It’s safe to say that turn-of-the-century Boston was a bit eccentric.
Indeed, Massachusetts in general can lay claim to being home to some of the country’s more forward-thinking thinkers. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (of Boston and Concord respectfully) were instrumental in bringing one of the few truly American philosophies to life in the form of Transcendentalism. Mary Baker Eddy, the mother of Christian Science, eventually made her home in Newton, MA. In fact, the entire concept of curing one’s ailments using only the power of the mind that Eddy and her ilk came to embrace was known as “the Boston craze.”
Needless to say, seances were all the rage. And, if you were on the hunt for a place to talk to your dead relatives, you could do a lot worse than Boston. It very well could have been that reputation that brought a Dutchman named Billfledler to a Union Park Street séance on an otherwise unassuming Sunday night in April 1904. It’s unfortunate, however, that his conversation with his deceased wife Gretel was so rudely interrupted by a full-on police raid.
A newspaper report of the raid tells of the police barging in and finding “ a strange scene” that consisted of “May French, a large blonde,” standing on a small stool in front the distraught Billfledler. To make matters even more awkward, she was clad in only “a long flimsy robe with a phosphorescent cross on her breast” and was performing for an audience of 16 men.
The majority of the men apparently knew that the whole thing was a fake, but kept showing up “because they liked the women who ran the performance.” They also took various pseudonyms such as “Evening Star,” “Blue Bells” and “Water Lily” because what would a fake séance be without vaguely poetic fake names to give to the police?
The gag was set into motion through a combination of physical effects and a healthy dose of willing suspension of disbelief on behalf of those most likely to go to this sort of thing with an open mind. There was the aforementioned pedestal, the flimsy and ghostly robe, and a button-operated cabinet that would cast light on whichever of the deceased happened to show up that night—a list that largely depended on who could bring in the largest crowds. It was reported that the spirit of recently deceased Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks also made an appearance and was a bonafide hit with the “religious minded women who occasionally attended.”
This particular evening ended with the arrest of both women and the charge of “being idle and disorderly persons.” No word was given on what the hapless Billfledler thought of the whole evening.
[Source: Boston Post 25 April, 1904]