The Spiritualist movement, like jazz, was purely an American invention.
Although the idea that man was able to communicate with spirits had existed already for centuries, modern belief in such a practice came about in March 1848 in Hydesville, New York. The movement, which would come to be known as Spiritualism, would remain strong for nearly a century, enjoying its greatest revival after World War I. The practice was founded on the belief that life existed after death and that the spirit existed beyond the body. Most importantly, it was believed that these spirits could (and did) communicate with the living.
Spiritualism was born at the home of the Fox family in Hydesville but legend holds that the house was haunted before the Fox Family came to live there. In those days, between 1843 and 1844, a couple named Bell occupied the cottage. In the last few months of their occupancy, a young local woman named Lucretia Pulver handled the household chores. She acted as a maid and carried out the cleaning and cooking duties for the Bell’s.
One day, a young peddler came to the door of the house. He was a friendly young man and he brought with him a case of merchandise. These goods consisted of pots, pans and other useful items for the home. He stayed with the family for several days and it has been suggested that perhaps he enjoyed a closer than was proper relationship with Mrs. Bell. A short time later, Lucretia found herself fired from her position in the house. No explanation was ever given but apparently, there were no hard feelings about her dismissal. Mrs. Bell took the girl home in her wagon and before she left the house, Lucretia purchased a small kitchen knife from the peddler’s selection. She left him instructions to deliver the item to her father’s farm, but the knife never arrived.
Barely a week later, Lucretia was surprised to find that Mrs. Bell was again requesting her services. Thankful to have her job back, she reported for duty the next morning. The peddler who had been staying with the family had departed but she found that a number of things he carried in his case were now in the possession of Mrs. Bell. She simply assumed that Mrs. Bell must have bought the items from the peddler before the young man left for parts unknown. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, but that would soon change.
Shortly after returning to the house, Lucretia began to notice some particularly strange things had begun to occur. Unaccountable noises, like knocking and tapping, came from the room that the peddler had once occupied. On several occasions, she also heard footsteps pacing through the house and then descending the stairs to the cellar. Not surprisingly, Lucretia began to feel frightened and nervous when left alone in the house. She would often send for her brother, or a friend, to come and stay with her and usually, the strange sounds would cease. However, on one occasion, they continued for hours and scared Lucretia’s brother so badly that he left the place and refused to return. One afternoon, while in the cellar, Lucretia stumbled and fell over a patch of freshly turned dirt. She was slightly hurt and Mr. Bell explained that the mound of dirt had been dumped to cover up "rat holes".
A short time later, the Bell’s moved out and the Weekman family moved in, along with a relative, a Mrs. Lafe. The length of their residence in the house would prove to be a short one. One day, Mrs. Lafe entered the kitchen and as she closed the door behind her, she spotted the apparition of a man in a black frock coat standing across the room. She screamed in terror and the figure vanished. Soon, they all began to hear the rappings and footsteps in the house. They would come during the daylight hours, but mostly they were heard at night, bothering everyone as they tried to sleep. Finally, the odd happenings proved to be too much for them and they abandoned the place.
Then in 1848, the Fox family moved into the house. John Fox and his wife had two young daughters, Margaret and Kate, and they settled temporarily into the cottage. Fox was a farmer who had come to New York from Canada and had purchased land nearby. A home was being built on the new property and he moved his family into the cottage until the other house could be completed. Their stay would turn out to be very eventful.
Within days of moving in, the noises began. The banging and rattling sounds pounded loudly each night, disturbing them all from their sleep. At first, John Fox thought nothing of the sounds that his wife and children reported and were so frightened by. He assumed that they were merely the sounds of an unfamiliar dwelling, amplified by active imaginations. Soon however, the reports took another turn. Kate woke up screaming one night, saying that a cold hand had touched her on the face. Margaret swore that rough, invisible fists had pulled the blankets from her bed. Even Mrs. Fox swore that she had heard disembodied footsteps walking through the house and then going down the wooden steps into the dank cellar.
Fox, not a superstitious man, was perplexed. He tried walking about the house, searching for squeaks and knocks in the floorboards and along the walls. He tested the windows and doors to see if vibrations in the frames might account for the sounds. He could find no explanation for the weird noises and his daughters became convinced that the house had a ghost.
A Fanciful Period depiction of the Arrival of the Spirits at the Fox Home in Hydesville
On the evening of March 31, Fox began his almost nightly ritual of investigating the house for the source of the sounds. The tapping had begun with the setting of the sun and although he searched the place, he was no closer to a solution. Then, Kate began to realize that whenever her father knocked on a wall or door frame, the same number of inexplicable knocks would come in reply. It was as if someone, or something, was trying to communicate with them.
Finding her nerve, Kate spoke up, addressing the unseen presence by the nickname that she and her sister had given it. "Here, Mr. Splitfoot," she called out, "do as I do!" She clapped her hands together two times and seconds later, two knocks came in reply, seemingly from inside of the wall. She followed this display by rapping on the table and the precise number of knocks came again from the presence. The activity caught the attention of the rest of the family and they entered the room with Kate and her father. Mrs. Fox tried asking aloud questions of fact, such as the ages of her daughters and the age of a Fox child who had earlier passed away. To her surprise, each reply eerily accurate.
