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.
By the early 1870s the Bangs family were performing seances as described in the August 3, 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.
In the summer of 1881, May and her mother were arrested for "doing business without a license", 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. 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.
"...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.
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.
For the next five years, they regularly held seances and performed the spirit slate writings at their home in Chicago. 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.
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 a July 16, 1909 story in the Chicago Daily Tribune, was divorced and penniless in less than 24 months.
Regarding the sisters drawings, magic historian David Witter has noted that "experts have surmised that sketches were made beforehand, hidden and slowly moved forward into the light by a free hand while the subjects were not looking."
In 1901, the psychologist Stanley LeFevre Krebs 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. Hereward Carrington who sat with the sisters in 1909 suspected their slate-writing to be fraudulent. According to psychical researcher Paul Tabori "he also analysed their way of producing "spirit paintings" or "portraits". The ladies simply substituted one canvas for another, under the cover of their voluminous dress, the table or window-curtains."
Magician Milbourne Christopher has written:
- Wilmar (William Marriott) had read about the marvelous paintings produced during seances by a pair of Chicago psychics, the Bangs sisters. He wrote David P. Abbott, an amateur magician and investigator of alleged psychic phenomena, who lived in Omaha, Nebraska, asking if by chance he had solved the mystery. Abbott replied that not only had he duplicated the marvel, he also had added several touches to make the feat effective onstage. Abbott described the routine in detail.
After years of demonstrations and noted exposures by professionals, the Bangs Sisters had faded out by the early 1920s.
- "Spirit Painting". Skeptical Inquirer.
- Witter, David. (2013). Chicago Magic: A History of Stagecraft and Spectacle. History Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-62619-127-3
- Karr, Todd. "David P. Abbott and the Notorious Bangs Sisters". Miraclefactory.net. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
- "Atchison Little Globe", August 23, 1881
- Hornellsville Weekly Tribune, April 20, 1888
- Chicago Daily Tribune, April 17, 1890
- "Famous Frauds". Iprfinc.com. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
- "Chicago Daily Tribune" February 25, 1905.
- Nickell, Joe. (2001). Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 267-268. ISBN 978-0813122106
- Tabori, Paul. (1972). Pioneers of the Unseen. Souvenir Press. p. 47. ISBN 0-285-62042-8
- Christopher, Milbourne. (1996). The Illustrated History of Magic. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 261. ISBN 0-435-07016-9
- Abbott, David P. (1913). The Spirit Portrait Mystery, Its Final Solution. The Open Court Publishing Company.
- Karr, Todd. "David P. Abbott and the Notorious Bangs Sisters" at the Wayback Machine (archived October 26, 2007). Excerpt from Teller and Todd Karr, eds., House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott (The Miracle Factory, Los Angeles, 2005).
- Krebs, Stanley L. (1901). A Description of Some Trick Methods Used by Miss Bangs of Chicago. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 10: 5-16.