Why Did Everyone in the 19th Century Think They Could Talk to the Dead?
Kevin Dann on the Spiritualists of New York City and Beyond
From about the last week of May through mid-July 1850, a steady stream of visitors made their way to a parlor in Barnum’s Hotel on Broadway. On the door of the room, they found a notice giving the rules for guests: the admission fee (one dollar per person), seating arrangement, and instructions to act as if in a solemn religious gathering. Visitors then took a seat at a long table that sat up to thirty people, to put questions about their deceased loved ones, or general questions about the afterlife, to “the spirits,” courtesy of Maggie and Kate Fox, teenage sisters from a small village upstate whose Morse code-like communication with a disembodied being had received wide attention after a demonstration in November 1849 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester.
The sisters had begun their “spiritual telegraph” innocently enough, playing with a household poltergeist as if with a cat, but this cat had a voracious appetite and began to devour the unsuspecting girls and any who would follow them. The story of the Fox sisters and the birth of Spiritualism has been told many times: on April Fool’s Eve in 1848, two sisters aged 10 and 14—having grown up in a house reputed to be haunted—play at speaking with the ghost by way of a rapped code; the invisible entity tells the girls lurid tales about a murdered peddler; the girls’ older sister exhibits them as having the ability to speak with the dead, giving birth to the many-colored movement known as Spiritualism. To get at the truth of this seemingly eccentric episode of American history requires a certain sideways glance.
At the very same moment when the Fox sisters arrived in Manhattan, another poltergeist was grabbing headlines across America. On Sunday, March 10, the Reverend Eliakim Phelps of Stratford, Connecticut, returned with his family from church to their sprawling mansion on Elm Street to find all the doors and windows open. Inside, they found the furniture knocked over, dishes smashed, books, papers, and clothing scattered all over. They had not been robbed; Reverend Phelps found his gold watch, silver heirlooms, and even loose cash undisturbed. In an upstairs bedroom, a sheet was spread over a bed, and Mrs. Phelps’s nightgown was laid out on it. At the bottom, a pair of stockings were stretched out, and the arms of the gown were folded across the chest, like a corpse.
Later, while the rest of the family returned to church for the afternoon service, Reverend Phelps hid in his study with a pistol, hoping to catch the intruders should they return. After some time, he went downstairs and, entering the dining room, found a circle of eleven effigies of women, kneeling or standing in prayer, some holding Bibles. Articles of the family’s clothing had been stuffed with rags and other materials from around the house to create the dummies, which had been put in place during the brief period while Phelps was standing guard. Over the next few months, twenty more mock women would appear out of the blue. They would be joined by leaping umbrellas, silverware, books, and other household objects; bedding sailing off beds; food and clothing dropping out of nowhere onto the breakfast table while the family ate. Friends and other visitors to the house watched as these objects fell at impossibly slow speeds or changed course in midair. By the end of April, the disturbances had turned quite nasty: screams and odd sounds were heard each night; silverware was mangled; windows were broken; the children’s limbs were jerked about violently; and welts appeared on their skin. Reverend Phelps’s son was hit with a barrage of small stones. Later, in front of a dozen witnesses, the boy vanished and was later found tied up and suspended from a tree in the yard.
As the most famous authority on Spiritualism in the nation, Andrew Jackson Davis made a visit to Stratford to investigate. Davis lent his authority to the genuineness of the activity and stated that the outbreak was caused by “vital radiations” from the Phelps children, whose “magnetism” caused objects to be attracted to or repelled from them. As with eyewitness reporters in Hydesville, Davis chose “spirits of the dead” as the rubric for understanding the disturbances, rather than the more common interpretation given them by local rural people—these were lowly tommyknockers, house hobbies, mischievous fairies tweaking the noses of a minister of the Gospel’s family. Both Davis and all the other commentators somehow missed the “telegraphic” aspect of the Stratford knockings.
A week before the odd visitation, Reverend Phelps and a friend had been discussing Spiritualism and decided to hold a séance, at which they produced knocking and rapping sounds, just as the Fox sisters had in Hydesville. Following their lead, Phelps decided to try communicating with the spirit by a system of telegraphic raps, and he soon ascertained that his resident poltergeist was a tormented soul in hell. When Phelps asked how he might help, the spirit asked Phelps to bring him a piece of pumpkin pie. Asking again, the invisible trickster asked instead for a glass of gin. When the exasperated minister finally asked why the spirit was making such mischief, it replied, “For fun.” It went on to give an elaborate tale of having been a law clerk in Philadelphia who had been convicted and jailed for fraud. Like the Hydesville “spirit,” who claimed to have been a peddler murdered by previous occupants of the Fox house, the Stratford spirit’s information was frequently false, and yet all were puzzled as to how the disembodied intelligence could exist at all.
