It seems unlikely that any era in human history was without its fascination with death or the desire to communicate with those who have passed into it. But the 19th century was a period in which breakthroughs in scientific inquiry, advances in technology, and renewed religious fervor in America and Europe conspired to offer the public imagination the apparent possibility of direct communication with the spirit realm, as well as methods to prove such communication was genuine.
Victorian spiritualism was a religious and cultural movement that began in upstate New York, in 1848, with the “rapping” sounds summoned by Margaret and Leah Fox, young sisters who became the first national celebrities of the spiritualist movement. The movement grew quickly, spreading across America and to England, and, from there, to the European continent. Its followers were not only religiously inclined country folk, but members of the urban middle classes: intellectuals, scientists, politicians, aristocrats, and artists.
The promise of spiritualism, what made it the right religious movement for its age, lay not only in its democratic nature—anyone, it turned out, could become a medium—but in its claims to be a “scientific religion.” In this age of reason and scientific discovery, spiritualism seemed to offer verifiable proof of the existence of a spirit world by providing direct contact with that world through ritualistic séances conducted by mediums in private homes, public halls, and theaters. “The spiritualist séance,” writes media theorist John Durham Peters, “offered a variety of religious experience that was potentially subject to empirical investigation.”1 And as the exhibition of spirit manifestations often mirrored the scientific lectures and demonstrations that were also popular at the time, those who bore witness to spirit communications could imagine themselves as participants in the rational evaluation of a natural phenomenon.
Spirit communication started as simple rappings in the dark, construed as coded knocks on walls, floors, and tables and bearing a conspicuous resemblance to the coded taps of telegraphic communication. In the context of the séance circle, these rappings seemed to answer questions with inexplicable accuracy. As the movement grew in popularity, the spirits expanded their repertoire to include writing, talking, singing, and lecturing (all performed through their medium hosts); physical manifestations such as the levitation of tables; the manipulation of objects and the playing of musical instruments; and, finally, the production of ectoplasm, a mysterious and ghostly substance often perceived to ooze from the orifices of the mediums themselves.
Media theorists have long noted the coincidence of the rise of spiritualism and that of telegraphic communication. In his new book, Supernatural Entertainments, Simone Natale likewise observes that “early spiritualists appropriated this technology as a metaphorical reference to explain communication with the world of spirits.” But, as he goes on to argue, “spiritualism … also coincided with another significant process in the history of media: the rise of show business and industrial entertainment.” And as much as spiritualism brought science and religious belief into conversation, its spread took place not through religious or scientific channels—networks of churches or scientific journals—but rather through the rapidly expanding world of the mass media. For the age of the telegraph was also the age of Barnum and the penny press.
The first form of media that specifically addressed itself to the masses was the penny press, which started in the 1830s, a decade and a half before the spiritualist movement. Prior to the penny press, newspapers served only the political and industrial elites, who could afford subscriptions and whose interests the papers represented by printing mostly party opinion and industry-related data (pricing, shipping rates, and so forth). By dropping the price, selling papers in shops and on street corners, and operating on an ad-based revenue system, the penny press democratized access to information. As they were now selling audiences to advertisers, they also understood that their income depended on their publishing a wide range of information to feed the diverse interests of their readership, so that a typical penny paper was a hodgepodge of sensational crime reports, civic announcements, and salacious gossip, along with reports on social issues, scientific discoveries, and politics. In short, however much the penny press may have democratized access to information and instituted new forms of journalism—becoming a check on power in the name of the common man—its success relied on providing a spectacular array of information that entertained as much as it informed.2
P. T. Barnum was a prescient figure in the development of the new mass media, and played the penny press like a virtuoso—often pseudonymously planting stories in newspapers to stir controversy and using competing papers to alternately confirm and refute his most outrageous claims. And like the new newspapers, Barnum’s dime museums offered a paying public a blinding array of objects for their consideration: mermaids, midgets, and magic interspersed with objects of purported historical, scientific, or anthropological significance. As argued by historian Neil Harris, Barnum instinctively recognized that Jacksonian America was a nation of skeptics who delighted in deciding for themselves the truth of matters put before them. And he explicitly saw his provision of hoaxes and humbugs as healthy for the country, a philanthropic service to a democratic public who took pleasure in exercising their judgment on matters of public interest, however spurious.3 Spiritualism, then, was a natural fit for this world of show. Like Barnum, spiritualist mediums invited skeptics into their circles, because, as in Barnum’s museum, “the key issue was not faith in itself, but rather the participation in a common experience that stimulated a sense of curiosity, excitement, and wonder.”
THOSE WHO BORE WITNESS TO SPIRIT COMMUNICATIONS COULD IMAGINE THEMSELVES PARTICIPANTS IN THE RATIONAL EVALUATION OF A NATURAL PHENOMENON.
The key achievement of Natale’s book is his thorough documentation of the ways the spiritualist movement was, in spite of its framing as a “scientific religion,” indistinguishable from other kinds of performance, and a vigorous participant in mechanisms of the growing entertainment industry. Spirit mediums performed in theaters before paying audiences, employed managers and agents, toured in circuits, advertised in newspapers and magazines, participated in the growing culture of celebrity, and “developed spirit phenomena characterized by a high degree of spectacularism and theatricality.” But more interesting is Natale’s argument about spiritualism in the home.
