitor. Christ returns to earth at the time of the Inquisition and is challenged by the Inquisitor on just this point: when Satan tempted you with an opportunity to show yourself, to turn stone into bread and prove your divinity, why didn’t you take it? Instead you leave man with the heavy burden of free choice: no proof, just faith, or not. The Inquisitor is a rational man, who has no choice now but to enforce belief through terror and violence: burning heretics. The dignity of freedom is too much for man; better the slavery of knowing for sure.

Not that Dostoevsky was picking on spiritualists (he was in fact picking on the dogma of the Roman church), but the point applies: is knowledge of life after death liberating, or does it lock you into some horrible box? Here’s your eternity: millennia of tipping over other people’s tables at parties. Easier to think of death just as another measurable quantity, like the movement of planets or energy in a closed system, and, presumably, plenty of Hamilton’s séance guests saw it this way. Grief helps tip the balance, too. People just wanted to know that their sons were safe.

It matters that Hamilton found spiritualism after his son died. As Tom McCarthy points out, Alexander Graham Bell had made a pact with his brother: if one of them died, the other would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the dead. The brother died. Bell invented the telephone. McCarthy is mad for ghostly communications and codes begging to be cracked: in his art, he plays at the idea of repetitive radio messages from the underworld, like the cryptic threads of poetry in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée: radio that can only be heard by tuning between the stations. The hero of his Booker-nominated novel C is a heroin-addicted wireless operator in the Great War, who winds up at a séance only to reveal it as a sham: the hoaxers used radio-controlled gizmos to make the tables tip. Underneath it all is a whopping dollop of French Theory: the closer you look the less you see, or the closer you look the quicker you uncover the lie. McCarthy says we live in a frantic mess of signals, but we decide how to decode them. Hoax or miracle? It’s up to you. If you want to hear the dead in the white noise, to know they are safe and playing chess with Napoleon or whatever, that’s what you’ll hear: grief is a sharp tuning instrument.

What was the lie in Glendenning Hamilton’s work? Study the pictures. Or just click through them, same outcome. Chilling, in some cases beautiful (the 1934 picture of a woman named Mary M., back arched on a couch, looks like a Henry James character who’s fallen into an F.W. Murnau film), they’re full of holes: the ectoplasm pouring from poor Mrs. Poole’s mouth and nose is either gauze bandaging or crumpled tissue paper in which cut-out photos of faces have been glued. Those skilled in spotting cheeseball Photoshop effects need not even break a sweat. In one case you can see the smiling face of Arthur Conan Doyle who, the story goes, returned to Winnipeg in 1931, the year after he died, coming out of Mrs. Poole’s nose.

Who’s the hoaxer? In Dostoevsky fashion, we’re not meant to know. Enough that Glendenning Hamilton, one-time head of the Canadian Medical Association, made this his life’s work after his son died.