Victorian English Seance 007

Seeing is Believing: Spiritualism in the Victorian Era-Part 3

In the dawn of modern spiritualism the general means of communication employed by the spirits were made by “raps” or “alphabet rapping”, where a medium could relay messages from the deceased by writing letters on a slate.  Under more favourable conditions, the spirits were able to speak in a direct voice using of the lungs of the medium, or materialise all vocal organs for their own use.[1] Other commonly placed manifestation were the playing of a musical instrument by invisible hands or the carrying of objects such as a flower or a book. Catherine Berry who practiced as a medium in London in the 1860s and 70s, kept a detailed account of séances in her memoirs~ those she conducted and those of others. The following is a description of one of her privately conducted sittings.

"The circumstances under which this paper was written, are as followed. . August 27- strong evidence felt of spirit- power.  The table, after a gentle vibration, became unmanageable, and was lifted two feet high from the floor, the united strength of the company present being inadequate to force it to its better place; spirit forms and stars were visible; also a spirit voice conversed with us and answered a number of question… Raps were heard on the table and piano, cold currents of air were felt…  Mr. Hearn was repeatedly entranced, and went through several impersonations; and during the latter part of the evening Mr. Gray, played, under spirit control, several charming compositions on the piano… Before concluding a circle was formed around the table.  The table, without being touched, was turned top downwards, and, after futile endeavours to keep it down, was replaced in its upright position by the spirits."[2]

The written documentation of nineteenth century mediumship, mostly represents the cultural practices of public séances (which were well recorded in the spiritualist periodicals of the time) and display a tendency towards sensationalism. Spiritualist liked to portray the “public” mediums as a unique comparative, the “chosen few” whose exceptional talents far exceeded those of others in the domain. These gifted individuals, (some of which profited a significant amount of fame), displayed a more theatrical style of mediumship which demonstrated spectacular visual manifestation. Daniel Dunglas- Home was considered a society favourite and an enigma of his time. Born in Scotland in 1833, he was raised by an aunt who took him to United States in the 1840s, as a teenage boy, Homes had visions and premonitions , he was introduced to a group of Americans mediums who studied Homes and helped to cultivate his psychic powers. When he returned to England in 1855, no medium then practicing could deal with the spiritual world as Homes did.

Daniel Douglas Home, Medium.

In addition to having the spirits manifest themselves, rapping, and producing objects out of the air, Homes demonstrated himself as a floating object of the spirits. Unlike most public mediums, Homes conducted his séances in full light and charged no fee, but he accepted gifts from wealthier patrons. Others such as Mrs Guppy whose life was also one long list of wonders. Her endless talents secured her a vast fan-club. On one occasion Guppy’s physical manifestation resulted in her being transported by the spirits from a house in Highbury to 61 Lambs Conduit Street Bloomsbury,  her arrival was reported to be witnessed by twelve persons. [3] Mrs Guppy was also responsible for introducing the “cabinet” materialization whereby the mediums themselves would be placed within a sealed, darkened cabinet in the séance room (this fastened confinement was thought necessary to improve the conditions for spirits entry).   Sitters would witness the protuberance of “limbs” of the spirits from the cabinet.

Victorian Spiritualist.

The spectacular vision of full-form materialisation, where the spirit would materialise from the body of the medium and move within the circle of the sitters, was first performed in England by a young London woman named Florence Cook. Like Daniel Dunglas- Home, Florence Cook had fostered her capacity as a medium by the development of one of the many societies that had been established in Britain in the 1860s and 70s to advance and cultivate mediumship under a skilled and benign eye. Under this tutelage Florence encountered the phenomenon of a spirit named “Katie King”, initially the relationship between medium and spirit manifested itself by “Katie” speaking via the use of Cook’s vocal cords, as Cook’s powers evolved the young medium succeeded in materialising the breathtaking display of a full-form materialisation of “Katie”.[4] This spectacular achievement ushered in a new wave of expectation among fellow mediums and Florence Cook took centre stage.  This triumph provoked much controversy among non-believers (most public mediums in the nineteenth century were accused at some point in their career as being imposters), but despite the amount of scepticism produced at the time, full form materialisation provided evidence of the existence of a spirit life for believers.

[1] Berry  (1876) p58.

[2] Berry, C (1876) p48.

[3] Berry, C (1876) p63.

[4] Owen, A (1989) p48.


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 3”, Curious Histories (blog on, January 26th, 2017. [On line] era-part-3/


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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