Unsure of what to do, John Fox summoned several neighbors to the house to observe the phenomenon. Most of them came over very skeptical of what they were hearing from the Fox’s, but were soon astounded to find their ages and various dates and years given in response to the questions they asked.
One neighbor, and a former tenant in the house, William Duesler, decided to try and communicate with the source of the sounds in a more scientific manner. He asked repeated questions and was able to create a form of alphabet using a series of knocks. He also was able to determine the number of knocks that could be interpreted as "yes" and "no". In such a manner, he was able to determine the subject of the disturbances. The answer came, not in private, but before an assembled group of witnesses, that the presence in the house was the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered and robbed years before.
As it happened, one of the neighbors who had assembled in the house was the former maid of the Bell family, Lucretia Pulver. She came forward with her story of finding the dirt that had been unearthed in the cellar. The story now took on a more sinister tone. John Fox and William Duesler went to the area that Lucretia described and began to dig. After more than an hour, they had little to show for their trouble but an empty hole and sore backs. That was until Fox noticed something odd beneath the blade of his shovel. He prodded at the object and then picked it up. It appeared to be a small piece of bone with a few strands of hair still clinging to it. Spurred on by the gruesome discovery, he and Duesler began to dig once more. They found a few scraps and tatters of clothing, but little else. They were far from disappointed though, as a local doctor determined that the bone appeared to be a piece of a human skull. They were convinced that the presence in the house was indeed the ghost of the luckless peddler!
Shortly after, the story of the Fox family took a more dramatic turn. The two daughters were both purported to have mediumistic powers and the news of the unearthly communications with the spirit quickly spread. By November 1849, they were both giving public performances of their skills and the Spiritualist movement was born. The mania to communicate with the dead swept the country and the Fox sisters became famous. Click Here to Read A Biography of the Fox Sisters
Over the years, the credibility of the Fox family was often called into question. As no real evidence existed to say that any peddler was actually killed in the house, many accused the family of making up the entire story to support their claims of supernatural powers. It may come as no surprise to the reader that the Spiritualist movement was riddled with fraud, but was the story of the murdered peddler merely a ruse to prove the powers of the Fox sisters?
It’s possible that Margaret and Kate, had they not died years before, would have been vindicated in 1904. By this time, their former home had been deserted for some years. A group of children were playing in the ruins one day when the east wall of the cellar collapsed, nearly killing one of them. A man who came to their aid quickly realized the reason for the wall’s collapse. Apparently, it had been a false partition, hastily and poorly constructed in the past. Between the false brick wall and the genuine wall of the cellar were the crumbling bones of a man and a large box, just like the ones that had been carried by peddlers a few decades before. A portion of the man’s skull was missing.
Dead men, as they say, really do tell tales.
Or do they? That’s been the mystery behind Spiritualism since it was first conceived. Were those involved with the movement really communicating with the dead? Skeptics, even of those times, were convinced they were not, but the public was not so easily discouraged. In fact, they were fascinated with the reports coming from New York and news of these "spirited communications" quickly spread and the Fox Sisters became famous. In November 1849, the girls were giving public demonstrations of their powers in contacting the spirit world and drawing crowds that numbered into the thousands. Seemingly overnight, Spiritualism became a full-blown religious movement, complete with scores of followers, its own unique brand of phenomena and codes of conduct for everything from spirit communication to séances.
The Spiritualists believed that the dead could communicate through what were called "mediums". They were sensitive persons who were in touch with the next world and while in a trance, they could pass along messages from the other side. Besides these "message mediums", there were also practitioners who could produce physical phenomena that was said to be the work of the spirits. This phenomena included lights, unearthly music, the levitation of objects, disembodied voices and even actual apparitions.
All of this was produced during what were called "séances" (or sittings), which were regarded as the most exciting method of spirit communication. Any number of people could attend and the rooms where the séances took place often contained a large table that the attendees could sit around, smaller tables that were suitable for lifting and tilting, and a cabinet where the mediums could be sequestered while the spirits materialized and performed their tricks. The sessions reportedly boasted a variety of phenomena, including musical instruments that played by themselves and sometimes flew about the room, glowing images, ghostly hands and messages from the dead.
While each séance was different, most had one thing in common in that they were always held in dark or dimly lighted rooms. Believers explained that the darkness provided less of a distraction to the audience and to the medium. They also added that since much of the spirit phenomena was luminous, it was much easier seen in the darkness.
Those who were not so convinced of the validity of the movement offered another explanation. They believed the dark rooms concealed the practice of fraud! These early questioners would go on to become the first paranormal investigators of the era.
But while the Spiritualist movement brought the study of ghosts and spirits into the public eye, it also provided fame (and sometimes infamy) to many of those involved. Not only did the mediums gain notoriety, but so did many of the investigators, and in many cases, the movement led to their ruin. Even the Fox Sisters, who had known such early fame and fortune, drank themselves to death and died penniless.
