Modern Spiritualism began in the late winter months of 1847 with the mysterious knocking and window rattling at the John Fox residence in Hydesville, New York. Fox spent an entire day securing everything that looked as if it might shake or vibrate, only to have the night resound with even louder knockings and rappings. After a time, the Fox family began to observe that the center of the disturbances seemed to be the bedroom shared by 12-year-old Catherine (Katie) and 15-year-old Margaretta (Maggie).
One night in March 1848, when John Fox was once again attempting to discover a cause for the rappings, the family was startled to hear mysterious sounds imitating those that their father was making as he went hammering about the room. Katie excitedly challenged the unseen presence, which she laughingly personified as "Old Splitfoot," to follow the snappings of her fingers. When the sounds responded in a precise manner, other members of the family began to test the mysterious invisible agency.
As word spread that the John Fox family had a knocking ghost that could respond to any question answerable with a "yes" or "no" (one rap for yes; two for no), people from all over Hydesville came to test the spirit's knowledge. Although the invisible agency responsible for the initial knockings claimed to be the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in the basement of the Fox home (some accounts have it that investigation produced a skeleton interred in the basement), other spirit entities soon manifested themselves. Young Katie and her older sister Maggie seemed especially suited for the role of medium, for they seemed pleased and excited by the phenomena and did not appear to fear the invisible communicators as did the other Fox children. Serious investigators who were attracted to the phenomena soon worked out codes whereby in-depth communication with the spirits might be possible. Committees of researchers tracked through the Fox home and did considerable knocking and rapping of their own.
In order to give their parents a respite from the knocking spirits and the crowds of the curious, Katie and Maggie were sent to their older sister Leah's home in Rochester, New York. It was soon apparent that the spirits had followed them, and Leah encouraged her sisters to hold seances to contact other entities. When these initial attempts at spirit contact proved successful, Leah arranged for Maggie and Katie to give a public demonstration of the spiritistic phenomena, which brought an audience of 400. According to witnesses, the spirit knockings did not seem confined to the stage, but rapped from numerous areas in the hall.
After they had played to that enraptured audience in Rochester, it seemed clear to Leah that the spirits were telling her that she should act as a manager for Maggie and Katie and arrange demonstrations in other cities. Following her other-worldly guidance, Leah set up a tour that made her sisters a sensation wherever they appeared. Soon the two young girls were being routinely hailed as modern prophets or as frauds and deceivers, depending upon the biases of the witnesses. Maggie and Katie were examined by scientific investigators on both sides of the Atlantic and were "exposed" when they purportedly confessed that they produced the knocks and raps by cracking their toe joints. In the skeptic's casebook, this has become the accepted disclaimer for the phenomena produced by the Fox sisters.
Official cynicism had little effect on the budding Spiritualist movement, however. Some authorities fix the membership of the Spiritualist church as nearly two million by the height of the American Civil War in 1864. This seems high when one notes that the total population of the United States at this time was about 30 million. (The Spiritualist church today—International General Assembly of Spiritualists, National Spiritual Alliance of the U.S.A., and Nationalist Spiritualist Association of Churches—numbers about 200,000 members.) In the second half of the nineteenth century, though, several important Americans were either members of a Spiritualist church or were in sympathy with its philosophy of spirit contact. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln's (1809–1865) election to the presidency, Cleveland's Plain Dealer dealt the president-elect some harsh criticism for having "consulted spooks." Lincoln's honest reply was that the only falsehood in the story was that "the half of it has not been told. The article does not begin to tell of the wonderful things I have witnessed."
Lincoln made no secret of having consulted backwoods "granny women" in his youth, and once he moved to Washington, D.C., he invited some of the most noted mediums of the day to conduct seances in the White House. Lincoln had received a strong spiritual heritage from his mother, and he had been reared in an atmosphere in which one did not reject advice from "the other side." Although Lincoln never became dependent upon mediums to guide his administration, he was by no means a skeptic, and he stated that spirit messages had enabled him to survive crisis after crisis during his presidency. The president became so outspoken in praise of the guidance he received from the spirit world that it is said that it was Lincoln's influence that prompted Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) to turn to Spiritualism.
In December of 1862, when the Union cause was on the brink of defeat, Lincoln was under great pressure from all sides to drop the rigid enforcement of the forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation. Mary Lincoln, aware of the terrible strain on her husband, called several trusted individuals together in the Red Parlor and called for one of the president's favorite mediums, Nettie Colburn (b. ca. 1841), to conduct a seance.
The medium went into trance and her spirit control spoke of matters which only the president seemed to understand. Then the entranced Nettie Colburn's spirit control charged President Lincoln not to compromise the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation, but resolutely to carry out all the implications of the announcement he had made.
When the medium came out of the trance, she found the president looking soberly at her. One of the gentlemen present asked Lincoln if he had recognized anything about the voice and the message of the delivery. Nettie Colburn recalled later that the president "raised himself as if shaking off a spell," then glanced at the full-length portrait of Daniel Webster that hung over the piano. "Yes," the president admitted, "and it is very singular, very."
