Note: I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Lis Warwood, who is an expert on the lives of Annie Fairlamb Mellon and Catharine Elizabeth Wood and kindly helped me to correct any issues in the original article. Her extensive research is due to be published soon and will be linked here when available.
Annie Fairlamb Mellon, otherwise known as Mrs J. B. Mellon, was one of the UK’s greatest materialisation mediums and is so rarely celebrated for her weird and wonderful claims.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1856, she – like most mediums of the age – professed to have a particularly mystical and spirit-centric childhood. Aged nine, she claimed to have had visions of her brother in trouble at sea and at risk of drowning. The UK spiritualist movement was in full swing by the time Annie reached her teens and she soon developed a keen interest in spiritualism, alongside her family who formed their own spiritualist circle.
The first emergences of young Annie’s powers manifested themselves through shakes and sudden movements in her hand and arm, which then further developed through the adoption of different séance methods in her home circle.
Alongside her family, Annie experimented with automatic writing, where she produced messages from spirits with remarkable speed. Reportedly she received these messages via clairvoyance and clairaudience, showing her to be a particularly accomplished medium by a very young age.
Automatic writing is the process whereby an individual enters a trance or similar state and channels messages, words, text etc via supposed supernatural means. Anything from a pencil to a planchette could be used in the process, and the method remains a popular means of spirit contact with believers and paranormal practitioners today.
In these trances, Annie would sit with a bandage tied over her eyes and accurately describe events that were happening in far-flung locations, many of which were later verified.
In 1873, Annie and another medium named C. E. Wood were employed as official mediums to the Newcastle Spiritual Evidence Society (Originally named Newcastle Psychological Society). The society is still in operation today, four days a week, in the Jesmond area of Newcastle and sits under the modern umbrella of the Spiritualists’ National Union.
Born in 1852, Catherine Elizabeth Wood seems to be rarely celebrated outside of Spiritualist research, with snippets of her life surrounded by misinformation and half-truths. She was the daughter of a coach-painter and worked in domestic service in Durham prior to her initiation into the Newcastle Society. As Warwood explains in her 2014 PsyPioneer article (linked below):
“It is also hardly surprising Fairlamb, and, indeed Wood, might attend the activities of the Newcastle Society from its inception when it is realised that Wood’s father, and Fairlamb’s uncle, John Miller,14 along with William Armstrong, were instrumental in the setting up of the Newcastle Society.”
Newcastle, and the North-East in general, has enjoyed a long and chequered history with religious and spiritual beliefs, being a hotbed for non-conformity (denominations other than Anglican) and having nurtured several saints with supernatural powers. Arguably, this established landscape helped to nurture spiritualist beliefs, with family circles popping up throughout the counties like daisies.
Annie and Catherine soon found themselves travelling the country, giving demonstrations of their powers to several groups and investigators alike. In 1875, the mediums sat for Henry Sidgwick, Frederick WH Myers and Edmund Gurney under test conditions (both Sidgwick and Myers would become founders of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882). Between January and March, sittings were carried out at the home of T. P. Barkas in Newcastle, and in April, the women were paid to conduct seances at Myer’s house in Mayfair. Shortly thereafter they would conduct more sittings at Arthur Balfour’s house before returning to Newcastle and resuming work with the Society.
Upon their return, both girls were celebrated for their work and were presented with gifts as thanks for their time volunteered.
In 1877, Annie was further tested back in Newcastle by Alderman T. P. Barkas. Barkas’ experiments were focused around making casts of spirit hands, which was another popular method of investigation in the latter part of the 19thCentury. During a sitting with a medium, warm wax would be used to create a ‘spirit mould’ which, when viewed in daylight, would offer proof of the medium’s legitimacy or fraud. Without the knowledge of the medium, Barkas added pink dye to the parrafin wax in order to ensure that the mould produced by the medium was not one that had been smuggled in by the medium herself. The exact outcome of these experiments is a little muddy, however, in the same year (1877), Mellon resigned from the society due to personal grievances with committee members.
