A History of Spiritualism

The idea of ghosts has been around for centuries. Halloween, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day and Bonfire Night where effigies of Guy Fawkes are burnt are still celebrated today. 

The communication with ghosts developed into a religion with people, who said they could talk to spirits of the dead. They were called mediums. The belief was that when you die, you go to the spirit world and some talented mediums could communicate with spirits. 

The Fox Sisters: 31st March 1848

It’s said that every night, Maggie and Kate Fox could hear a knocking sound coming from the walls. They knocked and the spirit knocked back. The ghost responded to the sisters’ questions. It was rumored that the spirit belonged to a pedlar who had been murdered in their house. A group of Rochester residents examined the cellar of the Fox’s home, uncovering strands of hair and what appeared to be bone fragments.

Wherever they went, the sisters could communicate with spirits. The news that the Fox sisters had breached the veil between the living and the dead spread throughout New York and beyond. The movement rapidly became very fashionable with men and women across all social classes and acquired the name Spiritualism in the 1850s. 

Maggie and Kate left the old barn-house and went to live with their older sister Leah in Rochester. Rochester was full of new religious ideas, such as Mormonism and Millerism. 

Mormonism is the predominant religious tradition of the Latter Day Saint movement of Restorationist Christianity started by Joseph Smith in Western New York in the 1820s and 30s.

Millerites believed that Christ would arrive and end the daily labour that they had to endure. Some thought that only true believers, the Millerites, would escape punishment after death.

Just because you can’t see something, does it mean it doesn’t exist?

Photograph: Corbis

During seances, the customer would be in near-total darkness. The sisters tricked the customer into thinking the deceased’s spirit was communicating through the sisters, by knocking on the chair or table. 

I felt the phantom arm tap me on the shoulder

Spiritualism became very popular after WW1. Many people had no idea how or where their loved ones died and where their bodies were. Seances became smaller but more popular for grieving families. The mediums would take advantage of their grief and money. The medium controlled a ouija board and played on the vulnerable customer’s emotions. Participants were willing to believe the lies, saying “I felt the phantom arm tap me on the shoulder”. Or, that the table was levitating. 

Cora Scott

Cora Scott was one of the best-known mediums of the Spiritualism movement. During seances, she would go into trances and allow the spirit to control her mind. Cora allowed the spirits to speak through her. It could be a deceased father, child or brother… Spirits could even take over the medium’s hand and write a message. 

The Poughkeepsie Seer

Andrew Jackson Davis emerged after the Fox sisters as a founder of the spiritualist movement. 

He believed he had psychic powers and said he received “spiritual messages telling him of his life’s work”. He described himself as “the Poughkeepsie Seer”

The Fox Fraudsters

Forty years later, the Fox Sisters confessed at the New York Academy of Music in 1888, that they were making the noise by cracking the knuckles in their toes. An analysis of the bones of the “murdered pedlar” by a physician in 1909 found that they were a mixture of chicken and human, probably scavenged from a graveyard. Despite the public turning away from spiritualism, there are still many people who follow it today.

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