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The Birth of Spiritualism

Is it possible to actually contact the dead and communicate with them? It’s not surprising that this question has intrigued man since the dawn of time. How many of us have wondered if there is a life beyond the grave, and if so, is it not possible that there could be some way of communicating between this world and the next? In this chaotic life we lead, could the spirit world guide us in some way?

It was in answer to these questions that spiritualism came into being in the 19th century. It’s perhaps no coincidence that this was a time of many great scientific breakthroughs, and incredible inventions. One of the most impressive being, the wax cylinder, which enabled us for the very first time in the history of mankind, to record and playback the human voice. Imagine how it must have felt to hear a voice, when the person who created it, was no longer present…! The telephone was another miracle; we could at last converse with persons who were not in the same room, same house, same town, or even the same country. For the first time, we could talk to people on the far side of the World! Even Queen Victoria loved the new technology and before the telephone became widespread, had her own telegraph room in Buckingham Palace to enable her to keep in touch with the colonies. With all these fantastic new ways of communicating, was it really so far fetched to consider the possibility of contacting those beyond the grave?

Spiritualism began in Western New York State. Social historians have noted that this area was known for its religious fervour, and became the spawning ground for many religious sects. Mainstream religions promised eternal life, but in an era of emerging science which demanded physical evidence, many religious persons wanted tangible evidence of the claims of religion, especially for those of an afterlife.

The first apparent proof of an afterlife appeared in Hydesville New York in 1848 in a modest clapperboard house which had the reputation for being haunted. The Fox family who lived there, had three teenage daughters who claimed to hear strange rapping noises at night. They thought a ghost might be responsible for these noises, so they tried to respond by clapping their hands. They soon developed a code for communicating with this ghost, whom they thought was a peddler murdered at the house. The discovery of a skeleton in their basement seemed to confirm this. The Fox sisters became immediate celebrities and they demonstrated their communication with this spirit by using taps and knocks, automatic writing, and later even voice communication when the spirit took control of one of the girls.

Soon others, now known as mediums, imitated this and began apparently communicating with the dead, and charging for their services. Séances were conducted in the dark and strange events would occur, cold breezes were felt, musical instruments played mysteriously on their own. The medium sometimes spoke under the control of the spirit, relaying messages from ‘the other side’, which would then appear mysteriously on sealed slates.

Sceptics suspected this was all a fraud, none the less, belief in the ability to communicate with the dead grew rapidly and soon became an organised religion.

Suspicions that the séance room phenomena were fraudulent were reinforced when Margaret Fox confessed on October 21st 1888, that she had actually produced the spirit raps by, believe it or not, cracking her toe joints!

Margaret confessed that she and her sisters had used this, and other methods to produce the raps. Another trick they used was to bounce an apple on a piece of string hidden behind the furniture. This revelation from Margaret showed that the entire spiritualism movement was founded on fraudulent events. This confession outraged Spirtualists, but rather than accept the facts, they simply refused to believe her denial. Interestingly one of the most famous people to refute Margaret’s confession was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not only did he believe in spiritualism, but also in fairies. In 1917 two teenage girls Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, produced pictures of fairies they had photographed at the bottom of their garden. When we look at them today it’s easy for us to see them as fakes, but Conan Doyle not only accepted the photos as genuine, but wrote two pamphlets and a book in their defence. His book ‘The Coming of the Fairies’ is still in print today, and many people still believe the photos are genuine, despite the two girls admitting in 1982 that they had faked the photos. We’re all good at seeing what we believe, and not seeing things that challenge our beliefs.

Many people believed in spirit manifestations simply because they were endorsed by famous and intelligent personalities, one being Sir Oliver Lodge. In Sir Oliver’s capacity as a scientist, during a lecture at Oxford University in 1894, he transmitted a radio signal, one year before Marconi, he was also the inventor of an early form of spark plug. So he was obviously a man to be taken seriously. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was another great luminary to endorse mediums, but perhaps intelligent minds are the most easily deceived. Conan Doyle, for example pronounced the famous New York medium Nino Pecaro to be genuine, yet only a short time later, Pecaro publicly confessed himself to be a faker and a cheat, a trickster of the first rank. So you can see, these imposing testimonials from the good and great don’t necessarily mean a thing.

Having said that, there were, and are, mediums who may well be genuine. Despite numerous investigations, one of the most famous, Daniel Dunglas Home, could never be proved to be a fake. He conducted some incredible demonstrations, one of the most impressive being, on December 16th 1868 when he is said to have, floated horizontally out of a bedroom window, passing some seventy feet above the street below, and then re enter the apartment via a sitting-room window.

So it looks like we all need to make up our own mind about Spiritualism. Personally, I’m all for intrigue, and provided no one is exploited or hurt, I will always be fascinated by it. Wouldn’t life be boring if there were no mysteries or unanswered questions about life, and even more so, about death.

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Bill reads The Waxwork by A M Burrage click here.

Historically informative yet hugely entertaining, it’s the perfect way to soak up the atmosphere of this famous city, leaving you with a deliciously scary tingle running down your spine.