Sunday, December 28, 2014

Spiritualism: Talking With the Dead

This movement was based upon the idea that the dead could communicate with the living.

It had a broad appeal because it was hailed as proof that there was “life after death.”

Spiritualism attracted 2 million followers by 1855 and quickly became a religion. It fueled an explosive interest in mediums and séances both in England and America.

Terms such as, Talking Boards, table tipping and automatic writing became part of the vernacular.

The Fox Sisters

The Fox sisters.
The Spiritualism movement began in Hydesville, New York in 1848. It was here that two sisters, Katie and Margaret Fox claimed they spoke to a murdered man who haunted their home.

The two sisters clapped their hands in response to the ghostly “raps” they heard.

They found they could communicate with this spirit a peddler who told them a former owner of the house they lived in had slashed his throat. He stated he was buried in the cellar.

The family invited neighbors in to view this phenomenon and it wasn’t long before the press had sensationalized the story.

Katie and Margaret’s stern older sister Leah took charge and managed her sisters as they traveled  from city to city sharing “spirit demonstrations.”

Despite the fact that the Fox sisters were routinely called out as frauds no “trickery” was ever discovered. Their popularity increased.

At one point P. T. Barnum brought the girls to New York to perform. Horace Greeley, editor of the Tribune, let them stay at his mansion.

Fox cottage in Hydesville.
By the mid 1850s fame had taken its toll on both sisters. They both became alcoholics.

Margaret converted to Catholicism and wanted to leave the act but family pressure kept her in. She went into a deep depression when her fiancé died before they could marry.

Leah married a wealthy businessman and left the act in 1857. Katie married an Englishman, and had two sons. When her husband died she returned to New York.

By the 1880s interest in Spiritualism began to wane in the United States.

Margaret under investigation for fraud in 1884 failed the tests a commission provided.

In 1888, Margaret denounced Spiritualism as fraud. She stated she and Katie had created the rappings in Hydesville to play a trick on their mother.

The two sisters now toured to “expose” Spiritualism. Katie continued to work as a medium during this time. Leah maintained a low profile.

Devoted followers of Spiritualism stated that Margaret was just sick and raving. Katie who rarely spoke now stated she did not agree with her sister.

In 1891, Margaret recanted her confession probably out of guilt.

Some felt that Margaret had just made the story up to take revenge on Leah who was a taskmaster and had Katie's sons taken away from her because she was an "unfit mother."

Leah died in 1890. Katie drank herself to death. She died at the age of 55 in 1892. Margaret ill and destitute, died in 1893 at the age of 59. 

Example of table tipping.

Some Positive Outcomes

By the turn of the 20th century Spiritualism ceased to be widespread but it remains an energetic religion in Britain, the United States, and Latin America.

Following the sensation of the Fox sisters, mediums and spiritualistic journals thrived.

Séances became the rage. Not all were performed publically. Family and friends would gather privately and conduct Home Circles.

Mediums were most often women. This allowed them to play a new role in society. In Victorian England this meant freedom from many societal constraints placed upon women.

In America the concept of equality espoused in Spirit teachings attracted members of the suffrage movement. Victoria Woodhull, Elisabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe were spiritualists.

Susan B. Anthony was also inclined in this direction.

Despite the fact that scientists felt that Spiritualism did not provide proof of the soul and its immortality this early psychical research did establish that paranormal phenomena does occur.

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