The Victorian Age was a time when society was obsessed with death and the afterlife. At this time, memento mori jewelry was very popular. A passion for spiritualism also engulfed both Britain and the USA. But while Victorian spiritualism offered the opportunity to talk to the dead, it also provided another benefit to repressed women in society: it gave them a platform to speak their minds.
The spiritualism craze
To understand women’s roles within spiritualism, it is important first to understand how and why it appealed to the general public.
In the 19th century, between four and eleven million Americans identified as Spiritualists. While some of this might be down to con artists and easy marks, the movement also found favor among notable names. Marie and Pierre Curie as well as biologist Alfred Russel Wallace championed it, feeling that scientists had a role in proving spiritualism rather than discrediting it.
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote over a dozen books on the subject. In fact, about one book a week was published on the subject, and regular periodicals advertised lectures and seances. Even Queen Victoria attended seances.
Around 20% to 40% of children born in the mid-19th century died before they reached the age of five, and initially, spiritualism was embraced by grieving fathers and mothers. With the average size of a family beginning to decrease, the loss of a child was felt even more keenly, and spiritualism offered consolation to grieving families.
The Fox sisters
In her book Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, Emily Midorikawa states that spiritualism had quite humble roots, some of which rested with the Fox sisters.
Margaretta Fox (14) and Catherine Fox (11) claimed that they heard knockings and tappings made by a spiritual guide called Mr. Splitfoot. They asserted he had been murdered for money five years ago and was buried in their cellar.
When they first started out in March 1848, Mr. Splitfoot communicated simply with different raps for yes and no in answer to questions put to him. Then he advanced to communicating through letters of the alphabet. By 1849, a paying audience of 400 people gathered in the Corinthian Hall in Rochester to see the sisters demonstrating this ethereal communication.
Women as natural mediums
Historian Alex Owen (as quoted in a 2016 article on the Lady Science website) suggests that because women had little power in the Victorian world, they were particularly drawn to spiritualism because their participation in the movement as mediums earned them some respect.
For centuries, women had been relegated to the domestic sphere and stereotyped as being more emotional and passive than men — attributes that made them perfect for mediumship. And because being a medium wasn’t exactly stepping outside the bounds of acceptable femininity, these women were tolerated, listened to, and even admired by society.
Most mediums would hold seances, including private ones for families as well as in public venues. For the more public displays, the medium could use the assumed identity of a spirit guide to put forward their own opinions on current issues in disguise.
Many mediums had spirit guides who had been enslaved African Americans or Native Americans. If the medium was in favor of abolition, their spirit guide would relate terrible stories of mistreatment. But if the medium supported the slave trade, their spirit guides were full of stories of forgiveness in the afterlife or would maintain that racial inequalities continued after death, thus legitimizing them in life.
A seedier side to seances
While a contributing factor to spiritualism’s popularity was undoubtedly the high mortality rate, there was also a more mundane explanation: entertainment. A seance could be a shocking and visually amazing experience. Some mediums claimed to be able to channel not just deceased family members, but also Martin Luther and George Washington. Some mediums even carried out their seances naked.
However, while some scientists fully supported the movement, there were those — especially doctors — who believed that the mediums’ habit of acting strangely while being a vessel for a spirit amounted to nothing more than hysteria or sexual deviancy.
In an effort to prove their authenticity, some mediums would willingly allow doctors to examine and study them. But that could be a humiliating experience where the medium lost all the authority she had and merely became a subject to study.
The Lady Science article reports that when a panel of researchers was studying Leonora Piper, they were more interested in hearing what the channeled spirit of a man had to say than what Piper herself had to say.
Mystery of the woman’s body
In her dissertation Talking Nonsense: Spiritual Mediums and Female Subjectivity in Victorian and Edwardian Canada, Claudie Massicotte of The University of Western Ontario highlights a link between women’s bodies and the skepticism surrounding mediums.
She draws a comparison with the case of Marie “Blanche” Wittman. Blanche was a patient at the Salpêtrière hospital for women being treated by Jean-Martin Charcot. She became known as the Queen of Hysterics after her attacks and hypnosis by Charcot were demonstrated at public lectures.
While Wittmann suffered from convulsions and temporary bouts of paralysis, most interestingly, she suffered from dermographism. This is a form of urticaria where words and images could be inscribed onto the skin of sufferers. In one experiment in August 1878, the doctors used a stylus to write “Salpêtrière” on her skin. When the redness of the inscription went away, the letters remained.
Massicotte compares this condition to ectoplasmic extrusions from mediums, stating: “both the hysterics’ dermographic skin and the medium’s ectoplasmic seances present a transformation of the body’s surface into a speaking organ.”
Just as the doctors studied and experimented on Wittmann’s skin, so skeptics and other doctors would photograph and probe at the bodies of mediums to try and prove or discredit the ectoplasm that appeared from them.
Some mediums became more famous thanks to experts
In 1922, Scientific American assembled a committee of academics and psychic experts, offering $5,000 to anyone who could produce a piece of psychic phenomenon that would convince each member of the panel.
When Mina Crandon came before the panel, she divided the experts on the question of her authenticity. Crandon’s seances were attended by elite members of Boston society. She would channel her dead brother, levitate tables, and produce ectoplasm from her mouth and between her legs (something easily witnessed since that she conducted her seances naked).
Some members of the committee were accused of having been sexually coerced into supporting her validity. Despite being denied the united approval of the Scientific American panel, Crandon’s fame continued to grow.
Another medium who benefited from investigation was Leonora Piper, also from Boston. William James was a founding member of The American Society for Psychical Research in 1885. While conducting a seance with James’s family, Piper revealed that “Aunt Kate” was present. A few hours later, the family received a telegram stating that Aunt Kate had died the night before.
Piper had made a lasting impression on James. According to Deborah Blum’s book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, he once said: “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My own white crow is Mrs. Piper.”
More appealing than church
As a belief system, spiritualism appealed to some more than traditional religion. After all, Spiritualists were only required to believe in the afterlife; they didn’t need to follow any creeds during their lifetime. In return for that belief, they were given a mixture of entertainment and solace from grief.
However, the passion for it eventually began to fade as mediums were discredited and spirit photos debunked. Unusually, it was Maggie Fox herself who discredited the Fox Sisters. In 1888, she revealed that the whole thing had been a hoax.
She demonstrated, on-stage and attended by physicians, how she and her sister had created the strange tappings and rappings by clicking the joints of their toes. Although she retracted her confession the following year, the damage was done.
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Spiritualism is still present in the world today, but not as widespread or sensational as once it was. Rather than extravagant shows in big concert halls, Spiritualists tend to gather in more religious venues, such as the Golden Gate Spiritualist Church or the Summerland Church of Light on Long Island.
It’s unlikely that Spiritualism will ever completely fade away. While people continue to fear death, a movement that promises proof of the afterlife and the continued existence of the soul will always appeal to some.