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Ectoplasm ?

Autumn is the season most folks set aside to indulge in, and celebrate all things paranormal.

And in that spirit of celebration, consideration should be given to revisiting the images of psychic phenomena recorded between 1918 and 1945 by Winnipeg doctor and politician Thomas Glendenning (T.G.) Hamilton and his wife Lillian.

These images were part of a scientific investigation carried out by the Hamiltons in an attempt to determine if there was life after death.

Conducted under conditions of a controlled ‘laboratory’ in their Henderson Highway home, the Hamiltons’ investigations resulted in more than 700 photographic images and more than 1,300 notes and documents, detailing various aspects of Spiritualism, such as telekinesis, teleplasm (or ectoplasm), and other psychic phenomena.

The results of this work became the Hamilton Family Fonds and is part of the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Manitoba (UMASC). The entire collection has been digitized and is available to the public for viewing online.

With a collection as rich as the Hamilton Family Fonds, the question becomes what kind of impact did these images have on the world over the last 100 years?

This question is explored in a new book, The Art of Ectoplasm: Encounters with Winnipeg’s Ghost Photographs, edited by University of Winnipeg art history professor Serena Keshavjee and in the art exhibition, The Undead Archive: 100 Years of Photographing Ghosts, also curated by Keshavjee and co-presented by the University of Winnipeg’s Gallery 1C03, UMASC, and the U of M’s School of Art Gallery.

Through a collection of essays by Keshavjee, KC Adams, Brian Hubner, Esyllt Jones, Murray Leeder, Walter Meyer zu Erpen, Katie Oates and Shelley Sweeney, the book examines and contextualizes the influence and impact Hamilton’s ectoplasmic images have had and continue to have on the world.

The book is presented in three parts:

  • Part 1 explores the historical context in which the images were created;

  • Part 2 examines the legacy of the Hamilton collection and the ways researchers from around the world have utilized the collection for their own work; and

  • Part 3 looks at how artists, interested in the paranormal, have been influenced by the images and how it has manifested in their artistic expression, exploration and commentary about society.

To understand why the Hamiltons began their investigation and experiments into psychic phenomena is to look at what was happening in the world during that time period.

During the Hamiltons’ paranormal investigations, notable international and local events had occurred: the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic and the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

In 1919, one of the couple’s twin sons, Arthur, died from the Spanish flu. While scholars believed his death was the main reason for the Hamiltons’ dive into psychical research, co-founder of the Survival Research Institute of Canada (SRIC) Walter Meyer zu Erpen notes in his essay about the family that the couple never publicly stated their son’s death was the impetus for their scientific research.

But it was a way for the Hamiltons to process Arthur’s death. The psychical experiments and séances became part of the family’s daily life, which U of M history professor Esyllt Jones notes in her essay contextualizing the Hamiltons’ work during the flu pandemic.

In July 1923, the Hamiltons met Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while he was conducting a 40-city North American tour to promote Spiritualism, an unorthodox but popular religion at the time.

Spiritualism is based on the belief that spirits of the dead communicate with the living through a medium. Conan Doyle was interested in uncovering proof there was life after death.

This interest was what drew him to T.G. Hamilton’s scientific approach to psychical research. The séances he participated in at the Hamilton home left such a positive impression on him that he wrote about it in his book, Our Second American Adventure, published in 1924.

It drew attention to Hamilton’s research, which resulted in numerous public lectures between 1926 and 1934. Keshavjee believes he held roughly a 100 lectures during that period.

T.G. Hamilton passed away in 1935, leaving Lillian to continue the investigations until she ended the work in 1945.

An essay by Katie Oates explores Lillian’s contributions to her husband’s research at a time when few women were credited as investigators in the field of psychical research.

“In the Prairies, in the ’20s and ’30s, there were really limited things that women could do,” said Keshavjee.

“Lillian was a collaborator. She was doing the research. She was chaperoning the mediums. She was organizing everything. She was supporting her husband, but she didn’t author a lot of things.”

Lillian was also responsible for organizing the data from the experiments. Her handwritten annotations can be found next to the images in their photo albums. Her notes reflected her ability to blend the emotional with the scientific — she humanized the science.

Her contributions to the experiments were far greater than what recorded history has shown. Lillian and her husband approached their work as equals even though history has forgotten or omitted how invaluable she was. 

Their daughter, Margaret Hamilton Bach, also played an important role in the preservation of her parents’ research.

Not only was she responsible for depositing her family’s records at the UMASC, she also established the T.G. Hamilton Research Grant Program. 

“The way she organized her parents’ research, the way she contextualized it was very smart,” said Keshavjee.

“She was doing a history of science interpretation. It’s just that no one sees that or credits her with that, but she’s really an interesting figure.” 

Once the Hamilton Family Fonds became part of UMASC, the question became how the archives could drive interest in the unique collection. 

The unusual nature of the images certainly made it an appealing topic for the media to cover but it needed to move beyond something akin to a novelty. 

A decision was made to start digitizing the fonds in 2001. The archives obtained funding and began scanning a selection of images. What happened as a result of that decision is recounted in an essay by retired UMASC head archivist Shelley Sweeney. 

