The average life expectancy in 1900 was just 47 years. Is it any wonder Victorians were obsessed with the passage from life to death (or, on another topic entirely, with productivity)? Spiritualism—a religion that attempted to bridge the gap between the living and the dead—rose to prominence during the Victorian era (1837–1901), and it’s not hard to imagine why.
“With the onslaught of the Civil War, and the growing lists of men who would never return home, more and more people turned to spiritualist mediums, hoping for some proof that their loved one’s immortal soul was at peace. The number of spiritualists in the United States blossomed. By the end of the war, a reported 11 million people subscribed to Spiritualism and 35,000 were practicing mediums.”
—Beyond the Veil: Spiritualism in the 19th Century, an online exhibit by Katie Keckeisen, presented by the O. Henry Museum
Spiritualism sought to unite the natural and supernatural realms and bring the dead into conversation with the living, Grant Shreve writes.
“Spiritualism was one of the 19th century’s most successful religious innovations, a diffuse but powerful movement of individuals who yearned for a religion which united mysticism and science,” he said, in “When Women Channeled the Dead to be Heard,” published in JSTOR Daily.
Encyclopedia Britannica explains the movement’s beliefs and practices:A core belief of spiritualism is that individuals survive the deaths of their bodies by ascending into a spirit existence. A person’s condition after death is directly related to the moral quality of his human existence. Communion with the spiritual world is both possible and desirable, and spiritual healing is the natural result of such communication. The spiritualists understand God as infinite intelligence.
Historically, spiritualism was organized in small groups that conducted séances, or meetings for spirit communication. Larger gatherings were held for public demonstrations of spirit contact and psychic phenomena. These gatherings evolved into the Sunday church services that became common in spiritualist churches in the 20th century. Many associations also sponsored camps where believers could congregate in a leisurely atmosphere, have private sessions with mediums, and attend daily séances.
Spiritualism grew in part out of its practitioners’ dissatisfaction with traditional religion’s funereal rituals and what they felt was a cold approach to the grief-stricken. Practitioners turned to Spiritualism to find comfort from their loneliness after the death of their dearest loved ones.
In “The American phantasmagoria: The rise of spiritualism in nineteenth-century America,” Daniel Bowlin tells the story of Lucy Tuck, who lost both her husband, Lorenzo, and son, Wadsworth, prematurely. Wadsworth was a practicing physician who contracted diphtheria and died in 1888. Lucy felt “unsure of where they rested” and turned to Spiritualism for reassurance:
Wadsworth’s mother … became interested in spiritualism after the death of her husband and father to Wadsworth … . When Lucy began to focus on spiritualism, she gained “experience [which] to her was evidence that it was a truth, but the matter was seldom alluded to between the mother and son.” Wadsworth and his mother disagreed upon the subject, but Lucy held to the “principle that every person of mature age should be allowed entire freedom of thought.” When Wadsworth contracted diphtheria from one of his patients and died on October 19, 1888, Lucy became fully emerged into spiritualism.
Other interesting factors contributed to the rise of Spiritualism, including women’s burgeoning desire to break out of their limited role and have an active voice in society. Women seized the reins as professional mediums during the Victorian era and beyond, and in doing so found new power. Mediumship was a profession that aligned with stereotypical ideas about femininity, Shreve said. Mediums were seen as passive, impressionable, and highly sensitive. These same traits were used to justify excluding women from public life. Thus, in a delightful paradox, here was a powerful profession women could enter without upsetting gender roles.
Shreve relates the example of Nettie Colburn Maynard, who was medium to Mary Todd Lincoln, which brought Maynard into the highest seat of power in the United States, at the very time Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
But such prominence as Maynard’s and others would not go unchallenged.
The great magician Harry Houdini made a name for himself in part by publicly debunking mediums, gaining a great deal of publicity doing so throughout the 20th century. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, in 1872, was called “Mrs. Satan” for her belief in Spiritualism, suffrage, and free love—which argued less for the 1960s version and more that individuals should be allowed to stay with romantic partners as long as they wished rather than marry for life—all of which, of course, threatened the very traditional Victorian values of the time.
You can learn more about Harry Houdini and other Victorian magicians and illusionists during the MAC Strange Victorian Obsessions House Tour, and the Spirits, Oddities & Obsessions Combo Tour.