Private séances performed in domestic spaces, he contends, helped to inaugurate the middle-class parlor as a space of leisure and entertainment, a space where public met private, where leisure hours were spent and guests entertained. That the séance shared space with board games, musical instruments, phonographs, telephones, stereoscopes, and other “philosophical toys,” according to Natale, should position parlor spiritualism in the “prehistory and the archeology of domestic entertainment media,” occupying a space that would be filled by radio and television in the coming century.
Popular interest in spiritualism waned in the early years of the 20th century, only to experience a strong resurgence in the decade after World War I. The scale of death that resulted from the world’s first mechanized war was compounded by a global influenza pandemic that, in its number of casualties, dwarfed not only the Great War itself, but even the Black Death of the 14th century. If death was a central cultural concern in the Victorian era,4 it returned in a concentrated dose between 1918 and 1920. And it is here that David Jaher picks up the story of spiritualism in The Witch of Lime Street, with famous author Arthur Conan Doyle and respected physicist Oliver Lodge on dual lecture tours in America, both men evangelizing for the religion and its ability to reconnect the living with the dead, just as it had allowed them to speak again with their own dead children.
On one of his tours, Doyle, exhausted with the skepticism of scientists who nonetheless had no natural explanation for psychic phenomena, directly challenged Scientific American magazine to settle the matter—charging that they should become directly involved in psychic research instead of “mutely” reporting on its phenomena without comment. The magazine quickly accepted, launching a contest with a five-thousand-dollar reward to any medium who could, Jaher relates, offer “conclusive psychic manifestations” under “test conditions.” Contestants would be evaluated by a panel of five judges, including two scientists, two “professional ghost chasers,” and Harry Houdini—the world’s most famous magician.
Houdini was, by then, a devoted skeptic of spirit mediums and had already spent years debunking the “flim-flam” of those he considered hack conjurers in his books, lectures, and live performances. Houdini, after all, had a professional ax to grind. Coming up as a sideshow performer, he had worked alongside supposed spirit mediums and mastered all the secrets of their trade. He had even performed a “spook show” of his own for a spell. But Houdini had evolved from the kind of magician that evoked the supernatural to one who explicitly denied it. Houdini’s art focused instead on the limits of human possibility: the arts of escape and sleight of hand, feats of strength and endurance. Houdini’s magic awed not by suggesting another world, but by exploring the boundaries of the credible in our own.
Houdini’s foil in Jaher’s narrative is Mina Crandon, the vivacious young wife of a prominent Boston doctor and a member of Beacon Hill society, who operated as a medium under the name Margery. But unlike the contest’s other candidates, who fit Natale’s profile of medium as showman, Margery had no exposure to show biz culture in her past, had never performed publicly, and took no money from sitters at her séances. In other words, Margery was an industry outsider. And Doyle had nominated her to the contest for this very reason.
Jaher’s book builds to an eventual showdown between the magician and the medium that extends past the conflicted results of the Scientific American contest. While only one of the contest’s judges would ultimately vote in her favor, and the rest remained undecided, a press leak suggesting that her authenticity would be confirmed by the contest prompted Houdini to submit a definitive vote against her and to denounce her publicly. Houdini was unable to definitively prove the means by which she duped her sitters, yet he continued to use every media outlet at his disposal to discredit her. To his increasing frustration, Margery remained a darling of the press and the subject of serious scientific interest as study of her phenomena moved to the Harvard Psychological Laboratory.
Like the researchers who remained skeptical but stumped, Jaher can only suggest natural explanations for Margery’s phenomena. And press revelations of the Crandons’ private lives only added to her mystery, opening up rumors of adopted children gone missing, adulterous gropings in the séance room, and body parts stolen from hospitals. While she never performed for money, Margery clearly enjoyed her celebrity and cultivated a mysterious public persona right up to her death. In her final interview with a journalist, when urged not to take her secrets to her grave, she reportedly “smiled, attempted to laugh, and told him, ‘Why don’t you guess? You’ll all be guessing … for the rest of your lives.’”
Meanwhile, Houdini’s obsessive mission to demystify Margery, and his frustration at his inability to do so, is illustrative of the double bind that defined his own career. As Jackson Lears notes, “No matter how often Houdini disavowed supernatural claims and celebrated his own ability, audiences were always ready to suspend disbelief when confronted with his powers.”5 That is, in spite of his emphasis on the here and now of the physical world and his public crusade against those who claimed supernatural abilities, his audiences somehow refused to disbelieve in the supernatural.
As a “scientific religion,” 19th-century Spiritualism sought to confirm religious belief in life after death through the empirical observation of spirit manifestations as “natural phenomena.” The product of the growing media culture that fostered its spread, Spiritualism could also be described, as it is by Natale, as a popular entertainment phenomenon that played to a public whose religious beliefs were being challenged by growing faith in science as the arbiter of objective truth. By the end of the 1920s, however, popular interest in reconciling religious faith and objective science had waned.
