A Brief(ish) History of Spiritualism


‘Humble Beginnings’

The Spiritualist movement began in 1848, in a small hamlet near Rochester, NY. A farmhouse in Hydesville was troubled with strange raps, taps and knocks, and the mother of the resident Fox family began to worry that the house was haunted. She also worried about the effect the phenomena might have on her daughters – thirteen year old Maggie and eleven year old Kate – and she was right to do so. The ‘Rochester knockings’ would propel these two little girls to global celebrity and expose them to public scrutiny, kind and not so kind.

On the 31st March 1848, Kate Fox was the first to attempt spirit communication. The knocks, bumps, raps, taps and bangs that bothered her family had been going on for some time, but it was Kate who initiated the now familiar code of one knock for yes, two knocks for no and so on. “Here, Mr. Splitfoot,” she was said to have prompted. “Do as I do.” When she knocked on the floor the ghostly raps echoed hers.

That might have been the end of it, but as gossip got around the girls’ older, married sister Leah Fish appointed herself their unofficial business manager. Very soon the fame of the ‘Fox Sisters’ spread to the nearby city of Rochester, then to New York itself.

Up to this point in history, dead people had behaved very much like dead people – they were dead and didn’t generally tend to say much, or anything at all. Strangely, after 1848, they became extremely communicative, not only knocking on tables but levitating them. They also allegedly tied and untied ropes, played accordions and guitars with unseen fingers and made a horrid goo called ‘ectoplasm’ come oozing out of people’s noses.

In this brave new world of noisy spirits, mediums popped up like mushrooms after rain, such the beautiful ‘trance lecturer’ Cora Hatch, or the parasitic levitation specialist Daniel Dunglas Home. A popular vaudeville turn – The Davenport Brothers – featured the brothers being tied up in a cabinet, and while the doors were closed the brothers would ring bells and play musical instruments, apparently while still tied. This routine inspired both stage magicians and spiritualists alike, with the ‘spirit cabinet’ becoming a fixture in the séance room.

There was a great sense of one-upmanship about early spiritualism. Kate and Maggie Fox had started out with nothing more than simple knocks, but then tables started rocking, and eventually levitating, and D.D. Home, never one to be outdone, started levitating himself.

home levitates

An artist’s impression of D.D. Home’s most famous levitation.


Florence Cook and the Physical Mediums

Demand from the sitters had a great deal to do with the increasingly astonishing phenomena seen in séance rooms – even arch-believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admitted on several occasions that he knew mediums were inclined to cheat to meet the expectations of their audience. But the expectations were fast growing higher, and the demands more difficult to meet. “…a harmless ‘message’ that is given to them through the ‘rappings’ is of little account to them,” Maggie Fox complained, in 1888. “They want the ‘spirit’ to come to them in full form, to walk before them, talk to them, to embrace them and all such nonsense, and what is the result?”

The result was that mediums were increasingly expected to produce ‘full form’ manifestations, spirits that appeared corporeally before the sitters. Maggie’s sister Kate was the first to do this, a characteristically crowd-pleasing move from the sensitive, anxious Kate Fox. Where Kate led, other mediums followed and soon every séance worth its salt featured some form of manifestation. Some mediums employed a sort of Punch and Judy cabinet arrangement – an old wardrobe with a space cut out at the top where the medium would cause faces of the deceased to appear. This was not a particularly impressive routine and depended largely on the will of the audience to believe, and by the mid 1870’s it had all had but died out, replaced by spirits who left the cabinet completely and walked among the sitters, touching them, talking to them and dispensing kisses and keepsakes.

These mediums came to be known as ‘physical mediums’ and one of the most notorious was Florence Cook, a seventeen year old from Hackney, London. Pretty, dark-haired and ambitious, Florence was alleged to have fooled a scientist, a fellow of the Royal Society, the eminent chemist Sir William Crookes.

