There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The above quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet found its way into many newspaper articles, novellas, and lengthy tracts in the latter half of the century. To anyone vaguely familiar with the Victorian era this fact will not come as a surprise: a plethora of scientific discoveries (notably the development of evolutionary theory) and new modes of political discourse which were making radical waves throughout Europe made the Englishman question not only what he knew but how he knew what he knew. Hamlet’s words to Horatio were often used in printed text to introduce and contextualize yet another discourse that cast doubt onto what humans could know: spiritualism.
The roots of spiritualism can be traced to America in 1848, when the Fox family began to receive ghostly messages and visits from a former occupant of their home. From this singular event sprang an entire belief system surrounding the existence of life after death (see Pimple). The basic tenet of spiritualism, namely the existence of life in the form of a spirit that could communicate and interact with the living spread quickly to the United Kingdom, and by the 1860s London newspapers and magazines were constantly engaged in debating the validity of spiritualism and particularly one spiritualist practice: the séance. As Peter Lamont explains, “Séance phenomena were, after all, the primary reason given by spiritualists for their initial conversion to spiritualism and for their continuing beliefs” (898). Spiritualists practiced many types of psychic communication with the dead including hypnosis, mesmerism, automatic writing and drawing, use of the planchette or oujia board, spirit photography, and most commonly, conversations with the dead involving ‘rapping’ or sounds interpreted by the medium as the message from the spirit. An séance could involve any or all of these practices, but the latter was the most common (at least according to popular tracts). For the purposes of this anthology, an séance is simply defined as a gathering of at least two people with the intent to contact the spirit of a deceased individual.
Although spiritualism had many devout believers, there was a much larger population participating in séances out of curiosity and the desire for entertainment alone. From the large town halls to the parlors of well-to-do middle class wives, Englishmen and women dove into the practices of contacting the dead (despite constant acerbic critiques from the papers).
With this common contempt in mind we are forced to ask, why did the practice of the séance continue to draw attention (and scandal) in the printed press for the last several decades of the nineteenth century? As this anthology will demonstrate, there was an epistemological crisis in the heyday of the séance: empiricism’s apparent clash with Christian doctrine, and the emergence of new belief systems like spiritualism, forced the populace to reconsider how they could know what they knew. Spiritualism offered another avenue of epistemological exploration, one that anyone with a few pence to pay a medium could access. Indeed Christine Ferguson adds that séances have a “routinely documented appeal to traditionally disempowered fringe groups such as women, members of the working classes, and free-lovers” (432, see also Wadge 24). With the séance you did not need to be a scientist to investigate new avenues or approaches to gaining knowledge.
So much for the continued popularity of the séance. But why the constant debate and scandal? The séance, whether occurring in a public or private, had a superficially disturbing affect on the social categorizations that defined English identity: the séance brought classes together in unusual ways, and allowed women and lower-class individuals to participate in a highly visible and public position of spiritual authority. At the same time, a careful look at contemporary sources reveals that positions based on class, gender, and particularly on race were often reified in the séance session. While the séance certainly did provide opportunity for the subversion of social categories (as many scholars such as Tromp have persuasively argued in the case of female mediums; see Further Reading for more on this topic) it also created yet another space for the hegemonic order of white masculinity to exert power.
The goal of this anthology is to provide the reader a glimpse into how the séance represented an epistemological crisis that was in part catalyzed by the potential disruption of social categories. Not every source deals explicitly with the categories of race, gender, and class, nor do they explicitly reference the terms of epistemological theory. Instead, this collection of sources t can form a picture of a society embroiled in debates over the meaning of knowledge and which categories of society are allowed to access and teach this meaning to others. Since 2000 a number of online databases of primary texts on spiritualism have arisen; the goal of this anthology is to provide a concise, thematically unified source of information on séances during the Victorian era (Ferguson 436). While many scholars have approached the séance from a feminist perspective or from the view of race theory (see Alex Owen, Marlene Tromp, Tatiana Kontou, and Amy Lehman for feminist approaches and Bridget Bennet, Robert Cox, and Molly McGarry for race-politics approach) few works have attempted to bring various strands of identity politics together in on anthology. Moreover this anthology speaks to a more recent trend (represented by Peter Lamont) of understanding spiritualism as situated broader trends of intellectual and moral development by considering the séance as a site of epistemological debate.
The sources in this anthology are drawn from the 1860s onward because, as previously stated, the flow of printed text on the topic of séance increased at that time. Types of sources include newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, short stories, novellas, comic poems and images, and excerpts from voluminous novels explaining spiritualist practices and beliefs. Each source is contextualized in its notes that pay particular attention to any issues of race, class, or gender that may be present.
The first chapter offers a brief and by no means comprehensive view of spiritualism as explained and defended by some of its most prominent believers. The chapter defines key spiritualist beliefs and also illustrates how eager many spiritualists were to reconcile their beliefs with empirical practices.
While many writers criticized spiritualism there was some variation in the approach and vitriol of their investigations. For this reason, chapters two and three contain the views of ambivalent and contemptuous critics respectively. Chapter two provides insight into how spiritualism could be doubted but still respected as a potential epistemological practice, whereas chapter three contains much more critical views of séance practitioners.
Chapters four and five explore the places where séances were held and how the social categories of race, gender, and class functioned in each space. Chapter four is dedicated to exploring the private domestic séance and chapter five is dedicated to describing the public séance, an event of particular importance in (dis)proving the validity of spiritualism.
The Victorian séance is a topic that, as in the Victorian era, creates curiosity and wonder within and outside of the academic world. The mountain of material pertaining to this spiritualist practice provides almost endless avenues of inquiry; it is my hope that this anthology acts as a place of inspiration for further exploration into the realms of thought that defy Horatio’s beloved philosophy.