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.