Shortly after her departure from the society, she continued to conduct seances at her home in Heaton, under the control of William Armstrong. Curiously, following Annie’s departure from the society, there are circulated stories of her touring the continent, taking part in standard and ectoplasmic seances in Germany and Austria. However, as fascinating as these stories may be, there is no evidence to support such claims.
Instead of travelling the world, Annie was actually at home in Newcastle, married to James Barr Mellon. Between 1878-1891, Annie’s furthest journeys were to Scotland, as she was preoccupied with having a family of her own. In 1891, Annie, her husband and their three daughters set sail for Australia, leaving Newcastle behind.
Unusually, Annie continued to conduct private seances in her home following her nuptials. Most commonly, mediumship was the realm of the single, unmarried woman and if conducted when married, would be for social gain, rather than monetary.
Throughout her time in Australia, Annie continued work as a medium with little controversy, save for T. S Henry’s alleged exposure. Most notably, William Thomas Stead (a spiritualist and pioneer of investigative journalism who paved the way for tabloid newspapers of the future) was a great defender of her skills.
Forever surrounded by controversy, Mellon attempted to defend her reputation by stating that sittings with Myers and Sidgwick of the Society for Psychical Research had been impressed by her demonstrations. Instead, in 1875, both investigators rebutted her claims and reported her cabinet mediumship to be a series of catastrophes.
Spookland. Where to start?! Warwood explains that the work was originally intended to be in support of Mellon’s work, but was soon turned on its head, leaving the resulting work as a mis-mash of intentions, truths and falsehoods. Mellon’s life was certainly never plain sailing.
In Thomas Shekleton Henry’s ‘Spookland’ work of 1894, the two investigators recount their sittings with Fairlamb and Wood, where an argument between the two mediums is recorded and also the unsatisfactory mediumship of Miss Wood under test conditions. Indeed, it seemed that when restrained by means of a large net, she was unable to manifest spirit or produce any phenomena at all. Similarly, when restraints were loosened, Wood’s manifestation of a ‘full-grown woman – draped in white’ was underwhelming, perceived to be ‘Miss Wood, with her ankle still bound.’Later, Spookland records that Wood was indeed exposed some months later impersonating a spirit.
Muddying the waters once more, the images used in ‘Spookland’, namely that of Annie and Geordie and of Josephine were the copyrighted work of Dr. McCarthy, published in ‘Cosmos’ magazine, weeks before Henry’s exposure. He would go on to publish the images without permission.
Similar experiments with Fairlamb were not as successful as she proclaimed them to be, with the investigators deeming both her and Wood to provide ‘equally unsatisfactory results.’ In a rather damning conclusion, the work states how she firmly refused to be searched after a séance and,
‘I have no hesitation in saying that I believe the so-called phenomena produced by this medium throughout her professional career, to have been all due to the same origin as what we have seen in Sydney. (fraud)’
However, Annie was not out of the woods yet.
Mrs Mellon and Cissie? Or rather, another medium with her materialised spirit. In spirit, as in life, nothing is simple.
For several years, Annie’s work as a materialisation medium involved the spirit manifestation of a small human figure.
In 1875, Annie’s materialisations were described as thus,
‘At the first a vague white figure, which might have been a doll, or perhaps mere drapery, appeared at the doorway [of the spirit cabinet], but did not come out…At the third a small vague figure again appeared, and raps were made in places beyond the reach, we thought, of the hands or feet of the medium; but, of course, she might have brought something with her to make these with.’
As unsatisfactory as these initial reports were, in later sittings, a little more of the spirit was seen.
‘On the Friday and Saturday… the sitters had been brought up one by one to what purported to be materialised forms, but the face was not in a place in which it would have been impossible for the medium’s face to be, and on the Friday it appeared to some members of the circle that the face was not satisfactorily connected with the drapery that purported to conceal the body.’
In the final recorded séance of these sittings, experiences with the materialised spirit appear to somewhat blur the boundaries of Victorian ‘morality’, whereby a ghost (or- unmarried young woman) kisses the face of an older, married man. Such subversions of moral and social rules were to become commonplace in the séance room which developed its own power and moral system. Soon, nudity, sexual contact and ‘improper’ verbal and physical interactions between mediums and sitters were commonplace.