Museums and galleries from around the world discovered the photographs through internet searches and began contacting the archives to include some of them in exhibitions surrounding the paranormal.

To further promote the collection, a YouTube video highlighting some of Hamilton’s photographs was posted in February 2008. The video has since been viewed more than 367,000 times. 

With this kind of reach, academics and artists from around the world travelled to Winnipeg to spend time at the archives to study the images and documents for their projects.

Sweeney notes in her essay how experiences with the collection deeply influenced the work of those who visited. 

The first and second exposures of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s face in teleplasm with medium Mary Marshall, taken on May 1, 1929. (T.G. Hamilton. UMASC, H.A.V. Green Fonds, MSS 439, Box 1, Folder 2, Item 1.8.)

Before the digitization of the Hamilton Family Fonds, Meyer zu Erpen had spent countless hours doing his own research. 

His interest in the possibility of the spiritual communication through a medium dates back to 1972 when his maternal grandfather died. 

Eighteen years later, Meyer zu Erpen began his study of the Hamilton research experiments to determine whether or not the results were fraudulent.

Over decades, his research not only included examining the entire collection at UMASC, it also involved conducting interviews with the Hamilton children, grandchildren and the descendants of those close to the experiments. 

In his essay, Meyer zu Erpen revisits the research he did on the Hamiltons, lifting a curtain to give the public a peek into the family responsible for some of the world’s most intriguing and celebrated images of paranormal phenomena.

After three decades of studying the Hamilton research, Meyer zu Erpen believes the integrity of Hamilton’s experiments were not fraudulently created. The images were indeed authentic.

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions, unable to determine how the images could have been fraudulently produced 100 years ago. 

There is no doubt interest in ghosts and exploring possible reasons why things go bump in the night have sparked the imagination of those interested in the occult and the possibility of life after death. 

The quality of Hamilton’s images leaves nothing, yet everything, to the imagination. 

“His photographs are what made him really famous,” said Keshavjee. “They’re very clear. He had very good equipment. He was quite a good amateur photographer. His cropping was really good.

“They actually, to my mind, look a lot like surrealist photographs of the same period. They have an artistic flair about them. They’re very high quality. They’re very esthetically interesting. And they are the new version of ghost photographs of the 20th century.” 

Once considered the Chicago of the North, Winnipeg’s economic status changed after the First World War. “All of a sudden, there’s this other status of being weird or supernatural or strange.

Guy Maddin’s film, My Winnipeg, hits that right on the head, like it’s this weird place,” said Keshavjee. 

n his essay, U of M archivist Brian Hubner writes how the fonds made Winnipeg ‘weird’ to the rest of the world. He writes: 

“The collection demonstrates how archives can shape a cultural resource of international renown, drawing in researchers and creators from many perspectives and attracting other paranormal collections.” 

Maddin, a Winnipeg filmmaker, drew inspiration from the collection when he wrote and directed his 2007 film, My Winnipeg.

And it wasn’t the only film to draw inspiration from the fonds. Some of the photographs made an appearance in the 2009 film The Haunting in Connecticut, which was shot in Winnipeg and Teulon. 

The collection has also been featured in television programs such as Creepy Canada, Manitoba Moments and Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files. 

A model displays a temporary tattoo designed by artist Estelle Chaigne before the opening of The Undead Archive: 100 Years of Photographing Ghosts exhibit. The tattoo replicates one of the iconic ectoplasmic photographs from the Hamilton Family Fonds. (Estelle Chaigne photo)

The Hamilton archive has also been the subject of numerous books and publications. Hubner lists a number of titles in his essay and makes note of one book he considers to be the most intriguing — The Hermetic Code: Unlocking One of Manitoba’s Greatest Secrets by former Winnipeg Free Press writers Carolin Vesley and Buzz Currie.

The Hamiltons’ paranormal investigations, along with Conan Doyle’s 1923 visit to the city, are discussed in one of the book’s addendums. 

The addendum notes that Hamilton was an MLA at the time the current Manitoba Legislative Building was being constructed and also outlines a failed attempt that had been made to connect Hamilton with the Masonic and occult symbols found in the legislature. 

Another contributor to The Art of Ectoplasm is Anishinaabe, Inninew and British artist KC Adams, who writes about her relationship with spirit and photography, and includes a poem expressing that relationship.

Her perspective offers a bit of a counter-narrative to the other chapters. 

“It’s so much more poetic,” said Keshavjee, who also noted she loves how unique Adams’ contribution is. 

Keshavjeee believes the Hamilton collection is experiencing a second renaissance that started after 2001, when artists discovered the images and were inspired by them. 

The artists and creators participating in The Undead Archive: 100 Years of Photographing Ghosts exhibit are part of that renaissance. 

Some of the work in the exhibit includes Shannon Taggart’s images of medium Kai Muegge emitting an ectoplasmic hand from his mouth; Estelle Chaigne’s images of selected Hamilton photographs transferred onto the backs of women; and a high-definition, ASMR-filled four-minute video called Ectoplasmic Studies by Montreal-based artists Wendt + Dufaux. 


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