Crookes had already investigated D.D. Home and pronounced him genuine. Home had never been directly exposed but plenty of people had their suspicions and in 1867 he had been involved in an ugly court case in which a rich widow claimed that Home had persuaded her (via her late husband’s spirit) to adopt him as a son, write him into her will and hand over £20,000 right away.  Naturally the Royal Society had raised several eyebrows at Crookes’ investigation of such a subject and criticised his methods, so when Florence Cook showed up on the scene William Crookes’ credibility as an investigator was already on shaky ground.

Even in 1874 most scientists had good reason not to investigate spiritualism, the main one being that it was more or less already done and dusted. Sir Michael Faraday had investigated table-tipping at the start of the craze and, through a series of simple but well-designed experiments, concluded that the forces moving the séance table were very much of this world – the sitters were moving the table themselves.

This is not to say that all scientists agreed with Faraday. While Charles Darwin was unconvinced by the mediums, rival naturalist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace was a near fanatical spiritualist. In the next century the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge would nail his colours to the mast and add his eminent name to a list still quoted by spiritualists as proof that great minds see the truth.

The same list is, of course, quoted by sceptics as proof that no amount of intellect is a guaranteed safeguard against the efforts of a really talented con-artist.

Florence Cook operated through a ‘control spirit’ or spirit guide, known as ‘Katie King’. Katie King was allegedly the daughter of another popular spirit control ‘John King’, who in life had been a pirate on the Spanish main. While non-believers loudly mocked this provenance, along with its whiff of the music-hall, spiritualists seem to have been largely unembarrassed and spirit controls became more popular than ever. Some mediums still employ them today, which is why for the first six series of Most Haunted people had to stand around and try not to laugh while Derek Acorah talked to an invisible boy named Sam.

Katie King was unusual as a control spirit, in that she appeared as a full form manifestation. What would happen is that Florence Cook, usually dressed in the cumbersome height of 1870’s fashion – bustle, corset, petticoats – would go into the spirit cabinet (Sometimes a curtained off area of the séance room, other times another room entirely.) go into her trance and Katie King would emerge, draped in white.


Florence Cook and ‘Katie King’

Among Crookes’ other test subjects was another teenage medium, Mary Showers. Mary and Florence were notable in that they provided a tandem séance – both of them going into trance and both of them producing full form manifestations of their spirit controls – Katie King and Florence Maple.

“Not only did they resemble their respective mediums,” wrote one observer. “They were facsimiles of them – alike in face, hair, complexion, teeth, eyes, hands and movements of the body.”

Embarrassingly, both Florence and Mary had both been exposed as frauds before and during the séances with William Crookes. In fact it’s been suggested by some historians that Florence’s decision to volunteer for scientific testing by Crookes stemmed largely from an exposure that threatened her livelihood.

The Crookes/Cook imbroglio left a bad taste in a great many mouths, not least William Crookes’ – he destroyed a great many of the Katie King photographs and appears to have fallen out completely with Florence when she secretly married Michael Corner, one of her regular séance groupies.

Between the Home court case, frequent exposures and the inevitable conclusions people drew about Florence Cook and William Crookes, the Spiritualist movement was having a rough time, but the London scene in particular was still thriving under the banner of Mrs. Henry Jenken.


‘The Death Blow to Spiritualism’

Like most grown, married women, Mrs. Henry Jenken was a different person from the girl she had used to be – the famous Kate Fox of Rochester, NY.

She was always considered to be the most beautiful of the Fox Sisters – her pale, large-eyed face and breakable doll figure fitted the mid-nineteenth century ideal. Her personality also fitted the fashion of womanly modesty – she was gentle and sensitive, eager to please and hungry for acceptance.

Kate had married a London barrister and become a celebrated part of the British spiritualist scene. She gave birth to two sons, the eldest of whom was treated as a sort of spiritualist messiah and credited with all kinds of paranormal powers before he could even speak four words of English.

This was very much the pattern of Kate’s life – she always treated as a vessel for things greater than herself, a blank slate on which people could scribble their fancies. As it is for many unlucky people who achieve fame before maturity, her life was a long, painful realisation that true friends were nearly impossible to come by – everyone she met wanted her for her fame or her gifts as a medium, not for herself.

