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The Dead Talk Back

Who will you believe when a medium comes to town?

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I was 10 years old when a fortune-teller named Cookie said I'd lose my eyes. Belonging to that odd and ill-defined taxonomy of the "family friend," Cookie was a seer of a lower order, yet still claimed a connection to the spiritual realm. An occasional guest in my home at the time, she took the opportunity one afternoon to invite me into an empty bedroom to share her supernatural gifts. Pushing up the long, loose-fitting sleeves of her blouse, she sat across from me on a leopard-print quilt and began to channel the words of an unseen speaker. Whatever grand prophecies for my future divined that day have fallen from memory over the years, but one prediction remains unshakable in my mind: There will come a moment when not only will my sight leave me, but the eyes that meet mine in the mirror each day will be freed from my head. While Cookie swore her gift gave her a vision beyond the years, for me she foretold of only darkness.

So now that I find myself in Charleston, with eyes still in their rightful sockets, the question becomes was it all just a hoax? Are there really those among us who can peer through the veil of our reality and receive messages from the other side? Every day I see the sun rise and set seems to be proof to the contrary, but still there are those who believe in communing with spirits and those who promise them they're right to do so.

Mediums at Large

Standing outside of the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on a breezy Sunday evening, I waited for a performance by Theresa Caputo — better known to TV viewers as the Long Island Medium. The sole passenger of a northbound shuttle, I arrived early and waited in silence as a crowd began to form outside of the hall. Made up of mothers, daughters, groups of best friends, and a few families, the audience filtered into the auditorium, first stopping off at the merchandise booth peddling bedazzled T-shirts and handbags that read "Embrace Life" in glittering letters. The message felt out of place for a performance solely focused on speaking with the dead, but along with the life-size cardboard cutout featuring Caputo's smiling face, it seemed to go along with the general attitude of the room.

As the show was set to begin, a calm, deep voice sounded over the loudspeakers, cutting through the din of the growing crowd: "Please find your seats. The experience will begin in five minutes."

STEVE STEGELIN
  • Steve Stegelin

Seated in the very back row of the auditorium, it was relatively easy to separate the audience members looking for a night of entertainment from those hoping to reconnect with a deceased loved one. Four women huddled together wore large platinum blond wigs in the style of Caputo's trademark pouf, while several others roved the aisles with framed photos of their children, mothers, and fathers who are no longer alive.

While the popularity of this mix of show business and the otherworldly may seem odd, the Lowcountry has a long tradition of believing that ghosts are only a call away.

Southern Spiritualism

Perhaps there is no better symbol for Lowcountry clairvoyance than a pig with supernatural abilities. That was the case in 1870 when a swine by the name of Wicked Ben was on exhibit in a shop across from the Charleston Hotel. According to news articles from that time, Wicked Ben displayed a special brand of "hog spiritualism," reportedly answering any riddle posed by those curious enough to question a pig, performing card tricks, and other random feats of porcine wonderment. It is unsaid whether Wicked Ben was able to foresee his own inevitable demise and if his final resting place was someone's dinner table. But Ben's was not the first reported case of the otherworldly visited upon the area — nor would he be the last.

In the summer of 1868, a medium provided accounts of a spectre haunting homes along the Santee River. Residents fled from their houses after tables, chairs, and spittoons became animated and moved freely around the room. The medium was said to be unable to read or write in her normal state, but when inhabited by the spirit in question, she could handle a pen in a "masterly manner, and writes answers that are dictated by the great invisible." As news of the spirit spread, locals who had fallen victim to burglaries appealed to the ghost for justice, and their property was soon returned.

"Spirit rapping has never before been developed in this section of the state," wrote one Charleston report, "and the fair medium is as much sought after as the Delphic oracle."

