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Seeing is Believing: Spiritualism in the Victorian Era-Part 1

“There exists… a Higher science, which is also religion in the truest sense, which deals with hidden forces in nature at which Physical science stops short, but which are more than suspected by the majority of mankind, because every form of Religion whatsoever is an acknowledgment of something” [1]

Spiritualism has been perceived as a new religion that arrived in England from America in the mid-nineteenth century. The central principles of the Spiritualist movement can be broadly characterized by a belief in the continuity of a life after death, coupled with the conviction that the deceased can communicate with the living through a spiritual medium. Spiritualist principles demanded an understanding of higher universal laws whilst not annihilating Christian belief. The movement has been simultaneously recognized as both a secular and a religious phenomenon, those who believed in the holiness of Christ found in spiritualism proof of their faith. Justification of the soul’s survival could confirm the existence of eternal life, as it was not necessary to believe in one divine entity to appreciate the elation of renewed contact with those departed. The historical analysis of spiritualism in the nineteenth century tends to acknowledge that loss of a loved one along with searing grief were the primary motivators for those who turned to the movement. During a period when death within a family (often a child) was a regular occurrence, communication with the dead signified the desire to remember and maintain a relationship beyond the grave. The appeal for this “newly configured” religion captured the imagination of a richly diverse and varied audience. Despite accusations that it was unscientific, irreligious and devoid of common sense, a belief in spirits could bring comfort to those bereaved.

Victorian Age marks the golden age of grief. Death penetrated the Victorian home at all levels and across class distinctions: Britain was a nation obsessed with death and the materialistic rituals of mourning. The deathbed scene was a deeply powerful and emotional ceremony within nineteenth century culture. It brought forth a method of preparing the dying for the voyage ahead and provided a forum for those about to be bereaved to say goodbye.  The prevailing interest in the journey from the deathbed to the funeral became extended into the afterlife. The preoccupation with material memento mori was accompanied by an analogous impulse to conjure the spirits of the deceased.

The Fox Sisters. Daguerrotype.

The birth of modern spiritualism began in Hydeville, upstate New York in 1848, when two young sisters, Kate and Margaretta Fox, announced that spirits of the dead were trying to communicate with them in their family home by “raps” or “knockings” on wooden surfaces. The girls found that they could talk to the unseen source by forming a simple code involving a certain number of raps in response to their verbal questions. This occurrence received wide public interest. The girls’ popularity surged, first locally and then nationally. The phenomenon that the Fox sisters constructed perhaps sets the scene for spiritualism in the following decades of the nineteenth century.

The spiritualist movement arrived on the shores of Britain in the Autumn of 1852. The harbingers of this novel phenomenon were two Americans, Mrs Hayden and Mrs Roberts, who advertised their services as spiritualist mediums within English upper-class society. The transatlantic visitors immediately became a roaring social success and found themselves in great demand to perform public and private sittings.


[1] Kingslad, W (1888-9), p1.


Bibliography

Barrow, L. 1986. Independent SpiritsLondon: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Berry, Catherine. 1876. Experiences in Spiritualism. London: James Burns.

 Evans, William H Lee. 1897. Hours with the Ghosts. Washington.

Kingsland, W. 1888-9. “The Higher Science.” Theosophical Siftings 1, no.11: 1. (Quoted in Oppenheim J., The Other World, p. 196).

Nelson, Geoffrey K. 1969. Spiritualism and Society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

 Oppenheim, Janet. 1985. The Other WorldCambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Owen, Alex. 1089. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Russell, M & Goldfarb, C. R. 1978. Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Letters. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Press Inc.

Stein, G. 1996. The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books.

Strange, J. M. 2005. Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain 1870-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tromp, M. 2006. Altered States. Albany NY: University of New York Press.


To cite this post : Julie Mathias, “Seeing is Believing: Spiritualism in the Victorian Era-Part 1”, Curious Histories (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), January 26th, 2017. [On line] http://oldoperatingtheatre.com/seeing-is-believing-spiritualism-in-the-victorian- era-part-1/


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Julie Mathias is the Head of Learning at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. Her role includes convening the schools programs for students studying the “Medicine Through Time” series and related subjects. As a social historian Julie is interested in the history of ‘ordinary’ peoples’ experiences of health, illness, and death, and how investigating this fascinating phenomena enriches our present day understanding of our own bodies.

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