With Halloween around the corner, we can’t help but ponder the idea of ghosts and other worldly phenomena.
One of the most comprehensive collections on the paranormal resides at the University of Manitoba’s Archives and Special Collections.
The Hamilton Family Fonds comprises of more than 600 textual records and more than 400 photographs. They document Thomas Glendenning and Lillian Hamilton’s investigation of psychic phenomena, conducted in their Winnipeg home between 1918 and 1945. It is a collection that has been shown around the world. The images have travelled to Sweden, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and to Maison européenne de la photographie in Paris. And four original photographs will head to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to be part of a larger show.
Hamilton, a medical doctor, school board trustee and one-time member of the Manitoba legislature for the Liberal Party, was introduced to paranormal investigations by close friend and University of Manitoba English professor William Talbot Allison when they travelled to the United States to visit a medium. The paranormal interested Hamilton, but upon returning to Winnipeg, he didn’t initially continue with his investigations.
That changed in January 1919 when one of his three-year-old twin sons, Arthur, died from the flu pandemic that killed an estimated 20-50 million people around the world.
Lillian then encouraged her husband to investigate life after death as a way to find out what happened to Arthur and how he was doing on the other side.
The Hamiltons approached their paranormal investigations as scientific experiments. They started with Elizabeth Poole, a Scottish woman who was a nanny to their children and who they believed had an affinity to parapsychological work. The Hamiltons used a room on the second floor of their Winnipeg home for their experiments. Eleven cameras with flashes sat in the back of the room to capture the proceedings.
The first photographs document the Hamiltons’ examination of telekinesis. One image in the collection shows Poole slumped in a trance during a séance next to Hamilton. Another shows Poole levitating and inverting a table.
After Poole, they started working with mediums Mary Marshall and her sister-in-law, Susan Marshall. During the séances, the women became other personas; Mary became Dawn and Susan became Mercedes.
With the Marshalls, ectoplasm, a material that comes out of the ears and mouths of the mediums, started appearing during their séances and were captured on camera.
All the camera shutters were left wide open during the séances. A bell box was constructed and used for the spirits to communicate to Hamilton when to take a photograph. A red light bulb was the only source of light in the room.
Approximately 2,300 images were taken by the Hamiltons, but the number of reported psychic incidents captured were considerably smaller. Multiple cameras meant many of the images were similar but it provided extensive documentation of what was happening in the room.
The Hamiltons had prominent individuals come and witness the experiments. They included Bruce Chown, who discovered the Rhesus factor in blue babies — infants born with a congenital heart defect that causes a bluish coloration of the skin as a result of cyanosis (deoxygenated blood), and Isaac Pitblado, who was a good friend of Chown and came from a prominent family of lawyers. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, visited the Hamiltons during one of his North American book tours.
Like the Hamiltons, Doyle’s interest in life after death was a result of the death of his son, Kingsley, during the First World War.
"Because everyone believed this to be scientific, Lillian rigorously took notes on everything that happened and everybody would read them, sign affidavits that this had occurred," says U of M’s head archivist Shelley Sweeney.
"For example, Lillian held a key to the room around her neck. She never let it go. She would only unlock the room when they were going to use it as a séance room so that nobody could interfere. They didn’t pay the mediums because they wanted to take that incentive away from them."
The nature of the Hamiltons’ work on the paranormal has raised two significant, persistent and highly debated questions. First — is there is life after death? Second — is this fraud?
Sweeney doesn’t believe fraud was committed by the Hamiltons or by the mediums. "These women didn’t go (to the Hamiltons’ home) once or twice, they were going in over years… That’s an awful lot of time to spend without remuneration and perpetrating a fraud," she says.
Sweeney has never heard whether the mediums ever sold their services after they finished working with the Hamiltons. She admits the possibility of fraud is always there unless someone commits themselves to doing comprehensive research to determine its veracity.
The Hamilton collection is more than a ghost story. Sweeney, with help from Luciana Duranti, a professor in Archival Studies at the University of British Columbia, had attempted to get the collection a Memory of the World designation from UNESCO in 2012.
"What makes this collection so powerful is that it’s not just simply some photos. But it’s photos completely contextualized," says Sweeney. "And it wasn’t this family doing this all on their own. In fact, they represented a huge movement of people who were trying to contact their loved ones."
The Memory of the World program is dedicated to the preservation of documentary heritage that has international value (for example, a collection of archival records or a set of photographs). The designation is awarded every two to three years.
Currently, Canada has only three collections and one film with the designation: the Hudson’s Bay Archival records; Neighbours, a 1952 film by Norman McLaren, a pioneer in animation and filmmaking; the Quebec Seminary Collection, 1623-1800; and the Discovery of Insulin and its Worldwide Impact, a complete archival collection of Dr. Frederick Banting and Dr. Charles Best’s discovery of the hormone.
Despite hard-fought efforts to get the designation, Sweeney was left critical of the program. "When you look at the list, some of (the collections and items that were given the designations) are just ridiculous… It’s very political. You could tell that they want to include all countries."
According to Sweeney, a number of committee members on the international and executive level involved in the decisions regarding the designation are political appointees with no archival knowledge or experience.
The question of fraud and the controversy over the existence of life after death dogged the Hamilton collection in its quest for the UNESCO designation.
"We spent months putting together all these arguments for the collection… We couldn’t get it through (the Canadian committee). It was so controversial. People kept getting hung up on ‘Is this fraud?’," says Sweeney. "I kept saying it doesn’t matter whether it’s fraudulent or not. It’s an authentic documentation of a phenomenon. These people were not alone. There were hundreds, thousands of people involved (in investigating life after death). It was a world-wide phenomenon. There’s just so much prejudice against life-after-death investigation."
One argument against awarding the designation was that the collection was no different than any other religion. Sweeney called that argument "baloney."
"Most religions make the offer of eternal life to its adherents," she points out. "The collection is the exact opposite. Religions ask people to believe in the afterlife based on faith. The church isn’t proving there is life after death. They’re saying there is life after death."
The Hamiltons were Presbyterians. They never saw a conflict between their religious beliefs and investigating to determine if there was life after death.
The application went back to the Canadian committee. Again, they were inclined to not give it a pass.
"But they said it was so well written, they couldn’t bear to not put it forward to the next level. That pretty much killed it without having the Canadians on board," Sweeney recalls. "It didn’t pass on the international level by the committee, but again, because it was so strong, nobody could say it shouldn’t go forward. So, it was bumped up all the way to the executive level and got a six-six split — six believed it was worthy and six believed that it wasn’t. So, it didn’t go forward. When it’s a tie, that’s the end of it."
Sweeney regards the moment as "the greatest professional grief of my life."
"I couldn’t speak about it for the longest time… We have people, international scholars accessing the collection all the time."
She was advised she could submit another application for the designation and try to get more support for it. But the reality is the collection was, and is, so controversial, most archival institutions didn’t believe in what the Hamiltons were doing and didn’t want their names associated with the application.
Does Sweeney believe in what the Hamiltons were doing?
"I do and I don’t. It’s basically documenting a phenomenon. It’s amazing. It’s one of the richest collections I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve been working as an archivist for over 30 years.
"Whether I believe or whether you believe or if anybody believes is not the point… This collection cuts across believers, non-believers. Maybe it’s true. Maybe most people believe — secretly — that maybe there is something to this. I don’t know, but I do see the reaction and I do think the collection is absolutely, totally valuable."