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Sarah Quick
May 28, 2021

When the Scientific American offered a $2500 prize to anyone who could produce a visible psychic manifestation, Chicago medium Elizabeth Allen Tomson answered the call. In the Fall of 1923 she arrived in New York with her husband and spokesman, Dr. Clarence Tomson and their daughter. Tomson performed several seances in homes across the city, using a technique that involved her entering a large cabinet where she fell into a trance and manifested spirits of the dead. 

The Chat, November 29, 1924
The Chat, November 29, 1924

One attendee not impressed with Tomson’s spiritual connection was Brooklynite and fellow medium Lillian C. Briton, head of the Church of Spiritual Illumination located at 54 Herkimer Street. Briton’s work as a medium included spirit communication, lectures, and medical diagnosis with the help of her brother Rex, a physician in the spirit world. Briton was determined to expose the Chicago medium as a fraud, and invited her to perform a seance at the Church of Spiritual Illumination. She later told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “The spiritualists themselves are going to show up the imposters in their own ranks. We are not going to wait for the Scientific American to do it, we are going to do it ourselves.” 

Lillian Briton, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 10, 1923
Lillian Briton, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 10, 1923

 Dr. Tompson arrived at 54 Herkimer Street one week before the scheduled seance to inspect the location and make sure the required cabinet was in place. With the inspection complete and the date confirmed, Briton got to work recruiting “ghost breakers” who would be planted in the audience and instructed to to turn on the lights and jump on members of the Tomson family at Briton’s signal. 

On the evening of November 9th, a small crowd gathered at the Church, paying an admission fee of $2 per person. The Tomson family arrived at 8:30 and Elizabeth was escorted upstairs for a pre-arranged inspection by a group of women. She was declared free of “paraphernalia” and allowed to change into a bathrobe. Downstairs, Dr. Tomson and his daughter set the mood by extinguishing all lights except for a single blue bulb hanging from the ceiling. The phonograph played “rock of ages.” Elizabeth silently walked into the room and stepped into the cabinet where she began communicating with several spirits including children and someone she called “The Major.”

agician Carlos María de Heredia demonstrating fake ectoplasm,  Spiritism and Common Sense. P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1922
Magician Carlos María de Heredia demonstrating fake ectoplasm. Spiritism and Common Sense, P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1922. Wikimedia Commons.

Attendees were invited one by one to peek into the cabinet, where they saw spirits and dead relatives rattling around. Briton had not yet given her signal when one of her “ghost breakers,” Dick Gallagher, was selected to peek inside. As Tomson’s daughter held his hands, Gallagher shouted that he was looking at his deceased Grandmother, who leaned out of the cabinet to embrace him. With his hands restrained, Gallagher leaned forward and did the only thing he could. “I bit her. I bit my Grandmother and it was Mrs. Tomson. And here’s the cheesecloth from her body. The ectoplasm is cheesecloth,” he later told the confused audience. The bite was so severe the fabric got caught in his teeth and had to be removed by another audience member. A bathrobbed Elizabeth Allen Tomson leaped from the cabinet and ran upstairs where she fainted. Downstairs, Dr. Tomson did damage control, blaming Gallagher for severing the spiritual connection and quoting extensively from the Bible. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 11, 1923
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 11, 1923

“You’ll never dare show your face East of the Mississippi River after this,” Briton warned the red faced, silent Tomson family, who left without collecting their money. Put under a microscope, the “ectoplasm” was found to be not cheesecloth, but silk. Briton theorized that Dr. Tomson and his daughter passed the silk in compacts to Elizabeth after the lights in the room were lowered. The whole family participated in the scheme. 

The Standard Union, November 11, 1923
The Standard Union, November 11, 1923

The next day Dr. Tomson showed up at the office of the Standard Union to offer his version of events in a dictated statement later published in the paper. He denied any wrongdoing, demanded to know the whereabouts of the fabric, and accused Briton of staging an elaborate show for the purpose of free advertising. He told the Standard Union, “There were many persons present who testified they considered it a wonderful demonstration. One noted Brooklyn physician, whose name I am not at liberty to state, said it was very interesting.” Briton responded to Dr. Tomson’s accusations, “I do not advertise. My own satisfied clientele is sufficient testimonial of my God given ability and my circle of friends and members of my society is ever growing.” The Tomsons soon returned to Chicago and Briton continued hosting her own spiritualist shows at the Church of Spiritual Illumination. The Scientific American observed over 100 séances, but never collected enough evidence to declare a winner.

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