Maggie Fox was also unhappy. Tougher than her younger sister, the widowed Maggie had spent her entire life fighting with her husband and her in-laws, battling for her right to make a living, defending herself against class prejudice and fighting even for the right to use her married name, Margaret Fox Kane.

Fame had been unkind to the two little girls from Hydesville. By the 1880’s both of them were probably severely depressed and almost certainly alcoholics. Their reputations had been raked over the coals a thousand times since they were girls – the inevitable questions about their honesty mingled with ugly enquiries about their sexual behaviour. By 1888 it seems that both Kate and Maggie had had just about enough.

So they confessed.

In The Death Blow To Spiritualism the girls told all, how the things that had first gone bump in the night were nothing more than apples on strings. Later, they explained, they had learned to crack their toe-joints loudly enough to simulate ‘spirit raps’.

The toe-cracking hypothesis had been around from the beginning, back in Rochester, but when investigators attempted to examine the girls legs and feet, older sister Leah intervened, citing her sisters’ extreme youth and invoking antebellum standards of feminine modesty. This, of course, gave sceptics even more reason to suspect that the feet were involved in the production of these sounds; Darwin’s famous ‘bulldog’ T.H. Huxley was a loud-jointed fan of this theory and frequently entertained guests with his ‘spirit rapping toe’.

Maggie Fox demonstrated her abilities in front of audiences. Her story, as told to Reuben Briggs Davenport in The Death Blow, has the ring of truth about it – how the fraud grew and grew and just when it was nearly too large to admit to, in swept Leah and pushed it over that invisible line. Barely five years after Hydesville Spiritualism was a full-blown movement and the sisters were world-famous – there was no going back.

By 1888 the Spiritualist movement was past its glory days, but Maggie in particular seems to have thought she could achieve something by coming clean – peace of mind or a fresh source of income. Perhaps this was why she later recanted her confession and returned to the spiritualist movement, having discovered that there is a great deal more money to be made in telling people what they want to hear than in telling them the truth. Regardless of her motives, Maggie’s recantation means that the controversy over the sisters continues to this day.

Kate Fox Jenken died in 1892, apparently of kidney disease aggravated by her final drinking binge. She was fifty-six years old.

Maggie followed her sister only eight months later, in the spring of 1893. She was fifty-nine years old and at the time of her death, entirely penniless.


The Great War 

As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, interest in Spiritualism began to fade. While ‘the Death Blow’ had not been exactly that, exposures and frauds continued to erode interest.

By the turn of the century all the big beasts of the Spiritualist scene were either dead or discredited – D.D. Home had died in 1886, Florence Cook had been exposed on numerous occasions and the popular ‘slate writing’ medium Henry Slade had been successfully prosecuted for fraud. Italian medium Eusapia Palladino was still around, tipping tables and living large at the expense of overeducated men who should have had far more sense, but in general spiritualism at the end of the nineteenth century was a rather soggy affair.

In the 1870’s ‘Katie King’ had walked, talked and disrobed for scientists, D.D. Home had allegedly handled red-hot coals, elongated his limbs and floated vertically out of windows. By contrast the most remarkable medium of the 1890’s scene was one Leonora Piper, an American housewife whose list of control spirits read like a parody – George Washington, Martin Luther, Lincoln, Longfellow, an Indian girl named ‘Chlorine’ and a foul-mouthed French doctor named Phinuit who surprisingly knew no medicine and only spoke limited French.

Besides, the world had changed radically since 1848. Whole worlds had been shaken by abolition, by Darwin, by the rise of the women’s movement. The industrial revolution had created whole new cities, redistributed populations. New advances in technology had changed lives for people on almost every level of society, reshaping communication, transportation, and most shockingly, war.

The US Civil War, with its high casualty lists and huge human cost, had undoubtedly provided a great deal of momentum for the early spiritualist movement, but the First World War was a whole new kind of carnage, a systematic, mechanised slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Some thirty-seven million people lost their lives from 1914 to 1918.

