Spirits, Seance junkies and Victorian Ghostbusters
Ghost stories have fascinated us for decades and in some cultures for centuries. But it was the Victorians who popularized several spooky traditions such as seances, automatic writing, spirit photos and published ghost stories.
It seems to have all started with two movements. Spiritualism and Psychical Research.
Spiritualism was the belief that spirits of the dead are able and inclined to communicate and help the living, often through the help of spirit mediums. It gained momentum when three young sisters from New York demonstrated the ability to communicate with a spirit living in their farmhouse using a series of knocks. The Fox sisters went on to become famous spirit mediums, helping many people connect with loved ones on the other side.
As a result, many other spirit mediums began to appear throughout North America and England. In the 1850s and 60s seances became the thing to do, along with parlour magic such as table tipping, reading cards and various games to test one’s paranormal abilities.
Check out Professor Anderson, Wizard of the North, for his book on parlour magic. Hypnotism and thought-reading became lucrative skills and soon even photographers wanted in on the action.
In the 1860s William Mumler of Boston accidentally discovered spirit photography one day in his studio. He shifted his focus to portraits with spirits, should one have a spirit following them around. His photos were so convincing that people came from far and wide to sit for a photo with a ghost. His most famous client was none other than widow and seance junkie, Mary Todd Lincoln, hoping to get one last photo with her beloved Abraham Lincoln. She was desperate to hear from her husband after his assassination, calling on mediums regularly for any chance of a message from the other side.
While some saw these activities as serious spirit contact or a harmless way to deal with death and grief, there was another more serious movement developing: psychical research. The National Association of Spiritualists were committed to documenting and validating paranormal occurrences, taking a scientific approach to their research. As a result of their work they created some of the earliest published works on telepathy and apparitions, created randomized study designs, conducted the first investigations into the psychology of eyewitness testimony and shed new light on the mechanisms of hypnotism.
However as seances became popularized, so did the notion that many mediums were fakes and scammers. In order to protect the reputation of serious spiritualists, the Psychical Research Society upped their game and added fraud investigations to their work. They became a sort of Victorian spirit squad, travelling within the UK and India attending seances and exposing frauds. They found all types of scammers, including devices used to recreate spirit knocks. These Victorian ghostbusters educated the public on tricks used by fraudulent mediums, published articles on cases involving automatic writing, table tipping, seances and spirit photography. After much research, it was found the original mediums, the Fox sisters, were a bunch of fraudulent broads, and so was spirit photographer Mr. Mumler.
You’d think that would have outraged the Victorians enough to ghost the whole trend of seances and such, but lucky for us they were already hooked, and thus ghost stories were created as a result of first hand experiences which were then published and then popularized. Poets and writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelly saw great success with paranormal stories and well established authors such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oscar Wilde joined in the spooky fun. Here’s a list to brush up on your ghost stories.
By the late 1890s it was common to find magazines full of short ghost stories by these and other prolific writers. Some of these stories later became full novels. Psychical Research Society member and popular journalist W.T. Stead dedicated at least two full issues of his magazine/journal to ghost stories where he published stories told to him throughout his work. This is how the Eldon House ghost was recorded, so we have the spiritualism craze to thank not only for all the great stories but for preserving an important part of Canadian history.
So the next time you read a good ghost story, say a little thank you to the Victorian spirit reading over your shoulder.