The 1884 "Exposure at Vienna"

In a bizarre scene, the heir to one of Europe's most illustrious thrones set a "Scooby-Doo"-style trap in Austria's imperial palace to prove a famous psychic was a fraud.

Note: Over the summer, I will be highlighting on Substack some of my overlooked and less-read cultural and historical essays and blog posts that deserve a second chance. The essay below first ran on my blog in 2017 in a slightly different form.

The reasons for the death of Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, who committed suicide after murdering his teenage lover on a hunting trip in January of 1889, have never been satisfactorily explained, and conspiracy theories surround the events at the hunting lodge of Mayerling. What cannot be denied, however, is that Rudolf’s death set in motion events that culminated in the outbreak of the First World War, because his absence left a weakness at the center of the monarchy and deprived it of its most important liberal voice. 

​Despite the morbid end to his brief life—he died three months short of his thirty-first birthday—and his penchant for escaping his loveless marriage through destructive affairs, there was much to commend him, and it is depressing to think of how history might have been different if, as was widely rumored, his father were to have abdicated in his favor in 1898, and liberal reforms prevented the instability of the Balkans from spilling over into Austria and spreading into the Great War. Many historians feel a Great War was inevitable, but Rudolf had favored an Austro-French alliance rather than an Austro-German one, and the shape of any war would likely have been very different. Unless the rumors about his syphilis were correct, in which case, maybe nothing would have been different by 1914.

At any rate, Rudolf was a liberal in a conservative country, and also a skeptic in a world of believers. Around 1880, a second wave of spiritualism burned through the courts of Europe, much as it had two decades earlier. This wave was just as silly, and it saw crowned heads gathering in gilded rooms to commune with the dead through the good offices of American mediums. In Austria, the spiritual (so to speak) leader of the spiritualist faction of the imperial family was the Empress Elizabeth, Rudolf’s mother, who was easily taken by any snake oil in her endless quest to cure her ennui. Rudolf became the leader of the anti-spiritualists, though at first not directly. As an Austrian Archduke and the heir to the throne, he wasn’t able to express himself publicly under his own name, so he had begun publishing news articles and editorials anonymously in a liberal newspaper. Continuing in that vein, in 1882 he published an anonymous pamphlet called Einige Worte über den Spiritismus (Some Words about Spiritualism) in which he viciously attacked all of the foolish pretensions of those who claimed to hold court with the dead.

I’m not sure exactly what it says about him that he became fascinated by exploring and debunking the paranormal only a few weeks after solemnizing his loveless dynastic marriage, but he had visited the pyramids of Egypt, married his wife, and the decided that the promises of spiritualism for a happy afterlife were so much hooey.

While Rudolf’s arguments were no different than most attacks on Spiritualism, they were interesting because of who Rudolf was. In his efforts he was joined by his cousin, the Archduke John Salvator, who managed the neat trick of being more liberal than Rudolf, a worse womanizer, and almost as bizarre in his death. John Salvator conducted a torrid affair with a teenager named Mary Vetsera, and, having tired of her, basically arranged for his cousin Rudolf to start an affair with her. She was the girl Rudolf murdered. John Salvator claimed that he hated royal life after that, and he renounced his imperial titles so he could marry an American actress. They ran off together to South America, where he died in 1890 when the ship he sailed under the commoner name of John Orth sank. It took 21 years for him to be declared legally dead. But that was still in the future.

In 1884, he and Rudolf had great plans to deal a blow to the spiritualist nonsense infecting the older members of their family. John was 32 and Rudolf was 24, and possessed of the arrogance of youth, John believed that he would be able to deal a mortal blow to spiritualism if only he could expose a medium as a fraud.

At the time, a Chicago medium originally from Franco-German Alsace named Harry Bastian was making the rounds of Europe, using his command of English, French, and German to wow audiences with his ability to materialize the shades of the dead. He crowed about his access to the Austrian nobility. Rudolf and John developed a deep antipathy to Bastian because he claimed to call up the shades of the Habsburgs’ own ancestors and to take liberties in making them speak of the past. As the archdukes probably knew from their months of research into the séances of Bastian, disgruntled skeptics had tried exposing him as a fraud many times over. Bastian’s typical ploy was to say he needed to sleep in another room while the attendees clasped hands in a darkened room. This made fraud quite simple. In August 1874, for example, a woman attending a séance reached out to touch the “spirit” hand only to find it was attached to Bastian. On another occasion, while a spirit guitar floated overhead, an attendee turned on an electric light mid-séance only to find Bastian holding the guitar. In 1880, Stuart Cumberland, self-confessed fake medium, caught Bastian in an imposture in Bloomsbury, and reported, amusingly, that upon grabbing the “ghost,” it let out “more muffled profanity than I have heard in any one year” before breaking free and running back to hide the costume and resume Bastian’s “sleeping” pose. In cases like these, Bastian claimed that the spirits were acting through him while he was asleep, and his supporters agreed. Indeed, when some of the sitters tried to get local authorities to prosecute him for fraud, the charges were dismissed on the grounds that the sitters had violated Bastian’s rules. Surprisingly, the Crown Prince and Archduke succeeded where others had failed, though excuses would abound.

