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!