By the end of the 1850s Spiritualism was in full swing and seances were all the rage.
Prior to the Fox Sisters (see yesterday’s post) two other key people had set the stage for Spiritualism’s rapid rise. One was Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish Christian mystic.
Beginning on Easter in 1744 he had visions of the spiritual world and wrote several books on the subject. He would talk with angels, demons and all sort of other spirits including spirits from other planets in the solar system (although none from Neptune or Uranus which hadn’t been discovered yet and which he didn’t know about, and which raises certain questions we will not worry about here). He considered his visions to be direct experiences and one key piece of information he set down was that there is no heaven and hell, there are instead hierarchical spheres which souls climb up or down. Which interestingly is very, very Qabbalah, but we will also not dwell on that here.
This way of invisioning the afterlife is central to Spiritualism and the various spirits called by mediums would not only discuss this in all sorts of varying detail, but this very idea is what makes mediumship possible.
The second person who set the stage for Spiritualism was Franz Mesmer, who gave us…. want to take a guess? Bueller…. Bueller…. that’s right: mesmerism. He invented hypnotizing people. People would go into trances and amongst other things, communicate with spirits.
I am tempted to dwell on this as i have a lot of personal opinion about hypnotism (you cannot trust what is said by someone while hypnotized. It is not a door to truth and true recollection, it is a door to the subconscious and all manner of astonishing fantasticalness can come out as well as fantasies that can be false memories. Go read some about the great 1990s hysteria over satanic cults and bizarre abuse that all these adults would recall while hypnotized. This led to the destruction of many families and was almost all of the time finally disproved as utter bunk. Many more examples just like this can be given. Under hypnosis you can remember aliens, past lives, anything you want. You are trumping around in the subconscious, the same place your dreams come from. It’s an astonishing Neverland down there, one very dear to me, but not to be trusted as the same reality in which we live while awake) but once again we shall not stop to dwell. What i did was not dwelling. It was a quick aside.
Just before 1848, (in 1847 actually) people such as Andrew Davis were writing books combining Mesmerism and Swedenborg’s metaworld views, so when the Fox sisters and their rapping with dead people appeared, the barn doors flew open and seances were born.
By 1860 the laborous act of going through the alphabet and having the spirit rap when you reached the correct letter was being replaced by other methods such as automatic writing.
“By the 1860s and 1870s, one could sit for spirit photographs, attend spirit lectures on a range of progressive social and religious issues, and take part in carefully orchestrated seances at which ghosts materialized, voices spoke through levitating trumpets, messages wrote themselves on sealed slates, and mediums’ bodies emitted disconcerting quantities of a strange, filmy substance known as ectoplasm.” -Helen Sword.
As tables lifted and turned, ghostly hands appeared, alphabets were thudded out from behind the walls of this world and mediums levitated, various descriptions of the spirit world emerged, usually variations on Swedenborg’s themes. When Darwin’s theory of evolution came out, Spiritualists pondered it as it seemed to describe the spiritual evolution of the afterworld. However Man from Monkey was still hard to swallow as it it didn’t fit so elegantly with a soul being birthed and rising from human to Divine across the spiritual planes.
Spiritualism had no center, no chief priests, no board at the head. It had numerous unnconnected mediums holding sessions in their various necks of the woods. Some mediums became very famous and would tour, submitting themselves to scientific scrutiny to verify their genuineness.
Some scientists and skeptics unable to expose any type of fraudulence would become Spiritualists, including prominent chemists, physicists, biologists and nobel laureates. Physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes was a well known advocate of Spiritualism and he and others including Charles Dickens formed The Ghost Club in London in order to investigate and prove or refute various claims of paranormal activity.
Spiritualism communicated with itself through periodicals. The Banner of Light (Boston), The Religio-Philosophical Journal (Chicago), Mind and Matter (Philadelphia), The Spiritualist (London), and The Medium (London) were some of the biggest. In these the revelations gleened from the dead were set down and discussed, as were questions of how Spiritualism fit or didn’t fit with Christianity.
