Victorian Spiritualism: Supporters and Sceptics

For this year’s Halloween shoot, we decided to take inspiration from the Victorians, and their strange obsession with the spirits of the dead!

In the previous post we looked at the rise of spiritualism and how it can be considered an important time for women’s rights; this time we'll look at the Spiritualist "celebs" and sceptics.

 

By the 1860s spiritualism had become a part of British Victorian culture, drawing in devotees all across the social spectrum, from Queen Victoria herself to the poor. There were spiritualist newspapers (The British Spiritualist Telegraph, Medium and Daybreak, Two Worlds and more) and societies (The Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, The Spiritualists’ National Union and more), with London having a great number of societies itself. 

With a little imagination and a repertoire of supernatural skills, mediums became celebrities. It was a calling for the theatrical of nature, with each medium able to channel different entities, each with a distinct personality. They could be aggressive, such as Annie Fairlamb's male spirit, Sam, repeatedly hitting a male guest until he guessed his name correctly. Others were flirtatious, such as Elizabeth d'Esperance's manifestation of Yolande, a girl who kissed and caressed her sitters. 

With the freedom from corsets and such an enclosed space, it was no wonder that these "spirits" were often quite sexual in their interactions; a famous example being the young and pretty Florence Cook and her manifestations of Katie King. A name that had cropped up in various séances up to 20 years prior, Katie King was said to be the daughter of Henry Owen Morgan, a long-dead pirate (who was never said to have a daughter, but would crop up in séances himself to prove this fact). In 1872 the female spirit announced that she would stay with Florence for 3 years, attempting to make herself visible via ectoplasm drawn from Florence's body. Soon Katie was fully formed, and could interact with the living world as an incredibly material form, sitting on laps, touching and on one occasion revealing her naked form. Funnily enough, she looked very similar to Florence, despite the medium being "tied up" inside a cabinet, yet none in Cooks' circle seemed to want proof of the two being separate beings. 

Others were more than dubious that such a flesh-and-blood manifestation could be conjured. On December 9 1873, a skeptical sitter, William Volckman, grabbed "Katie" by the wrist and waist in a fit of anger. Guests wrestled Volckman away, but not without the spirit ripping away a chunk of his beard, which furthered his belief that it was Florence in his grasp. Witnesses claimed that Katie King had vanished into thin air, and Florence was found still bound inside the cabinet. Volckman published his opinion, fueling the critics, while supporters denounced him for breaking the proper etiquette required in a séance; a delicate spiritual balance which could kill the medium. Funnily enough, Volckman was betrothed to another famous medium, Ms Guppy.

Concerned at this bad PR, Florence Cook approached William Crookes, an eminent scientist that would later be knighted for his work. Crookes had already been investigating various mediums and appeared convinced of the reality of the supernatural, but didn't believe all claims from individuals. They began a series of "private séances", with Florence invited to stay at his home for months on end. The idea was that Crookes would be able to witness both Florence and Katie in a room together, without the possibility of accomplices. An idea that was somewhat difficult to prove when Florence's sister, Kate, also lived in the house. Crookes created 55 photographs of Florence and Katie, although only a few remain today. Many of the photographs, as expected of the technology of the era, were poorly shot and lacked detail but did feature two figures, although only one face was in view, the other wrapped in an "ectoplasmic" shroud. 

Despite Crookes' findings, the skepticism grew; it was suggested that the two were having an affair, what with her being a pretty young woman, alone in his house. It's not unlikely, Crookes was clearly enamored with Florence, writing: "Photography was inadequate to depict the perfect beauty of Katie’s face, as words are powerless to describe her charm of manner. Photography may, indeed, give a map of her countenance; but how can it reproduce the brilliant purity of her complexion, or the ever varying expression of her most mobile features?" Bet his wife (expecting her 10th child!) was happy with that.  Did this infatuation allow him to be easily duped, or did he begin to assist in her fraudulence? 

In 1875, Katie announced she would be leaving Florence, and said her final goodbyes. With the spirit gone, there was no need for Florence to continue investigations, and she revealed to Crookes that for two months she had been secretly married to a man named Edward Corner. She left her position as a medium for 6 years, only returning to manifest a new spirit, Marie. Eventually, another dubious sitter, Sir George Sitwell, noticed that the "spirit" wore a corset underneath her robes, grabbed hold of her and pulled aside the curtain covering Florence. An empty chair spelled the end of Florence's career, and she vanished into obscurity. 

