By the beginning of the 20th century Spiritualism was being attacked rabidly by skeptics. To Spiritualism’s credit, it claimed to be a scientific religion, not asking its followers to take anything on pure faith but offering direct experience of communication with the dead and what they had to say. Some mediums, the more famous ones, would willingly allow some scientists and reporters to test them and try to debunk them.
However, over time more and more mediums were debunked. Many of the big ones were debunked at some point, even if just once. Their followers were quick to write it off, but as the decades passed from 1848, more and more fraud was uncovered. In no small part this was because people expected crazier and crazier stuff to happen and what the audience craves will be delivered by someone, somewhere.
When the Fox sisters admitted fraud in 1888 it was a vicious blow. However, Margaret recanted a year later, then died and dead bones were then uncovered in the basement of their original house, giving credence to their original story of a spirit telling them of his murder there. Of course, an investigator then claimed some of the bones were animal bones and the whole bone pile had been placed there after the fact. However, all this did was to create an endless argument between Spiritualists and skeptics. Spiritualists felt persecuted and claimed skeptics would go to any length to dismiss the volume of evidence and skeptics pointed out that Spiritualists wanted to believe so much that they would ignore all evidence to the contrary.
The shenanigans associated with sceances had grown to unbeleivable proportions. Table tipping, flying objects and chalkboards writing themselves were matched with ghostly appearances. For instance: a medium would call up a spirit. He would then retire to lie down as the effort had drained him. A few minutes after retiring into another room a figure in a glowing white cloak would appear some rooms away. Wow! Uncle Bob! Of course the face was covered by the shawl so it couldn’t be verified to actually be Uncle Bob… but no matter, clearly it was.
Now, someone with even a shred of skepticism or common sense cannot help but be utterly unconvinced that this is anything but a charade. And indeed, on some occasions an excited participant would rush the ghostly figure and Whoops! turns out it wasn’t Uncle Bob, it was the medium. This sort of thing did not help Spiritualism’s reputation.
Many mediums would lock themselves in a cabinet. They would be tied up and verified to not be able to escape. The seance would take place and all manner of shenanigans would ensue. But clearly, the medium could not be responsible to trickery since she was verifyably tied up in a sold oak cabinet… remember, these were the days before famous magicians doing escape acts so this sort of the thing was not in such doubt.
Even so, frauds continued to be uncovered, but the fact was also there were over 10,000 mediums practicing in the US alone and Spiritualsim was too big to just disappear. None the less by the time the 20th century rolled around Spiritualism’s growth had evened out and it was beginning to recede.
Spiritualism floundered but then came WWI. Young men died in droves and left grieving relatives. Millions of dead. Millions. The world had never seen a war like this or death on this scale, ever. The grieving turned to Spiritualism to comfort them and communicate with their poor sons, husbands and brothers. Spiritualism was back, baby.
And then came Harry Houdini.
Harry Houdini was a sensation as a magician. He performed tricks onstage never before seen or dreamt of. He could escape from straightjackets, sealed containers, for heaven’s sake the guy could be shackled head to foot, nailed into a crate, the crate flung into the water and inside of 57 seconds the crate was empty.
He was also interested in the paranormal, but the more he looked, the more he found trickery and fraud. Thus in the 1920s he decided to take on phony psychics and mediums.
As part of the Scientific American commitee $5,000 was offered to anyone who could demonstrate abilities that he could not debunk. George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania was the first to step up and the first to go down. Houdini attended the seance but rigged the medium’s chair to alert a stenographer in the next room exactly when he would leave it. The voices around the room and the moving objects all occurred exactly when Valentine would be, invisibly to the attendees sitting in the dark, out of his chair.
After this Houdini’s crusade went into overdrive. He would attend seances in disguise along with a reporter and sometimes a police officer. At the height of the paranormal phenomenon Houdini would leap up and reveal hidden strings, devices or the mediums themselves sneaking about the room causing the activity. Years before Scooby Do, Houdini was a one man “those meddling kids”.
The most convincing thing he did was that he learned how to do all the paranormal feats himself. Whatever the popular mediuims did he did too. He did them on stage for audiences then deconstructed the trick for them. He offered $10,000 to anyone who could exhibit supernatural phenomenon he couldn’t imitate.
There was a draw, however.
One of the biggest mediums in the US was Mina Crandon. She amazed those who came to her. Her prayers were read by the US Army. She was at the height of notoriety, and even Houdini’s own Scientific American commitee investigated her for 3 months (without his knowledge) and was about to declare her genuine.