Christianity hated Spiritualism. Churches across various denominations condemned Spiritualism from Catholic to Protestant to Anglican. Churches were aghast at people mucking around with such affairs, and quite obviously it was all considered demonic.
As mediumship grew, gardually mediums began to channel spirits themselves. We’ll get into this more tomorrow, for channeling can be read from 2 points of view: a more pure form of commuication with the dead by those with great gifts, or as a power one heck of a lot harder to disprove than all the various spectacular shenanigans that would color expensive and lavish seances.
As Spiritualism progressed and scrutiny of it became more frenetic, trance mediumship and clairvoyance became more and more standard. Clairvoyance certainly predated Spiritualism but trance mediumship was new/ Trance mediumship is the precursor to channeling, a word that didn’t come into usage until the 1960s. The concept was the same, in trance mediuimship the medium goes into a trance and the spirit speaks through her.
In some cases, the woman under spirit possession would deliver impassioned lectures about contemporary subjects such as slavery, women’s suffrage and temperance. Interestingly, this was the only way in Victorian times in which a woman could address a mixed crowd. She could certainly never deliver a lecture on any subject for an audience of both men and women under any other circumstances, but in the situation of an audience coming to see a medium become possessed, a woman (with someone else technically speaking through her) could finally deliver a speech on contemporary issues.
Clairvoyance became standard and variations of it arose:
- Clairvoyance or “Clear Seeing”, is the ability to see anything that is not physically present, such as objects, animals or people. This sight occurs “in the mind’s eye”. Some mediums say that this is their normal vision state. Others say that they must train their minds with such practices as meditation in order to achieve this ability, and that assistance from spiritual helpers is often necessary. Some clairvoyant mediums can see a spirit as though the spirit has a physical body. They see the bodily form as if it were physically present. Other mediums see the spirit in their mind’s eye, or it appears as a movie or a television programme or a still picture like a photograph in their mind.
- Clairaudience or “Clear Hearing”, is usually defined as the ability to hear the voices or thoughts of spirits. Some Mediums hear as though they are listening to a person talking to them on the outside of their head, as though the Spirit is next to or near to the medium, and other mediums hear the voices in their minds as a verbal thought.
- Clairsentience or “Clear Sensing”, is the ability to have an impression of what a spirit wants to communicate, or to feel sensations instilled by a spirit.
- Clairsentinence or “Clear Feeling” is a condition in which the medium takes on the ailments of a spirit, feeling the same physical problem which the spirit person had before death.
- Clairalience or “Clear Smelling” is the ability to smell a spirit. For example, a medium may smell the pipe tobacco of a person who smoked during life.
- Clairgustance or “Clear Tasting” is the ability to receive taste impressions from a spirit.
- Claircognizance or “Clear Knowing”, is the ability to know something without receiving it through normal or psychic senses. It is a feeling of “just knowing”. Often, a medium will claim to have the feeling that a message or situation is “right” or “wrong.”
Eventually the spirit would simply possess the medium and they would communicate by speaking through them. However, this was not so clear cut. What emerged as necessary for channeling was a Control. In other words, the medium would have a specific spirit, the Control, who would be available to them and only through that spirit could other spirits then be summoned. Mediums and their particular Controls became quite well known. Skeptics argue that the entire Control idea arose out of the troubling quandry of what to do when the medium is supposed to be channeling Uncle Bob, but doesn’t sound anything like Uncle Bob or use any of his speech mannerisms. By always talking in the Control voice, they argue, this nasty little inconsistency is alleviated.
For the second half of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th Spiritualism flourished. Direct communication with the dead! Information of higher worlds from beyond! What’s not to love? What could end the party?
Fraud. Lots and lots and lots of fraud. Huge gaping buckets of fraud. Big, endless, smorgasbords of fraud. Vast decline of Roman Empire era orgies of fraud. We will discuss the fall of Spiritualism tomorrow as well as a man who dedicated himself tirelessly to debunking fraudulent mediums and paranormal hoaxes: Harry Houdini.