The Beginners’ Guide to Psychic Trickery: The Spirit Slate

By Ash Pryce

During this years Edinburgh Fringe, your Freaky Friday columnist – who has sadly been neglecting his duties, lets blame it on a busy working schedule as opposed to Doctor Who marathons – will be staging an event which draws on some of the research you have seen on the Freaky Friday pages over the years. Psychics, mediums, séances, levitation and telekinesis. All will be played and displayed. In the run up to the launch of the events – three shows under the banner The Beginners’ Guide to psychic Trickery – I’m detailing some of the tricks and techniques for those of you who may not be able to make it along, and as an appetite wetter for those who do.

The Spirit Slates comprised two small chalk board slates which were shown to be blank, the slates were placed together and once opened revealed spirit writing. Although magicians to this day wow people with this trick, I once showed an 11 year old girl who instantly worked out how it was done – says a lot about an adult audience really!

People like Derren Brown have used Spirit Slates as part of their modern mentalist acts, and draw on techniques used by the Victorians. The way in which modern magicians perform a spirit slate routine is not dissimilar to how Victorians did it – though as with most magic tricks of this nature, are slightly unsuitable for regular Joes to create without buying specialist boards. There is however a far simpler method that was used in Victorian Seances which we don’t see today.

Our version of the Spirit Slate, a centre piece of Victorian séances, is quite simple to recreate. The performance went something like this: The medium would present a single slate, he would ask for one or two volunteers, these were not stooges. Holding the spirit slate so his thumb is on top and his fingers below he would instruct his volunteers to hold the slate in a similar fashion. Now at this stage one of two things could happen – either a cloth could be placed over the board, or the board could be held underneath the table where the full séance is being conducted. Once hidden from view, but importantly held by the participants as well as the medium to avoid any jiggery-pokery, the attendees of the séance would hear the sound of chalk writing. Once the slat was removed from under the table or cloth writing would have mysteriously appeared.

The Spirit Slates are very popular parts of a séance recreation, but how did the Victorians manage it? As with much of Victorian illusions the simplicity was beautiful. All the magician (For really that’s all these sham mediums were) had to do was have a small piece of chalk concealed and attached to a false finger tip or – well – anything that could hold the chalk in place, small enough to be hidden and kept out of sight. A little bit of practice is all that was needed and the magician could produce the finger tip chalk and write using one of their fingers when the board is hidden – still held onto by the volunteers.

The fact the writing would not be neat or overly legible only added to the illusion that the writing was created by a spirit.

In our next Bite Sized Beginners’ Guide we’ll take a look at the lost “art” of graphology.

The Beginners’ Guide to psychic trickery is series of three free shows performed during the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. To find out more visit

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