Both the Hydesville and the Stratford specters, and thousands of others who manifested themselves throughout America, claimed and were believed to be spirits of the dead, and despite the rude, lewd, and downright demonic nature of much of their communications, they became venerated by millions of people eager for proof of life after death. The faithful turned a blind eye to the fact that Kate Fox’s first words to the pioneer poltergeist at Hydesville were “Do as I do, Mr. Splitfoot!” (i.e., the devil) or that that first manifestation had commenced on the eve of the most favorable day of the year for elfin activity. Clergymen who suggested that the spirits were devils in disguise were ignored or ridiculed. Their congregations—and often they themselves—had long since ceased believing in the active presence of nonhuman spiritual beings within the spiritual world. They reasoned that these phantasmic folk must be spirits of the dead, and the more physical their manifestations—moving tables, playing musical instruments, oozing ectoplasmic limbs, producing bouquets of flowers, and other such corny parlor tricks—the more credence they were given.In America, every day of the year became April Fool’s Day for the liberated sprites and poltergeists.
The year 1850 was surely the most important year in the growth of American Spiritualism, for the publicity generated by the Hydesville and Stratford poltergeists caused an explosion of mediumistic phenomena from coast to coast. “Experimental” Spiritualist circles formed in Boston (where there was estimated to be over a thousand mediums by 1850), Philadelphia, Providence, all the major cities in New York State, all the New England states, Cincinnati, Memphis, St. Louis, California, Oregon, Texas. All the way into Spiritualism’s resurgence in the 1920s, New York City would play a major role in the elucidation and dissemination of its credo.
In America, every day of the year became April Fool’s Day for the liberated sprites and poltergeists. The Stratford shenanigans were just a small sampling of their kaleidoscopic circus of tomfoolery. Puritanical matrons manipulating Ouija boards were made to utter the foulest of oaths. Greedy fortune hunters were promised gold and silver in a thousand secret locales. Would-be prophets were tantalized with authentic tidbits of advantageous foreknowledge, then sucker-punched with ersatz revelations guaranteed to be passed on to the multitudes. Earnest seekers of spiritual truths were hoodwinked with bizarre celestial untruths; the planetary fantasies of Andrew Jackson Davis were repeated in a hundred varieties by unsuspecting Spiritualist mediums. Masquerading elementals donned the personas of every historical celebrity imaginable, from George Washington to Alexander the Great, proclaiming all sorts of twaddle as the most sacred scripture. The Frankenstein monster of Spiritualist manifestations was a dubious bargain made by the United States just at the moment when the country’s own national science was maturing into a daylight endeavor capable of penetrating nature with new power.
The electric telegraph worked by a kind of “contagion.” A cascade of electrons set in motion was constrained within a thin wire, conducted to just those places where its operators wished it to go. In borrowing the metaphor of the telegraph, Spiritualists glibly believed that their new communication device ran directly between heaven and Earth. Lacking any proper magical education, they failed to realize that electricity was a subearthly force, not heavenly, and that, as such, it trafficked with subearthly beings. They also were oblivious to magnetism’s wireless nature. Any single person sitting at a séance became a “carrier” of the invisible subearthly entities, distributing them far and wide from the epicenter Spiritualist circle. In hindsight, we can easily track the progression of the possessing entities as they gain an increasing hold on the consciousness of the host human. Strange rapping noises, a ringing doorbell, scraping on an upstairs floor—these get the attention of the occupants, and the more fear and curiosity the specters evoke, the more power they are given. Think of the ugly toad whom Joseph Smith first met on Palmyra’s Hill Cumorah; after promising the eager treasure seeker great riches when he returned, the toad had become the Angel Moroni!
“Test the spirits,” said the Apostle John, but the entire history of Spiritualism demonstrates that far too few followed his sage advice.