In his Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1975), Alfred Russell Wallace writes that the hypothesis of Spiritualism is the only one that can at all commend itself to the modern philosophical mind. "The main doctrines of this religion are: That after death man's spirit survives in an ethereal body, gifted with new powers, but mentally and morally the same individual as when clothed in flesh. That he commences from that moment a course of apparently endless progression, which is rapid just in proportion as his mental and moral faculties are cultivated when on earth. That his comparative happiness or misery will depend entirely upon himself.…Neither punishments nor rewards are meted out by an external power, but each one's condition is the natural and inevitable sequence of his condition here.…"
Spiritualists contend that they have proof of survival after death and the existence of an afterlife that other churches only promise on faith. Many orthodox clergypersons do not deny the occurrence of genuine spiritual phenomena, but they are in sharp disagreement with Spiritualists as to the source of the manifestations. Some of the disagreement stems from the accusation that Spiritualism may be treading dangerously close to demonology. Religious orthodoxy, which believes survival after death to be assured, holds that contact with departed mortals cannot be established and warns that those who attempt to establish communication with the dead may find themselves involved with deceptive evil spirits. The oft-quoted allegation that Spiritualists consort with demons goes a long way toward preventing any sort of ecumenical movement between Spiritualists and the conventional religious groups from developing.
In an effort to clarify their theological position, the National Spiritualist Association adopted these following definitions of its belief in October 1914:
- Spiritualism is the science, philosophy, and religion of a continuous life, based on the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the spirit world.
- A spiritualist is one who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the communication between this and the spirit world by means of mediumship, and who endeavors to mold his or her character and conduct in accordance with the highest teaching derived from such communication.
- A medium is one whose organism is sensitive to vibrations from the spirit world and through whose instrumentality intelligences in that world are able to convey messages and produce the phenomena of spiritualism.
- A spiritualist healer is one who, either through his own inherent powers or through his mediumship, is able to impart vital, curative force to pathologic conditions.
"Spiritualism is a science" because it investigates, analyzes, and classifies facts and manifestations demonstrated from the spirit side of life.
"Spiritualism is a philosophy" because it studies the laws of nature both on the seen and unseen sides of life and bases its conclusions upon present observed facts. It accepts statements of observed facts of past ages and conclusions drawn therefrom, when sustained by reason and by results of observed facts of the present day.
"Spiritualism is a religion" because it strives to understand and to comply with the physical, mental, and spiritual laws of nature, which are the laws of God.
Barbanell, Maurice. This Is Spiritualism. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1959.
Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.
Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Moore, Raymond C., and Paul Perry. Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones. New York: Villard Books, 1993.
Mysteries of the Unknown: Spirit Summonings. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1989.
Post, Eric G. Communicating with the Beyond. New York: Atlantic Publishing, 1946.
Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910)
Andrew Jackson Davis is often referred to as the "John the Baptist" of modern Spiritualism, for he preached the advent of spirit communication in the United States with an evangelical fervor. Davis grew up in extreme poverty in Blooming Grove, New York, a small hamlet along the Hudson River, the only son in a family of six. His mother was illiterate, but highly religious, and quite likely encouraged her frail, nervous son to receive visions and to hear voices early in life. Davis's father was afflicted with alcoholism and barely managed to provide any sustenance for his family in his trade as a weaver and shoemaker. Only one of the family's five daughters survived to adulthood.
When he was 12, Davis's clairvoyant impressions and spirit voices manifested convincingly enough to persuade his father to move the family to Poughkeepsie. Five years later, in 1843, Davis attended a demonstration on mesmerism conducted by Dr. J. Stanley Grimes. Mesmerism, usually defined as an old-fashioned term for hypnotism, developed out of the theories of certain physicians in the sixteenth century that humans could project and control their animal magnetism, sometimes inducing trance states in themselves or in others. In the 1760s, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) began healing patients with what he believed was the result of animal magnetism's effect on a kind of "universal fluid" that flowed between the stars, the human body, and everything on the planet, but which today would likely to be attributed to light trance states and the power of suggestion.
With Davis's childhood experiences of hearing spirit voices, it is not surprising that he was found to be a good subject by a local tailor named William Levingston, who had decided to experiment with mesmerism on his own. Once Davis had entered an altered state of consciousness, he seemed to have the ability to see through the human body and to diagnose the cause of illnesses and medical disorders. Within a short period of time, Andrew Jackson Davis was being proclaimed as the "Poughkeepsie Seer." Men and women were coming from miles around to draw from his magnetic powers, and Levingston abandoned his tailor shop to devote all of his time to overseeing Davis's healing ministry.
