By Keith Souter aka Clay More
This month I have moved away from medicine, hence this post is not from The Doctor’s Bag, as usual. I am going to be talking about the roots of spiritualism. That might seem quite a departure, but it is because the weird western novel that I am currently working on revolves around the world of mediums and séances.
The coming of spiritualism
Most religions believe in the survival of the spirit in some form. Spiritualism, which really came into being during the 19th century went further than that. It stated that not only did the spirit survive, but that the spirits of the dead can and do communicate with the living. It was also purported that not everyone had the ability to communicate with the disembodied spirits, but people with a particular gift could do so on their behalf. Such individuals were termed mediums.
The 19th century seemed ripe for such a religion to develop. The scientific discoveries in physics and chemistry had shown that there were ways of tapping into energies that were not apparent before. Engineers and inventors were creating new machines, new techniques and new ways of doing things that were transforming lives. There was a general belief that there was a whole new world of possibilities, a range of energies that existed but which had always been unseen. There was no reason therefore why experimenters in other areas of life should not also discover wonderful things. And what could be more wonderful than to be able to demonstrate that the spirit did survive death.
The Fox sisters
The story of spiritualism as a movement and quasi-religion starts in 1848 with the Fox family of New York. Essentially it began with all the ingredients that are needed for a good ghost story. A creepy old house, a bad and grisly reputation about it and stories of a ghost and strange noises and bumps in the night.
The Fox sisters
It was to such a house that the Fox family moved into on 11th December 1847. There were three sisters in the family, Leah (1814-1890), Margaret (1833-1893) and Kate (1837-1892). They also had an older brother called David who had left home. Leah, being older was already married and living in Rochester as Mrs Fish. Although they did not realise it the two younger sisters would soon find themselves at the forefront of an amazing phenomenon that would sweep America and then travel across the Atlantic to Britain.
The Fox family lived quite contentedly in the house until spring 1848 when they became aware of strange noises. These took the form of knocks and raps as if furniture was being moved. These became more and more frequent until one night they seemed to go on unabated for several hours. The parents searched the house but could find no cause. Yet the noises continued and Kate, the youngest child discovered that she could actually communicate with whatever was causing the noises by rapping on furniture herself. She found that she could ask questions and demonstrated by snapping her fingers. She established that a question could be answered by one rap for ‘yes’ and two for ‘no.’
Her mother, Mrs Fox then began asking questions, receiving the same affirmative or negative responses. Soon it was established that the replier did not belong to the living world, but that it was a spirit. More than that, she found out that the spirit was of a peddler who had been murdered and that his spirit was restless and unhappy. Not content with just investigating matters themselves, Mr and Mrs Fox asked the spirit if it would mind also communicating with their neighbours. This it agreed to, with similar results.
The house where it all began
This occasioned a search in the cellar and a plan to dig up the floor. Initial attempts had to be stopped because the hole filled up with water. When the summer came and the water had dried up they were able to resume. At a depth of five feet they found evidence of quicklime, hair and bones. A medical opinion stated that these were human remains.
There was an inevitable stir caused in the newspapers. The attention that it caused to the family was not welcomed by the parents who were concerned for the girls, so they decided to send them away for a while. Kate was sent to stay with her brother David, and Margaret was sent to her elder sister, Leah Fish in Rochester. The strange rapping noises seemed to follow both girls.
A friend, Isaac Post and his wife, both staunch Quakers and advocates of temperance, abolition of slavery and the rights of women invited the girls to their home. There the phenomena were demonstrated and the Posts convinced them that they had been given a gift that was God given and that the messages that they were able to give as a result should be shared with the world.
This background is interesting, because the surge of interest at first came from the Quaker community and among people who were like minded. Honest, sober, hard-working folk who were liberal in their outlook and desirous of equality for all. As such they may have been overly credulous, but significantly they would be perceived as being strictly honest and devoid of guile or intention to deceive.
The Fox sisters became a phenomenon. It is said that Leah Fish took matters in hand and began to seriously promote the two younger girls as mediums. Within a short period of time they had become famous around New York and attracted the great and the good, including luminaries like the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, the poet and editor of the New York Evening Post William Cullen Bryant and the journalist and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. It was not long before they were making the considerable sum of $150 dollars a night. At meetings there would always be mention of the need to support the good causes of temperance, abolition and women’s suffrage with which they were linked.
At séances, the spirits communicated by raps, table turning and spirit writing.
Ironically, both of the young sisters found the attention hard to deal with and despite their temperance background they both began drinking wine. It is said that in later life they both became addicted to alcohol and their deaths may have been drink-related.
The touch paper had been lit, however, and spiritualism flourished.
Mrs Maria Hayden
After the Fox sisters, one of the first spiritualists to gain celebrity and attract attention was Mrs Maria B Hayden the wife of a Boston journalist, W R Hayden, who edited a newspaper called The Boston Atlas and also a monthly newsletter called the Star Spangled Banner. Like the Fox family they were ardent abolitionists.
In 1852 she and her husband came to England in the company of a Mr Stone, a lecturer and adept in ‘electro-biology,’ one of the pseudo-scientific names for hypnosis at the time.
It is uncertain how old Mrs Hayden was when she arrived in England, but she is described as being young and vivacious, well-educated and well-mannered. There is some suggestion that she had the air of an adventuress about her. At any rate she charmed people as she went about.
The newspapers had done a good job of advertising for her before she even arrived, so her reputation truly did go before her. Then once she had settled in she was eagerly sought out to put to the test. Mrs Hayden’s method involved the production of table raps in answer to questions.