Houdini went to a seance. He sat politely. Bells rang, stuff moved, her spirit control Walter talked. At the end Houdini got up, thanked her and left. At his hotel he then went into detail about how the bell had rung and the megaphone had flown while her feet and hands were touching Houdini and his companion. (She rang the bell with her foot and threw the megaphone from her head)
The next month Houdini returned and brought a box. Mina was placed in the box. Too holes on either side allowed her hands to be held. Mina reluctantly agreed and her husband and Houdini got into a fierce argument. When the seance came, a rather remarkable development occured. The bell that was to ring had a stopper, an eraser in it to prevent ringing. Outside the box, at Margarey’s feet Walter the spirit pointed out was a type of detractabve ruler capable to accomplishing deceit during one the manifestations, planted there rather clumsily to discredit her. Mina’s husband and her supporters claimed that Houdini, unable to debunk Mina, had resorted to trickery and fraud himself.
Houdini was aghast and said it was nonsense. But the conflict ended in a draw. The box was never given a proper chance to work as the entire showdown was derailed by allegations now against Houdini. One must admit, it’s pretty brilliant if one wants to be so cynical as to see it as a ploy by Mina and her husband.
Both sides declared victory and to this day, on the net, pro skeptics claim victory for Houdini, and pro-paranormal phenomenon adherents claim victory for Mina.
In addition, the spirit guide Walter claimed Houdini would die in a year. Houdini lived past the year mark, but only just. Interesting.
Alas though, despite Houdini’s death over the next few years Mina was exposed. Houdini had wanted the commitee to declare her a fraud but one of them, Dr. Bird absconded. A few years later he admitted that he was approached by Mina to devise tricks to fool Houdini and was in fact aware that she was fraudelant.
She was also known for producing huge amounts of ectoplasm, as gooey, stringy substance that was all the rage. (see Ghostbusters). Her hands and feet would be held and yet it would appear all over her.
Well, get this: her vagina. She had a thin canistor in her vagina, and wore skirts with no underwear. She shot it upwards. No one in those days would possibly submit a woman to a cavity search, even the staunchest of skeptics (although Houdini wanted to). The female mediums in the Victorian era when submitting to scrutiny would not be well searched as it was simply unthinkable from a societal standpoint.
It was a faked thumbprint that took Mina down and led to her tricks being one by one exposed. She started drinking heavily and became emotionally unbalanced. Eventually she died at age 54.
Houdini of course promised to communicate with his wife from beyond the grave if he could. He never did but mediums have claimed to receive his communications over the decades.
And so Spiritualism dissolved, although a Spiritualist Church is still active. Gone is the showmanship and crazy hijinks that enthralled the Victorian crowd. Now it’s all mediums speaking and of course channeling. Channeling under its current definition became a craze back in the 60s and 70s with Jane Robert’s Seth books and continues today with JZ Knight’s popular Ramtha entity.
Probably the most damning indictment of Spiritualism is this: all those crazy manifestations, all those wild shenanigans caused by spirits… none of it survived. As technology increased absolutely none of it was able to stand up. Had something been genuine, it would continue. Scientific inquiry would be forced to contend with it, but all of it is gone, every trick having been exposed decades ago. Only mediums speaking and channeling remains.
Spiritualism does continue today, although it is a shadow of the popularity of its heyday. Mediums continue to practice, kids continue to buy Ouiji boards and the New Age movement is definitely a direct continuation of Spiritualism mixed with a bunch of Blavatsky’s Theosophy. However, there is no argument that after the 1920s Spiritualism fell far and low and ceased to be a real player in either the religious or occult popular consciousness.
Blavatsky’s Theosophy became the new big player and Blavatsky’s psychic visions and immensely dense cosmology overshadowed all other spiritual and occult movements, although the Golden Dawn gives her a good run for her money as far as affecting occult beliefs and practices in the 20th century. Indeed The Golden Dawn can in part be connected to the most important recent development in occult and religion: Wicca.
It is not for me to say every single aspect was trickery, although clearly, it’s difficult to arrive at many other conclusions. Can people communicate with the dead? Nowadays i’m given utter horseshit like John Edwards sent to convince me, so i lean towards the negative but am open to having my mind blown. I have in my lifetime seen some instances of psychic ability that i simply cannot deny, so i remain open, although i find the vast majority of people claiming various powers to be mostly trying to take my money or seeking attention.
Still, seances continue and the Ouiji boards continues to give goosebumps and stories to kids generation after generation. As said before, the subconscious is staggering, and the worlds existing within ourselves are truly as wide as an entire inner universe. Play around with it and crazy stuff WILL happen. Just… be cool with the Kool Aid and remember there’s a huckster around every corner.