The growing number of accounts of ghost sightings and mediumship in the news during this time is likely no coincidence. Although spiritualism began in the 1840s, the movement had its heyday in the years following the American Civil War, according to Scott W. Poole, professor of history at the College of Charleston and author of books such as Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Seemingly tied to the nation's efforts to mourn the immense loss of life during the war, spiritualism would also see a rise in popularity in Britian during World War I, as mediums were elevated to the ranks of celebrities.

Advertisements appealing to those hoping to become acquainted with the supernatural arts can be found in South Carolina publications as early as the 1870s. Claiming that any lady or gentleman could earn up to $1,000 a month by mastering psychomancy, fascination, or soul charming, these tutorials promised to train anyone to become a medium and use their newfound powers to control men and animals at will, mesmerize, and entrance for the low, low price of $1.25. Whether or not this was considered a bargain at the time, it is safe to say that there was plenty of work available for an eager medium.

Just before Halloween in 1872, Charleston found itself in a game of ghostly one-upmanship with the people of Surrency, Ga. My grandfather, born and raised in the neighboring community of Baxley, once shared a story of the vagabonds who would go door to door, offering a day's labor for a day's pay. One such traveller, rudely dismissed from the front door of the family shack, is said to have laid a curse upon my kin. All hexes aside, it was an area ripe with the supernatural.

Back in 1872, a man arrived in Charleston, fresh from seeking out the ghost of Surrency. During his travels, the Lowcountry resident said he watched an empty shoe walk across his room before standing on its toe for a few seconds and vanishing. Not to be outdone by spirits from off, Charleston soon had its very own ghost to brag about. Labeled as a "genuine Carolina spirit," the ghost of Tradd Street was said to visit nightly pranks upon the living. Residents of a Tradd Street home just three doors west of Meeting Street claimed to have spotted live coals leap from the fireplace and skip across the room, been awoken by unearthly noises that echoed throughout the rooms, and had the sheets violently ripped from their beds each morning. Once those tortured inhabitants fled the home, it was rented to a woman by the name of Emma Moultrie. The spirit remained at rest until December of 1872, when Moultrie's home again became the scene of supernatural hijinks.

Moultrie was minding her shop on King Street, when two of her friends left in charge of her house began to notice chunks of coal fly in through an open door. After finding no signs of who could be attacking the home, they bolted the doors and sought hiding in a small room upstairs. Once barricaded in the room, a child's doll resting on a mantle sprang to life and launched itself across the room. Chased from the home by a growing number of formerly inanimate objects, the women sent for Moultrie. Described as a quiet, sensible woman, not easily scared, Moultrie set about inspecting her home. As items continued to fly about and night fell, Moultrie asked for help from a local detective, who found no apparent signs of foul play. Reporters continued to question the numerous witnesses about what they had seen on Tradd Street, but their stories remained unchanged, even under severe cross-examination.

With little else to report, an article on the day's events concludes by saying, "These are the facts. The knowing ones must make such an explanation of them as will suit their own ideas. It is certain that the cause of the Surrency doings has not been discovered, and, in the way of ghosts, South Carolina is able to see Georgia and go one better."

Skeptics and Spectres

Of course, not everyone was pleased with Charleston news outlets' coverage of supernatural goings on. As the popularity of spiritualism continued to spread and ghostly editorials seeped into the pages of local newspapers, there was an emerging backlash from those skeptical of what they were reading. Showing that the journalistic mantra to never read the comments has existed long before the internet was invented, an editor for the Charleston Daily News took the opportunity in 1866 to respond to a few readers who had voiced their complaints regarding the publication's previous ghost stories.

"It is seldom that we condescend to pay any attention to anonymous communications addressed to us, in our editorial capacity, especially where the tenor of the nameless letters borders upon the offensive and impudent," the News wrote in a section titled "Ghost Correspondence." "We cannot refrain, however, from serving up for the edification of our many readers ... a few specimens of the ridiculous comments that have been elicited from several thick-skulled and ignorantly superstitious individuals, by the publication in yesterday's issue of what any man ... could readily perceive was but a serio-comic humorous burlesque of the ridiculous ghost stories so freely circulated in reference to the owl-like and calf-like sounds that have been heard of late in the vicinity of the burnt district adjacent to the Circular Church."