On the evening of March 6, 1844, Davis experienced a life-altering event that would direct the course of his personal destiny. All he claimed to remember was being overcome by some power that made him feel as though he were literally flying through the air. When he regained consciousness the next morning, he found himself in the Catskill Mountains, 40 miles away from Poughkeepsie. Had the spirits transported him through the air and deposited him there in the mountains? Or had he walked 40 miles in one evening while in a trance? And why did he suddenly awaken to find himself in this particular spot?
While Davis claimed never to learn the answer as to how he got to that particular setting in the Catskills, he soon learned the reason why. He said that first the spirit of the Greek philosopher Galen (129 c.e.–c. 199c.e.) materialized before him, then the spirit of the Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), both of whom provided him with mental illumination and spiritual revelation. From that day onward, Andrew Jackson Davis set forth on an extensive lecture schedule, proclaiming the advent of spirit communication for humans everywhere. He claimed a great cosmic doorway was being opened, and ministers from the spirit world would soon be making themselves available for contact with those individuals who wished to gain from their wisdom and inspiration.
While on tour, Davis met Dr. S. Silas Lyons, an experienced mesmerist, who was able to induce a deep trance state in the Poughkeepsie seer. In November of 1845, with Lyons as the mesmerist, Davis as the prophetic voice, and Reverend William Fishbough as the stenographer, dictation was begun on The Principles of Nature: Her Divine Revelations and a Voice to Mankind. The process lasted for 15 months, and often small crowds of enthusiastic men and women, including such luminaries as American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), bore witness to the words as they poured forth from the entranced Davis.
In 1847, the book was published and was received eagerly by a public seeking new revelations from a modern prophet. Although some critics pointed out many similarities to the writings of Swedenborg concerning creation, philosophy, and religion, Davis' champions replied that the seer was a man of modest education who had never read the works of the great Swedish mystic. Davis had, in fact, only five months of formal schooling. However, there should be little mystery if the Principles of Nature contained echoes of Swedenborg, for it was his spirit who had manifested with Galen to inspire Davis. Due to the success of his book, Davis began issuing Univercoelum, a periodical which was published from 1847 to 1849 and was devoted to clairvoyance, trance phenomena, and his Harmonial Philosophy.
On March 31, 1848, it is said that Davis predicted the coming of modern Spiritualism when he reported that he had awakened that morning hearing a voice telling him that the good work had begun: "About daylight this morning a warm breathing passed over my face, and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying, 'Brother, the good work has begun. Behold, a living demonstration is born.' I was left wondering what could be meant by such a message." Although Davis and his followers would not ally themselves with the Spiritualist cause until 1850, it would often be pointed out that the Fox sisters first challenged "old Splitfoot" on March 31, 1848, and that the "voice, tender and strong," had obviously been referring to their "living demonstration" of spirit communication.
In July 1848, after creating a bit of scandal for the conservative times, Andrew Jackson Davis married Catherine Dodge, a wealthy heiress, who was 20 years his senior. Their union was unhappy and brief, and she died in 1853, leaving her estate to Davis. Davis continued to lecture and teach his Harmonial Philosophy for many years. At the age of 60, he acquired a medical degree, but soon thereafter he retired to Boston, where he ran a bookshop and prescribed herbal remedies to his patients. Andrew Jackson Davis died amidst his books and herbs in 1910, a quiet ending to the full life of the "John the Baptist" of the Spiritualist movement.
Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Pocket Books, 1972.
Fodor, Nandor. An Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1966.
——. These Mysterious People. London: Rider & Co., 1936.
Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930)
When many first learn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mystery series, was fascinated with psychical research and an investigation of life after death, they make the immediate assumption that he may well have been allied with the likes of the great magician Harry Houdini (1874–1926) (especially when it is learned that the two men were friends), devoting his intellect and his experience to exposing fraudulent spirit mediums. They may visualize the author much like Holmes, his famous fictional detective, unveiling the trickery by which a charismatic, but phony, medium has deceived the unwary, then climaxing his explanation of the deception with the casual utterance of, "elementary, my dear Watson." In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Doyle was an ardent believer in the reality of spirit communication, and he became such a missionary for Spiritualism that he came to be known as the "St. Paul" of the movement. While Holmes, the quintessential proponent of deduction, and his creator did not share the tendencies to be unfailingly skeptical, extremely rational, and shrewd, there were other aspects of the fictional detective which did manifest in Doyle. Arthur Conan Doyle was tall, upper-class, thoroughly English, self-confident, and successful at his chosen profession, which, like that of Holmes's loyal associate, Dr. Watson, was the practice of medicine.
Doyle was first invited to witness mediumistic phenomena while he was a physician at Southsea in 1885. For the next three years, he participated in a number of sittings in the home of one of his patients, who was a teacher at the Greenwich Naval College. The medium at the center of these experiments was a railway signalman who seemed capable of producing a wide range of astonishing phenomena. So astonishing, that Doyle, the young man of science and medicine, eventually concluded that the man was occasionally faking the manifestations, and that the other sitters either chose to ignore the trickery in the hope that more genuine phenomena would manifest—or else were too gullible or too eager to accept the miraculous to protest.