On top of war came pestilence, the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Victims of the ‘Spanish Flu’ essentially drowned as their lungs filled with fluid – it was a frightening and relentless disease, and since it worked by turning the body’s immune system on itself, those who were mostly likely to die were those who were young and strong. Many were the men who had survived four years in the trenches, only to succumb to influenza at the end of the war.

The séance rooms were revitalised as people struggled to comprehend their losses, to find some kind of comfort or meaning. So many families were bereaved in some way, from the poor and obscure to the rich and famous, such Sir Oliver Lodge or the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Under the banners of such respected men spiritualism was about to experience a renaissance, going into what many might consider its golden age. It was also the heyday of a similar yet fundamentally different discipline –  the golden age of stage magic.


Who You Gonna Call?

Harry Houdini is often hailed as the first magician to take on the psychics, which just goes to show that Harry Houdini was a master self-publicist. In fact he was following in a tradition that was well-worn even when he was a snot-nosed young thing writing hopeful letters of introduction to John Nevil Maskelyne.

The magical ghostbusters had dogged the spiritualist’s footsteps almost from the start. D.D. Home was frequently called out by one John Anderson, a somewhat tipsy Yorkshire magician who styled himself (after Sir Walter Scott) ‘The Wizard of the North’. Anderson was reputedly a terrible conjurer, little more than a noisy carnival barker, although according to Dr. Peter Lamont he does hold the distinction of being the first magician to produce a rabbit from a hat.

Maskelyne and Cooke also gave ‘spiritualist demonstrations’ in their early days, and the venerable American magician Harry Kellar lent his expertise in the debunking of fraudster and slate writing medium ‘Dr.’ Henry Slade, demonstrating how Slade’s miracles could easily be performed with simple sleights of hand.

So while Houdini was most certainly not the first, he was perhaps – in true Houdini style – one of the loudest and the angriest of all magician-debunkers.

He had some equally loud opponents, the loudest of whom was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The two men had previously been friends, their relationship somehow surviving Sir Arthur’s continued insistence that Harry’s feats as a magician were nothing to do with hard work, endless rehearsals and a lifetime of practise, but were in fact the work of helpful ‘spirits’.

Feelings ran high after the war, and Doyle and Houdini were both prickly personalities. Doyle was inclined to get very defensive when anyone suggested his renewed interest in spiritualism had anything to do with the high price his family had paid in the war, while Houdini tended to get angry whenever he suspected some form of psychic fraud. So when Sir Arthur invited Harry to attend a séance one summer in Atlantic City, it was almost certainly never going to end well.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is reclining on the left, Houdini in the centre and Lady Jean on the far right.

It didn’t help that the medium was unconvincing, the spirit messages from Houdini’s late and beloved mother were nothing more than the standard boilerplate glurge (I miss you, I love you, I am happy here, etc.) and were written in English, a language that the deceased had none of in life. It really didn’t help that the medium was Sir Arthur’s wife and that he took Houdini’s scepticism as a personal slur on his wife’s honour.

In short, it was a bit of a mess and nobody came out of it particularly well. Even Lady Doyle came across badly in later years, when her spirit control ‘Pheneas’ demonstrated a penchant for prophesying the ‘doom’ of Harry Houdini. When Houdini did die prematurely in 1926, Sir Arthur excitedly notes this fact in the book he wrote about his wife’s spirit conversations, successfully coming across as something of a dick in the process. Of course, Pheneas failed to prophesy that Sir Arthur had only four years left himself, but did mention that Lady Jean should definitely accompany her husband on his next tour of America and not be left at home with the children.

Lady Jean Doyle, with her trances and automatic writing, was a poor example of the post-war medium. The big beasts were back on the scene, and they were bigger than ever. Eva Carriere and Mina Crandon were two of the biggest stars of this period. Mrs. Crandon – who performed as ‘Margery’ – had been extensively investigated by Houdini. He was not convinced, especially when ‘spirit fingerprints’ allegedly left by Margery’s spirit control, Walter, turned out to match the fingerprints of Mrs. Crandon’s dentist. (The dentist was very much alive, by the way.)

