10 facts about the history of spiritualism

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The modern spiritualist movement, which flourished from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, centered on the belief in the existence of an afterlife where departed loved ones could communicate with the living. Its popularity led to an increase in the number of people working as psychics and psychics who claimed to be able to contact the dead and generated great public interest in attending events such as seances. This interest, however, was met with an equally strong pushback from skeptics and non-believers, sometimes with dire consequences for spiritualists who were ultimately exposed as impostors. Here are 10 facts about the history of this controversial cultural phenomenon.

Spiritualist House Fox Cottage

Fox Cottage, where the modern spiritualist movement began. /Library of Congress/GettyImages

Also known as “Hydesville Day”, March 31, 1848 was the date sisters Kate and Margaretta (or Margaret) Fox of Hydesville, New York claimed to have first contacted spirits by the sound of “rap” heard in their house. . For many years, the sisters gained fame and financial success demonstrating their “skills”. Then, in 1888, Margaret confessed that they had actually faked their act. She recanted a year later, but it was too late to save her reputation among other spiritualists, who looked down on her and shunned her.

The period in which interest in Spiritualism was at its peak also saw a number of wars which had a strong impact on America and Britain, particularly the American Civil War and, later , WWI. The sheer number of men killed in action was obviously traumatic, and people began to look for evidence of the afterlife for comfort. In the aftermath of World War I, the devastation was further compounded when the 1918 flu pandemic began to sweep the world, resulting in an estimated 50 million deaths over the next two years. The combined effects of World War I and the pandemic have sometimes been cited as one of the major reasons for the revival of spiritualism in the 1920s.

In response to the large number of reported cases of alleged spiritual activity, as well as the increase in working mediums, the Society for Psychical Research was formed in 1882 to investigate supernatural claims with scientific rigor. Its members included leading scientists and philosophers of the time, including William James (brother of novelist Henry James), John Strutt, William Crookes, Henri Bergson and Oliver Lodge. The society conducted research through a committee on phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, apparitions and hauntings (there was even a committee on haunted houses); investigated the credibility of reports and exposed fraudulent behavior – although there were also occasions when investigators concluded that they believed certain cases were legitimate.

A woman with tissue coming out of her mouth

Medium Marthe Beraud (aka Eva C) is said to expel ectoplasm during a seance, circa 1910. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Spiritualists not only wanted to communicate with the dead, they were also eager to demonstrate physical manifestations of the supernatural. This led to a growing interest in what has come to be known as “ectoplasm”, a term coined in the 1890s by Charles Richet.

Ectoplasm referred to physical substances believed to be produced by a medium’s body as a result of what he claimed was spiritual communication or other supernatural experience. However, the reality of ectoplasm has never been scientifically proven, and many examples produced by spiritualists were actually made of everyday substances like tissue or, in some cases, animal offal.

The great inventor Thomas Edison was one of many famous people who became interested in spiritualism (others included Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and suffragist Victoria Woodhull, who was also the first woman to stand for the presidency of the United States). Edison sought to analyze spiritualism from a scientific perspective and eventually devised a plan to create a “spirit telephone” that could reach those on the other side.

“I have been working for some time to build a device to see if it is possible for personalities who have left this earth to communicate with us,” the scientist said in an interview with Forbes. “If it ever be accomplished, it shall not be by occult, mystifying, mysterious, or strange means, such as are employed by the so-called mediumsbut by scientific methods.

Edison believed that energy that entered living beings existed in “swarms” that could move to new vessels after a person’s body died; he also believed that it was possible that these swarms could retain the memories and personalities of the deceased, and that there was the potential to make contact with them in their new realm. He even summoned friends to a gathering in 1920 to attempt such contact with a device he had created. Edison’s spirit phone didn’t work, but he is said to have remained open to the possibility that there might be some sort of spiritual afterlife.

Interest in Spiritualism saw the formation of social groups bringing together people who shared a fascination with the subject. One of them was the Ghost Club, which had a number of famous members, including writers Charles Dickens, WB Yeats and Siegfried Sassoon. The club still exists today.

A man sitting in a chair with what appears to be the ghost of an old woman behind him

One of the most popular aspects of the spiritualist movement was the rise of spirit photography, when photographers claimed to have captured ghosts on film. A famous example is a photograph taken by William Mumler of Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, in which Lincoln’s spirit seemed to appear in the background looking over Mary’s shoulder.

Mumler had made a name for himself—and a lot of money—from his ability to produce photographs that appeared to show people with their deceased loved ones; his fame became so great that many, including Mrs. Lincoln, sought him out. In fact, Mumler created the ghostly effect by taking photographs on plates that had already been exposed to a previous image. (He had originally discovered the effect by accident after taking a self-portrait on a plate that, unbeknownst to him, had already been exposed to someone else’s photograph.)

The level of public interest in seeing evidence of the supernatural was so high that the Spiritist movement attracted a number of con artists who saw it as an opportunity to make money – and when some were shown to falsify their claims, they were brought to justice. . A notable example is self-proclaimed seer Helen Duncan, the last person in Britain to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1735, which made it a crime to falsely claim to have awakened spirits. She was sentenced to nine months in prison.

Like spiritualism, stage magic was also popular in the Victorian era and early 20th century, but some stage magicians were highly critical of the movement and sought to distinguish between their conscious illusions and claims spiritualists of authenticity. Magician Harry Houdini, who had shown an early interest in spiritualism, later turned on him – and on psychics in general, even lobbying Congress to ban fortune tellers who tried to make money. money thanks to their supposed abilities. He also attended sessions to determine how well they performed their stunts; one of the most famous examples came when he exposed the tricks used by medium Mina Crandon.

When Crandon applied American scientist to win a $2,500 prize offered to a medium who could prove contact with spirits under the strict observation of scientists and experts, Houdini attended some of her sessions and even provided a box in which she had to demonstrate her assertions. Houdini was able to identify the true sources of Crandon’s apparent psychic powers, and after delivering his findings to the judging committee, they ultimately declined to award Crandon the award.

Some spiritualists have also claimed to have channeled the spirits of famous people through speaking panels. A notorious case concerned the medium Emily Grant Hutchings, who published a book in 1917 under the title Jap Herron: A novel written from the Ouija board, claiming that Mark Twain dictated it to him from the afterlife. Twain had in fact met Hutchings and corresponded with her while she was alive, but he himself did not believe in Spiritualism (which he called a “savage” religion) and once wrote a scathing and negative account of his experience at ‘a session. Unsurprisingly, Twain’s estate sued Hutchings, and she eventually agreed to stop publishing the book.

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