While his early encounters with mediumship were not greatly impressive, Doyle's interest in exploring the unknown was stirred, and he joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) shortly thereafter. In 1902 he met Sir Oliver Lodge (1851–1940), and the experiences and research of this highly respected scientist had a great impact upon him. Doyle became convinced that telepathy was a genuine phenomenon that could also account for a great deal of apparent mediumistic knowledge of the deceased. Perhaps, he theorized, the medium was picking up thoughts about the dead from the various sitters in the seance circle who had lost loved ones. During the same period of time, Doyle read Fredric W. H. Myers 's (1843–1901) Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), which had a great effect on his acceptance of mediumship and spirit communication.
In 1916, after 30 years of intense study, Doyle accepted the phenomena of Spiritualism as genuine. He was 58, at the height of his literary career, and filled with self-confidence, so he openly associated himself with the cause of modern Spiritualism in two books, The New Revelation (1918) and The Vital Message (1919). In that same year, with World War I creating turmoil in both the physical and spiritual worlds, his second wife, Jean, lost her brother at the Battle of Mons. In the midst of her grief, she began experimenting with automatic writing, a mediumistic technique whereby one allows the pen to flow across the page under the guidance of spirit writers. When her early attempts at spirit communication proved successful, Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle became convinced that their earthly mission was in large part to be devoted to relaying messages from those who had fallen in battle to their bereaved families.
In 1918, Doyle's oldest son, Kingsley, died of pneumonia during the Battle of the Somme. A year after his son's death, Doyle attended a seance held by a Welsh medium who spoke in Kingsley's voice and referred to matters that would have been completely unknown to the medium. Shortly after the remarkable direct voice communication, the medium materialized Doyle's mother and nephew. Contemptuously brushing aside the efforts of those who attempted to explain the phenomena, Doyle declared that he saw his loved ones as plainly and as clearly as he had ever seen them in life.
After the war ended in 1918, Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle began the first of their extensive lecture tours. For the next 12 years, they were seldom at home for very long periods of time as they traveled throughout Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, northern Europe, South Africa, and the United States. Among the members of the large crowds that gathered were those who were eager to meet the author of their favorite detective fiction and those who wished to hear words of comfort from the Doyles concerning the kind of existence that their deceased loved ones were living on the other side.
The December 1920 issue of Strand magazine contained several allegedly authentic photographs of fairies that had been taken with an inexpensive camera by two young girls, Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffiths, in a little valley through which ran a narrow stream near the village of Cottingley. One snapshot taken by Elsie in the summer of 1917, when she was 16, captured her 10-year-old cousin seated on the grass surrounded by four dancing fairies. Another, taken a few months later, showed Elsie with a tiny gnome.
Doyle managed to obtain the negatives and brought them to one of England's most eminent photographic analysts. At first the expert dismissed the very notion of fairy photographs, but he ended up staking his professional reputation by saying that not only were the pictures all single exposures, but he said that he could detect that the tiny beings had actually been moving while having their images snapped by the girls' camera. Furthermore, he stated firmly, he could not detect the slightest evidence of any fakery in the photographs. Doyle wisely sought another opinion, so he took the negatives to the Kodak Company's offices in Kingsway. While these experts declined to acknowledge that the photographs actually depicted fairies, they did issue a statement that they could find no evidence of trick photography or any tampering with the film. Yet a third analyst expressed his opinion that the most significant factor in the Cottingley photographs was that the fairy figures seemed clearly to have been caught in motion as they hovered over the flowers and the girls.
As the British press spread the charming story of the Cottingley fairy photographs, numerous individuals came forward to testify that they, too, as children had played with the little people. Fortified by the photographic analyses of several experts that the photographs were genuine, Doyle obtained the services of one of Great Britain's most gifted clairvoyants to see if he might be able psychically to verify the girls' accounts of fairies near Cottingley. The psychic sat down with Elsie and Frances in the little valley and found that he was able to see even more of the fairy realm because of his mediumistic abilities. According to his great sensitivity, the entire glen was alive with many types of elemental spirits—wood elves, gnomes, fairies, and graceful water sprites around the valley and stream. Try as he might, though, the clairvoyant was unable to project to the fairies the amount of psychic energy necessary to allow them to materialize. It appeared that only the young girls had the unique blend of innocence and wonder that could somehow supply the fairies with the necessary energy to permit them to attain a material form.
Doyle issued his summation of the case of Elsie and Frances and their fairy photographs, along with his interpretation of the phenomena, in which he stated that while the proof offered by the Cottingley experience was not as "overwhelming" as in the case of spiritualistic phenomena, "there is enough already convincing evidence [for the authenticity of fairies] available." Later, the photographs were exposed as fakes, and Doyle was embarrassed by his having endorsed both the girls and their pictures in his book The Coming of the Fairies (1922) as being authentic examples of the ability of certain sensitive individuals to take genuine spirit photographs.
Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle had met Harry Houdini after one of the famous magician's performances at the Hippodrome in Brighton, England, in 1920, and while many have pondered how Doyle, a true believer in Spiritualism, and Houdini, the determined nemesis of spirit mediums, could ever have become friends, a bond of friendship was formed between the two families. Some writers and researchers contend that Houdini didn't disbelieve in survival after death, but, rather, was seeking proof that he could find completely acceptable by his standards. His attack against certain spirit mediums may have been inspired by his feeling that their evidence for the afterlife had been faked. Indeed, the friendship between Doyle and Houdini may have been inspired by the entertainer's sincere desire that the Doyles might somehow be instrumental in providing him with the proof of the afterlife that he so desired. Sadly, their friendship ended quite explosively after Lady Doyle conducted a seance in the United States.
In 1922, Sir Arthur and Lady Doyle were lecturing in the United States, and Houdini asked them to join him and his wife Beatrice (Bess) for a brief vacation in Atlantic City on June 17. That particular date was sacred to Houdini because it was his beloved mother's birthday. Expressing the belief that she could establish contact with his mother on that special day, Lady Doyle entered a light trance and began producing lovely and sentimental messages from the magician's mother in the spirit world. Although Houdini was grateful for the kind sentiments, he later publicly expressed his strong doubts that the spirit of his mother had written such words, especially since she had never learned to write English. Also, since the Weiss family (Houdini's birthname) was Jewish, Houdini doubted that his mother would have begun the message by drawing a cross at the top of the page of automatic writing. Houdini's public denials of Lady Doyle's mediumship created a breach between the friends which never healed.
Doyle was nominated honorary president of the International Spiritualist Congress that was held in Paris in 1925. In 1927, he published Pheneas Speaks, revelations relayed through automatic writing to Lady Doyle from her spirit control Pheneas. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died on July 7, 1930.
Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Edge of the Unknown. New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1968.
Fodor, Nandor. An Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1966.
The Fox Sisters
On one of the last days of her life, in February of 1893, Margaretta Kane managed to prop herself into a sitting position and demanded a pencil and paper from Dr. Mellin, the doctor who had been commissioned to care for her. Kane began writing at an incredible pace, and before she had finished she had filled 20 sheets with clear handwriting. After handing the written sheets back to the doctor, she fell into a coma and died.
When Mellin had the opportunity to examine what Kane had written, she was astonished to discover that her patient had filled the sheets with an accurate and detailed biography of the doctor's own life. It included many events that Mellin had not divulged to anyone. Some time later, Mellin described the incident to the Medico-Legal Society of New York. She concluded her remarks about the manuscript by saying: "To my surprise, I found she had written down a detailed story of my life. The most startling thing did not appear until near the end where Mrs. Kane mentioned the missing will of my mother and the names of several people back home in Manchester, Indiana. I wrote at once to my brother. He sent a friend to Manchester and mother's missing will was recovered."
The story of the dying woman who somehow knew intimate details about her doctor that could not have been known through ordinary means takes on tragic significance when Kane's history is revealed. Kane was born Margaretta Fox, and it was she and her sister Catherine who were credited with the founding of modern Spiritualism. They were later discredited by certain investigators as being clever deceivers with no paranormal or mediumistic abilities whatsoever.
Mysterious knocking and window rattling began in the John Fox home in Hydesville, New York, shortly after they had moved into the house on December 11, 1847. After the first night, Fox spent the next day securing everything that looked as though it might make knocking or rattling sounds, but the following night the knockings and rappings were even louder. One of the family members ventured a guess that it was a prankster playing a trick on them or some neighbor trying to frighten them away, but as much as they tried to catch the supposed joker in the act, they never saw him.
Then Fox, the local blacksmith, began to hear talk about the complaints of some of the previous tenants in the house, who, as early as 1843, had also complained of mysterious rappings, footsteps, and dragging sounds. Michael Weekman, who had rented the house just prior to their occupancy, moved out when he could no longer stand the eerie night sounds.
By March 31, 1848, John and Margaret Fox gave up chasing after the rappings and resolved to live with the disturbances. After all, no real damage had ever occurred. The sounds were just annoying. They would go to bed early that evening and try to get a good night's sleep.
But that night when the disturbances began, the five children—John, David, Maria, Margaretta (Maggie), and Catherine (Katie)—seemed to be more frightened than ever before by the continual knocks and thuds echoing throughout the house. Observing that the strange noises were centering around 12-year-old Katie and 15-year-old Maggie, Fox closed the window in the girls' bedroom with a loud thump. His thump was immediately followed by two others, and Katie cried out that "they" were answering him.
For a few moments, no one moved. Then Fox cautiously knocked on the window sill. There came an answering knock from somewhere in the room. Katie was more excited than frightened. As if it were all some thrilling game, she commanded the sounds to follow the snaps of her fingers and called out: "Here, Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do." The unseen prankster did so perfectly, even when she only held up a certain number of fingers to prompt an appropriate number of raps. "It can see as well as hear!" she laughed in childlike triumph.