It seems that Houdini was not particularly moved by Margery’s physical charms either – although to be fair any attraction he may have felt was probably torpedoed by ‘Walter’s’ fondness for making anti-semitic remarks – but Margery’s séances were notably rather sexy affairs. She frequently performed in nothing but a kimono and dusted her breasts with phosphorescent powder. Like Eva Carriere she seemed only too pleased be not only strip-searched before séances but cavity searched too. There had always been a frisson of sex about the séance room but in the 1920’s and 1930’s it seemed that no orifice was off-limits when it came to the production of ‘ectoplasm’.

It can’t have smelled good.


 The Mongoose Whisperer

While ‘spirit photography’ had been around almost since the invention of the camera, the decreasing cost of photography and advances in technology meant that cameras were rapidly becoming vital tools for psychic investigators. Séance photographs from the interwar period show mediums like Margery, Eva C and the notorious ‘Hellish Nell’ all in slumped poses, in deep trance and apparently oozing some kind of spirit goo from ears, noses and mouths.

This was, of course, incredibly disgusting, particularly from the point of view of the sceptics. Since they didn’t attribute the oozings to any supernatural agency, they were forced to contemplate just where the material for the ‘ectoplasm’ might be secreted.

None of the possible answers were particularly nice.

One investigator wasn’t so squeamish. Enter Harry Price – amateur magician, arch-self-publicist and professional troll. Price (and his co-author Eric J. Dingwall) literally wrote the book on psychic fraud – a small but explosive volume entitled Revelations of a Spirit Medium. Dingwall and Price blew the lid on the lot – every tawdry trick ever employed, from mining information from rival mediums to making phantoms out of cheesecloth and Halloween masks. A few years later they reunited to investigate Borley Rectory, reportedly the most haunted house in Britain. (The Borley investigation was also part inspiration for Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House.)

Between ‘Revelations’, Borley Rectory and the bizarre investigation of a Manx poltergeist who claimed to be the ghost of a talking mongoose named Gef, you can imagine it probably took a lot to constitute a weird day at the office for Harry Price.

Then along came Helen Duncan.

‘Hellish Nell’ was a Scottish medium of impeccable pedigree, claiming seers and chargrilled witches in her family tree. When Harry Price investigated her in 1931-2, he had his own theories about how she produced her ‘manifestations’.


One of the many photos Harry Price took at Helen Duncan’s seances.

The ‘ectoplasm’, he suggested, was nothing more than cheesecloth, and that she was somehow concealing the stuff on her body somewhere. Given that Mrs. Duncan was a large lady, well over two hundred pounds, there were plenty of places where she could have concealed a scrunchy piece of muslin cheesecloth. To put paid to such allegations, she was strip searched before each sitting with Price, and then sewn into her séance costume by his assistants.

Harry Price decided that the only place left for concealment had to be her mouth, so he focused his attentions above the neck. While Helen Duncan frequently gulped down numerous cups of tea and cakes to demonstrate that her mouth and throat were empty, it’s perhaps significant that when Harry Price tried to x-ray her head she fled the laboratory in a screaming panic.

After a calming talk with her husband (who also worked as her agent and manager.) Helen agreed to come back and be x-rayed, but perhaps only because she was now, in the conjurer’s term, ‘clean’.

To anyone who has ever read Revelations of a Spirit Medium, it seems highly unlikely that an investigator as experienced as Harry Price was ever convinced by Helen Duncan, but Harry Price always liked to drag things out for maximum publicity – as an example, he had first investigated Borley Rectory in 1929 and was still trying to wring books out of the place throughout World War II.

He did, however, hit publicity paydirt, when in 1944 his former lab subject was sent to prison for witchcraft.


On Trial And In Decline

The trial of Helen Duncan is controversial to this day, with spiritualists claiming her as a martyr to the cause and sceptics claiming her as a constant con-artist who just couldn’t help herself.

It was true that her 1944 arrest was not Helen’s first brush with the law. She had been fined once before when someone had caught her impersonating a ghost, and the following year (1934) the same thing happened again, this time with an elderly vest playing the role of a little girl named ‘Peggy’. On the second instance the Edinburgh courts fined Helen and sentenced her to a month in prison.

