The old school tricks of deception - Rapping

18th January 2019. Reading Time: 5 minutes Stuff paranormal investigators need to know, General, Paranormal Investigation. 4606 page views. 2 comments.

During the spiritualist era starting in the mid 1800's, there was a new interest in people trying to make contact with their loved ones through seance. Sadly, a lot of the mediums performing these seances were frauds and used some very creative tricks of deception to convince their audience that they were the real deal. Let's explore some of the techniques that were used to recreate rapping and how we can be mindful during modern day paranormal investigating.

Harry Houdini one of the most famous magicians in the world himself moonlighted as a makeshift medium in his early career. He would later admit his shame at deliberately deceiving the bereaved and decided to make it his mission to expose the deception of mediums.

From my early career as a mystical entertainer I have been interested in Spiritualism as belonging to the category of mysticism, and as a side lone to my own phase of mystery shows I have associated myself with mediums, joining the rank and file and held seances as an independent medium to fathom the truth of it all. At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness os it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime. Harry Houdini - A Magician Among the Spirits

Some of the tricks he exposed or wrote about were very simple muscle and joint movements to make a noise that people would perceive as 'rapping', while others were much more elaborate. These are just some of the tricks that were used.


Rapping was a sound first made famous by the Fox sisters. They would ask the spirit to make a noise '1 rap for no and 3 raps for yes'. While the Fox sisters spent decades fooling the world, in 1888 Margaret Fox Kane published a confession in the Sunday edition of the New York World on October 21, 1888 followed by a public demonstration to expose the 'Spiritualistic Phenomena' her and her sister had created since they were 8 years old. After first putting on a performance in front of over 2000 people at the Academy of Music, she brought out a wooden stool. She removed her shoe and put her foot on the top of the stool. She demonstrated how the rappings were the result of controlling the muscles of the leg below the knee to move the toe and ankle bones. It is something that is only possible when a child is able to do it from a young age and must continuously manipulate the muscles as they get stiff over time and adults generally can't do it if this has not been maintained. The rappings started however by simple knuckle and joint movements. Rapping was essentially cracking bones.

Another easy way people would fool with rapping was for the medium to place their thumbs close together so that one nail is on top of the other. When the thumbs are pressed hard on the table, if a nail was to slip up or down, it would sound like a distinct rap coming from the top of the table. Other mediums would slide their knee up and down against the leg of the table. Some female mediums would fasten blocks of wood to their knee under their skirt and bang their knee sideways on the leg of the table hitting the wood onto the leg of the table. They also used the heel of their shoe to hit the table as well. While these were very simple ways to reproduce a rapping noise, some concocted actual devices to help them create a 'rapping noise'.

One device commonly used was a small hollow metal tube where a long heavy needle is used to move up and down like a piston would. A piece of black thread was attached which was used to operate it. The tube was put inside the leg of a man's trousers. The free end of the thread has a small hook on it. After the medium would sit down at the table, they would attach the hook to the opposite trouser leg and pull on it until the needlepoint comes through the cloth. The needle would then be pressed into the cork at the bottom of the device which has been attached to a piece of lead. All he needs to do then is place his knee close to the table and by moving his other leg back and forth, it makes the piston move up and down to create the rapping noise. If it sounds a bit complicated, this diagram will help.

Another device used was in the actual heel of the shoe of the medium. It was operated electrically by running a wire from up through the sole of the shoe and passing it between the back of the shoe and the foot and up the leg to where a battery was in their pocket. By placing the heel against a leg of a table, the raps can be made to sound like they are coming from the middle of the table thanks to the way sound would travel through the wood.

It is very simple to make a noise be it by contraption or your own body. While we live in a world today that does have deception, you don't typically see these tricks used intentionally during a paranormal investigation. That doesn't mean though that people aren't mistaking these very same noises and actions as something paranormal. Joints and muscles make noises. A simple movement could cause noise. Sitting at a table, it is possible to accidentally hit the table. Sometimes people may be aware they have accidentally made a noise. They may feel embarrassed or not wanting to interrupt the investigation and may not own up to it. Whenever there is some sort of sound, as investigators we need to first try and find the source before concluding it is paranormal. Try and recreate the sound. Ask if anyone moved or knocked something. Usually, just by asking, they will own up. While this kind of deception is not necessarily used intentionally to the degree it was back then if we are aware of the techniques used, it actually makes us better investigators. I would never really have considered that someone cracking a knuckle or flicking their nails could be misinterpreted but when thinking about it in context absolutely it could be a very simple explanation to some of the small noises we hear.

These are only scratching the surface of some of the techniques spiritualist mediums used. In the next instalment, we will look at table levitation. It can be much simpler than you think! In the meantime, what other noises do you think could explain 'rapping'?

Article Source: A Spirit Among Magicians by Harry Houdini

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  • Trish 5 years ago

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  • Trish 5 years ago

    I just started to follow you on Twitter and I just wanted to say I love you're articles! They are very interesting!