Book Review: The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker

05/19/2015 04:36 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Michael Schmicker's debut novel, The Witch of Napoli is a work of historical fiction with a paranormal twist, set in fin-de-siècle Italy and England. An investigative journalist, Schmicker hasn't strayed far from his foremost literary interest--scientific anomalies. The work is inspired by a real life story of Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), an Italian medium (see photo mid-page) known for her fantastical feats of physical mediumship which included levitating tables and other psychokinetic feats.


Schmicker masterfully evokes the bitter, science vs. religion battles of late 19th century Europe, when the public's imagination was gripped by a fever of belief in Spiritualism which offered the hope of communicating with the dead, often through séances. At the turn of the century, Spiritualism boasted more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe, mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes. They included celebrities of the day such as Sherlock Holmes' creator Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Todd Lincoln.

Thousands of ordinary people tried table tilting at home during the Golden Age of Spiritualism (1850-1920).The movement also inspired a cadre of skeptics, including Harry Houdini, who were eager to expose the tricks of fraudulent mediums--of which there were many.

The Witch of Napoli transports us to a turn of the century zeitgeist where empirical science and the supernatural collide in a burst of passion you won't soon forget.

The protagonist in Schmicker's Amazon Top 100 best-seller is the mercurial, seductive Alessandra Poverelli who levitates a table at a séance in Naples. The feat is chronicled by photographer Tommaso Labella and piques the interest of a well-to-do psychiatrist, Camillo Lombardi. Lombardi comes to Naples to investigate. Skeptical at first, after Poverelli summons the ghost of his deceased mother he is won over, hook, line and sinker.


The psychiatrist stakes his reputation and fortune to sponsor a tour of the Continent with Ms. Poverelli. This is not a circus side show; Lombardi wants no less than to force Europe's scientific and academic establishment to test Poverelli's uncanny powers. Poverelli has been praying for this break.

With funds earned from the tour she will be able to free herself from her abusive husband, Pigotti and begin a new life in Rome. Getting away from her husband is only the beginning of her great escape. She's exiting the provinciality of Naples, overcoming the confines of social class, and confronting machismo. She's in a field dominated by men, some of whom side with her while others are only too eager to see her fail and fall.

The tour has its intended effect. Newspapers across Europe cover her story and the public is abuzz with curiosity. The question on everyone's lips is whether she's real or just another very convincing fraud. Everyone from England's aristocratic Society for the Investigation of Mediums to the Vatican is poking around for answers.

Was the real life Palladino genuine or fake?


Schmicker (pictured above), the author of Best Evidence and co-author of The Gift, has studied Palladino's life and career in depth .He notes that Palladino was caught cheating multiple times, yet she also produced under extremely strict scientific controls some of the most baffling and impressive feats of psychokinesis ever observed or photographed.

If you're interesting in trying to levitate a table yourself, you're in luck. Table levitation parties are back in style today, fueled by public interest in paranormal TV shows. College kids and grannies across U.S and UK are posting videos of their table-tilting experiments on social media - Google, You Tube and Facebook - where you can watch tables move, rock, tilt, spin on one leg, and occasionally levitate into the air. "They're not scientific investigations," Schmicker laughs, "but they're a lot of fun." For a taste of that fun, check out this Irish video: