Bangs Sisters

The Bangs Sisters, Mary "May" E. Bangs (1862–1917) and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Snow Bangs (1859–1920), were two fraudulent spiritualist mediums from Chicago, who made a career out of painting the dead or "Spirit Portraits".[1][2][3]

The Bangs Sisters
Lizzie and May Bangs.png
Lizzie and May Bangs, circa 1897
BornMay: (1862-10-01)October 1, 1862, Atchison, Kansas
Lizzie: (1859-03-29)March 29, 1859, Atchison, Kansas
DiedMay: April 26, 1917(1917-04-26) (aged 54), Chicago
Lizzie: March 29, 1920(1920-03-29) (aged 61), Chicago
OccupationSpiritualist Mediums


1905 Newspaper Ad: "The Bangs Sisters"

Elizabeth was born in 1859 to Edward D. Bangs (1827–1899) and Meroe L. Stevens Bangs (1832–1917) while they were living in Atchison, Kansas, and Mary was born there in 1862. Edward was a tinsmith and stove repairman, originally from Massachusetts. Their mother was a medium herself.[4]

They moved to Chicago in 1868.[5] By the early 1870s the Bangs family were performing seances as described in an article by Steven Sanborn Jones published on August 3, 1872 in Religio-Philosophical Journal titled "An Evening with the Bangs Children."[6] People paid to be entertained at the Bangs home. It is alleged that 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 cat, said to be a "spirit kitten" from the afterworld.[4]

In the summer of 1881, May and her mother were arrested for "doing business without a license",[5] and while they claimed to be evangelists and such charges could not be brought against ministers, they were fined by the police court the following day.[7]

On April 2, 1888, two plainclothes police arrested May and Lizzie during a seance and confiscated all of their props.[8][9] They were released on bail the next day by William Bangs their embarrassed brother and manager of the Chicago Club[10] While they were out on bail, Lizzie's seven-year-old daughter died.[11][12]

At the same time, an article in The Washington Post published on April 17, 1888 reported that Lizzie and May Bangs had created the very lucrative firm, the "Bangs Sisters", which operated spiritualistic parlors in the Chicago area.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, in March 1890, a Chicago grand jury declined to bring charges against the Bangs Sisters,[16] 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.[17]

According to the Los Angeles Times, the two sisters even fooled G.W.N. Yost, one of the main investors in the typewriter, with their "spirit typewriter" which produced messages from everyone from Moses to James Garfield.[18] In late 1894, Lizzie and May began "spirit painting", with "Life Sized Spirit Portraits a Specialty" printed on their business cards.[19]

It was not long before they ventured out of Chicago. As reported in the Fort Wayne Sentinel on September 10, 1894, the Bangs conducted a Massachusetts wedding ceremony between a wealthy woman and her dead fiancé.[20]

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. Dr. Isaac K. Funk of Funk and Wagnalls paid $1,500 for a number of departed portraits.[21]

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.[22][23]


David P. Abbott, a magician who exposed the Bangs Sisters.

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."[2]

Skeptical investigator Joe Nickell has written that "the Bangses were exposed as tricksters many times."[1]

In 1901, the psychologist Stanley LeFevre Krebs exposed the sisters as frauds; he employed a hidden mirror and caught them removing a blank letter sealed between two slates and writing a reply which they would pretend a spirit had written.[24][25]

Hereward Carrington who sat with the sisters in 1909 found their slate-writing to be fraudulent.[26] He had also set up a trap by inventing a fictitious mother named "Jane Thompson" in a sealed letter. He received a reply signed by Jane from the sisters. Psychical researcher Paul Tabori noted that Carrington "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."[26]

The Bangs sisters were defended by the spiritualist writer William Usborne Moore. He stated in his book Glimpses of the Next State that Carrington had never visited their house. After Carrington gave incontrovertible evidence he had visited the sisters and caught them in fraud, Moore had to publicly retract his charges in a letter for Light, December 14, 1912.[27]

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.[28]

In 1913, David P. Abbott published a booklet on the subject The Spirit Portrait Mystery, Its Final Solution, revealing fraudulent methods of producing the portraits.[29]


