Scammer’s, Spiritualism, and Ghosts: The Victorian Obsession with the Paranormal

staged-ghost-photo

A staged “ghost photo” of an unknown woman.  Having staged ghost photo’s was a popular trend during the Victorian era. (Photo Credit: http://media.galaxant.com)

 

The Victorian Era in England and the United States is arguably one of the most important cultural eras in human history.  During this period the clash of new scientific discoveries and religious ideals, led to a rise in occultism and spirituality.  During this time people were more and more fascinated with paranormal subjects such as ghosts, tarot readings, psychic readings, and metaphysical spirituality.  On the other hand, you had a society where religion was beginning to come under attack, and ideas about religion were changing drastically.  But as people began moving away from religion, those true believers began to entrench themselves even more.

The splintering of religious philosophy during the Victorian period showed how truly unique this era was.  The Church of England claimed other denominations were dissenters (1).  Social status in the era was partially determined upon a person’s religious affiliation.  The Church of England was viewed as an elitist organization that looked down on the multitude of other denominations such as Lutheranism, Methodist, and Catholicism (2).  The Evangelical movement began to split away from these other denominations.  It was a movement that “focused on the Gospel teachings rather than ritual, and emphasized preaching and Bible study” (3).  Religion played a role in the rise of occultism and spirituality, but so did the Industrial Revolution.  The belief in ghosts was spread by servants being hired to work in new houses (4).  They would hear creaks and cracks throughout the house and think there were spirits roaming the halls.  New gas lighting in houses caused people to see shadows in that were not noticed before.  Skeptics believed that people were merely hallucinating from the gas fumes from these new gas lights.

Ghosts have always been a part of the human psyche and experience.  Ghost stories began to permeate the pages of weekly newspapers throughout the United States and Britain during the Victorian period.  Professor Ruth Robbins, of Leeds Metropolitan University, states that publishers needed numerous stories to fill books (4).  Ghost stories were the perfect stories for magazines and dailys to fill their pages because there were so many of them.

charles-dickens

Charles Dickens. Author of “A Christmas Carol”. (www.biography.com)

One of the most popular “ghost stories” is Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” published in 1843 (5).  It was meant to create a secular Christmas story (6).  The main character Ebeneezer Scrooge, is shown the effects of his actions on the past, present, and future, by spirits that visit him on Christmas Eve night.  In the end, Scrooge has an epiphany and decides to change his ways.  The story would become one of the greatest ghost stories of all time.  The story was published and serialized in several newspapers and sold very well.

Not only did ghost stories become more and more popular during the Victorian era, but spiritual photography did as well.  Arguably, the most famous “spirit photographers” was William Mumler (7).  Mumler would photograph his clients and add “spirits” to the photographs.  The photographer would take advantage of families that had lost loved ones during the Civil War.  By claiming he could photograph the dead, grief stricken customers would pay to see if their deceased family members would appear.  Mumler was happy to oblige and take the unknowing client’s money.  His work became so popular that P.T Barnum bought several to display in his museum.  Mumler had been using “darkroom tricks” to add a ghostly image to peoples portraits (8).  His photos appeared in Harper’s Weekly and newspapers throughout the country.  However, something was fishy about Mumler and his ghostly images.

self-portrait-of-william-mumler-with-a-spirit

Self portrait of William Mumler, with the “spirit” of his cousin.  Mumler discovered the double negative technique by mistake and began to take advantage of people who lost loved ones during the Civil War. (Photo Credit: http://www.algonquinredux.com)

 

Some of his clients discovered his trick when the same actors began appearing in multiple photos as spirits.  He was charged with fraud and put on trial in 1869.  He was also accused of breaking into clients residences and stealing photos of loved ones to superimpose as spirits.  The defense brought forth a former judge, who was known to believe and support the existence of the spirit realm.  The prosecution brought forth P.T. Barnum, who had purchased several of Mumler’s photos only to discover they were faked.  Barnum even staged a self-portrait with a ghostly image of Abraham Lincoln standing behind, to demonstrate the ease of creating such a photo.  The seven-day hearing resulted in the charges being dropped against Mumler.  Despite being exonerated, his career was effectively over.  He continued to create “spirit photographs” until 1875, when he finally went out of business.   Before his death in 1884, he destroyed all the negatives of the photos he took.  “Ghost photos”, however, were not as popular as photos of the corpses of  loved ones.

 

 

jesse-james-death-photo

Jesse James in his coffin, after being killed by Robert Ford. (Photo Credit: Daily Mail)

In the Victorian era, taking photographs of deceased loved ones were often the only photos a family would have.  What we would think of macabre, was considered quite normal.  Photographers would pose the corpse as best they could next to the living members of the family and attempt to create a lasting memory. One of the most famous Victorian death photos was of outlaw Jesse James.  James at one point was one of the most recognizable people in the United States.  At the time of his murder, at the hands of Robert Ford, he was a household name.  The outlaws’ death photo was sold in drugstores all over the country, next to the dime novels that spread his legend.

