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Spirit Trumpets on Summers Street

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Harry Houdini and Annie Benninghofen

On August 12, 1920 the Charleston Daily Mail, a local newspaper for the Charleston, WV area, ran a small article announcing the ‘considerable attention’ a plumbing shop on Summers Street was attracting. It seems as if this plumbing shop had hopped on the Spiritualist bandwagon by displaying a selection of ‘spook horns’ in it’s front window. The article goes on to explain that these spirit horns were used by psychic mediums who spoke in one end while the listener held the other end.

This lil’ plumbing shop on Summers Street was somewhat behind the times (as we so often are, still to this day in West Virginia!). Spirit trumpets had been around for over 20 years already, since the late 1800′s. They were created to solve a problem—during seances, spirits just seemed to have a really hard time having their voices heard. They spoke in garbled whispers, barely able to be understood by the human ear. So in response, mediums began fashioning amplifying devices to better hear the messages from beyond.

It is believed that the first spirit trumpet was created and named by Nahum, the son of famed Spiritualist medium, Jonathan Koons of Athens County, Ohio. It was certainly Koons who really made the use of the spirit trumpet popular among seance circles.

Charleston Daily Mail
12 August 1920

In the early days, spirit trumpets were generally homemade from metal or even cardboard. However, as they grew in popularity, their designs became more elaborate, with some even featuring glow in the dark rings at the end.  That was so you could actually SEE them floating through the air in the pitch dark of the seance room! Also, different makers began offering them for sale commercially. Everett Atwood Eckel was one of the first to do so, and sold the spirit trumpets in his tin shop, located in Anderson, Indiana. I assume that’s the story with our plumbing shop in Charleston, WV. One wouldn’t necessarily think to associate a plumbing service with contacting the dead (although maybe today you would, as the Jason and Grant from TAPS/Ghost Hunters were plumbers by day, investigators by night!) but if you think about it, a plumbing shop would be the perfect business to have the materials and skills necessary to fashion out skinny metal cones…whatever their intended purpose might be. But, perhaps there is more of a connection there. Maybe the owner belonged to the Spiritualist Church of Charleston (which I’ll be blogging about at a later time). Or maybe they were taking advantage of their close proximity to the Plaza Theater on Summers Street, which regularly hosted performers such as Leona LaMar, The Girl with 1000 Eyes

Whatever the motive behind this plumbing shop featuring ‘spook horns’ may have been, the fact that they did so and it was documented in the local paper is just another testament to Charleston’s spooky past and West Virginia’s connection to the Spiritualist movement as a whole.

For more info on spirit trumpets:

How Victorian Mediums Gave Shy Ghosts a Megaphone, by Sabrina Imbler. 23 October 2019. Atlas Obscura.


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