The downfalls of many of the mediums came about because of their exposure as fakes. It was obvious that Spiritualism was riddled with cases of deliberate fraud. It seemed easy to fool the thousands of people who were looking for a miracle and many of the mediums began lining their pockets with money that had swindled from naive clients.
Of course, that’s not to say that all of the Spiritualists were dishonest. Many of them, like famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, truly believed in the validity of the movement. At the very worst, many of these believers were good-hearted but gullible and at best, well -- there do remain a few of the mediums for which no logical explanations have been suggested. For as William James said about the medium Lenora Piper... "to upset the conclusion that all crows are black, there is no need to seek demonstration that no crows are black; it is sufficient to produce one white crow; a single one is sufficient." Piper, James believed, was the "one white crow".
Interestingly, Spiritualism was never meant to turn into a faith or religious movement. It was little more than a popular past time at first and the idea of communicating with the spirits was an amusing way to spend a long winter evening. There were a couple of factors that worked independently to cause Spiritualism to be inflated in importance and to be accepted as an actual religious faith. One of these was the rise of the Apostolic Church in America, which got its start in New York. The idea of speaking in tongues and being taken over by the Holy Spirit appealed to many and the Pentecostal faith (and its many offshoots) is still going strong today. Despite the fact that many ministers condemned Spiritualism as the "work of the Devil", it was not a far stretch for many to accept the possibility of strange events surrounding spirit communication and religious fervor at the same time.
In addition to the Apostolic movement, Spiritualism saw a huge increase in popularity after the Civil War and then, after a slow period, saw another incredible resurgence after World War I. Most credit this to the fact that families were really introduced to the wholesale slaughter of loved ones in a way that they had never seen before. And they had certainly never seen it during the heyday of the movement. Now, thanks to Spiritualism, their lost loved ones were no longer lost at all. They could be communicated with and contacted as if they were still alive. Spiritualism managed to fill a huge void for the everyday person, who now had something to cling to and a belief that their friends and family members had gone on to a better place.
By around 1900, Spiritualism had largely died out as a popular movement, as it had never really been organized enough to continue, thanks to dissension in the ranks and internal politics among the leaders. The exposure of many frauds also took their toll and with science not being forthcoming about legitimizing the proof of Spiritualistic tenets, the movement began to fall apart. A little more than a decade later though, World War I brought thousands of the bereaved back to séances when the movement went through its second heyday. Public interest soon cooled though and by the 1920's, the era of the physical medium was gone. Most agree that this period was largely killed off by the continued attacks by magicians and debunkers, who exposed fraud after fraud and gave even the legitimate practitioners a bad name. Soon, the mediums no longer wanted to expose themselves and abandoned the physical medium effects of flying trumpets and spirit materializations and turned to mental mediumship instead.
Mental mediumship can include trance messages relayed from the spirits and while some mediums continue to work with the spirits of the dead, others claim contact with highly evolved discarnate beings that is characteristic of channeling. In recent years, Spiritualism (or rather a skewed, modern version of it) has gained popularity again through television psychics who also claim to be able to communicate with the dead. As was the case years ago, much controversy surrounds these claims and there has been little proof offered that these communications are genuine. However, as with the early days of Spiritualism, many questions remain unanswered.
Aside from television psychics though, traditional Spiritualist churches still thrive in the United States, Great Britain, Brazil and other countries. Many are modeled on Protestant churches but without an organized ministry. Services include prayer, song, trance message from the spirits and sometimes even sermons that are passed on from the spirit world. Believers can attend services, lectures and workshops on developing mediumistic skills at a number of camps that still exist in America like Cassadaga, Florida, Lily Dale, New York and Camp Chesterfield, Indiana.
Emphasis is also placed on spiritual healing and mental mediumship today and few mediums still perform the physical feats that were so closely tied to the movement in years past. Some practicing mediums believe that this is because few have the time to develop their gifts anymore, thanks to the time and dedication involved with these mysterious happenings. Others believe that perhaps the medium's diet has more to do with it, blaming refined sugar and preservatives in our modern foods -- something that was lacking in the diets of the past.
Perhaps the most valid answer as to why physical mediumship is so rarely practiced these days came from a long-time Spiritualist medium who remains active in the movement. She stated that she believes the time has passed for such phenomena. Her thought is that, even though their are still trumpet and apport mediums still out there, it is now time for the religious side of Spiritualism to take center stage. My friend Susan Hill, who is active at Camp Chesterfield, recently explained to me that the faith behind Spiritualism teaches that message work is to prove the continuity of life and to prove that the soul goes on after we die. Some of the early phenomena was necessary to get this point across but today, the public is much more open to the idea of things beyond the physical realm and don't need the bizarre happenings to "wow them in the aisle" anymore. Instead, they are looking for a spiritual foundation on which to build their lives.
We hope that you enjoy the various sections on the early days of ghosts and ghost research. There are a number of features and articles that will deal more completely with the various aspects of the Spiritualist movement and we hope that you'll find them to be both informative and entertaining. There are stranger things in heaven and earth, to paraphrase the poet, than are dreamt of in our philosophies so approach all of this with a open mind and a steady heart --- for who knows what riddles still are waiting to be solved?