Bangs Sisters

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The "Bangs Sisters", Mary "May" E. Bangs and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Snow Bangs were mediums from Chicago, who made a career out of painting the dead or "Spirit Portraits".[1][2]

Early years (1860-1895)[edit]

Elizabeth was born around 1860 to Meroe and Edward Bangs while they were living in Atchison, Kansas. They moved to Chicago in 1861, and Mary was born there in 1864. Edward was a tinsmith and stove repairman, originally from Massachusetts. Their mother was a medium herself, and soon got her four children (sons Edward and W.B.) into the act.[3]

By the early 1870s the Bangs family were performing seances as described in the August 3rd, 1872, Religio-Philosophical Journal article by Steven Sanborn Jones called, "An Evening with the Bangs Children". People paid to be entertained at the Bangs home. Messages from the dead appeared on slabs of slate as chairs and furniture moved about the room. The children were tied up in a cabinet, then a guitar inside strummed and hands waved from within. For the finale, Mary brought forward a shaved cat, said to be a "spirit cat" from the afterworld.[3]

In the summer of 1881, May and her mother were arrested for "doing business without a license",[4] but this was dismissed because they claimed to be evangelists, and such charges could not be brought against ministers.

On April 2, 1888, two plainclothes police arrested May and Lizzie during a seance and confiscated all of their props. Sadly, Lizzie's seven-year-old daughter died while she was being held.

A few weeks later, an April 17, 1888 Washington Post article reported that Lizzie and May Bangs had created the very lucrative firm, the "Bangs Sisters", which operated spiritualistic parlors in the Chicago area. That year, one of their wealthy clients, photographer Henry Jestram, reportedly paid vast amounts of his fortune for their seances. When Jestram died after being committed to an insane asylum, many blamed the Bangs Sisters.[5] By now, the media were having a field day with the "Notorious Bangs Sisters", with five failed marriages between the two sisters, and Lizzie's bizarre speech during her daughter's funeral service.[3]

By November 1890, May was on her second divorce from wealthy chemical manufacturer Henry H. Graham. They had been married under the pretense that his dead wife had told him to do so.[6]

According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, in March 1890, a Chicago grand jury dismissed the charges against the Bangs Sisters, but in May 1891, the Illinois Senate passed a bill:

"...prohibiting anyone from personating the spirits of the dead, commonly known as spirit-medium séances, on penalty of fine and imprisonment."

With the new law in place, and having upset their peers by ruining the seance business, the Bangs Sisters re-invented their act to include portraits, writings, and even typing from the dead. According to a Los Angeles Times article, the two sisters even fooled one of the main investors in the typewriter, G.W.N. Yost, with their "spirit typewriter" which produced messages from everyone from Moses to James Garfield. In late 1894, Lizzie and May began "spirit painting", with "Life Sized Spirit Portraits a Specialty" printed on their business cards.[7]

It was not long before they ventured out of Chicago. As reported in the September 10th, 1894 Fort Wayne Sentinel, the Bangs conducted a Massachusetts wedding ceremony between a wealthy woman and her dead fiancé.

Later years (1895-1920s)[edit]

1906 Newspaper Ad-The Bangs Sisters

For the next five years, they regularly held seances and performed the spirit slate writings at their home in Chicago. The psychologist Stanley LeFevre Krebs had exposed the sisters as frauds; he employed a hidden mirror and caught them tampering with a letter in an envelope under the table and writing a reply which they would pretend a spirit had written.[8]

The spirit paintings were the most commanding of price, with people paying anywhere between $15 to $150 per portrait. Even, Dr. Isaac K. Funk of Funk and Wagnalls paid $1,500 for a number of departed portraits.[9]

In 1907 came the next victim of May's marriages. Millionaire leather manufacturer Jacob H. Lesher was "told" to marry May by his dead mother, and according to the July 16th, 1909 Chicago Daily Tribune, was divorced and penniless in less than 24 months.

They headed to Kansas City with this advertisement listed in the June 14th, 1908 Kansas City Journal:[10]

The Bangs Sisters of Chicago produce portraits of departed men, women or children for friends while they wait. These wonderful artists are located in the New York apartment house, northwest corner of Twelfth street and Paseo. They have been spending a few weeks away from home on a vacation. They are making many beautiful portraits in Kansas City and do not expect to remain in Kansas City very long. Anyone wishing to see them should make arrangements to do so as soon as possible.

Never without controversy, the local Kansas City Minister three weeks later, in the newspaper on July 10, accepted the Bangs' challenge of $1,000 to try to expose their method.