 

This fascination with mortality and spiritual realization led to a rise in the ways that people tried to contact their dead loved ones.  The 1850’s marked the rise of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism was the belief that the living could contact the spirits of the deceased through a séance and a medium (9). The origins of this movement began in 1848 by sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox. They claimed they were in contact with the spirit of a man that was murdered in their house before they moved in. The popularity of their story spread quickly and the sisters began doing public shows to packed venues.  These shows featured levitating objects and “rappings”, which were the sounds the spirits allegedly made when making contact.  The medium would then say out loud and word for word, what the spirit was telling them.  It was as if the medium became possessed and was speaking for the spirit.  Their rise in stardom caught the eye of writer James Fennimore Cooper, P.T Barnum, as well as famous newspaper editor Horace Greeley (10).  Greeley even paid them to attempt to contact his recently deceased son.  By the time they helped Greeley, their sister Leah had joined and a lucrative family business was born.

fox-sisters

The Fox Sisters (Photo Credit: http://www.diannesalerni.com)

Despite the Sisters growing fame, they were always under constant scrutiny from skeptics.  Before shows, their garments would be inspected to ensure they weren’t hiding any devices that could produce ghostly affects. The Fox Sisters would often have their hands, arms, and feet bound to prove they were not the ones making the “rapping” sounds. Despite being bound, the “rapping” would inevitably occur.  During one such session, Maggie Fox was allegedly in contact with the spirit of none other than Benjamin Franklin.  As she was talking, her concentration was broken when one of the guests blurted out that she was surprised Franklin used such horrible grammar.

spirit-circle

Seance in the Victorian Era. The term seance was not used until the late 1890’s to describe these events.

Maggie abruptly stopped and told the guests, that she was never good at grammar (11).  Despite outbursts like this, people were eating it up and the Fox sisters were becoming household names and their popularity was booming. Maggie Fox had had enough, and left the group to marry.  She had fallen in love with the dashing Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane (12).  Their marriage was set and the vows were given.  However, Kane’s family disapproved of Margaret and her lack of family respectability and nulled the wedding before it was never legalized.  Maggie was devastated.  To add insult to injury Kane was killed in 1857 (13).  She was left in utter despair and was broke. With her health in decline, and a growing drinking problem, Maggie returned to her career as a medium and spiritualist.   Kate Fox also developed a drinking problem.  She moved to England and helped conduct séance’s in London to crowds.  At one point, she managed to get her drinking under control and had two children (13).  She claimed her three-year old son was a medium and was even possessed by a spirit that caused him to have a glow in his eyes that was not natural (14).

By the mid 1880’s, Spiritualism was on the decline, and the Fox sisters reputation was hitting the fan.  Many of the mediums were under investigation for fraud.  Heavy drinking had destroyed the career of Katie Fox by this point.  She had lost her children because of multiple arrests, and her husband had passed away from a stroke.  She was asked to do a séance for an official investigation board to prove she wasn’t committing fraud and completely failed (15).  She moved back to New York.  Her sister Maggie, even tried to adopt her children but was unable to.  Maggie did arrange for Kate’s children to live with a family uncle who was in London.  The Fox Sisters’ careers came to a climactic end in 1888, when Maggie and Kate publicly denounced their craft, and said they faked the entire act.  They also said they were pushed into the business of public séances by their sister Leah (16).  Leah had estranged herself from her sisters by marrying into a wealthy family and pilfering off the small fortune the three sisters had earned from years of public performance.  The two sisters later pulled back their confession, saying they did it to spite their sister Leah, but the damage to their reputation was already done. (17).  Both Maggie and Katie were dead by 1893.  Katie had fully slipped into alcoholism and died alone.  Her sister Maggie, passed away all but broke.  The Spiritualism movement that started with the Fox Sisters, was still quite popular up until the 1920’s.  Eventually, the movement began to shrink away from mainstream acceptance.  Mediums and psychics still performs séances in an attempt to commune with the spirit realm.

