Bangs Sisters: Elizabeth S. and May Eunice

Bangs Sisters: Elizabeth S. (1859–1922) and May Eunice (b. 1853)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The early 1900s paintings of Lizzie and May Bangs are perhaps the most amazing examples of spiritual or automatic art. The portraits materialized on blank canvases, gradually taking form and color. The end result is similar to a modern airbrushed picture but with detail, especially in the eyes, unknown in portraits of that period. Examples can be seen at the Lily Dale Museum—where historian Ron Nagy is one of the country’s leading expert on the phenomena—and in Lily Dale’s Maplewood Hotel. Some of the Bangs sisters’ paintings are also in camp chesterfield, Indiana, Harmony Grove, California, and elsewhere.

May was born in 1853 and Elizabeth in 1859. Their parents were Edward and Meroe Bangs. Edward was a tinsmith. The sisters had two brothers, Edward and William. Originally from Maine, Edward and Meroe moved to Kansas and then on to Chicago, where the two sisters were born.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) S. and May Eunice Bangs were known as the Bangs Sisters and became extraordinary Spiritualist mediums. They were able to produce amazing spirit portraits in full color. They also did slate writing. They did everything in broad daylight and invariably were very carefully observed and investigated. Their production of phenomena had started when they were extremely young children, with the moving of heavy furniture and coal falling from the ceiling of their parents’ home. The production of spirit portraits did not begin until the fall of 1894.

Initially, two blank paper “canvases” mounted on frames were placed face-to-face on a table. The canvases were upright, leaning against a window. The sitter would sit beside the table, holding the edge of the canvases with one hand. The Bangs Sisters would be on the other side of the table, not touching the canvases. Curtains were drawn across the window on either side, up to the edges of the canvases, and a blind pulled down to the tops. This ensured that the only light coming into the room filtered in through the paper canvas. After a while, shadows appeared on the translucent surface, as though an artist was doing preliminary sketches. Then color would be seen rapidly covering the canvas. When the canvases were separated, there would be a beautiful portrait on one, with no smudges of paint on the other still-plain one. The painting would be an extremely lifelike portrait of a deceased relative of the sitter.

In a letter to a Mr. James Coates, dated September 17, 1910, May Bangs wrote:

The room is shaded sufficiently to cause all the light from the window to pass through the canvas, thus enabling the sitter to witness the development and detect the least change in the shadows. No two sittings are exactly alike. Usually in the development of a portrait the outer edges of the canvas become shadowed, showing different delicately colored lines, until the full outline of the head and shoulders is seen. When the likeness is sufficiently distinct to be recognized, the hair, drapery and other decorations appear. In many cases, after the entire portrait is finished, the eyes gradually open, giving a life-like appearance to the whole face.

Later the portraits were produced in full daylight, often on a stage with a single canvas propped up facing the audience. The sitter, often picked at random from the audience, would sit on one side, not touching the table. One or both of the Bangs Sisters would sit on the other side, some distance from the table and canvas and never touching or even approaching them. The painting would manifest fairly quickly, much like a Polaroid photograph develops, and would be a portrait of a relative of the randomly chosen audience member.

Art experts have examined the portraits and cannot explain the media used. It is not paint, ink, pastel, nor any known substance. The media looks as though it has been applied with a modern air brush and has the consistency of the powder on butterfly wings. Admiral W. Usborne Moore, in Glimpses of the Next State (London, 1911), said: “The stuff of which the picture is composed is damp, and rubs off at the slightest touch, like soot, it comes off on the finger, a smutty oily substance.” The portraits were produced in a matter of minutes when artists who have studied them have stated they should have taken many hours, if not days, to complete. Some sitters would mentally request that such an item as a flower in the hair be added, and it would appear. Eyes in the portraits would often be closed at first and then open later. Although most sitters were requested to bring with them a photograph of the deceased, they were never asked to actually produce it and the portraits were not copies of those photographs, in style or pose. The subject in the portrait would be wearing different clothing, have a different facial expression and even be at a different age from that in the photograph. Lyman C. Howe, a writer and lecturer, said that he had placed an envelope behind the canvases. The envelope contained two photographs of his loved one Maude. The Bangs sisters had never seen the woman or the photographs. The envelope was not opened. Yet the finished portrait—unlike either photograph—was more lifelike than any photograph Howe had ever seen. He mentally asked that Maude have a yellow rose in her hair and her name written at the foot of the picture. Although he told no one of these requests, both were carried out.

In the early 1900s the Bangs Sisters also produced amazing spirit writing, which was scrutinized and analyzed by Sir William Crookes, the physicist. Many frauds tried, unsuccessfully, to duplicate the performances of the Bangs Sisters and many skeptics tried to explain away the phenomena, but without success.

An interesting characteristic of the paintings was that they might change in detail after initially being produced. As Elizabeth Owens reports: “When Mrs. Gertrude Breslan Hunt, an economic and social lecturer from Norwood Park, Illinois, visited the Bangs sisters in 1909, she requested several changes during her sitting.

Here’s what happened: While the painting was in process, Mrs. Hunt kept her eyes on the canvas so she could verify that no human hand had ever touched it. The background of the painting appeared first, then the whole face. Mrs. Hunt objected to the pose and asked that it be full face. The entire face obediently faded away and was rapidly resketched. Mrs. Hunt then commented that the hair was too light and the cheeks should be more colorful. As she sat observing, the shadows began to intensify in the waves of the hair until it darkened, the cheeks gained more color and the sleeves of the robe were also altered.” It took only a few hours for Mrs. Hunt’s painting to be completed, yet the quality was such that an artist later examining it said that he could not have finished a picture of the same excellence in less than three days, even if he worked on it for eight hours per day.


Buckland, Raymond: Buckland’s Book of Spirit Communications. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2004
Heagerty, N. Riley: The Physical Mediumship of the Bangs Sisters. Swadlincote: Noah’s Ark Society Newsletter, 1997
Moore, W. Usborne: Glimpses of the Next State. London: Watts, 1911
Owens, Elizabeth: The Phenomena of Psychic Art. Lakeville: FATE Magazine, April 2004