Written Presentation Paper #2
Modern Spiritualism in the 19th Century
The ninetieth century marked the age of Enlightenment, a cultural movement of intellectuals where science and technology prospered. Yet in a century seemingly built on reason, there arose a profound interest in the supernatural. From the creation of haunted tales came the formation of the Modern Spiritualist movement, a time in American history when man was thought to have the ability to communicate with the decease. It is through these beliefs that, for the first time, society had begun to challenge the existence of paranormal phenomenon.
The history of spiritual communication became popular in the United States in the late 1840s with the rise of a new movement known as Spiritualism. Spiritualism, by definition, is the science, philosophy and religion of continuous life based on the communication with those who live in the spirit world1. This newfound movement marked the beginning of ghostly rituals that would continue to grow and popularize until the early 1900’s.
There are two types of spiritualists– a medium and a practitioner. A medium is a person who is connected to the spirit world. While in a trance, the medium has the ability to pass along messages to and from the other side. The second type of communicator is known as a practitioner. A practitioner has the ability to produce physical phenomenon that is said to be the workings of the entity itself. These phenomenons included unexplainable lights, unearthly music, the levitation of objects, disembodied voices and apparitions2.
It was traditional for spirits to be contacted by the medium in a group setting known as a séance. A séance typically involved multiple people sitting in a circle, holding hands, while the medium channels a spirit. The rooms where séances were conducted were typically dark or dimly lit. This was because a dark room was believed to provided less of a distraction to both the participants and to the medium. In addition, it was also believed that spirits were luminous entities, which were much easier to see when viewed in a dimly lit setting2.
It was during the 1800's that the séance became popular mainly due to the stardom of the Fox sisters, the originators of the spiritualist movement. To give a brief history on the origins, spiritualism was born at the home of the Fox family in 1848 in Hydesville, New York. It was here that supernatural phenomenons were being pursued for the first time3.
The legend states that the two young sisters, Maggie and Katie Fox, began reporting a series of disturbing accounts shortly after having moved into a house that was allegedly haunted. The sisters claimed to have experienced regular physical interactions with what they believed to be a ghost. Perplexed by these occurrences, Maggie and Katie soon discovered a form of spiritual communication, known as Typtology2.
Typtology is the belief that departed souls have the ability to communicate with the living by rapping or tapping in response to particular questions. For example, if the medium was to rap once or twice, that could be an indicator of a yes or no answer. Magie and Katie discovered this new form of spiritual communication by clapping. Maggie realized when she clapped, the entity would mimic the sound she had created and rap back2.
Another method of spiritual communication is known as alphabetical typtology. Alphabetical typtology is when the medium uses letterforms as a way of communicating with the entity. A person would orally go through the alphabet, reciting each letter out loud. When the spirit heard a letter that was significant, a rapping noise would be made. This method of communication made it possible for the medium to hold lengthy, detailed conversations with the spirit2.
After using a series of rapping techniques, the two sisters were able to conclude that the spirit’s name was Charles B. Rosna. Using rapping noises as a means of communication, Rosna’s spirit revealed he had been killed and buried in the cellar of the home. Shortly after this realization, bones were discovered inside the basement walls. It was through this unbelievable turn of events that Maggie and Katie’s ability to communicate with the decease attracted believers and skeptics from all over the United States. The two sisters began using their mediumistic abilities as a means of financial gain. Thousands of curious onlookers made pilgrimages to the Fox household to witness signs of spiritual activity. By 1852, over 30,000 Americans had claimed to possess mediumistic powers4.
However, with the sudden rise in popularity of the Modern Spiritualist movement came a long list of skeptics. There were many people who were not convinced of the validity of the movement and believed there was an additional explanation. Many people thought the spiritual activity was a hoax performed by the mediums. These early questioners would go on to become the first paranormal investigators1.
Many of the downfalls of the mediums came about because of their exposure as fakes. It was reported that mediums were corroborating vital information amongst each other in order to gain further knowledge of their clients. Mediums were reported sharing lists of recently deceased in addition to which séance attendees were the must vulnerable. Props were also being sold in mail order catalogs in order to provide customers with the tools necessary to create their own believable séance. People who had an interest in spiritual communication could purchase props such as fake hands, rigged spirit slates, sounds from seemingly nowhere, even instructions on how to produce ones own tilting table1.
Event after forty years of success, Katie and Maggie Fox were reported having confessed that their supernatural abilities were in fact lies. The sisters revealed that the famous rapping noise heard by audience members was actually the cracking sound of the women’s double-jointed digits. The sisters discovered at a young age that by cracking their toes and fingers they could create noises similar to that of a rap. The rapping was simply the result of muscle control that had been developed and perfected over years of practice2.
This newly revealed information was not surprising to skeptics, having previously theorized that the rapping could have been a manifestation of one cracking his or her joints. Investigators had always been suspicious of the sisters acclaimed rappings. Skeptics found it unrealistic that not only could the sisters channel the rappings at will, but that the sounds always seemed to follow their location as if to be coming from their own person. However, this new information regarding the authenticity of the Fox sisters did not dissuade believers from the possibility of the existence unexplained entities. Many followers still believed in the validity of the movement and continued to practice forms of spiritual communication4.
Originally, spiritualism was developed as a means of entertainment. It was not until the rise of the Apostolic Church that spiritualism became a form of religious practice. It was through this belief, that the ability to communicate in tongues and be over ruled by the Holy Spirit became widely practiced. It was common for people to accept the possibility of unexplainable events surrounding the practice of spiritual communication and religious beliefs1.
In addition to the Apostolic movement, Spiritualism became largely popular again after the Civil war and after World War I. This was thought to be the result of families wanting to reconnect with lost loved ones. Spiritualism helped to console people who had lost someone significant. It helped people to accept death by believing that their friends and family members had gone on to a better place.
However, the exposure of fraud and internal politics had eventually lead to the downfall of the Spiritualist movement, ending in the early twentieth century1.
The Modern Spiritualist movement had greatly impacted the way society perceived life and life after death. Having taken place during a time of great knowledge, Spiritualism gave followers answers to questions that were beyond man’s ability of understanding. No longer did the after life feel like a dark mystery; Spiritualism helped believer to not be afraid of the second life. It gave people a feeling of control and ease and they wait for their inevitable death.
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"19th Century Foundations Of American Spiritualism." All Sands. http://www.allsands.com/history/people/spiritualismmed_vl_gn.htm. 14 Apr. 2013.