Meanwhile, faith-based strains of Spiritualism have continued to exist in small enclaves around the globe. Scientific research into paranormal phenomena has persisted as well, through research universities, non-profit organizations, and government programs. The spirit medium has remained a staple of the entertainment industry, most recently featured in a steady flow of dramas, documentaries, and reality shows. Often, these mediums are depicted as individuals isolated and afflicted by their abilities, who nonetheless use them to solve crimes and prevent disasters that only the dead can foresee.
Samantha Hunt’s recent novel, Mr. Splitfoot, sidesteps these clichés, drawing instead on spiritualism’s 19th-century past to portray the present world as a potter’s field of human relations, a common grave where the bonds—filial, marital, social, and civic—that once held society firm have reached such a state of decay as to become monstrous. Hunt’s protagonists are, like the Fox sisters, children from upstate New York. Ruth and Nat are orphans, wards of the corrupt Love of Christ! foster home—the exclamation point both winks at spiritualism’s show biz past and revels in the irony of the curse: “for the love of Christ!” Forgotten children, Ruth and Nat conduct their séances in basements for spare change until a slick-tongued grifter named Mr. Bell becomes their manager, ups their game, and leads them away from their present horror to a castle in the Adirondack Mountains where all of their histories hellishly collide. In a parallel narrative set 20 or so years later, a now-mute Ruth wordlessly and urgently leads her pregnant niece Cora west, on foot, through the deserted post-industrial landscapes of upstate New York to a rural nowhere of mythic proportions.
Ruth and Nat are not genuine mediums. Though Ruth has doubts and periodically checks in with Nat throughout their relationship to confirm this, they always ultimately agree that they are frauds. But, as in Houdini’s day, their authenticity is beside the point. Their marks are the bereaved, those desperately longing for contact with lost children, parents, and lovers. And in their first real business meeting, as Ruth makes a weak pitch for their credibility, their new manager tells her that it “doesn’t matter, dear. People are desperate for their dead. Even they don’t have to believe in it.” And yet these characters do make visible another world. Hunt’s writing is subversive in this way.
Hunt’s mediums are interesting precisely in their distance from media. Young Ruth and Nat live in cult-like isolation, to the point of dressing in plain uniforms evocative of 19th-century settlers. And Bell’s influence drives them to an even deeper remove. In the book’s more contemporary narrative, Cora has a job making phone calls for an insurance company, but spends most of her time surfing the Internet. After two days following Ruth on foot through upstate New York, however, she smashes her phone and suffers through two days of a “true withdrawal,” full of nausea and aching veins, and ultimately finds herself awakened to a new consciousness. Traveling blindly down the road, she declares: “I’m smarter now that my smartphone is gone. I can pay attention in a different way. I know what strangers are thinking. I know when a town in coming before it comes … It’s not magic. It’s just attention and observation.” The characters in Hunt’s dual narratives are bound by their lack of access to the defining connective tissue of modernity. Exiled from the media world, their awakened sensitivities open them up to the ghost worlds of Upstate’s historical past, a scarred landscape of disused canals and empty factory towns, abandoned utopias and forgotten people.
Natale closes his book by suggesting that our resurgent interest in Victorian spiritualism is driven by the resonances we feel between that culture and our own. What our present media culture shares with that of the 19th century, he suggests, is that it actively bids for our participation. Contemporary media doesn’t simply ask us to suspend our disbelief, as in pure fiction, but asks us to evaluate its claims. Natale mentions Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Conjuring (2013) as media projects about the supernatural that “create a strong impression of reality by referring to real characters and events.” But he might also have mentioned non-spirit-related media: reality television, the spread of infotainment, and the ways in which what we call new media provide for the multiplication of our identities, offering us an immaterial realm where our digital spirits interact and, indeed, live on after we have passed—all forms that ask us to contemplate the real in what is represented. In placing her characters at a remove from contemporary media, Hunt’s narrative reminds us that our ghost worlds are in fact everywhere, that any medium—human or electronic, or the material world itself—can become a world unto itself, and in that a platform for the staging of our desires and a reckoning with our lost pasts.
- John Durham Peters, Speaking in to the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 97. ↩
- Michael Schudson’s Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (Basic Books, 1978) offers an authoritative account of this transition. Aurora Wallace’s Media Capital: Architecture and Communication in New York City (University of Illinois, 2012) offers a more localized account, indexed specifically to New York’s evolving media culture. ↩
- In his autobiography, Barnum boasted of his title as the “prince of humbugs,” and his provision of “a little ‘clap trap’” alongside “wonderful, instructive, amusing realities” as inspiring curiosity in the general public. Quoting a popular novel of the time, he wrote, “It’s a great thing to be a humbug … it means hitting the public in reality.” See P. T. Barnum, The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum (Ward and Lock, 1855), p. 86. ↩
- See James Stevens Curl’s The Victorian Celebration of Death (Sutton, 2000). ↩
- Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (Harper Collins, 2009), p. 231. ↩