What followed was a series of letters from readers, most decrying the newspaper's willingness to report on matters as farcical as ghost sightings, with the exception of one lone reader, who called on the reporters not to make light of an issue as serious as a potential haunting.

"If you would visit the spot in earnest on any night you choose between the hours of 12 and two, hear what I have heard, see what I have seen, and feel what I have felt," they wrote, "your opinion would probably undergo some change."

It was the words of this reader that ran through my head recently as I watched an auditorium of believers in North Charleston look on as the Long Island Medium explained how she could talk to the dead.

A Modern Medium

Dressed in a form-fitting pink dress and glittering high heels that caught the stage lights, Theresa Caputo started her show by announcing to the audience that she didn't care if anyone believed in her gift. A naturally charismatic entertainer, she intertwined jokes with the brief story of her life. A practicing Catholic, she claims to have first noticed her powers at the age of four. In terms of her faith, Caputo joked that even though the Church doesn't believe in what she does, they still take her money every week. Caputo also took this time to explain that there is no hell that she's aware of, but admitted she'd be the first to go because she "talks to the dead."

The humor, at once cheerful and macabre, did a lot to ease a nervous audience, many of whom arrived expecting to be reunited with a loved one no longer living. Caputo went on to explain that her role as a medium is to offer validation for the living, passing on messages from the dead so that those they knew in life will then know they can let go of any lingering guilt and regret they may have.

"Spirits give us what we need, not what we want," Caputo repeated, as she elaborated on the emotional connection she feels with the dead.

Her first connection came in the way of a mother in the front section, who had lost her infant son. In trying to understand the circumstances of this woman's loss, Caputo asked her the significance of the number three, the third month of the year, or a year with three in it. Finding no connection, Caputo asked if a series of three — such as 333, 444, 555 — held any importance.

Upon hearing this, the woman's face registered a look of surprise and recognition. She admitted that she often wakes up suddenly in the night, usually around 3:33 a.m. This, as we were told, is her deceased son's way of communicating. Soon, Caputo said she was feeling a vibration between spirits. Another presence from beyond had squeezed Caputo's throat. A few seats away, Caputo located the spirit's daughter and offered up the suggestion that he wasn't a good communicator during his life. This was the explanation behind the pressure on Caputo's throat. By the end of their exchange, the woman was brought to tears by hearing that her deceased father and sister wish for her to finally live her "Cinderella story."

Moving throughout the front of the audience, Caputo eventually landed on a married couple who said they traveled from Florida to see her. Caputo had pointed out the husband earlier in the show as a skeptic. This was her opportunity to change his mind.

Clutching a small portrait of their daughter who had passed away after a long battle with a rare illness, the wife said she hadn't been able to touch any of her daughter's clothes since she died. Caputo told her it was time to move on. Their daughter is at peace. She holds no ill will against them. Make quilts out of the clothes, Caputo said, as the couple began to cry. Caputo asked if they sang to their daughter or played music as they waited by her hospital bed. They didn't, but she did love music, the mother said. This explained the music Caputo said she was hearing.

Toward the end of their exchange, Caputo asked if the woman carried a locket with a photo of her daughter inside or a necklace gifted to her before she died. The woman reached into her pocket to retrieve a delicate necklace, which she said her husband had told her to hide during the show.

At one point, Caputo claimed to spend more time in the spirit realm than the physical world. But like others who have shared stories of ghosts and claimed to speak for the dead, her words can have a powerful effect on those who reside in the land of the living. And, as was the case more than 100 years ago, there remain those among us who carry with them a belief of ghosts, a distrust of those who claim to curry their favor, and the fear that weighs equally on either side — the fear that you might be wrong. All I can say is that I still have my eyes, and I'm still looking for a reason to believe.

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