The Transit of Mrs. Guppy – A Teleporting Medium
SOURCE Spirit photograph of Mrs. Tebb (left), Georgiana Houghton (middle), Agnes Guppy-Volckman (right) circa the early 1870s.
Elisabeth Guppy-Volckman, typically referred to as “Mrs. Guppy” in the Victorian press, is not a household name nowadays. But if you lived in London during the early 1870s you would have probably known her as one of the most powerful mediums in Britain. While most writers in the twentieth century have denounced her as a total fraud, she was never outright exposed as a cheater. Her séances included a broad range of phenomena. Some of the manifestations were fairly standard, such as knocks and raps, while others were extremely impressive, such as levitations and spirit apports.
Mrs. Guppy was first discovered by Fanny Sims, sister to the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in the early 1860s. Before her marriage to the wealthy spiritualist Samuel Guppy in 1867, she went by the name Elisabeth Nicholl. Guppy’s grandfather was well-respected artist William Grinsell Nicholl, and he trained his granddaughter in photography. It was through this activity that she met Sims, who was also an amateur photographer.
SOURCE Portrait of Fanny Sims, sister of A.R. Wallace.
The two ladies quickly became friends, and Sims acted as a mentor to the young Guppy. Throughout her youth, Guppy supposedly experienced all sorts of strange and inexplicable occurrences. Her grandfather believed these to be nothing more than the imaginations of a precocious child. However, Sims soon recognised that Guppy possessed latent psychic powers.
In the mid 1860s when Alfred Russel Wallace had returned from his trips to both the Amazon and Singapore and Malaysia, he was interested in learning more about the spiritualist movement. His sister suggested that he meet with Guppy, who she believed was an extraordinarily talented young medium. He agreed and they organised a séance together in late November of 1866.
SOURCE A photograph of Wallace taken in Singapore in 1862.
Wallace observed some miraculous displays during his initial sitting with Guppy. However, it was near the end of the proceedings that she produced her most impressive feat: the small table which they had been sitting around “rose within air at least 6 inches.” There were other sitters at the table, but according to Wallace’s private notes, everyone’s hands were in full view. No trickery was detected and Wallace firmly believed that the levitation was real. He soon arranged regular Friday evening sittings with Guppy for nearly an entire year, so that he could continue to observe her mediumship and trace its development.
Word spread quickly within the close-knit London community of spiritualists that Guppy’s séances were sensational. It was further reinforced by the publication of Wallace’s pamphlet The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural (1866). This was his first major public declaration that the phenomena witnessed in séance rooms could be scientifically validated. His findings were heavily influenced by his sittings with Guppy, and as a result, her reputation skyrocketed as one of the more powerful psychics in Britain.
As Guppy’s mediumship seemed to grow stronger, so too did the manifestations at her séances. Levitations continued to occur at her sittings, but it was her production of spirit apports that really wowed her sitters. These were a particularly impressive kind of spirit manifestation, where regular everyday objects suddenly appeared inside a locked séance room without any apparent human intervention involved. The most common thing to materialise at Guppy’s séances were freshly cut flowers. These would often rain down on the sitters from above. More impressively, they were often still cool and covered with dew from the outdoors.
This set of details added substantial weight to the claim that the spirits were responsible for delivering the flowers. These occurrences typically happened later into the proceedings when everyone had already been sitting in the warm dark room for over an hour. Had Guppy been concealing them on her person they would not have been cool or dewy. At least, that was the argument forwarded by her followers. Guppy also collaborated with the famed spirit photographer Frederick Hudson during the early 1870s. Hudson is widely regarded as the first person to produce spirit extras on photographic plates in Britain. Guppy typically acted as the “sensitive” at his photoshoots to encouraged the spirits to appear. She famously participated in the session Hudson held with Wallace in 1872, which produced an image of the naturalist with his deceased mother Marry Ann Wallace.
SOURCE Spirit photograph taken by Frederick Hudson of A.R. Wallace and the alleged spirit extra of his late mother Mary Ann Wallace.
It was, however, a séance in June of 1871 that would forever be remembered for Guppy’s most famous feat. At a sitting hosted by the famed psychic duo Frank Herne and Charles Williams, the notorious spirits of John and Katie King made an appearance. These were the alleged spiritual identities of the seventeenth-century Welsh privateer, Sir Henry Owen Morgan, and his daughter, Annie Owen Morgan. As the story goes, the lights were lowered to create a more accommodating environment for the spirits, and the journalist William Henry Harrison, who regularly attended Guppy’s performances, jokingly requested that Katie King carry Guppy by spirit apport to Herne and Williams’s séance.
SOURCE: "Witchcraft in 1871" - A depiction of a seance led by Frank Herne and Charles Williams. By Arthur Boyd Houghton, The Graphic, 2 December 1871, p. 540.
Everyone laughed at the request, but a moment later a loud thump was heard, and when the lights were raised Guppy was lying unconscious across the table. When she eventual awoke after a few tense minutes, she explained that she had been sitting in her home three miles away when she started to lose consciousness. When she came to, she was at Herne and Williams’s apartment. She assumed that spirits were responsible for this incredible sequence of events, and explained that her friend Miss Neyland was with her at the time of her sudden disappearance and could no doubt corroborate her testimony.
When the story hit the press, a media sensation ensued. Guppy’s alleged transit by spirit apport was widely recognised by British spiritualists as one of the greatest psychic acts ever witnessed. The fact that there were corroborating accounts by witnesses at both the séance, where she suddenly appeared, and at her home, where she had vanished, added substantial weight to the whole affair.
Guppy may never have been caught cheating during her performances, but nearly everyone else in her close-knit circle of fellow mediums were exposed as frauds at some point during their careers. This included Herne and Williams. Nevertheless, without a clear instance of exposure to delegitimise her mediumship, Guppy remains one of the most famous psychics of the modern era. Even today she is championed by believers as firm evidence to confirm the veracity of the spirit hypothesis, the idea that the phenomena produced by mediums at séances are caused by disembodied spirits.
Whether she was fraud or a genuine medium does not matter much to me. The story of Mrs. Guppy's flight across London will always be one of my favourite cases of spiritualism from the Victorian period.
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Edge of the Unknown, London: John Murray, 1930.
Florence Marryat, There is No Death, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1891.
Joseph McCabe, Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, London: T.F. Unwin Ltd., 1920
Frank Podmore, Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism. 2 vols. London: Methuen & Co., 1902, vol 2.
Alfred Russel Wallace, The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural: Indicating the Desirableness of and Experimental Enquiry by Men of Science into the Alleged Powers of Clairvoyants and Mediums, London: F. Farrah, 1866.
Molly Wittington-Egan, Mrs Guppy Takes Flight: A Scandal of Victorian Spiritualism. Castle Douglas: Neil Wilson Publishing, 2014.