Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for May, 2012

Seeing is not believing

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What do you see in the picture above? The quality of the image is not very good, but it’s possible to see a man covered in a bed sheet with his hand over another fellow lying by the bedside. He has something covering part of his face. Nothing extraordinary.

Except that for Urbano Pereira, a Brazilian physicist who published the images in a book, “Spiritual Surgeries” (1946), it captures something somewhat different:

“In one of the images [captured during the séance] the medium appears covered in a bed sheet and with the mask of a strange face. Father Zabeu [the directing spirit] says its doctor Francisco Costa, a deceased physician, whose identity has not been established.”

This may seem confusing because it actually is quite extraordinary. Pereira published the book defending some amazing claims, including the materialization of spirits from beyond curing diseases of the living. And yet, right there you can find one photograph that clearly shows how the “medium” capable of such extraordinary things simply covered himself with a bed sheet and a mask.

Despite this clear evidence of hoax, the author believes and writes that the mask was somehow supernatural, and it’s very probable that when he refers to bed sheets he is referring to supernatural, ectoplasmic bed sheets. All because the supposed spirit, “Father Zabeu” explained so. Of course, the spirit spoke through the medium, the man who covered himself with a bed sheet and a mask, whose name was Francisco Bello.

As fellow Vitor Moura pointed out, if Urbano Pereira was a hoaxer or an accomplice he certainly wouldn’t have published these photographs. He was there and he actually realized it was a person covered in a bed sheet. But his beliefs included the rationalization that mediums materialized supernatural ectoplasm that covered their material bodies, which coincidentally looked like bed sheets, gauze and masks.

It’s only because he believed these things that he published them, but unless you share that, shall we say, very firm belief that such supernatural feats look exactly like crude hoaxes, and yet are not hoaxes, you may only see evidence of crude hoaxes and a poor gullible physicist. Occam’s razor is natural for most of us.

There are other “extraordinary” images from Pereira’s book in Vitor Moura’s post. In Brazil, the main spiritualistic leader, Chico Xavier – who is promoted in English by Guy Lyon Plaiyfair – was also involved with similar, crude alleged materialization photographs.

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Curiously, in the 19th century William Crookes, noted for his involvement with Florence Cook and the spirit of “Katie King”, asked for his photographs in the séances to be destroyed after his death. Not all of them were, and the ones that remained clearly show the spirit was the medium. Peter Brookesmith has an excellent article on the fascinating story of Crookes and Cook.

Covering yourself in bed sheets may seem like a comical thing nowadays, but even to this day some still believe these can be the real thing. The saddest aspect is that such strong will to believe in the afterlife is often derived from personal tragedies and the ultimate will to believe beloved ones never really died. Hoaxers usually convince themselves they may be serving a greater good.

In the process, however, the living may look like fools and the memories of the deceased, which is the only thing we can actually prove that survives us, is left stained and gradually replaced by a silly simulacrum. Extremely silly, at times.

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