Finding answers in the paranormal

Photo collection offers glimpse into Winnipeg psyche

For those tired of tasteless costumes and mini-chocolate bar-induced stomach aches, this is an opportunity to bring the Halloween spirit back by diving into some spooky local history.

In the 1920s a doctor, his wife ​and their circle of friends conducted regular séances and paranormal investigations in their home at 185 Kelvin St., now Henderson Hwy. Over 35 years they investigated the Ouija board, table flipping, ectoplasmic constructions and more. Their work became so well known that Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King reportedly stopped in on a seance or two. 

Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, the convenor of the séances, was by most standards of the day an upstanding citizen. He was a respected medical doctor who held prestigious posts as a member of the Manitoba legislature, a church elder and president of the Canadian Medical Association.

Today what remains of the seances and paranormal investigations is a massive collection of photographs and documentation, archived and made accessible to the public through University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections.

“​It is one of the preeminent collections in the world relating to this phenomenon, which is the investigation of life after death after societal trauma,” Dr. Shelley Sweeney, head of the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, explains.

“They took notes all through these séances, they recorded what everybody said, who was saying it, every detail you could think of - because they were trying to be scientific,” Sweeney says. “That sort of authentic contemporary documentation of the phenomenon - fraudulent or not fraudulent - virtually doesn’t exist.”

While the collection and Hamilton’s story are the subject of fascination they are not free from criticism. That’s because many of the photographs aren’t exactly convincing.

But Sweeney says it’s not a matter of fact or fiction. Rather, these happenings are a reflection of the historical period, in which an influenza outbreak claimed the life of one of Hamilton’s three-year old twin sons.

Adam Dreger-Desjarlais, a local paranormal investigator with the Paranormal Seekers of Winnipeg, believes Hamilton was searching for confirmation he would see his family after death. 

“He saw how fragile life was and was scared of his own end,” Dreger-Desjarlais says.

University of Winnipeg art history professor Dr. Serena Keshavjee also suggests this is a particular period in the history of science where paranormal investigation was perfectly normal. 

It was a time when religion was being challenged​, and​ ​overall it was a period that saw a shift in belief systems as people reached for other ways to understand the world, she says.

“We call it ‘the reenchantment of the universe,’” Keshavjee explains.

As for the authenticity of the photos Dreger-Desjarlais is skeptical.

“There was no Photoshop back in those days obviously but I’m sure they could have been doctored, and I know of teams out there that have recreated those pictures to show how easily it could be done,” he says. “As for my opinion … well it looks like a doily with a picture taped to it.” 

However, by taking the photographs at face value, naysayers are missing the point. That’s because they are indeed historical photographs and not modern day manipulations. 

The fact the photographs were wholeheartedly accepted at the time reflects the degree to which people really wanted, or needed, to believe.

With files from Danielle Da Silva.

To check out the collection for yourself visit umanitoba.ca/libraries/units/archives/digital/hamilton/index

Published in Volume 69, Number 9 of The Uniter (October 29, 2014)

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