It all came through the well known Bangs sisters, lately of Kansas City. These sisters, who trafficked in the life and sayings of the "other world," made quite an impression upon the spiritualistic sect in Kansas City. Their chief means of revenue was in painting pictures "by angel hands" of people in the spirit world. These sisters amassed a fortune by causing to be painted, through "supernatural means," the likeness of the dead upon a canvas which was stretched across a window.

Rev. Mr. Osborn, after some study and praying hit upon a scheme of "angel painting." To a select circle of friends he demonstrated his ability along such lines, and then declared the Bangs sisters to be frauds and fakirs. These pictures, according to Rev. Mr. Osborn, are drawn by mental suggestion. Just how the mental suggestion is worked in he has not yet explained, but at the same time he charged the Bangs sisters with having deceived the people of Kansas City. that he himself is able to cause these "angel pictures" to appear at will is declared to be a fact by many people who have seen him do it.


Soon after the minister made his charges they were carried to the Bangs sisters by their many friends and followers in Kansas City. The result was that the minister received a telegram yesterday from the Chicago Inter Ocean, the Bangs sisters, being now in Chicago, setting forth the following:

"The Bangs sisters will give you $1,000 if you can prove your charges. Wire if you accept."

Rev. Mr. Osborn did accept, and so wired the Inter Ocean. It was in calling these Bangs sisters fakirs that the spirit antagonism was aroused among the spiritualists present last night. Before Rev. Mr. Osborn began his expose he read the telegram which has been quoted, asking that at least a dozen of his audience remain after the performance in order to give him moral support for his undertaking in Chicago. A dozen of the audience did stay, more than a dozen, fifty of them in fact, spiritualists in a big majority.

"It's easy and perfectly simple," said the minister in his talk to them, concerning the "angel painting. It is done by the influence of mind and by that niche. There is absolutely nothing supernatural about the work. The picture which is handed to you is not the picture of the person who is dead. That is not an exact likeness. The painter is usually criticized for his work in details and so he finds it easy to correct the picture.

"For example: The Bang sisters painted a picture of a young lady who has been dead for some time. The eyes and other details were left very indistinct. The person who had applied for the picture objected, saying that her sister had darker and more distinct eyes than that. Of course the picture was immediately caused to disappear and other one which better suited to the gullible sister was painted in its place."


"That is not so," said Mrs. F. Cushman, who had secured a picture of her dead sister from the Bangs sisters. "They do not make the changes. They didn't in mine, and I never heard of them doing it before. The Bangs sisters never knew my sister. They did not even know her first name. They had never seen a picture of her, for I have the only one in existence."

"Ah, there it is," broke in the minister. "You were told that it would be necessary for you to bring a picture to the seance, weren't you?"

"Yes, but it was sealed in an envelope when I went into the room. The Bangs Sisters did not see it before the picture was drawn."

The minister smiled condescendingly, but he did not ask Mrs. Cushman any more questions.

It developed that there were very few who would come out openly and side with the minister, while there were many who had absolute faith in the work and ability of the Bangs sisters.

"If he can do all that he says he can; if he can make pictures appear and stay like the Bangs sisters could, he wouldn't be in the ministry," remarked Mrs. Cushman to a gathering of her sympathisers. "There's too much money in the other business for that."

After years of demonstrations and noted exposures by professionals, such as, David Abbott, the Bangs Sisters had faded out by the early 1920s.


  1. ^ "Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology" 1920 (page 93) By Lewis Spence
  2. ^ Photographing the invisible: practical studies in spirit photography, spirit" By James Coates
  3. ^ a b c Karr, Todd. "David P. Abbott and the Notorious Bangs Sisters". Retrieved 2012-03-12. 
  4. ^ "Atchison Little Globe", August 23, 1881
  5. ^ Hornellsville Weekly Tribune, April 20, 1888
  6. ^ Chicago Daily Tribune, April 17, 1890
  7. ^ "Famous Frauds". Retrieved 2012-03-12. 
  8. ^ Joe Nickell. (2001). Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. The University Press of Kentucky. pp. 267-268. ISBN 978-0813122106
  9. ^ "Chicago Daily Tribune" February 25, 1905
  10. ^ "News Items from The Kansas City Journal ~ Old News That's New to You from". Vintage Kansas 1908-06-14. Retrieved 2012-03-12. 
  • "House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott" Edited by Teller and Todd Karr, article "David P. Abbott and the Notorious Bangs Sisters" By Todd Karr