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Exposing Mediumship in Nineteenth-Century America

Exposing Mediumship in Nineteenth-Century America
© Photograph by Andy Shark

Following most spiritualist sources, the first discovery of a spirit’s attempt to communicate with the living took place in Hydesville, a small town in the state of New York. During the first months of 1848, the Fox family, living in a house that had a reputation of being haunted, was unsettled by the mysterious noises by which the spirit of a dead contacted the two younger daughters, Kate Fox and Margaret Fox, who were just nine and twelve years old at that time. According to this narrative, a kind of founding myth for the spiritualist movement, the Fox sisters are thus the first spiritual mediums of history. Although ghost stories and spirit messages are surely much older than this, during the following decade’s spiritualism became a widespread and relatively cohesive movement, with a myriad of circles, journals, associations and mediums, in the United States of America and abroad.

The exposure of spiritualist phenomena is as old as spiritualism itself. Popular press and publications reported, discussed and often questioned the reliability of spiritualist claims. As early as 1853, for instance, a booklet informed their readers about the deceiving character of “spirit-rappings”: “Nothing is more easy than to deceive completely, by calling the attention of persons present to sounds from a certain position or direction, while in reality the sounds are made elsewhere and in a remote quarter” (Page 1853: 43). The Fox sisters were themselves the object of several exposés, in a story of repeated exposures and counter-exposures that culminated in their confession, reported by the New York Herald on September 24th, 1888, that the mysterious spirit raps had been actually produced by a voluntary movement of their feet’s joints and toes. Shortly later, Reuben Briggs Davenport published a book titled ‘The Death-Blow to Spiritualism’, telling “the true story of the Fox sisters” with a stated confession of the two mediums, in the hope that “the world will now form its ultimate conclusion upon this flagrant and audacious system of humbuggery” (1888: 13). His book was reprinted several times, up to the recent years, but his “definitive” exposure had to be neither the last nor the most effective one. Shortly after, the Fox sisters returned to spiritualist mediumship, refusing to confirm the authenticity of their confession.

Although the “spiritualist madness” soon spread to Europe and to other parts of the world, in the nineteenth-century it was usually understood as something eminently American. Lyttelton Stewart Forbes Winslow, editor of The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology, informed his readers of the “religious insanity” that still kept being professed despite “the many exposures of collusion, self-deception, and imposture in connection with the so-called ‘spirit-mediums’” (1877: 5), asserting that “America is to blame for the propagation of these spiritualistic views” (p. 7). In fact, explained the British psychologist, “this form of delusion is very prevalent in America, and the asylum contains many of its victims; nearly ten thousand persons having gone insane on the subject are confined in the public asylum of the United States” (p. 6). According to Lyttelton Stewart Forbes Winslow, the number of spiritualist believers in the United States of America amounted to a million just five years after spiritualism had been in existence. Although, given spiritualism’s lack of recognized leadership and organic protocols, it is quite difficult to estimate the actual number of the spiritualist believers, other sources gave even higher estimates, such as three million Americans at least peripherally engaged with the movement by the 1850s and over eleven million by the 1870s (Moore 1972: 481).

The strategies used by spiritualists to reject criticism followed well-established patterns. Quite often, spiritualist supporters responded to the exposure of dishonest mediums claiming that the fact that some of them were tricksters demonstrated neither the fallacy of their doctrine nor the dishonesty of other mediums. Thus, in an 1860 edition of the Spiritual Magazine, an editor was keen to point out that “an impostor, or a thousand impostors, […] will not remove a single fact” (cited in Lamont 2004: 899). Another way to question their opponents was to oppose their spiritual approach to the materialism of others. In an address delivered before the National Spiritualist Association of Great Britain in 1895, for instance, a speaker that defined himself as a man of science distinguished the “material” from the “psychic” science, arguing that “accumulated facts in the domain of the spiritual, which cry aloud to heaven for recognition and appreciation, outweigh those of matter”, giving birth to what he called “the everlasting shame of materialistic scientists” (Bacon 1896: 7). Despite the alleged refusal of materialism, however, spiritualists gave the utmost importance to the collecting of empirical and supposedly scientific evidence of spirit communication. The involvement in the spiritualist movement of scientists such as the eminent British chemist William Crookes, who in 1861 had discovered the element thallium, was repeatedly pointed as supporting what was frequently called the “spiritualist science”. Moreover, the use of photography and of a number of other recording devices, measuring among other things the movements of the table during the seance, was frequently underlined in order to demonstrate the objectivity of spirit phenomena.

