For millennia, people have believed that there is something on the other side of death, the one journey from which there is no return. As far back as 50,000 years ago our Neanderthal ancestors buried their dead in ritual funerals that included placing food and tools for the afterlife in the grave with the deceased. The monarchs of the ancient Levant, Egypt and Southern Europe, the emperors of the Incas, all were buried with their servants in hopes of being catered to in the next life.
By extension, we have always sought to communicate with the other side. The shamans of Native American tribes believed all things in nature had spirits and that it was possible to communicate with them through rituals of respect and mysticism. In modern-day Greece, you can see ancient temples with their various trap doors and secret passages used by the priests to convince people that the gods and spirits had accepted their offerings. The West African religion of vodoun and its syncretized American cousin voodoo both place emphasis on the magical ability to communicate with the spirits of one’s ancestors.
However, the concept of the seance began in the 19th century. The Fox sisters of New York started the Spiritualist movement, however inadvertently, introducing themselves to a world primed for supernatural entertainment by earlier fads and ideas. For example, many of the stunts Spiritualist mediums demonstrated were in fact pioneered by Anton Mesmer and his followers, known as mesmerists. They purported to use a phenomenon they called “Animal Magnetism” for medical cures and various parlor tricks such as table tipping. All of these demonstrations were united by the fact this is not how magnets actually behave.
Philosophically, the Spiritualists were almost predicted by Andrew Jackson Davis. Davis made a number of contributions to philosophy in the 19th century, but for this example the most important to note is the concept of the Summer-Land, a realm beyond the physical where the spirits of all those living eventually passed. A realm of eternal summer free of pain, strife, loneliness and heartache.
The Fox sisters’ stories as mediums began in 1848 in the boomtown of Hydesville, New York. Don’t bother looking for it, it doesn’t exist anymore, though at the time it was a close neighbor to Rochester. The Fox family were haunted regularly by a series of rapping noises of unknown origin. The youngest sisters, Margaret and Kate proved able to communicate with the source of the noises, getting it to answer yes or no questions with sound. A code was eventually worked out to convey complete messages.
Where it gets real interesting is when the communications revealed that the rappings were from the ghost of a traveling salesman who had been murdered and buried in the basement by the previous owner. How scandalous! The news spread like wildfire and before long, people were convinced that the two young ladies could act as mediums between our world and that of the dead.
Within a few years, mediums were springing up like dandelions. The mesmerists as I mentioned were quick to trade in one label for their parlor tricks for another. The only trouble was that trying to communicate with the spirits through codes of rappings was a long, tedious process. It didn’t take very long for mediums to start inventing new techniques of communication such as automatic writing, planchettes and talking boards.
Around the same time, seances began to incorporate celebrities, living and otherwise. The most popular celebrity guest at many seance circles, particularly those among the abolitionist movement, was none other than the spirit of Benjamin Franklin. Among those still in the mortal coil, mediums gave seances to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Todd Lincoln, Mark Twain and even the Queen of England.
With this increased attention, mediums found it necessary to set the rules of etiquette for a seance. As the manifestations became more dramatic, so too did the rules become more specific. A red flag on fire to many skeptics of the day was the dark room seances in which the room was made pitch black and no sitter was allowed to break the circle or touch anything. In hindsight, this should have been a clue to the public, but no matter how many mediums were exposed as frauds people kept going to their increasingly dramatic circles to witness physical manifestations of ghosts, levitations and spirit photography. The latter I should note was particularly audacious, considering most of the spirits in these photographs were obviously cheap 2-dimensional cutouts.
You might be thinking that it’s a little astounding the phenomenon got as far as it did. And if you’re thinking that a system this audacious hinging on so many rules obviously designed to prevent the exposure of frauds couldn’t last forever… you would be right. As mediums competed to out-do each other with ever more elaborate displays, gimmicks and manifestations, the race of escalation eventually caught up with them. Concerted efforts to debunk fraudulent mediums had been increasing over time. Spiritualism could survive a handful of scandals, but as they became more and more frequent the public started to become more and more skeptical. By the 1880’s, all but a handful of the most discreet and press-savvy mediums found work hard to come by.
The final nail in the proverbial coffin for seances as a mainstream entertainment was when an aging Margaret Fox, now an alcoholic devastated by the loss of Elisha Kent Kane, the love of her life, held an exposé in October of 1888 in which she revealed to the world that the ghostly rappings that started the whole Spiritualist phenomenon were nothing more than her and Kate secretly cracking their toe joints.
Spiritualists would continue to ply their trade, but their popularity would never be the same again. Kate Fox died in 1892 and her sister followed the next year. The same year of Kate’s death, the British Society of Psychical Research was established with an American counterpart forming 2 years later. Organized scientific scrutiny further exposed fraudulent mediums and raised public awareness of how easy it was to fake so much of the phenomena encountered in the darkness of the seance room.
Today, Spiritualism still has its believers, though small in number. The town of Lilydale, New York remains one of the last strongholds of the Spiritualist community and draws visitors from around the world to their much more low-key and less sensationalist seance circles every year. It’s a fascinating and strange chapter of American history often overshadowed by the enlightenment that followed it. Even so, the mystique and Hollywood imagery of the seance chamber still captures the imagination of millions over 150 years later. Pleasant dreams.