Jim Warwood takes a look at some controversial spirit photographs. Though apparently having many psychic experiences as a child, it was not until Ada Emma Deane was fifty-eight years old that her career as a photographic medium began. After becoming involved with Spiritualism, she was encouraged by a North London medium to develop her psychic powers and in June 1920 obtained her first psychic photograph.
Initially her work was regarded as controversial because she apparently needed to hold the unexposed photographic plates to “magnetise” them. Some researchers felt that this was an opening for fraud, a view reflected in the American Journal of The Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), Vol 15 1921 p.364, suggesting that “control of the experiments is … so unsatisfactory that at present it is impossible to arrive at any conclusions of value”. A later ASPR Journal, however, took a different view, being more supportive of her work, according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his review in Volume 2 of the History of Spiritualism. Doyle relates how Dr Allerton Cushman, Director of the National Laboratories at Washington USA, upon a surprise visit made to the British College of Psychical Science, in July 1921, received a photograph with the image of his deceased daughter.
The same year Ada commenced the first of her series of Armistice Day photographs that brought her great notoriety. These were taken at the Cenotaph in London in November 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1924.
The 1922 pictures received widespread coverage in the press.
The 1923 photo is notable for the fact that H. Dennis Bradley, having received a communication from his brother-in-law in spirit to do so, found what he believed to be his face in the picture. The story is related in Bradley’s 1924 book Towards the Stars.
The 1923 picture drew controversy with the Daily Sketch claiming that the faces were those of famous sports stars indicating the picture was a fraud. This was strongly denied by Ada Deane’s supporters, especially Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In her 1925 booklet, Faces of the Living Dead, Estelle Stead published letters written to the editor of the Daily Sketch. These stated that the greatest authority on “anthropametic” matters, Sir Arthur Keith, had decided that the faces in the photograph were in no way identical to those published by the newspaper.
Ada Deane was subjected to considerable investigation. Whilst investigators such as Hereward Carrington were prepared to accept that something was happening, others continued to think it was pure fraud. Yet most of those who decided upon the negative view did so just because she held the plates for a while before use. However, when several investigators substituted their own plates without Mrs Deane’s knowledge they obtained results including all of the phenomena usually associated with her work.
As Martyn Jolly notes in Faces of the Living Dead (2006), Ada Deane became “one of Britain’s busiest photographic mediums, holding over 2,000 sittings, many of which were for ordinary people. “ One good example of this, in our personal library, is a photo taken in 1923 showing a Mrs Fillmore, of Eltham, with a spirit extra recognised by the sitter as her control, ‘Sister Alicia.’