Spiritualists meet in an Illinois parlor room in 1906. Public domain image.
Spiritualism has become a craze, notes diarist George Templeton Strong in his May 15, 1852 entry.
Earlier that day, he had attended a séance put on by a Mrs. Fish.
Looking over all the newspaper articles and pamphlets on the subject later that night, he came across one especially unique testimonial, in which people claimed to have experienced “extraordinary visitations made them by six individuals ‘in ancient costume,’ who promenaded about for a long while and finally disappeared, leaving Hebrew and Sanskrit MSS behind them, not especially relevant to anything.”
Mr. Templeton Strong looked on the new wave of mysticism with a mixture of disdainful disbelieve and guarded puzzlement.
In just a few short years, the western world had become electrified by claims of spiritual encounters, with hundreds of so-called “mediums” offering their services to bereaved family looking to reconnect with lost loved-ones; to onlookers curious about the hubbub and to anyone else who was willing to pay the entry fee.
It had all started in March of 1848 when Kate and Margaret Fox, teenagers living in Hydesville, New York, reported something extraordinary: they had devised a means of communicating with the dead.
The Fox family lived in a small house that was reportedly haunted by the ghost of a former resident. For months, the family had awoken at night to the sounds of loud knocking. Fed up with the late-night spook, one night Kate Fox challenged the unearthly visitor to repeat the pattern she tapped out on the table.
To the amazement and horror of her family, the ghost complied. When their parents sent the teenagers away from the supernatural house to live with their cousin in Rochester, a strange thing happened – the tapping sounds followed them. Before long, the Fox sisters were touring around New York State, giving séances to all who wanted – for a price, of course.
It didn’t take long for hundreds of other mediums to become attuned to their own powers and séances spread across the nation. They were even exported to England in 1852.
Customers to a mid-19th century séance could expect to witness ghostly tapping, unearthly wails and – as Mr. Templeton Strong wrote about – the appearance of actual spooks. Like all of the best lies, Spiritualism incorporated an element of truth.
A caricature of a medium. Public domain image.
This was the era of such inventions as the electromagnet and the telegraph, of such scientific discoveries as the theory of evolution. By incorporating legitimate scientific apparatuses like these into their shows, mediums were able cloak the larger untruth in a veil of reality, lending their shenanigans some plausibility.
Journalists and skeptics, of course, attended séances in attempts to disprove the new rise of Spiritualism. Many succeeded in flushing out fakes, but no matter how many times rigorous tests pulled the white bed sheets off the phonies, the public continued to flock to these supernatural meetings.
And before you think this movement was far from the mainstream, remember that politicians, celebrities and well-to-do Americans of all types numbered among Spiritualism’s adherents. Columbia University held symposiums on the subject and in 1854, a group of New York spiritualists petitioned Congress to use their newly-installed electro-magnetic telegraph to open a line between Heaven and Earth.
The Senate tabled the proposition – in retrospect probably not wanting to disrupt their own communication between Hell and Earth.
“What would I have said six years ago,” pondered George Templeton Strong in 1855, “to anybody who predicted that before the enlightened nineteenth century was ended, hundreds of thousands of people in this country would believe themselves able to communicate with the ghost of their grandfathers?”
Spiritualism had more staying power than Templeton Strong suspected, lasting not just to the end of the 19th century, but well into the 20th. Throughout its run, it continued to attract such high-profile adherents as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame.
In the end, the most famous mediums were uncovered as fakes – the supernatural wailings found to be coming from an accomplice hiding in the wall panels, complicated mannequin-like mechanisms responsible for spooky levitations etc.
Even the grandmothers of the whole movement – the Fox sisters – were unmasked. That terrifying tapping sound that seemed to follow the sisters wherever they went? Nothing more than the completely natural, if disgusting, ability of Margaret Fox to loudly crack the joints in her toes.
Antone Pierucci is curator of history at the Riverside County Park and Open Space District and a freelance writer whose work has been featured in such magazines as Archaeology and Wild West as well as regional California newspapers.
Famed 1880s medium Mrs. Emma Harding Britten. Public domain image.