In 1882, Bastian supposedly entered retirement, claiming that his spiritual powers had waned, but this was a bit of an act. According to contemporary records, he was still performing séances through the middle of the year, five at a time! At John’s request, and through the offices of Austrian spiritualist leader Lazzaro, he agreed to host a series of séances at the Archduke’s palace apartments for members of the imperial family. The first two séances on January 17 and 30 proceeded as they always had, with Bastian performing a series of parlor tricks that he claimed represented spiritual powers. The first séance yielded nothing, and in the second a bell rang. But the third on February 11 (other sources say February 3) is when all hell broke loose. The scene unfolded while Bastian claimed to be sleeping in a small room while the others sat at a table in the dark. The Crown Prince and Archduke treated Bastian like a Scooby-Doo villain, and they actually prepared a Scooby-Doo-style trap for him.

The rest of the account appeared in the Vienna newspapers, and the account amused English and American correspondents enough that they translated the stories and sent them off to their home newspapers. Here is how the Daily News reported the story on February 13:

VIENNA, Tuesday night. Much amusement has been created here by an incident in which the Archduke John, the Crown Prince Rudolf, and a celebrated Spiritualistic medium, an American, named Bastian, took part. For many weeks the Spiritualists had tried to spread their views among the Vienna aristocracy, and scarcely a night passed in which seances were not held in some noble family. The Archduke John, desirous of understanding how even clever persons are deceived, invited Bastian to his palace. The Archduke and Prince Rudolf ordered some arrangements to be made privately, and when Bastian, who called the spirits in an adjoining room, made a tall figure in mourning appear before the awed spectators, the Crown Prince suddenly pulled a string which closed a secret door, and the spirit, who was no other than Bastian himself, tried to escape amid the laughter of the noble audience.

More specifically, the imperial pair rigged up a string so they could slam shut the door to Bastian’s sleeping-chamber while the “ghost” was walking among the guests. At a moment when a spirit dressed “half Roman, half knight, with bare head, draped in white, perfect in every way, and refulgent” appeared, the archdukes sprang the trap. With his means of egress cut off, they were able to grab the “ghost” and unmask him, just like in Scooby-Doo. Bastian reported threw a shrieking hissy fit until the archdukes were able to calm him down and assure him that they meant him no harm. A supporter, Dr. T. L. Nichols, later reported that Bastian was grievously offended by the accusation: “Greatly disgusted with the shabby and shameful treatment he had received, Mr. Bastian went to the railway station the same night, and took the train for London, where, I need not say, he was heartily welcomed by those who have known him long and well, and who know him to be an honest man, and a genuine and very remarkable medium.” Despite the testimony of those present that Bastian was captured in costume, a story grew up shortly thereafter that no costumes were found on Bastian’s person and therefore the “ghosts” were real entities that simply manifested through Bastian’s body.

Consider this from Nichols, writing a few months later.

​Baron Hellenbach, a well-known savant of Vienna, published a volume of his observations of spiritual phenomena. Accounts, with many sensational exaggerations and misstatements, of the stupid escapade of two Austrian Princes, in destroying the conditions of what had been so far a successful seance, have been published all over the world. According to Baron Hellenbach, ten materialised forms had issued from the curtained recess used as a cabinet when the not too wise, and not too well mannered Crown Prince or Archduke—both boys— slammed a door and seized the medium, but failed to find one scrap of the apparatus which would have been necessary to manufacture the spirit-forms that had appeared to them.

​The problem, in the eyes of believers, was that exposing the medium scared all the ghosts away!

Archduke John Salvatore wrote a book about the exposure of Bastian, supported by signed affidavits from all those in attendance. He outlined all of the crimes of spiritualism and implored the Austrian people to reject the fraud of mediums. No less that the Catholic Church attacked him for his efforts: The official papal newspaper, the Civilta Cattolica, conceded that Bastian might have been a fraud but nevertheless refused to endorse his conclusion that spiritualism was a fraud. Instead, they said, since the Fathers of the Church believed in spirits, and the afterlife is a doctrine of faith, it is wrong to declare that no commerce might occur between the living and the dead. This was a rather astonishing report from a Catholic paper, especially since Pius IX had condemned spiritualism.

Nevertheless, the “Exposure at Vienna,” as the incident became known, so thoroughly discredited Bastian that today the man once heralded as the world’s best and most famous medium is completely forgotten, a footnote and afterthought. Bastian continued giving private séances to true believers, who reported that his parlor tricks—voices, papier-mâché heads with cheesecloth bodies—thoroughly convinced them that ghosts were real, but he did not publicly display his talents for nobility. He became a watchword for fakery, and appeared as such in works by Rudolf Steiner, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others.

Now imagine how much good the Archdukes could have done if they had had the opportunity to expose Helena Blavatsky instead.