The Society of Psychical Research was one of a number of organisations established in Britain in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was founded in 1882 by a group of Cambridge philosophers and scientists after a meeting of the British National Association of Spiritualists. Their aim was to investigate scientifically, without prejudice, those capabilities of man that appear to be inexplicable. The founders and early members were sympathetic to spiritualist ideas and included such distinguished names as Henry Sidgwick, Leslie Stephen, Alfred Tennyson, W.E. Gladstone and John Ruskin. The Society aimed to use scientific methods to establish the validity of the psychical phenomena produced by mediums, such as materialisation, levitation and automatic writing.
For those believers who looked to Spiritualism in the nineteenth century for more than just table rapping and raising the dead, found within the movement a structure that provided solace for their life on earth. Spiritualists were strongly concerned with fulfilling a goal of human contentment, establishing a new dimension of thought which entailed equality within human kind. Therefore such subjects as gender relations and the issues surrounding the social status of women at this time were reflected within spiritualist discourse. During the 1850s matters were being raised as to women’s ‘proper’ role in society this became identified as “the woman question”. The frustrations encountered by many mid- Victorian women were being voiced with much controversy within the corridors of British power. Victorian spiritualists believed that women held predominance within the spiritual mediumship and that their contribution to the movement exceeded that of men. This is not to suggest that there was not as many men as women involved in the propagation of spiritualism, written testimonies of séances indicates a mixed audience, yet it would seem female mediums far outnumbered men.
The Victorian age was a period of religious uncertainty; the theological conditions which facilitated spiritualism are complicated; there are no conclusive answers as to why the spiritualist movement had such an extraordinarily profound impact upon many Victorian men and women. Yet it is recognised that spiritualism grew, in part, out of religious traditions emphasizing independence, as well as Darwinian theories which called into question age-old religious narratives concerning the creation of mankind. Science, of course, is fundamentally empirical and spiritualism’s followers were tremendously concerned with the production of irrefutable evidence of the existence of the spirit realm: for spiritualists and scientists alike~ seeing is believing. Those interested in spiritualism used science, sensory perception and reason to authenticate their beliefs in a way that traditionally organised religions do not. Perhaps this is one reason for the growth of spiritualism in what was an age of religious anxiety.
The modern research on nineteenth century spiritualism has chiefly focused on the politics (in the widest sense) of spiritualists. Contemporary authors have used various interpretive strategies to suggest that the movement represented something more in Victorian culture than the mere summoning of the dead. For instance, whilst Logie Barrow (in his germinal study Independent Spirits) concedes that experiencing the death of loved ones may have been a primary initial cause for those who turned to the movement, he goes on to argue that the main attraction for the plebeians lay more in spiritualism’s democratic ethos. Janet Oppenheim’s authoritative overview of the research undertaken into spiritualism (The Other World) focuses her analysis on the debate between science and religion. Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room concentrates on women’s position in the spiritualist movement and how this illuminates gender relations of the time. Marlene Trump’s fascinating postmodernist analysis (Altered States) as she very specifically examines Victorian critiques of spiritualists, spiritualism’s relationship to imperialism and the use of drugs, prostitution and alcohol by female spiritualists. It is reasonable to assume that people attended séances for a variety of reasons. Some merely played with spiritualism as the fashionable pastime of the day. Young girls occasionally attended séances for no other purpose then to ask the spirits if they would marry a particular boy whom had attracted their attention, or how many children they would have. However, many who looked upon spiritualism for far more urgent reasons than titillation, these men and women sought reassurance that life on earth was not the totality of human existence and through the methods made accessible by mediums, they received proof that the human spirit survives bodily death, for them: seeing was believing.
Barrow, L. 1986. Independent Spirits. London: 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 World. Cambridge: 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 4”, Curious Histories (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), January 26th, 2017.
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.