Spiritualism had made enough inroads in America in the two years following the Fox sisters’ sojourn at Barnum’s Hotel that in 1852, a pair of leading New York Spiritualists, Samuel Brittan and Charles Partridge, founded their Spiritual Telegraph, the first national Spiritualist periodical. In January 1854, they brought out from their publishing office at 300 Broadway a block north of A. T. Stewart’s sprawling white-marble department store An Epic of the Starry Heaven, by Thomas Lake Harris. “Epic” was indeed an apt title for this tour of the celestial spheres in verse form—which had become the specialty of the trance medium Thomas Lake Harris. Brittan—who with his partner Partridge had been a witness at many of the twelve sessions in November and early December 1853—estimated that Harris had produced the two-hundred-page poem in twenty-six hours and sixteen minutes.
Conducted by an “angel,” Harris had made a tour of the “electric oceans” in proximity to the seven celestial spheres—from Earth upward to Saturn. Along the way, he both met companies of angels and was given visions of humanity’s coming tribulations and triumphs. Though Harris was hailed by Brittan, Partridge, and their wide Spiritualist circles as a modern Dante, his poetry was saccharine and overblown, save for occasional passages of lucidity and lyricism.
And a spiral winds from the worlds to the suns,
And every star that shines
In the path of degrees forever runs,
And the spiral octave climbs;
And a seven-fold heaven round every one
In the spiral order twines.
This verse’s perception of the spiral or vortical nature of planetary and starry spheres hints that there was beneath all the poetic hot air some authentic clairvoyance, for in just a few brief decades, the earliest photographs of space would discover just these spirals.
Though the poem’s prophecies are very vaguely phrased, truth appears in some of them as well:
Man is the true Republic. Earth shall see
A New Democracy,
A New Theocracy,
The Priesthood of the Free
Before that utopian republic might arise, however, there would be a “Babylon of Slavery” and an apocalyptic conflagration. These were common millennial images in the years leading up to the Civil War, but Harris’s subsequent career, through some four-dozen books—he soon moved from poetry to prose, and these are as “epic” productions, running to four hundred to five hundred pages—demonstrates that he was possessed of a certain elemental clairvoyance.
“Elemental” and “clairvoyance” are key, but double-edged, terms in coming to grips with Thomas Lake Harris. One of his books reports on an interview Brittan conducted with Harris’s inspiring “angel” at Charles Partridge’s 26 West Fifteenth Street home, the day after Harris’s trance production had ceased. The being described how it was that spirit beings could visit and essentially replace the ego of a person in trance and went on to report that these beings had given a “sun-stone” to Harris, an “occult”—in the sense of being invisible—talisman by which he was kept in magnetic rapport with these beings, who were from the Mercury sphere.
Harris would soon leave New York City for greener pastures, establishing industrious farming communities both upstate, in Brocton, on the shores of Lake Erie, and then in Santa Rosa, California. His vineyards were esteemed enough that for some time in the late nineteenth century, one could purchase “Fountain Grove Winery” vintages at a retail outlet in Manhattan. But even before he left New York, he began to unfold the most extravagant portrait of nature, as filled to the brim with “fays”—fairies—who both could be seen by certain people (especially children; Harris correctly reported that much of the time, when we see infants reaching into the air, they are playing with the invisible beings) and who could under certain circumstances come to dwell within people, especially poets and other creative individuals. In time, Harris would come to develop a vision of restored human society that depended on a wholesale “demagnetization” of the existing demonic elemental beings, the “infernal fays.” In his 1878 poem “Demagnetise,” he advises,
If you, dear friends, would hold your States
With Fairies wise, with Fairies wise,
When joy within the heart abates,
If you would overcome disease,
With Fairies wise, with Fairies wise,
Call Virtue through you like the seas:
If you would crash the Dragon’s head,
With Fairies wise, with Fairies wise,
Your open hands to Heaven outspread
Harris’s books appear at first blush to be the ravings of a lunatic, but they are actually exact and extensive descriptions of the worlds of elemental beings long described by magical adepts; and Harris is always cognizant that the “fays” are the effective agents in most magical operations, both black and white. There is the most pronounced “black” tone running through these reports; Harris sees almost exclusively the demonic elementals that have been engendered by human passions. Characteristically, however, he has absolutely no clairvoyance for the “Pandemonium”—his term for possession by entire hosts of demonic fays—that surrounds his own being. Simply put, from 1857 and the publication of his Song of Satan: A Series of Poems Originating with A Society of Infernal Spirits, and Received, during Temptation-Combats, Harris was fully possessed by demons, even as he so enthusiastically reported on the activities of demons in those around him.
From Enchanted New York by Kevin Dann. Used with the permission of New York University Press.