Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture

Simone Natale
Simone Natale

Most histories of spiritualism start inside the walls of a small cottage in Hydesville, a little town in upstate New York. According to the story, several tenants had abandoned the house due to some mysterious rapping noises.

When a family of farmers of the name of Fox moved to these premises at the end of 1847, they initially did not take in serious consideration the rumours that the house was haunted.

In the following months, however, the rappings became increasingly loud. They were particularly persistent and frequent in the presence of the family’s two adolescent daughters, Kate and Margaret Fox. The children were so scared that they refused to sleep alone.

On March 31st, 1848, Kate, who was 12 years old at the time, discovered that the noises responded to the snaps of her fingers, and answered simple questions by rapping once for yes and twice for no. According to the answers thus provided, the raps were produced by the spirit of a dead man who had been killed in the cottage by a former inhabitant of the house.

The Fox sisters are widely depicted as the first spiritualist mediums of history, and the Hydesville cottage is considered the birthplace of spiritualism. Yet, the most important place for spiritualism’s early history is arguably not that old cottage in upstate New York.

Much more significant, instead, is a lecture theatre called the Corinthian Hall — the largest in the nearby city of Rochester. It was there, on November 14th, 1849, that the Fox sisters exhibited for the first time the spirit rappings before a paying public.

According to reports, nearly 400 people paid 25 cents for admission to see with their own eyes the miraculous “Hydesville rappings.” This spiritualist demonstration was destined to be just the first of countless public séances in which religious beliefs mingled with live entertainment, converting spiritualism into a popular attraction for several generations of American and British Victorians.

The Spectacular Supernatural argues that the rise of the spiritualist movement as a religious and cultural phenomenon was closely connected to the contemporary evolution of the media entertainment industry.

Following the history of spiritualism in Great Britain and the United States from its foundation in 1848 to the beginning of the twentieth-century, it shows that spiritualist mediums and leaders employed some of the same advertising strategies, performance practices, and spectacular techniques that were being developed within the field of spectacular entertainments.

Their séances offered not just a confirmation of religious beliefs about the afterlife, but also a brilliant form of amusement, with sensational effects embellishing a distinctly spectacular environment. More broadly, by stressing the distinctive ways spiritualists participated in nineteenth-century media culture, the article aims to demonstrate that beliefs in ghosts contributed to the rise of the media entertainment industry as we know it.

Rather than diverging from the ghosts that populated literary, theatrical, and visual culture in the Victorian age, beliefs in spirits should thus be regarded as part of a broader cultural turn that placed ghosts and other supernatural phenomena at the centre of the fictional, the spectacular, and the religious imagination.

During the Victorian age, spiritualism was a very significant phenomenon in America and Britain. My claim is that in order to comprehend spiritualism’s prominence, it is essential to understand its inclusion in a growing market for leisure activities and spectacular attractions.

As I discuss at length in the following articles, in fact, performances of spiritualist mediums often had a theatrical character. Séances were held in theatres and public halls, which established a theatrical situation in which the medium played the role of the performer, and the sitters the role of the spectators.

Many spiritualist mediums were virtually indistinguishable from professional performers: they had managers and agents, advertised their performances in the press, and developed spirit phenomena characterized by a high degree of spectacularism and theatricality.

One might object that, despite the frequency of public demonstrations of spiritualism, spiritualist séances were most often conducted in private environments by closed circles of spiritualists.

The sources examined in this article, however, point to the fact that also spiritualist sittings that were staged in Victorian households stimulated playfulness and amusement.

Creating an opportunity for leisure, private séances integrated numerous elements that were connected to forms of domestic entertainment in nineteenth-century households, such as amateur prestidigitation tricks, parlour theatres, table games, and rational amusements.

It is not by chance that spirit communication was performed through the use of tables, a domestic object frequently used to receive visitors, engage in conversation, and play cards.

In order to establish a spiritualist circle, in fact, spiritualists opened their homes to strangers, organizing social events that played simultaneously with religious belief as well as with public performance and entertainment.

As the well-known spiritualist medium Catherine Berry pointed out in 1876, “the sitters at my séances have been neither few nor unimportant, so that my [private] experiments have been conducted in public.”

Not only spiritualist mediums and leaders organized and conducted séances that were meant to be uplifting as well as entertaining; they also adopted strategies that were being developed and employed in the show trade.

As James W. Cook points out, one of the most innovative marketing schemes in nineteenth-century show business was the discovery that a degree of uncertainty about the authenticity of an attraction would contribute to the arousal of interest in the public and the popular press.

Showmen like P.T. Barnum understood that doubts about the authenticity of their spectacular feats only added to their appeal, and would thus openly stimulate public controversies as an advertising scheme.