Soon other members of the family had entered the game with the mysterious unseen visitor and were asking it to pound out number sequences or to sound one rap for yes, two raps for no. Mrs. Fox was no stranger to psychic phenomena, for although they were respected members of the Methodist Church, three prior generations of women in her family (Rutan) had the ability to predict deaths, births, and other local occurrences.
As his daughters' communication with the spirit progressed, Fox wanted to determine whether or not his entire family was deluded. He went next door and brought a neighbor, Mrs. Redfield, into the children's bedroom. Although the woman laughed at the thought of a knocking spirit, she went away greatly disturbed by the fact that she had not only heard the knocks, but whatever invisible source was making them knew a great deal about her past, also.
As word spread about the curious phenomena that was occurring in the Fox home, people from all over Hydesville came to hear the mysterious rappings. A committee composed of 20 friends and neighbors and directed by William Duesler set about a program of investigation. Shortly after the committee had reached its conclusions regarding the authenticity of the phenomena, E. E. Lewis published a 40-page pamphlet of their findings entitled, "A Report on the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of John D. Fox at Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County. Authenticated by the certificates and confirmed by the statements of the citizens of that place and vicinity."
After Katie and Maggie had experimented with the phenomena for several weeks, a code of rappings had been developed and intelligent communication with the entity had been established. The spirit revealed itself as Charles B. Rosna (Rosa in some accounts), a 31-year-old itinerant peddler who had been murdered in the house and buried in the basement. Charles became the spirit control for Katie and Maggie, and he revealed a great deal of personal information about his life on Earth through their mediumship.
On April 3, 1848, David Fox and some neighbors began digging in the cellar and discovered charcoal, quicklime, strands of human hair, and portions of a human skull. Based on the evidence provided by the spirit of the murdered man, a former tenant was accused of having perpetrated the deed, but the authorities refused to arrest or prosecute on such testimony.
The Fox family was growing weary of all the attention that they were receiving both from the spirit world and from the populace of Hydesville and the surrounding area. John and Margaret thought they might be able to get rid of the ghostly noises if they sent Maggie and Katie away from the house for a while. The girls were sent to their older sister Leah, 34, who was living in poverty in Rochester after her husband had deserted her. Loud, resounding raps broke out in Leah's home when the girls arrived, indicating that the spirits had followed them to Rochester, and they received the following message from the spirits: "You must proclaim this truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era. You must not try to conceal it any longer. When you do your duty, God will protect you and good spirits will watch over you."
With this message from the spirit world, modern Spiritualism was born. Spiritualists believe that death is only a change of worlds, and communication with those who have passed to the other side is possible. For the Fox sisters, their declaration of this message from the spirits placed them in the center of a tumultuous storm that raged throughout their lifetimes. Leah, who according to some sources is also said to have demonstrated some mediumistic abilities, became the manager for Maggie and Katie and arranged during numerous stage presentations for them to demonstrate their interaction with spirits, first in Rochester, then in many other cities throughout New England. The sisters were tested and exposed, tested and authenticated, tested and humiliated, over and over again—damned or praised, depending upon the biases of the investigators. They succumbed to such continual stresses by resorting to heavy drinking. They fought among themselves.
In 1857, Leah married a wealthy insurance man named Underhill and retired from her position as her sisters' manager. Maggie had been wooed by the famous Arctic explorer Dr. Elisha Kane (1820–1857), who died tragically before they could be married. Undeterred by such a sorrowful change of plans, Maggie considered herself a widow and called herself Margaretta Kane. In 1861, Katie went to England to be tested by such active psychic researchers as Sir William Crookes (1832–1919) and became the wife of H. D. Jencken, an attorney. She bore Jencken two sons before he died in 1885, leaving her despondent and once again dependent upon alcohol. In 1888, Katie's lifestyle had become so destructive that Leah managed to have the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children assume custody of her two children.
Outraged by what she considered a traitorous act, Maggie allied herself with her younger sister and vowed to ruin Leah. This she sought to accomplish by writing a letter to the New York Herald denouncing Spiritualism and promising revelations of the frauds that the sisters had employed to deceive their audiences. Maggie made good her threat to Leah and her promise to the New York Herald by giving a lecture at the New York Academy of Music, where she confessed to being a fraud and offered explanations as to how she and Katie had produced various aspects of the phenomena. An angry Katie joined her sister and endorsed her exposure of spirit communication. They had been able to crack their toes and certain joints to make the sound of the spirit raps, the two sisters said. It had begun as a joke on their parents, but Leah had seen a way to make money from their unique talents. Plus, Maggie and Katie said, Leah had wanted to establish a new religion.
