If you have ever been involved in a seance or used a Ouija board or otherwise tried to contact the souls of the deceased, you have tabled in the practices of spiritualism.
What is Spiritualism?
The craze of the occult known as spiritualism swept the English-speaking world over the years from 1840 -1920. It began in upstate New York but by the turn of the century Spiritualism had almost 10 million followers in Europe and the United States. It’s followers were mainly the upper and middle class.
The basic ideas behind Spiritualism say that the spirits of the dead want to communicate with the living. They are eager to talk and have a lot of wisdom. Spiritualists turn towards the deceased for guidance on philosophical and personal issues.
Although it is associated with eccentricity from flamboyant mediums and the reputation of wild seances, Spiritualism was viewed as a religion by its participants.
It wasn’t as organized as traditional religions and drew in many progressive women. Suffragettes and supporters of women’s rights found comfort and friendship through spiritualism.
Even Spiritualism has its roots in religion, the growth and recognition began to gain popularity in the secular world. The Spiritualist Movement began to grow in popular culture, especially as curiosity gained hold.
This growth began in the post- Civil War environment as families were desperate to contact with the members lost through war. Even Mary Todd Lincoln held seances in the White House.
Skeptics were put off by the popularity of the afterlife. London had a Ghost Club that investigated the paranormal activity. This Club featured Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens in their numbers. This Club still investigates the para normal to this very day.
The spiritualist’s claims of the Antebellum era were made ager pupils of those who studied the pure sciences. They were fascinated by the idea that foreign spirits could be channeled by a human being on this plane. The result of this was the publications of studies of the paranaromal featured in academic journals.
The scientific community was shocked and amazed that their colleagues were conducting practical research in this topic. Some scientists began to work on exposing spiritualism as a fraudulent. Some actually became believers.
Spiritualism and Showmanship
The popularity of Spiritualism lay in the seance. The seance was a popular entertainment among the upper and middle class. There would be a dinner party and for the post dining entertainment a medium with a well perfumed air of eccentricity would seat people around a table after instruction you to hold hands. She would use a mystical incantation to put herself in a trance to bring on the spirits. When the spirits took hold, the medium would speak in a voice different than her own and would move in a much different manner than her own. This indicated that she was channeling a spirit.
Some mediums would call spirits that would be able to move and rattle the furniture. One famous event was rapping noises. The Fox Sisters became famous for channel led spirits and people traveled all over the world to see this . Some mediums would be able to get spirits to leave behind ectoplasm as proof of their existence.
Why are Seances and Mediums So Different Today?
Seances and readings are not as theatrical today as they were at the turn of the century.
This due to the many readings and seances that were considered fraudulent. Channeling a dead spirit is complicated business and mediums prefer to act as a go between for the spirit and living world. Some spirits are not at all cooperative or even very clear. Some are just downright unhelpful.
Mediums must have skill and training and luck. When Spiritualism was at the height of its popularity, con artists took great advantage of people who were interested in both the chills and thrills of Seances and readings.
These theatrics did indeed draw an audience but brought with it skepticism and doubt. This eventually destroyed the popularity of the industry. The 1922 tell-all book Revelations of a Spirit Medium, broke the veil of mystery as it disclosed the secrets of these con artists. The fanciful events were as entertain as theatre because it was theatre.
The Modern Face of Spiritualism
After the debunking of the con artists, public interest declined and seances and legitimate mediums were few and far between as Word Word II approached.
The legitimate mediums and dedicated practicers of Spiritualism survived. Psychics accept that spirits exist and have things to share with the living world. Their contact with us is personal and not showy as it was a hundred years ago. For today’s spiritualist, the thrill is in contacting the spirit.