However, Fairlamb’s spirit was a little tame by later standards.
‘On (…) the last of the series of twelve seances, Miss Fairlamb was placed in the hammock, and Mr Sidgwick observed the indicator of the balance. Then a form came out and kissed me through the white veil in which it was wrapped. (…) The form, which looked small, and did not move very easily; it might have been a woman on her knees. After the séance I asked leave to search Miss Fairlamb. This she sharply and decidedly declined. She was reminded that she had agreed to be searched, but she said that was before, not after, the seances.’
Throughout later sittings in the same year, the spirit emerged three more times from the cabinet, but afterwards, it was found that the medium could have emerged to the same point without breaking her binds.
GEORDIE, JOSEPHINE AND CISSIE
As Annie expanded her mediumistic talent to spirit manifestation, three distinct spirits began to make appearances; Geordie, Cissie and Josephine. The latter spirit rarely spoke or did much of note, aside from presenting and receiving flowers, yet all gave permission to be photographed.
As in Newcastle, Annie’s sittings in Australia were small affairs, far removed from the packed halls of trance lecturers of the time.
Commonly, what would follow was a pleasant spirit, however one of Annie’s manifestations had few manners.
‘At first the outline was indistinct, but gradually it took on that of a man and was recognised by previous sitters as that of “Geordie”.’
Considering that Annie was from Newcastle, having a manifested spirit called ‘Geordie’ is somehow both hilarious and wonderfully uninventive! Granted, he was supposedly the spirit of a man named George Thompson, but his nickname and origin are of far greater interest.
‘Soon the singers ceased, and the ghostly visitant, instead of remarking “Thank you!” after the usual polite manner of earthly auditors, observed in somewhat guttural tones: “I say, that’s not very good singing.” Those not too much awe-struck by the apparition laughed, but Geordie chipped in again, “I say, there’s a lady here,” and just then a female form appeared to the left of Geordie, who evidently prided himself in the manner in which he was doing the honors (sic) as M.C., and added, “She comes for Dr, S.” The gentleman indicated rose, and asked, somewhat nervously, “What is the lady’s name?” “How should I know; she is a foreigner!” was Geordie’s prompt reply.
He then remarked: “There are three of us here,” and had scarcely spoken, when the little spirit known as “Cissie” was seen standing on Geordie’s right, all three forms being distinctly visible together.’
Such instances with Annie’s spirits became curiouser and curiouser in their strange detail.
‘The gentleman for whom the stranger spirit had come here made some advances forward, and asked if he might shake hands with her, but was informed by Geordie that she had no hands.’
The smallest spirit, Cissie, was to be Annie’s making and her undoing.
‘Cissie now came out of the cabinet, took up a hand-bell which stood on a small table near, and rang it vigorously. Some of the company asked her to go over to Mrs Besant, but she appeared either somewhat shy or not sufficiently strong to do so at first, although Geordie encouraged her by saying, “Go out, little one.”
Cissie executed a sort of baby hornpipe, then apparently commenced searching for something. She crumpled and tore up several papers lying on the table, and, after retiring into the cabinet, re-appeared.
“Come along dear,” said Mrs Besant, encouragingly, and the little figure toddled across and handed her a flower, received one from her in return, played a few chords on an auto-harp, and then retired, kissing her hands as she disappeared.’
It was later revealed that the spirit of Cissie had been tearing through the paper in a search for ‘chocolate creams’ for which she was particularly keen. Letters to the editor of the Sunday Times following this particular séance were curious in their tone. Indeed, spirits seemed to ‘take turns’ in manifesting and Cissie was a very strange creature. Described by one as a ‘little African’, her English was childish and very broken, but used phrases like ‘molecular interspaces’ with ‘inartistic inability.’