A year later, after passions had cooled among the sisters, Maggie completely retracted her confession of trickery and fraud. She explained that she had been under great mental stress and suffering severe financial difficulties. For five dollars, she declared, she would have sworn to anything. The demonstration at the New York Academy of Music only revealed how such phenomena could be faked, she swore, not how she and her sisters had actually engaged in fraudulent activity. Maggie swore now that they had served as mediums for genuine spirit manifestations.
The phenomena produced by the Fox sisters were important to psychical research. Professor Charles Richet (1850–1935), world-famous physiologist at the Sorbonne, stated that spirit rappings were of "primary importance" as demonstrations that "there are in the universe human or nonhuman intelligences that can act directly on matter." Sir William Crookes (1832–1919), the renowned British chemist and physicist, concluded after a full investigation of Katie Fox that she only had to place her hand on any substance to produce "raps loud enough to be heard several rooms off. In this manner, I have heard them in a living tree, on a sheet of glass, on a stretched iron wire, on a stretched membrane, a tambourine, on the roof of a cab, and on the floor of a theatre. Moreover, actual contact is not always necessary. I have heard these sounds proceeding from the floors, walls, etc., when the medium's hands were held, when she was standing on a chair, when she was suspended from the ceiling, when she was enclosed in a wire cage.…"
Psychical researcher Robert Dale Owen observed Leah Fox Underhill in a seance during which she manifested a "light about as large as a small fist, that rose and fell as a hammer would, striking the floor. At each stroke, a loud rap was heard." In over 400 seances sponsored by investigators in New York, Katie Fox, whose hands were held by the researchers, materialized phantom human forms that produced flowers, glowing lights, and written messages in the handwriting of deceased individuals.
Katie worked as a medium and conducted seances until, at the age of 56, she drank herself to death on July 2, 1892. Leah had passed away the year before, November 1, 1891. Maggie died ill and destitute on March 8, 1893, at the age of 59.
Whether the majority of Americans accepted the exposure of the Fox sisters as deceivers and frauds or believed the more positive appraisals by certain psychical researchers that Maggie and Katie were capable of producing genuine spirit phenomena, the Spiritualist movement had been born, and with the help of sensationalistic articles in the press, word of the controversial mediums spread around the world. Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910) and Emma Vera Brittain began to deliver trance lectures in the major cities of the eastern seaboard of the United States. In 1859, Dr. Phelps, a Presbyterian minister in Stratford, Connecticut, produced spirit manifestations and developed a following. Soon, trance mediums from the United States were visiting Scotland, England, and being embraced in the Scandinavian countries, where the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) had prepared them to expect such messages from the spirit world. Within months, the movement had taken root in Germany, France, Russia, and many other countries on the continent—all the result of the rappings and knockings of Maggie and Katie Fox, two little girls who, in the eyes of their supporters, had broken down the dividing wall between the worlds of life and death.
Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.
Fodor, Nandor. These Mysterious People. London: Rider & Co., 1936.
Jackson, Herbert G., Jr. The Spirit Rappers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.
Allen Kardec (1804–1869)
Allen Kardec, known as the father of Spiritism, distinct from Spiritualism, was born in Lyons, France, in 1804, with the birth name Hypolyte Leon Denizard Rivail. The names "Allen" and "Kardec" were names from prior lifetimes that he chose to use in his present life experience. The son of an attorney, Kardec decided to become a medical doctor, but he soon became intrigued by the enthusiasm for experiments in mesmerism and spirit communication that were spreading throughout Europe.
In 1850, he began sitting with Celina Bequet, a professional somnambulist (hypnotist) who, for family reasons, assumed the name of Celina Japhet. Japhet not only placed others in trance states, but was assisted in achieving a somnambulistic state by M. Roustan. While in trance, Japhet was under the spirit control of her grandfather, M. Hahnemann, and the spirit of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) spoke from the spirit world to give medical advice through her mediumship. Many other spirit entities manifested themselves and explained to the assembled sitters that the process of reincarnation was not only possible, but that it was compulsory for all souls to be reborn and receive new life experiences. Because Kardec was recognized as a proficient writer as well as a medical doctor, the spirits urged him to author what would be considered his classic work, Le Livre des Esprits (known today as The Spirits' Book ), first published in 1856.
The 1857 revised edition of Kardec's book, based on the trance communications of Celina Japhet, became the guidebook for those wishing information regarding mediumship, life in spirit, and the evolution of the soul. The Spirits' Book went into more than 25 editions and became popular throughout Europe and South America. However, because traditional Spiritualists reject the concept of reincarnation, conflict developed between the established dogma and the writings of Kardec. Kardec remained firm in his belief in what the spirits had told him: Reincarnation was necessary for the soul to progress and to better understand and heal current physical or mental illnesses, which had been caused by the deeds and misdeeds of prior life experiences. Because of his resolve in these matters, "Spiritism" or "Kardecism" became distinguished from Spiritualism.