She was instrumental in boosting converts to spiritualism. In this she was helped by her husband who put his journalistic expertise to good use and produced a magazine, The Spirit World in 1853. It was the first spiritualist magazine in Britain and presumably he intended to run it for a long time. As it was, later in 1853 they decided to return to America.
There, Mrs Hayden studied medicine and graduated as a doctor and set up a highly successful practice. It seems that she had given up communicating with the spirit world.
Mrs Cora Scott
A quite different pioneer of spiritualism was Cora L V Scott (1840-1923). She worked as an author of spiritualist literature and a trance medium conveying messages from the spirit world whenever she was in a state of trance. She spent most of her life in America, but made three long trips to Britain after 1875. She was highly influential because of the type of messages that she gave.
Cora L V Scott
Cora Scott was born in Cuba, New York in 1841. Her family were Presbyterians, but joined the Universalist Church in 1851. Essentially, they believed that everyone carried some original sin, but that everyone could achieve salvation. The principles of non-violence, abolition and temperance were highly regarded. Once again, this was fertile ground for a potential spiritualist.
Cora’s full birth name was Cora Lodensia Veronika Scott, but she disliked her middle names and always called herself Cora L V. A stunningly beautiful girl then woman she was to be married several times, on each occasion adding another name but always using the latest married surname, so that she ultimately became Cora L V Scott Hatch Daniels Tappan Richmond. She visited England twice as Mrs Cora Tappan and once during her honeymoon as Mrs Cora Richmond.
Her ‘gift’ was discovered at the age of eleven when she would fall into trance and channel spirits. Her parents began taking her on tours in the locality, where she would channel messages and give healing. By the age of fourteen she was quite famous and her healing was done by psychic surgery, whereby she would channel the spirit of a German surgeon and psychically remove diseased parts from the ‘patient’s’ etheric body.
When she was about fifteen the healing ability seemingly left her, or the German surgeon’s spirit was no longer channelled. From then on she would give messages and also deliver lectures on various esoteric or philosophical subjects in a state of trance. Her ability under trance to speak so eloquently and seemingly totally unrehearsed convinced many who heard her that she had to be channelling, for it was considered implausible for one so young to be able to speak with such knowledge and authority. Later, she would transcribe lectures on spiritualism and became an author of a substantial body of work.
Her first husband, Benjamin Franklin Hatch was a professional mesmerist and something of a showman. She was a mere sixteen years old and he was forty-six. He managed her spiritualist career for several years until the marriage fell apart and they divorced.
In 1865 she moved to Washington and was apparently sought out for advice by several people who were in communication with President Lincoln, about the current state of the Civil war that was raging.
President Ulysses S Grant is said to have given her a resolution of Gratitude for her support during his first administration.
In 1883 she visited Washington again and before a gathering gave a trance message, A Message to the Nation, purportedly channelled from the spirit of President James A Garfield, who had been assassinated in 1881.
Another famous American spiritualist was Henry Slade (1839-1905). He specialised in the appearance of messages in chalk or pencil on writing slates from his spirit guide, whom he claimed was his deceased wife. He styled himself Dr Henry Slade, although there is no evidence that he was eligible in any way to use the title. He achieved great success and fame in both the USA and Europe in the Victorian era.
According to William E Robinson, who was latterly known to the world as ‘The Marvellous Chinese Conjuror, Chung Ling Soo’, in his book Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena ‘no phenomenon which psychic mediums produced in the nineteenth century converted more persons to belief in spirits than the supposed writing by spirits on school slates.’
William E Robinson known to the world as Chung Ling Soo
Henry Slade was credited as being the first medium to have discovered the ability of the spirits to produce such messages.
Slade charged high fees for his psychic consultations, during which he would show a blank school slate on both sides, then concentrate and contact his spirit guide who would try to send a message. To receive it he would momentarily lower the slate under the consulting table, for as everyone was aware the spirits needed shade or darkness. Upon bringing it back the message would be there for anyone to read.
In 1876 Slade stopped in London en route to St Petersburg where he was due to demonstrate his powers before Madame Helen Blavatsky and Colonel Harry Steel Olcott, who would soon afterwards co-found the Theosophical Society. While he was in London he entertained clients who were eager to receive a slate reading. Unfortunately for him he aroused the suspicions of one client who together with a colleague arranged a ‘sting’ operation whereby they discovered that he was deceiving them. It resulted in a famous court case in which the famous magician John Nevil Maskelyne was called to give evidence.
Things went badly for Slade and he was found guilty of trying to accept money under false pretences. He was sentenced to three months hard labour, but evaded imprisonment because of a technicality. He and his assistant absconded to France before a further proceeding could get underway.
The case did a great deal of harm to the spiritualist movement. Over the decades many magicians, including the great Chung Ling Soo, (who would die trying to catch a bullet between his teeth during performance) and Harry Houdini, would expose many fraudulent mediums.
Is there anyone there?
Well, I leave that up to you to decide. The purpose of this post is merely to highlight some of the nefarious goings on in the 19th century when people were duped by fraudulent mediums.
Spiritualism thrives today, but not by manifesting spirits as in the 19th century. Spiritualist mediums work in consultations and in churches and give messages to people from the other side. They can be extremely comforting.
Clay More's novel about Dr George Goodfellow is published in the West of the Big River series by Western Fictioneers.
Available at Amazon.com:
THE DOCTOR by CLAY MORE
And his collection of short stories about Doc Marcus Quigley is published by High Noon Press
Available at Amazon.com:
And his latest western novel Dry Gulch Revenge was published by Hale on 29th August.