William Crookes received overwhelming criticism over his investigations, and soon ceased the research, although he remained a supporter until his death. Despite this, his scientific career was a long and distinguished one, including a knighthood. Shockingly, he wasn't the only logical thinker to be drawn into spiritualism, with another famous supporter being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical man and the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle's wife, Jean, was a medium and he himself supported some outrageous claims, including two young girls who had claimed to photograph the Cottingley Fairies (they were actually paper cut outs). Doyle virtually abandoned Sherlock Holmes, and began writing books on spiritualism instead, clashing with the skeptical Harry Houdini, who argued that all spiritualism "evidence" was just cheap tricks. 


Victorian Spiritualism: Beginnings

For this year’s Halloween shoot, we decided to take inspiration from the Victorians, and their strange obsession with the spirits of the dead!

 

The Victorians were a rather morbid bunch, and quite rightly so considering the average lifespan was roughly 30-50 years, and the majority of that life was mostly spent either starving or working in incredibly dangerous environments. Most people only had their photographs, a new invention, taken once they were dead, often posed in lifelike situations with their living relatives and loved ones. Mourning jewellery was created out of bits of hair, or other small body parts along with memento mori ("remember death") phrases. We often consider this gloomy Victorian mindset as only occurring once Prince Albert died in 1861, and the nation went into mourning, but death had long been lurking on the doorsteps of every household. 

With the looming presence of death it’s no wonder that spiritualism, the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living, first rose to popularity during this time. We know that the Victorian era is one of immense technological and scientific progress, but consider just how bizarre and outlandish all of these changes must have seemed to the average joe! If people could be operated on without pain, or men could fly into the sky like birds, why couldn't there be a possibility of contacting the dead?

Although spiritualism became popular in Britain, it actually began in the US (which is wonderful, because at least us Brits can finally say “they started it” with a sense of smugness). Despite various writings that were key to the spiritualism concept, the first events considered to be the ‘origin’ occurred in New York in 1848. The Fox Sisters, Kate (12) and Margaret (15), claimed they had communicated with the spirit of a man who had died in their home many years prior. Providing “proof” of the communications via rapping sounds to their neighbours, the word spread. As the story became more widely known, the media went crazy, because who would have thought that teenage girls would have a wild imagination? 

They were, of course, lying, and created the sounds by clapping/cracking their joints (which wasn't discovered till later; the Fox Sisters actually had a rather sticky end after both becoming alcoholics, accepting money to expose their fraud and dying penniless and friendless in the early 1890s). Regardless, they became an overnight success, with their older sister Leah stepping in as their "manager". They were soon taken in by a Quaker couple, Amy and Isaac Post, who were immediately convinced of the sisters’ skills, and introduced them to their Quaker circle. Being staunchly anti-slavery and pro-women’s rights, the Quakers had shunned the traditional Christian religions, and thus these concepts were tied to spiritualism from the outset. 

As the sisters’ fame blossomed, and spiritualism began to take hold, more women came forward, claiming they could communicate with the dead. It first crossed over into Britain in 1852, when American medium Maria B. Hayden visited London and offered her services. Seances became all the range, with all kinds of communication ranging from table rappings to automatic writing, levitations, and eventually full-blown channelling. Spiritualists considered themselves a scientific movement rather than a religious one (many Christians were also Spiritualists, despite the contradictions in scripture), as they didn't require blind faith. Spiritualism offered up evidence of the phenomena and proof in the form of “communication”. 

It’s actually quite interesting to note that most mediums (definitely not all, but certainly a majority) were women because they were considered to be more susceptible to the spirit world, thus putting them in positions of prominence. At a time of constricting corsets and strict social etiquette and definitions of what a woman should be, it was hard for a woman to have any say in politics or society. It’s no surprise that spiritualism supported women’s rights and the suffragette movement, which was fighting to give women the vote. While women were more likely to attend church during this time, they had no position of prominence, so it’s no wonder that a movement developed which placed women at the centre. 

Check back in next week for part 2, the Supporters and Sceptics of Spiritualism! 

And don't forget to shop our entire Halloween lookbook here!

 

Playful Promises LFW Catwalk Edit

Last week we kicked off London Fashion Week by taking part in the Calico catwalk show and showcase with 49 other brands!

With a catwalk show every hour and 50 brands showing off their best pieces from current and future collections, this was a jam-packed day of lingerie, swimwear, womenswear and accessories. From student showcases to established brands, we loved being part of this event, and here's some shots of our pieces on the Calico models!

Check out the rest of the gallery below!