A surprisingly popular activity during the Victorian era, was the seance. Best known as an era of both rigid morality and rationalism (it was the era of Darwin, Freud and Marx after all), there were those who reacted against this and embraced spiritualism. Spiritualism was the belief that the soul existed after death and could be contacted by the living, usually through a gifted medium. It officially started in 1848, when the Fox sisters of New York, gained popularity by conducting sessions, called seances, in which they would supposedly contact spirits and receive communication from them through a series of tapping noises. It was not long after that others claimed they could communicate with the dead as well, and it's popularity spread throughout the US, to the UK and beyond.
Another method that was employed was the use of spirit boards, which first became popular as a parlour game. During World War 1 it began to be taken more seriously when Spiritualists began to use it for communicating with the beyond . The most famous type of spirit board, the Ouija board, was invented by Elijah Bond in 1890. As a side note it wasn't until the 1970s that it gianed a bad reputation when Evangelical groups claimed it could result in demonic possession.
But back to the Victorian era. While Spiritualism may have been a reaction against rationalism and rigidity, it did attract those in high position in Victorian society. Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln were said to be believers, even holding seances in the White House, trying to contact their deceased son. Other notable believers included author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King, who would contact his dead mother, his dogs, and Franklin D Roosevelt looking for advice on politics (this explains a lot about him). In fact, Spiritualism tended to attract those in the upper class and middle class, rather than those of less economic standing. Critics of the day said it was for the idle rich who had exhausted all other forms of entertainment.
Spiritualism also tended to attract both those in the abolitionist and suffragist movements, as many converts were Quakers who believed in equality. It attracted women because it gave them a platform to speak from. They could become respected mediums, in an era where there were few public roles for women. Some would even speak to large mixed audiences, something not common for the day. One very popular medium in the US was Cora Scott Hatch who was renowned for her mediumship skills and her beauty.She began her career at 15, and was married 4 times. Her notoriety and looks helped to gain a large audience and spread the ideas of Spiritualism.
Seances were most popular after the Civil War in the US, and during World War 1, due to many trying to contact their dead loved ones. It waned in popularity over the years as some were exposed as frauds, especially those using tappings and knocks, and other fake apparitions and movements to impress their audiences. It should be noted that while some were using stage trickery, others viewed it as a serious religion.
What are your thoughts. Have you participated in a seance? Do you believe in it? Or do you think it is all a hoax?