In 1944 Helen was sentenced to nine months in prison for séances held in Portsmouth, in which spiritualists claim she had predicted the sinking of the HMS Barham, demonstrating such astounding psychic abilities that the British government, from Churchill downwards, were forced to shut her down lest she spilled any details about the D-Day landings.

While it is true that Churchill got personally involved in the Helen Duncan case, the alternative explanation is that Helen was making a nuisance of herself at a time of serious national security concerns, and was consequently held up as a warning to any other aspiring wartime Cassandras.

The British government took propaganda very seriously indeed, and Portsmouth was one of those cities where public morale was a grave concern. As a naval base Portsmouth was a massive strategic target for Hitler – over the course of the war the Luftwaffe did their best to level the city entirely. The sinking of the HMS Barham was kept secret from Portsmouth’s general population because at the time it was the last thing they needed to hear. The only people who were told were the relatives of the lost sailors, and they were asked to keep it to themselves for security reasons – a difficult thing to do.

One likely explanation of Helen’s wartime séances is that someone simply couldn’t keep this painful secret any longer. When Helen ‘predicted’ the sinking of the HMS Barham, the ship had actually already sunk – it was just that the official announcement had not been made. In the light of this information her Sibylline gifts look a little less impressive, but the prediction had already alerted the attention of the authorities, who suspected a security leak or worse, the possibility of Nazi spies.

Considering that this wasn’t Helen’s first offense, it was no wonder the law threw the book at her. It wouldn’t be her last either – that came in 1956 when she was again arrested for fake mediumship. She died shortly after, her supporters claiming that her death was caused by her being rudely yanked from her trance by arresting officers.

By the time of her death spiritualism was largely the province of superstitious grandmothers. The Second World War failed to deliver the kind of resurgence that had come with World War One. Spiritualism had been fading steadily as the cinema became cheaper and more readily available.  Séance rooms had once been a great place to take a date, but the old cheesecloth and phosphorus ghosts couldn’t compete with the new and gorgeous phantoms that flickered in the dark of the movie theatre – Theda Bara, Valentino, Jean Harlow.

Television offered a new way for mediums to operate – bigger audiences meant that mediums like the grandmotherly Doris Stokes (And most modern performers.) now worked from a stage rather than in the intimate settings of private houses. The old-school séance room – with its tambourines and tea bells – slid away into history, unremarked as the passing rumour it had once been, a game played by two little girls.

Maggie (left) and Kate Fox – 1852


3 responses to “A Brief(ish) History of Spiritualism

  1. This was excellent, Anna. I particularly liked the end, because throughout I was asking myself, “How many people took this seriously and how many just thought it was good fun?” I’m sure some did take it seriously. As the son of a minister, skeptical but not at all disillusioned, I’m aware of how people need to believe in “something” to make the unbearable bearable. I do it myself as a matter fact, and more strangely, knowing that I need to believe in something makes me more comfortable in that belief, rather than less. Aren’t we humans odd and wonderful?

    • I’m the complete opposite. I don’t see it as a need – more of an optional extra. It’s probably got something to do with being a third generation atheist, but I just seem to lack that extra something that manifests in others as faith.

      At some point I really need to write about post-war spiritualism because I kind of left it with the last ‘dark seance’ circles. Spiritualism didn’t die with the likes of Harry Price and Helen Duncan, and neither did its entertainment aspect. In fact in the television era I think the entertainment aspect got even bigger.

      Obviously I don’t believe a word of it, but I’m a tough nut to crack. :) It’s not that I don’t want to believe, it’s just that the overwhelming weight of evidence says no. So far.

      • Maybe it’s the ministers I know, but they start talking about the history of the writing of the bible (particularly the New Testament) and the difficulties of translating, and other academic matters … combined with some sly, acerbic observations … and I’ve asked them, “Wait, do you actually believe what you are preaching?” because I haven’t been entirely sure. As for faith, all I can say is one day I discovered I believed in the resurrection while realizing I had no good reason for doing so. Other folks will need to make up their own minds, and that’s always been just fine with me.

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