The importance of maintaining a sceptical perspective was evoked again and again, by the opponents of the movement as well as by the spiritualists themselves. In a somehow paradoxical way, the latter used to understand themselves as sceptics, too. In an article published in the North American Review, a spiritualist recalled in this way the circumstances that brought him to embrace his faith: “such was my scepticism, however, that months elapsed before accumulating evidence compelled me to confess my full satisfaction” (Newton 1888: 663). Quite often, spiritualists firmly attacked those of them who had been exposed as fraudsters. Daniel Douglas Home, one of the most celebrated spirit mediums, who had been giving seances in Britain and in the United States of America during the 1860s and 1870s, wrote a book, ‘Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism’ (1877), that could be reasonably listed among the most relevant anti-spiritualist writings. In reporting a number of cases of trickery, however, Daniel Douglas Home punctually distanced his authentic mediumship from the trickery of those fraudsters. Others, like the group of intellectuals that gathered around the British Society for Psychical Research and its American analogue, rejected the claims of the spiritualists only to concentrate on more “scientific” phenomena, such as the study of telepathy and clairvoyance. Following this pattern, the 1886 report ‘Phantasms of the Living’, arguably the most influential publication of the British Society for Psychical Research, attempted to explain spirit phenomena by evoking a telepathic contact with persons who were still in life, rather than with the spirits of the dead (Gurney et al. 1962).

Among straighter exposures of the spiritualist phenomena made by insiders, a particularly effective one was ‘Revelations of a Spirit Medium’, where the anonymous author, presented in the preface as “a ‘working’ medium for the last twenty years” who “is not guessing or theorizing in what he has written” (A Medium 1891: 3, emphasis in original), went so far as to openly stress the rivalry between mediums and stage magicians, who explicitly performed tricks for entertaining purposes: “the ‘medium’ has no apparatus, or, if he has, it cannot be found, and he gives his ‘séances’ in strange rooms, with but a few minutes of preparation.” This superiority in the art of trickery, the author suggested, made of the spiritual medium a veritable “artist of his line” (p. 17).

Authors of anti-spiritualist writings regarded themselves as virtuous defenders of the victims of the mediumistic humbug. Thus, an M.E. Darby, exposing phenomena such as clairvoyance, trance-speaking and materializations, intended to make “a warning and guide to the innocent and over-credulous young men” (1888: 4), who were “a ready prey for the unscrupulous [sic] and inhuman professional practitioner of legerdemain, who cruelly, out of the most tender ties, feelings, and emotions of human bosoms, make a harvest and find a ready spoil” (p. 36). Spiritualist mediumship was frequently evoked in relation to fears about financial frauds and swindles. The fact that mediums used to ask money for conducting their seance was emphasized over and over, and explicitly connected with other forms of pecuniary abuse, such as those practised by confidence men. The money was not absent in the symbolism of a spiritualist seance: the phenomena experienced may include the temporary disappearance of a wallet or other objects from a sitter’s pocket.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, who pioneered some of the entertaining and advertising techniques of modern show business, was himself an author of anti-spiritualist writings. In his 1865 The Humbugs of the World, which was intended to be an exposure of deceptions undertaken in several fields, such as science, literature and medicine, he dedicated a large space to the exposure of spiritual seance. After having explained how spiritualism had artfully started with the Fox family’s lucrative humbug, Barnum argued that “An aptitude for deception is all the capital that a person requires in order to become a ‘spirit-medium’; or, at least, to gain the reputation of being one. Backing up the pretence to mediumship with a show of something mysterious is all-sufficient to enlist attention, and ensure the making of converts. (1865: 61)”

Quite predictably, Phineas Taylor Barnum focused on the underlying economical reasons that had to be found under the activity of probably every medium and offered high rewards to the spiritualists who could demonstrate their claims following deception-proof conditions.