 

jane-piecre-and-bennie

First Lady Jane Pierce, and her beloved son Bennie.  Bennie tragically died in a train accident.  Mrs. Pierce used the Fox Sisters to try and communicate with Bennie in the afterlife. (Photo Credit: History is Now Magazine)

During the heyday of Spiritualism, many famous Victorian’s utilized mediums to try and commune with their deceased loved ones.  Many think of Mary Todd Lincoln, who was famous for holding séance’s in the White House, to contact her dead son.  Another First Lady attempted to contact a deceased son through medium’s as well.  In 1853, a train carrying Jane Pierce, who was the wife of President Franklin Pierce, and her son Bennie were travelling through Massachusetts.  The train derailed and slid into an embankment, killing Bennie (18).  The First Lady was beside herself.  She brought in the famous Fox Sisters to try and communicate with her dead son Bennie.  While the Fox Sisters were unable to help Mrs. Pierce find relief, she did find peace through dreams in which she was able to contact young Bennie.  She even passed along advice on Spiritualism to Mary Todd Lincoln, while Mrs. Lincoln was grieving the death of her son Willie.  Mrs. Lincoln held multiple séances in the White House in an attempt to contact Willie (19).  It is even believed that President Lincoln himself joined in on one of the sessions.

Queen Victoria even hired a medium to help her contact her beloved husband.  This movement that took place in the Victorian era, was accepted by all strata of society all the way up to the Queen of England.  Despite having doubter’s and skeptics many people flocked to psychics and mediums to help them commune with the dead.  For many, it created a sense of peace and comfort in a time of profound loss.  Whether you believe it or not, mediums helped people deal with grief and move on from the tragic losses of family members.

The Victorian era was an incredibly unique time period.  In an era when scientific findings were clashing with religious ideals, a rise in supernatural and paranormal study was growing fast.  Victorian’s were grappling with the concepts of death and mortality.  The transition between life and death gave rise to the Fox Sisters, and photographers such as William Mumler.  The Spiritualism Movement, and death photos, macabre as they might be, ultimately helped people find comfort. Overall, people were entertained by public séances, but they were deeply personal to others as well.  The same can be said for post death photos of deceased family members.  As human beings, we are supremely fascinated by our own mortality.  Death seemed to lurk behind every corner during this era.  Everyday life was hard during this period, even if you had all the advantages of comfort.  The fact that Victorian popular culture embraced questions about death and grief, and explored those dark avenues and speaks to who they were as a culture and the ideals they embraced as a society.

Footnotes:

  1. “Victorian’s: Religion”, English Heritage, Accessed 10-31-16. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/religion/
  2. “Victorian’s: Religion”, English Heritage, Accessed 10-31-16. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/religion/
  3. “Victorian’s: Religion”, English Heritage, Accessed 10-31-16. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/religion/
  4. Kira, Cochrane, “Ghost stories: Why the Victorians were so spookily good at them”, The Guardian, Accessed 10-29-2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/23/ghost-stories-victorians-spookily-good
  1. Kira, Cochrane, “Ghost stories: Why the Victorians were so spookily good at them”, The Guardian, Accessed 10-29-2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/23/ghost-stories-victorians-spookily-good
  1. Kira, Cochrane, “Ghost stories: Why the Victorians were so spookily good at them”, The Guardian, Accessed 10-29-2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/23/ghost-stories-victorians-spookily-good
  1. “Do You Believe: The Mumler Mystery”, The American Museum of Photography, Accessed 11-1-2016, http://www.photographymuseum.com/mumler.html
  2. . “Do You Believe: The Mumler Mystery”, The American Museum of Photography, Accessed 11-1-2016, http://www.photographymuseum.com/mumler.html
  3. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  4. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  5. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  6. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  7. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  8. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  9. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  10. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  11. Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.html
  12. Carl, Anthony, “First Ladies and the Occult: Seances and Spiritualist, Part 1”, The National First Ladies’ Library, Accessed 10-28-2016, http://www.firstladies.org/blog/first-ladies-the-occult-seances-and-spiritualists-part-1/
  13. Carl, Anthony, “First Ladies and the Occult: Seances and Spiritualist, Part 1”, The National First Ladies’ Library, Accessed 10-28-2016, http://www.firstladies.org/blog/first-ladies-the-occult-seances-and-spiritualists-part-1/

 

Sources:

Carl, Anthony, “First Ladies and the Occult: Seances and Spiritualist, Part 1”, The National First Ladies’ Library, Accessed 10-28-2016, http://www.firstladies.org/blog/first-ladies-the-occult-seances-and-spiritualists-part-1/

Troy, Taylor, “The Fox Sister’s: The Rise and Fall of Spiritualisms Founders”, The Haunted Museum, Accessed 10-29-2016, http://www.prairieghosts.com/foxsisters.htm

“Do You Believe: The Mumler Mystery”, The American Museum of Photography, Accessed 11-1-2016, http://www.photographymuseum.com/mumler.html

Kira, Cochrane, “Ghost stories: Why the Victorians were so spookily good at them”, The Guardian, Accessed 10-29-2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/23/ghost-stories-victorians-spookily-good

“Victorian’s: Religion”, English Heritage, Accessed 10-31-16. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/religion/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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