  1. ^ a b Nickell, Joe (June 2000). "Spirit Painting (Part II)". Skeptical Briefs. Vol. 10, no. 2.
  2. ^ a b Witter, David (5 November 2013). Chicago Magic: A History of Stagecraft and Spectacle. Charleston, SC: The History Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-1-62619-127-3.
  3. ^ Baker, Robert A. (1992). Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions From Within. Prometheus Books. p. 223. ISBN 978-1573920940 "In Chicago in 1909 Hereward Carrington investigated and caught the sisters in fraud. Carrington addressed a letter in a sealed envelope to 'Dearest Mother Jane Thompson' (who never existed), and he received a reply addressed to 'Dearly Loved Son Harold,' signed by his devoted mother, Jane. Moreover, Carrington had the magician David P. Abbott duplicate the Bangs sisters' work exactly. Over the years a number of charges of fraud were brought against them, and fraud in their slate writing and their materialized spirits were convincingly established."
  4. ^ a b Karr, Todd. "David P. Abbott and the Notorious Bangs Sisters". The Miracle Factory. Archived from the original on 2012-02-19.
  5. ^ a b "News Item". The Atchison Daily Globe. Atchison, Kansas. August 23, 1881. Mrs. DeWolf, Mrs. Bangs and Miss May Bangs, mediums, were arrested at the Otis House this morning by the Marshal for doing business without a license. They claim that the Marshal might as well arrest a Methodist minister on a similar charge, as they are evangelists. The case will be heard tomorrow. Mrs. and Miss Bangs were formerly residents of Atchison, the husband and father having carried on the tin and stove business here thirteen years ago, but we believe they are now residents of Chicago."
  6. ^ Jones, Steven Sanborn (August 3, 1972). "An Evening with the Bangs Children" (PDF). Religio-Philosophical Journal. Vol. 7, no. 20. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-07-10.
  7. ^ "Police Court". The Atchison Daily Globe. Atchison, Kansas. August 24, 1881. ...the Bangs spiritual jugglers, giving shows without license, $5.
  8. ^ "Exposing a 'Spook' Fake". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. April 2, 1988. p. 3. May Bangs, attired in the garb of a Russian princess, caught while exhibiting herself as a spirit at an opening in the cabinet.
  9. ^ "Bangs 'Sisters' Interest Police". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. February 28, 1905. p. 3.
  10. ^ "The Bangs Sisters Appear in Court". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. April 2, 1988. p. 1. The bond of W.B. Bangs (their embarrassed brother) was accepted for the appearance of the sisters, who passed ghost-like, out the door.
  11. ^ "New Item". Springfield Daily Republic. Springfield, Ohio. April 18, 1988. p. 3. Maude, the seven-year-old daughter of Lizzie Bangs, of spiritualistic Bangs sisters, now out on bail in Chicago on the charge of fraud, died Friday and was buried Sunday with Spiritualistic services. Mrs. Cora L. V. Richmond going into a trance state and delivering a discourse.
  12. ^ Segrave, Kerry (27 March 2007). Women Swindlers in America, 1860-1920. McFarland. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-0-7864-8164-4. Lizzie Bangs blamed he police for the death of her daughter Maude, explaining she got a cold when taken to the police station and passed it onto Maude. In the child it developed into diphtheria and she was dead within a week.
  13. ^ "Chicago's Bogus Spiritualists". Washington Post. Washington, D.C. April 17, 1888. p. 6. Lizzie and May Bangs, under the firm name of the Bangs Sisters, conduct the leading spiritualistic establishment in Chicago.... Their elegant parlors have been crowded by day as well as by night and money flowed into their coffers in large streams.
  14. ^ "The Bangs Sisters". Hornellsville Weekly Tribune. Hornellsville, New York. April 20, 1888. p. 1.
  15. ^ "Says He Was Wed While Drugged". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. April 17, 1890. p. 2. On his return in that state Miss Bangs told him she had had a communication with his wife, who had requested that to please her he would marry the medium.
  16. ^ "The Carrie Sawyer Gang Indicted". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. March 7, 1890. p. 9. The evidence against this gang was no more complete and not as full and picturesque as that which we presented to the grande jury against the Bangs sisters. We failed to secure their indictment, but this through no flaw in the evidence.
  17. ^ "Doesn't Want Any "Fake Spooks"". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. May 16, 1891. p. 9. Col. John C. Bundy, who edits a paper in the interest of spiritualism, is pleased at the passage by the Illinois Senate of a bill prohibiting any one from personating the spirits of the dead, commonly known as medium séances, on penalty of fine and imprisonment.
  18. ^ "Robbed of Thousands: Typewriter Inventor Yost Defrauded of Much Money". The McCook Tribune. McCook, Nebraska. July 12, 1895. p. 2. When visiting the word's fair in Chicago some acquaintances told Mr. Yost that they knew of a young girl named Lizzie Bangs, who was able to secure the most remarkable statements from dead worthies by means of an ancient and very decrepit typewriting machine. Mr. Yost visited the medium and found that pieces of paper were apparently taken from the drum of the machine signed with all the names of history from Moses to Garfield.
  19. ^ Schill, Brian (January 2008). Stalking Darkness (2nd ed.). International Parapsychology Research Foundation. pp. 70–71. ISBN 978-0-9815418-0-8.
  20. ^ "New Item". Fort Wayne Sentinel. Fort Wayne, Indiana. April 2, 1988. p. 4.
  21. ^ "Peddle Work of 'Ghosts': Chicago Mediums Said to Have Duped Isaac Funk". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. February 25, 1905. p. 3. The Rev. Dr. Isaac Funk of the publishing house of Funk & Wagnalls of New York has just paid the Bangs sisters $1,500 for 'spirit paintings,' according to declarations of a Chicago medium.
  22. ^ "Spirit Tip Costs $400,000". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. July 16, 1909. p. 3. Business tips from the spirit world are blamed for the failure of Jacob H. Lecher, formerly rated a millionaire, and husband of May Bangs, a spirit painter who was arraigned in the Desplaines street Municipal court yesterday.
  23. ^ "Mrs. Bangs-Lesher Pays $25 Fine". Chicago Daily Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. July 30, 1909. p. 6. Elmer D. Brothers, representing Mrs. May Bangs-Causden-Graham-Charter-Lesher, spiritualist, yesterday paid the fine of $25 and costs which recently was imposed upon her by Municipal Judge Scovel for violation of an ordinance governing clairvoyants and fortune tellers.
  24. ^ Krebs, Stanley LeFevre (January 1901). "A Description of Some Trick Methods Used by Miss Bangs, of Chicago" (PDF). Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. 10 (175): 10–16 – via IAPSOP.
  25. ^ Nickell, Joe. (2001). Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 267-268. ISBN 978-0813122106
  26. ^ a b Tabori, Paul. (1972). Pioneers of the Unseen. Souvenir Press. pp. 47-48. ISBN 0-285-62042-8
  27. ^ Moore, William Usborne. Mr Hereward Carrington and the Bangs Sisters. Light. December 14, 1912. p. 598
  28. ^ Christopher, Milbourne. (1996). The Illustrated History of Magic. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 261. ISBN 0-435-07016-9
  29. ^ Abbott, David P. (1913). The Spirit Portrait Mystery, Its Final Solution. The Open Court Publishing Company.