Among the figures most involved in the exposure of spiritualist phenomena, stage magicians played a particularly relevant role at the end of the century. Under the auspices of French clockmaker Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the greatest magician of every time according to many popular histories of magic, conjuring had become a popular entertainment practice in the second half of the nineteenth-century. Magicians of this kind were technically skilful stage performers, whose sketches included the use of optical illusions, magic lanterns, automata, mechanical effects, electricity and, later, early films (Barnouw 1981; Solomon 2006). Anti- spiritualist shows, usually advertised as “spiritualist exposé”, were soon inserted in the repertoires of stage magic: John Henry Anderson, who besides Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin is considered one of the founders of modern magic, started to expose spiritualist humbugs as early as 1855. However, this kind of spectacle became particularly important in the coincidence of the growing success of two mediums, the Davenport brothers. In fact, Ira Erastus Davenport and William Henry Davenport, who toured America from the late 1850s and later moved to Britain, explicitly presented their spirit seance to large audiences as a kind of show. Their performances seem to have exerted a great fascination among stage conjurers. John Nevil Maskelyne, probably the leading stage magician in late-nineteenth-century Britain, started his career with a stage exposure of the Davenport brothers’ spirit cabinet. Recalling its first contacts with spiritualism, Maskelyne wrote in 1891: “I was able in a few months to reproduce every item of the Davenports’ cabinet and dark séance. So closed was the resemblance to the original, that the Spiritualists had no alternative but to claim us as most powerful spirit mediums, who found it more profitable to deny the assistance of spirits”-. (Weatherly 1891: 190).

Maskelyne’s 1876 book ‘Modern Spiritualism’ explained in detail how the Davenports’ seance effects were produced. The condition of darkness was one of the most important features of how he described their seances: all their tricks were kept hidden from the audience, “either by the cabinet doors being closed, or the gas in the hall turned down. To say the least, this antipathy of ‘spirits’ to the light is extremely unfortunate!” (1876: 66). American magician Harry Kellar was also influenced by the two mediums. He was hired by the Davenports as an assistant in 1868 and acquired much of his illusionist skills during this apprenticeship. After breaking his association with them, he specialized in on-stage exposés of spiritualist seance tricks, which set attendance records in New York, Cincinnati and Chicago (Cook 2001: 199). As cultural historian Simon During (2002: 71) pointed out, “what was magic show one night could (without technical changes) be presented as a spiritualist séance next night”.

By the turn of the century, anti-spiritualist performances had become an established genre of magic show. Harry Houdini, the most popular American conjurer of his time, claimed in his 1924 ‘A Magician among the Spirits’ that he had intended the exposure of spiritualist tricksters as a moral duty (1924: 12). Three years later he donated to the Library of Congress what he described as “one of the largest libraries in the world on psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology, evil spirits, etc., some of the material going back as far as 1489” (cited in Salamanca 1942: 325). This large collection is revealing of how anti-spiritualist activities not only played a part in his shows but were a sort of obsession to him. As vaudeville historian Albert McLean suggested, even Harry Houdini’s celebrated escape art may have originated in the Davenports’ spiritualist shows (McLean 1965: 157). In fact, the Davenport brothers used to tie themselves at the beginning of the seance, in order to ensure the “spontaneity” of the phenomena, and Maskelyne’s exposure of their tricks already involved some kind of escape show (Maskelyne 1876: 66).

Historians have given different interpretations of the involvement of magicians in anti- spiritualist exposés. According to Simon During, magicians could establish in this way an implicit link with the supernatural, thus profiting from the nineteenth-century fascination for the occultist world (2002: 71). However, their link with anti-spiritualism has probably also to do with a particular strategy by which magicians, calling attention to the existence of an audience which did not recognize similar tricks as such (the sitters of a spiritualist seance), bound their public in a relation of complicity, opposing the spiritualists to the more sceptical spectators of their own shows. Performing spiritualist exposés, end-of-the-century magicians played with the contrast between scepticism and credulity and converted it into a spectacular practice. The prosperity of this kind of shows was not only due to the appeal of deceptive practices but also due to the fact that against their sceptical spectators, the paying public, they were posting a credulous “other”: the spiritualist believer. Thus, the call for a scepticism-driven spectatorship has to be understood in relation to the possibility of being deceived that the craze for spiritualist seances implied. In the next paragraph, I will move to anti-spiritualist criticism developed in the psychological field, in order to show how spiritualist sitters were increasingly depicted as non-sceptical spectators in this context, too.

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