Efram Sera-Shriar is an historical anthropologist who specialises in Victorian science. He is an Associate Professor in English studies at the University of Copenhagen, where he teaches the history and culture of the English-speaking world. Dr. Sera-Shriar has authored The Making of British Anthropology, 1813-1871 from 2013, and his recent 2022 monograph, Psychic Investigators: Anthropology, Modern Spiritualism, and Credible Witnessing in the Late Victorian Age. He’s been a senior editor for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project since its inception, and has published dozens of articles and book chapters. While he continues to write about the history of modern spiritualism broadly, his current research explores the relationship between British and Japanese science during the nineteenth century.
If you had the ability to tour the nineteenth century for one hour, and you could visit as many places / attend as many events as possible, regardless of distance, how would you build your itinerary?
I would visit 61 Lambs Conduit Street near Russell Square, London, which was the apartment of the famed psychic duo Frank Herne and Charles Williams. The pair were renowned for producing ‘spirit apports,’ an incredible feat wherein regular everyday objects suddenly appeared inside locked séance rooms without any apparent human intervention. I would love to hold a sitting with them and witness it.
What is your favourite mode of nineteenth-century transportation?
Although not strictly a nineteenth-century form of transportation, I’ve always been fascinated by diving bells. These contraptions were specially designed chambers (shaped like bells) that allowed divers to explore the depth of the sea and do underwater work. During the closing decades of the eighteenth century, the Scottish amateur engineer Charles Spalding made some improvements to the diving bell design. He added extra balancing weights, and a system of ropes for communicating with a surface crew. Tragically, Spalding and his nephew suffocated while using a diving bell to do some salvage work off the coast of Dublin in 1783, but nevertheless, people continued to use his diving bell design during the nineteenth century.
What nineteenth-century sound would you love to hear?
During the nineteenth century, there was a famous spirit entity known as ‘Katie King,’ who regularly appeared at séances. Allegedly King spoke with sitters during sittings, and her voice has been described as soft and whispery. I would love to hear it!
If you threw a nineteenth-century-themed party, what would it be like, and what would it be for?
If I were to host a nineteenth-century-themed party it would obviously be a séance. In fact, as part of the activities for the AHRC-funded project The Media of Mediumship, that I co-led with Prof. Christine Ferguson at the University of Stirling, we recreated a Victorian séance with the help of professional magicians. Basically, the magicians simulated some of the extraordinary phenomena people claimed to have witnessed during sittings with psychics. It was a lot of fun, and we even produced a short documentary about the recreation titled Séance: A View through the Veil.