As I demonstrate, spiritualists largely profited from this same strategy: mediums and leaders of the movement found in these controversies a way to widen the attention of the press and the curiosity of the public toward spiritualism. Moreover, spiritualism benefited from the powerful publicising mechanism connected to celebrity culture.

Frequently, it was the appeal exercised on the popular press by famous mediums that allowed spiritualism to “break the news” and to attract the attention of the public. Celebrity mediums contributed to the cohesion of spiritualist communities by spreading the fame of the movement and by furnishing a shared ground of recognized personalities.

Indeed, one of the most significant characters of spiritualism is the extent to which it participated in the formation of modern media culture, defined, as Erkki Huhtamo proposes, as “a cultural condition, where large numbers of people live under the constant influence of media.”

Since the very beginning, spiritualists employed the newly established popular press as a vehicle for publicity — mirroring the seminal entertainment industry of the Victorian age, which found in the press of mass-circulation new opportunities for broadening its public and reach.

They published and circulated an astounding number of publications, establishing a circuit of spiritualist print media that played a key role in strengthening their sense of pertaining to a dispersed, but distinct community.

They participated in the visual culture of their time, using photography and other visual media to produce images that were religious items as well as attractions and visual curiosities.

In short, as the following articles will show, the rise of spiritualism coincided not just chronologically with the rise of media entertainments that inserted ghostly apparitions and supernatural phantasmagorias at the very core of popular culture.

Taken as a whole, my explorations into spiritualism’s spectacular character help to frame the Victorian supernatural within the process of forming a new commodity culture that changed the way public entertainments were planned, administered, marketed, and consumed.

As scholars such as Fred Nadis, Sadiah Qureshi, and James Cook have shown, the nineteenth-century signalled the growth of forms of live performance based on non-theatrical exhibitions of scientific, magic, anthropological, and human attractions.

Freak shows, stage magic, popular scientific lectures, panoramas and dime museums were part of a long-standing tradition of public display of wonders, by which unfamiliar objects and counterintuitive phenomena were offered to the gaze of curious viewers and spectators.

While not all of these exhibition practices originated in the nineteenth-century, what was unmistakably new in these attractions was their insertion in circuits of public visibility based on commercial advertising, large-scale enterprises, and sensational reports heralded by the press.

Tony Bennett uses the term of “exhibitionary complex” to group the wide range of practices and performances that were offered to a growing public of entertainment seekers.

Spiritualist séances, such as the one performed at Corinthian Hall, share many characteristics with these kinds of performances. The demonstration was set on a theatrical stage before a paying public, and introduced by a short lecture. Advertising and publicity strategies were employed to attract potential audiences.

Additionally, like in freak shows and in other spectacular exhibits, the subject of attention was a “living curiosity,” a phenomenon that escaped normality to enter the dimension of curiosity and wonder. Séances, in this sense, participated in the exhibitionary complex that promoted the consumption of entertainment and leisure in the Victorian age.

Public demonstrations of spiritualism were also similar in many ways to popular scientific lectures, which presented technological and scientific novelties as a sensational attraction. Magic and science in the nineteenth-century were not contrasted, but rather intimately allied: in an effort to appeal to the senses of their audiences through elaborate spectacular effects and performative strategies, lecturers mingled scientific lectures with spectacles of stage magic.

In London, for instance, the Royal Polytechnic — an institution devoted to the popularization of science and technology — mixed scientific divulgation with up-to-date illusions of stage magic, including in its repertoire the exhibition of optical illusions for the apparition of ghosts.

The inclusion of elements of both science and magic in the exhibitionary complex of the nineteenth-century is particularly relevant if we consider that one of the main characteristics of spiritualism, as highlighted by some of the most authoritative scholars in the field, was the insertion of its religious and spiritual viewpoints within a positivistic and scientific framework.

Belief in spirit communication required the constant confirmation of empirical evidence: only the accumulation of facts and phenomena made it possible to profess and believe. This attention to empirical evidence came together with the sense, shared by many believers, that spiritualism was a “scientific” religion and that spirit communication could be experimentally verified.

Moreover, spirit phenomena were explained by pointing to the agency of natural phenomena, such as electricity, and spirit communication was frequently compared to communication technologies such as the telegraph.

Such emphasis on science and technology suggests that audiences gathering to spiritualist demonstrations, not much differently from those who went to scientific lectures, could be attracted by the fascination of magic and at the same time by the appeal of scientific inquiry and knowledge.

In fact, as scholars have noted, popular scientific lectures as well as stage magic shows also benefited from the quasi-magical status of natural phenomena such as electricity and magnetism.

After the Fox sisters’ “discovery” of spirit communication, belief in spiritualism spread beyond North America, reaching countries as different and far as Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Brazil.

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