The Sydney Magic Society present some of Thomas Shekleton Henry’s observations on the spirit of ‘Cissie’:
“I also noticed” wrote Henry, “that Cissie varied considerably in height, and that whenever she made her first appearance (to receive chocolates, touch the auto-harp etc. ) she was about four feet high and had hands but no feet. She would then retire again behind the curtains (ostensibly to gain strength), and next appear with her pattering sound of feet, but without hands, and measuring less than three feet high. Her movements were wonderfully quick and childlike, and at first rather non-plussed me; but I found, by experimenting in such a position myself, that it would be quite possible for the medium to move about quickly and noiselessly behind the curtains with her hands upon the floor, the weight of her body resting upon her knees, her hands and head only, projecting in front of the curtains.” Cissie never came into the room away from the curtains, would not be photographed like the others, and in a photograph taken years before (1890) she had a markedly “doll-like” appearance.’
Geordie too aroused suspicion when he appeared with the medium outside of the cabinet. Annie appeared to have her left arm behind the spirit and could well have been supporting the spirit – a thought that was further cemented when both she and Geordie declined to shake hands with the gathered sitters.
On the 12thOctober 1894, Mellon was (reportedly) publicly humiliated and exposed as a fraud during a supposed materialisation séance in Sydney. Thomas Shekleton Henry (author of Spookland and former believer in Mellon’s abilities) noticed that when ‘Cissie’ leaned to pull a table closer to her, her arm was longer than it should have ever reasonably been. As two pencils fell from the table, Henry moved forwards under the pretence of retrieving them and grabbed the manifested spirit of ‘Cissie’ instead. He found her to be the medium herself, half dressed, kneeling on the floor, wearing a mask and muslin. Psychical researcher Hereward Carrington famously said of Annie that she was ‘detected and caught red-handed, in producing the grossest fraud.’
Inside the medium’s cabinet, the sitters found a fake beard, extra clothing and more tell-tale muslin. The whole affair hugely discredited Annie as a medium; she was caught red handed and was unable to protest her innocence. The next day, the sitters reconvened in a meeting and agreed that they had all been duped by the medium.
Nonetheless, she tried and claimed that, when the spirit was grabbed, the medium suddenly shot into the materialised form and was absorbed. It was also said that she received substantial injuries during the exposure and as a result, she refused to ever work in a spirit cabinet again.
After her husband’s death in 1896, Annie returned to England on her own in 1901 and settled back into Newcastle life. Not long afterwards, Annie married the then-President of the Newcastle Society, Henry Gleave. Aside from a visit to Australia to visit her daughters in 1908-9, Annie and Henry remained in Newcastle until they emigrated to Australia in 1919, settling in Sydney.
She continued to give a few private seances until her husband’s death in 1931.
In a letter from H.L. Williams (a retired magistrate) to Harry Price, he details how,
‘Dr. Haworth, a well-known doctor of Port Darwin, has testified before me that at Melbourne, in the presence of leading and professional men, he saw many times a spot of mist on the carpet which rose into a column out of which stepped a completely embodied human being who was recognised….’
Annie died in Sydney on November 18th 1939, at the age of 82 and was privately cremated. For a medium who shone so brightly in her lifetime, to be so poorly represented in the present is such a great shame. I can only hope that in the coming years, Annie’s story will be told as it always should have been: unbiased, thorough and kind.
PsyPioneer. Vol. 10. No. 11. November 2014
‘Catharine Elizabeth Wood & Annie Fairlamb – Correcting The Record’ – Lis Warwood
Mary Evans Archive, or attributed to the links above.
‘Automatic Writing’, or psychography, is generally regarded by scientists and sceptics to be the result of the ideomotor effect, whereby messages are transferred by subconscious movement and not by supernatural means.
Stead wrote a series of controversial newspaper articles in 1885 titled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. Through these, he exposed the dark realities of child prostitution which resulted in a nationwide moral panic. This led to the formation of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment act – dubbed the ‘Stead Act’ – which raised the age of consent from 13 to 16. Conversely, the same bill re-criminalised homosexual acts. Stead died on board the RMS Titanic. He reportedly helped several women and children into lifeboats and gave his own lifejacket to another passenger. His body was never recovered.
P74 Spookland via archive.org