Spiritualism: the Spooky Movement of the 1800s

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Mystics seeking answers. Women touching on empowerment. Charlatans lusting after easy money. Depending on your viewpoint, all of these people made up the spiritualist movement.

Spiritualism is defined as “a system of religious beliefs centered on the assumption that communication with the dead, or spirits, is possible.” The movement took the European world by storm in the mid-1800s. Following the thread of reason for spiritualism’s wild popularity can make the researcher a little dizzy.

The world at that time was riding the first waves of the Industrial Revolution. Underground trains, movie projectors, telegraphs and cars were new technologies. The repression of the Victorian era was starting to collide with the demand for social reforms. The new phenomenon of smog was choking the lungs of London’s inhabitants. Women demanded political equality. Activists called for the humane treatment of children and prisoners. Somewhere, hidden in Whitechapel’s darkness, the possibility of violent serial killing was being born. And on the horizon, just distant enough to be ignored if one tried hard enough, a war of worldwide proportions was starting to take shape.

In the struggle against old restrictive religions and traditional ways of working, Europeans were reaching out for new understandings, new rules – even new sciences. Phrenology – the study of the bumps on one’s skull – and mesmerism enjoyed a rush of popularity as Man strove to understand the workings of the mind. Psychology joined the fray. Investigations of the mind were somehow reassuring. This was controllable. This could reaffirm Man’s place in the world and, eventually, even help argue against social reform as one type of human could be argued to be superior to another due to solid physical evidence. For example, men’s brains were larger than women’s, so, clearly men were the smarter gender. No vote, no equality, no voice, next questions please.

It should perhaps not be a surprise, then, that it was the stifled voices of women that would first start to communicate with the dead.

People in Europe had a very different relationship with Death than we ever had here in America. They wrote comedic graveyard scenes into their novels. Lethal diseases became the stuff of nursery rhymes. Photos were taken of the dead and kept as mementos of loved ones. There was, from culture to culture, an ongoing relationship with the dead, and so perhaps it makes a sense of sorts that actual physical communication between this world and the next should be the brainchild of America, the baby-country with no history of art or culture to help define its world-view.

The roots of the spiritualist movement are generally said to have taken hold in New York, under the roof of John D. Fox. His daughters, Katherine and Margaret, decided at the tender ages of 6-1/2 and 8 to start pretending to channel spirits. The sounds of mysterious rapping’s was evidence enough that the girls’ powers were real, and by the time Margaret was 13, the Fox sisters were making public appearances to demonstrate their amazing ability to communicate with the dead.

Eventually, Margaret would publicly admit that the whole thing was a sham. In this, she was far more honest than her Salem predecessors. However, the need to believe is often greater than the need to listen, and her claims of charlatanism did very little to stem the popularity of séances.

The sounds of knocks and thuds were impressive enough evidence of mediumistic skill. But people have always wanted bigger better faster, and so people on both sides of the ocean started looking for new ways to give voice to ghostly voices.

Automatic writing – taking a pen and letting it move free-hand across pages of paper, hoping for messages from beyond to appear in the scribbles – was a very popular method of communication. Encouraging a medium to fall into a trance in hopes of hearing unworldly voices speak from her slumbering body, or mysterious vapors to emit from her mouth, was the most dramatic technique available. Using photographic equipment to attempt to capture the images of ghosts on film was attempted. Elaborate tables were devised and constructed to allow spirits – with the help of a human agent – to spell out answers to questions. This method was tedious but effective, and led to the creation of the infamous Ouija board that is still used today by psychics and bored teenagers to reach out to the dead in hopes of enlightenment or amusement.

Moving into the very early 1900s, spiritualism evolved just a bit. Two girls, playing with a camera in their garden, claimed to be photographing fairies. Today, the photos are very clearly frauds; at the time, and true to the history of believing the fanciful claims of young women, an amazing number of people believed the girls were telling the truth and embraced this as yet more proof that there is more going on around us than our practical minds can bear to consider.

Looking at the history of spiritualism, it can be a little difficult to see how anyone could take all of this seriously. How could superstition be mixed with science to create as powerful a movement as spiritualism – something that would exist, in varied forms, for nearly 200 years? The list of supporters and believers in spiritualism is, frankly, staggering. Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens experimented with trance. Quaker abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post loudly supported the work of mediums and channeled spirits themselves. One of the most surprising supporters of the movement was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Creator of Sherlock Holmes, military hero, medical doctor, and at one time the most well paid author in England, Doyle moved from skeptic to believer and became one of the most influential advocates of mediums and fairy-photographers. He self-published numerous works on the field and lost the friendship of magician Harry Houdini, who fought just as hard to disprove the power of mediums as Doyle fought to support them.

In the end, a belief in spiritualism is about hope. Hope that we can continue to have a relationship with those that have passed away. Hope that, even when the world around is in chaotic flux, there is something beyond all of this that connects our souls and minds. Hope that we have a voice above and beyond our gender, social position, or age. Hope that there is still magic in this world. And if we can just find the right way to reach out, we can touch the hem of all the supernatural fancies we dream of encountering.

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