Thursday, November 10, 2011

Victorian Seances

I had this idea for a post a few weeks ago, as it seemed a timely subject for around Halloween, but life gets in the way sometimes. I still think the subject is still appropriate as it is getting dark early now, and there are those that believe that the time between Halloween and Christmas is when spirits are most active.
 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.
 These mediums used a variety of methods to communicate with those on the other side. Not only the series of tappings and knocks the Fox sisters employed, but also other methods such as table turning, spirit photography and channeling. Table turning is an activity where the participants place their fingers lightly on a table surface, while the medium asks the spirit(s) questions. The table then moves, and floats in response to the queries. Spirit photography is the photographing of supposed ghosts, and channeling is when a medium is believed to be taken over by a spirit so they can speak through her (usually a her).
 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.
 I have participated in seances in the past, one involving table turning. It was conducted during a special tour of the St Boniface museum, one of the oldest buildings in Winnipeg. The building was a convent that also served as a hospital, orphanage and seniors home over the years. The table did indeed move while the medium asked questions. I can't speak for anyone else there, but I know I was not moving the table. I have used spirits boards in the past as well with good results. I try to keep both my open minded and skeptics hat on when doing this, as I am undecided on the matter.
What are your thoughts. Have you participated in a seance? Do you believe in it? Or do you think it is all a hoax?

7 comments:

  1. I wonder if the Ouija board gained its notoriety in the 70s due to the fact that it was "used" in "The Exorcist"...

    I've heard that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was such a believer in spiritualism and mediums to contact the dead that his long-time friend Henry Houdini, known for debunking numerous mediums in the 1920s, was so convinced that he would crush ACD by his findings that he never told him about the various "tricks" mediums used to get tables to move or find out information about your past in order to convince you that they were really communing with spirits from beyond.

    Good post!

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  2. I do believe in them . as I've participated in a few myself. Two in particular , were quite active with the Ouija Board , and one was a bit frightening as well!

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  3. I believe in it! I have a ghost at my house...it has done a few things like thrown the top of an oil lamp across a dark hallway I was walking in..which was scary but no one was hurt...and it turned on a hall light that had been securely off for hours while my hubby and I were telling each other ghost stories...we spent a few minutes stating "you turn it off..no you turn it off" before he finally gave up and turned it off. The ghost has also done a little game with locking an upstairs door while my husband was tearing up carpeting upstairs...he had to walk all around the house to get to the other side! I love this post! Hearts, Janna Lynn

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  4. I believe in it! I have a ghost at my house...it has done a few things like thrown the top of an oil lamp across a dark hallway I was walking in..which was scary but no one was hurt...and it turned on a hall light that had been securely off for hours while my hubby and I were telling each other ghost stories...we spent a few minutes stating "you turn it off..no you turn it off" before he finally gave up and turned it off. The ghost has also done a little game with locking an upstairs door while my husband was tearing up carpeting upstairs...he had to walk all around the house to get to the other side! I love this post! Hearts, Janna Lynn

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  5. Hi,

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    ReplyDelete
  6. I love this post, do you mind if I use this in my links of the month post? :) Personally I don't believe in seances or anything psychic but I'm very nosy about people's stories.

    Also, just ignore "anarchist" I got the exact same comment, how rude tut tut.

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  7. I believe that some of it works, but not for me. Me and my friend used to use a board when we were 12ish, and, while we got answers, she later told me that she thought she was moving the planchette. I know I didn't.

    I can't have a board in my house. I feel like it's watching me, lol.

    OOOOOH! I almost completely forgot that me and Emma and K did a thing at the frat house once with a board I'd made. Something scary happened. Ask Ms. Em about it.

    ReplyDelete