Probably the biggest new religious/occult movement to arise in the Victorian era was Spiritualism. Certainly several new offshoots of Christianity formed during this period, particularly in the US where due to The Second Great Awakening a number of new Christian movements and Mormonism sprang up. Spiritualism was however, not an actual form of Christianity. While many Spiritualists were Christians, most churches denounced Spiritualism with great fervor.
Spiritualism revolved around communication with the dead through mediums. It posited knowledge about non earthly matters could be obtained through direct correpsondance with those on “the other side”. Sceances? Mediums? Spirit Guides? Channeling? Hell even Ouiji boards… all these are brought to you by Spiritualism. You’re welcome. Many, many principles found in the New Age movement thought be traced to Spiritualism as their source, although many concepts were funneled through later movements like Theosophy, which we’ll get to at the end of this discussion.
Basically, in the Victorian era, dead people were all the rage.
Spiritualism was primarily concerned with communication with the dead. It considered itself quite a scientific “religion” or movement, as it did not ask anyone to believe in anything based on blind faith, but on actual witnessed phenomenon and communication with non living entities. Mediums conducting sceances where the communication with the dead was acheived first with “rappings”, which evolved eventually into outright channeling.
Interestingly, contributing to spiritualism’s meteoric rise was the fact that women were actually in positions of prominence. Most of the mediums were women. It was an era where women, wearing corsets and tightly controlled by rigid societal rules and obligations, were struggling to have some say and power in society. The suffragette movement was desperately fighting to give women the simple power to vote, and throughout society women could have no place of authority (except of course in the home where as raisers of children and perhaps teachers they could exert the type of influence that the Good Lord meant for them to exert).
In the Victorian era especially, women were more likely to attend church then men and were the main instigators in families attending church regularly. Yet they had no real positions of prominence in the church whatsoever. So it is no surprise that when a movement arose with women in the center, leading the movement’s way, it would be heartily embraced by other women of the era, many of whom were the same ones supporting the Suffragette movement.
Which is not to say that Spiritualists were predominantly women. Just as many were men, fascinated by the phenomenon and looking for secrets and answers given from the dead. However, as said, what is notable is that all the mediums central to the movement were women.
While Spiritualism became huge in Victorian Britain, it actually started in the US, in upstate New York with 3 teenage girls.
In the township of Arcadia lived the Fox sisters. In 1848, 15 year old Maggie and 12 year old Kate discovered that when they clapped their hands, raps would sound back. They demonstrated this to neighbors and eventually a system was worked out where a spirit could rap Yes, No or the letters of the alphabet to communicate. The spirit claimed to be Charles Rosa, a peddler who had been murdered by the previous owner of the house, John Bell. Later examination did indeed find human remains buried in the cellar.
The local media went crazy.
The girls had an older sister, Leah. Leah was living in Rochester in utter poverty since her husband had abandoned her. As soon as she heard of the all the local hubbub surrounding her sisters, she swept in to take care of and then manage them and it is from here their rise to international fame began.
Their hometown was in a tizzy over the girls and their abilities and so they went to live in Rochester. The rapping followed them. Leah took them to see some notable people including the Quaker couple Isaac and Amy Post who became convinced of the girl’s abilities. The first core constituency of what became Spiritualists arose then, made up of Quakers. Quakers were fiercely anti slavery and in favor of women’s rights and thus these concepts became tied to Spiritualism early on.
Leah devised fee charging exhibitions. The money and notoriety poured in. They toured. Numerous attempts were made to uncover some sort of trickery but none could be found. Some scientists, serious reporters and journalists were even impressed, including Horace Greenley, editor of the New York Tribune, who invited the girls to stay in his mansion.
As the girls’ fame blossomed other women began to come forward, claiming they too could instigate rapping from the dead. Seances began to become all the rage. At first rapping was the only method of communication, but soon this changed and other methods such as automatic writing were introduced. This led to table tippings, levitations, apports (the paranormal transportation of an object from one place to another), materialization and eventually to channeling. By 1855 Spiritualism had grown to encompass 2 million followers on both sides of the Atlantic.
We shall get into the height of Spiritualism tomorrow. First however, we must finish the story of the Fox sisters.
Margaret and Katy, just as hyper famous girls of today do, early on discovered alcohol. By 1888 fame had been a part of their lives for 40 years, they had been married several times, and they both had serious drinking problems. Margaret was contemplating returning to Catholicism as she began to feel her powers were diabolical in nature.
Leah and some other leading Spiritualists became concerned Katy’s alcoholism posed a threat to her children and this led to an enormous quarrel between Katy, Margaret, and Leah and the Spiritualists.
Thus Katy and Margaret went to new York and accepted $1,500 from a reporter to expose themselves as frauds. They proclaimed it was an act all along, and the rappings were produced by cracking their toe joints. Margaret even gave a toe cracking exhibition.
“That I have been chiefly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of Spiritualism upon a too-confiding public, most of you doubtless know. The greatest sorrow in my life has been that this is true, and though it has come late in my day, I am now prepared to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God! . . I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.” — Margaretta Fox Kane, quoted in A.B. Davenport, The Deathblow to Spiritualism
The toe cracking sent skeptics of Spiritualism into fits of glee. Proponents of Spiritualism argued that it was preposterous that the array of thumps, thuds other sounds reverberating throughout the sceances, even well into other rooms, could be produced by a toe cracking.
“Mrs. Underhill, my eldest sister, took Katie and me to Rochester. There it was that we discovered a new way to make the raps. My sister Katie was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers she could produce certain noises with her knuckles and joints, and that the same effect could be made with the toes. Finding that we could make raps with our feet – first with one foot and then with both – we practiced until we could do this easily when the room was dark. Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years. … This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps.”
A year after the confession, Margaret recanted. Leah died the next year, in 1890. 2 years later, in 1892 Katy died of end stage alcoholism and a year after that Margaret died of the same. They died penniless, shunned by all their friends and were buried in paupers’ graves.