Other books written by Allen Kardec include The Gospel as Explained by Spirits (1864); Heaven and Hell (1865); and Experimental Spiritism and Spiritualist Philosophy (1867). Although Spiritism was gradually reabsorbed back into Spiritualism in Europe, it remains popular as a separate philosophy throughout South America, especially in Brazil, where its members see no conflict in being nominal Roman Catholics and practicing espiritas.
Fodor, Nandor. An Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1966.
Playfair, Guy Lyon. The Unknown Power. New York: Pocket Books, 1975.
"Spiritualism." Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spiritualism
"Spiritualism." Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spiritualism
SPIRITUALISM is a religious movement whose adherents seek contact with spirits through mediums in gatherings called séances. It emerged in the Northeast amid the transformations of capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, religious revivalism and experimentation, social reform, democratization, and the rising authority of science.
Spiritualism originated in 1848 in western New York, a region swept by religious revivalism and ferment after the opening of the Erie Canal. Radical ex-Quakers and abolitionists there decided that mysterious knockings in the Hydesville home of sisters Kate and Margaret Fox were communications by spirits. Press coverage generated interest in these "spirit manifestations" after the Fox sisters began a series of demonstrations in Rochester, and
they were referred to as the "Rochester Rappings." Advocates claimed scientific proof of immortality. Many Americans thought they could serve as mediums.
Meanwhile, "Poughkeepsie Seer" Andrew Jackson Davis's involvement with mesmerism had by 1847 produced "harmonialism," a system of religious philosophy and social reform he claimed he had received in a trance from the eighteenth-century scientist-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and other spirits (see Swedenborgian Churches). Rejecting Calvinist doctrines of innate depravity and eternal punishment and advocating perpetual spiritual growth, harmonialism attracted Universalists, Unitarians, Quakers, Swedenborgians, deists, members of evangelical denominations, and radical social reformers, especially abolitionists and women's rights advocates. Spiritualis memerged when Davis and his followers linked harmonialism to mediumship.
Spiritualism spread across the North during the 1850s and subsequently to the West Coast. Associated with abolitionism and other radical reforms, it was less popular in the South. Mediums were usually women, whom Victorian Americans believed had a heightened piety and sensitivity to spirit communication; many were empowered to public social activism by their mediumship. Spirit messages often urged Americans to counteract expanding commercialization, industrialization, and urbanization by retaining communal and republican values thought to be threatened by the emerging order. Spiritualism appealed across race and class lines but was promoted primarily by an anxious new middle class.
Spiritualism had its critics. Ministers, feeling their authority threatened, labeled it necromancy, witchcraft, and a stimulus to free love. Most scientists rejected it, especially after unfavorable investigations in the mid to late nineteenth century, although a few became defenders, and some examined it within the framework of psychic phenomena from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. Debunkers from the 1850s forward have charged mediums with fraud. Some early sympathizers bolted to found Christian Science and Theosophy.
Such challenges limited Spiritualism's growth and appeal, but the new religion persisted and, despite its strong anti-organizational thrust, became institutionalized. Spiritualists formed perhaps thousands of circles nationwide. They founded over 200 newspapers by 1900 and publishing houses in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. The federal census listed 17 Spiritualist churches in 1860, 95 in 1870, 334 in 1890, and 455 in 1906, with tens of thousands of members in 1890 and 1906. Beginning in the 1870s, Spiritualists established camps in New York, Massachusetts, Indiana, Florida, and several other states. National organization efforts began in the 1860s, and the National Spiritualist Association of Churches was founded in Chicago in 1893. Although over-all numbers subsequently declined, large-scale organizations proliferated (the NASC remained the largest), giving Spiritualism a permanent institutional presence and an increasingly ecclesiastical character.
Spiritualism revitalized during the 1960s amid increased interest in alternative spiritualities, psychic phenomena, and the subsequent New Age Movement, whose eclectic practices include spirit "channeling." Yet it remained distinct from New Age religions and continues to express Americans' desire for spiritual grounding amid ongoing change.
Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
Carroll, Bret E. Spiritualism in Antebellum America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
"Spiritualism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/spiritualism
"Spiritualism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/spiritualism
spir·it·u·al·ism / ˈspirichoōəˌlizəm/ • n. 1. a system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, esp. through mediums. 2. Philos. the doctrine that the spirit exists as distinct from matter, or that spirit is the only reality. DERIVATIVES: spir·it·u·al·ist n. spir·it·u·al·is·tic / ˌspirichoōəˈlistik/ adj.
"spiritualism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/spiritualism
"spiritualism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/spiritualism
"spiritualism." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spiritualism-0
"spiritualism." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spiritualism-0
- Arcati, Madame medium who materializes her client’s two successive wives. [Br. Drama: Noel Coward Blithe Spirit in On Stage, 236]
- Medium, The Menotti’s opera of a medium haunted by her own hoax. [Am. Opera: Benét, 653]
"Spiritualism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/spiritualism
"Spiritualism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/spiritualism
spiritualism: see spiritism.
"spiritualism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spiritualism
"spiritualism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spiritualism