Spiritualism: A Religious Movement of the 1800s

Spiritualism was a religious movement that first appeared in the 1840s. It happened in upstate New York in what was called the “Burned-over District” where the religious revivals and new religious movements created such spiritual fervor it seemed to set the area on fire. This area also embraced an environment where many people thought direct communication with God or angels was possible and it was also the site of several religious movements that included the Mormons, Millerites, and Jehovah Witnesses.

Example of a spiritualist gathering. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This type of environment also encouraged the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). He was a Swedish pluralistic-Christian theologian, scientist, philosopher, and mystic who claimed he could communicate with spirits while awake. His experiences with the spirit world were explained in the following fashion:

“[I]n 1741, he also began to have a series of intense mystical experiences, dreams, and visions, claiming that he had been called by God to reform Christianity and introduce a new church. … In the course of his mystical experiences, Swedenborg believed that his spiritual eyes had been opened, allowing him to journey to heaven and hell … and to converse with angels, demons, and spirits.”[1]

Around the same time Viennese doctor Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) also began teaching about an afterlife. He believed an invisible, natural force exerted throughout the universe by humans existed and called it animal magnetism. He claimed that when it was unbalanced it could cause all sorts of illness. He also introduced a revolutionary technique known as hypnotism that he asserted allowed him to induce trances and permitted subjects to achieve contact with supernatural beings.

spiritualism - hypnotic seance

By Richard Bergh, “Hypnotic Seance,” 1887. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Before long spiritualists came to believe that dead spirits existed and that they had the ability and inclination to communicate with the living. Moreover, the afterlife or “spirit world,” was viewed by them as not being a static place but rather a place in which spirits could continually evolve. These two beliefs—that contact with spirits was possible and that spirits were more advanced than humans—led spiritualists to a third belief: that spirits could provide useful knowledge about moral and ethical issues.

Spiritualists often cite the beginning date of spiritualism as 31 March 1848. That was when two sisters, 15-year-old Margaretta (called Maggie) Fox and 11 1/2-year-old Catherine (called Kate) Fox, reported contact with a spirit in their home in Hydesville, New York. They claimed the spirit was that of a murdered peddler and onlookers heard and saw the two Fox sisters converse with the peddler’s spirit through rapping noises.

spiritualism - the Fox sisters

The Fox sisters. From left to right: Margaretta, Kate, and Leah. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As to how the whole thing came about the Detroit Free Press reported in 1892:

“These supposed manifestations of spirit power created an intense excitement. The [Fox] family rose from their beds and searched every portion of the house without result. The neighbors were called in and numerous questions asked, to which answers were received from the mysterious raps. By sunrise the whole village was on the spot and the little house was crowded in every part. Finally the spirit was asked to spell out his or her name by rapping at the correct letters as the alphabet was repeated. As a result the name of Charles B. Rosma was obtained and the spirit said he was a peddler who had been murdered in that house a few years before.”[2]

Witnesses were amazed over the Fox sisters’ abilities to speak with the dead and many became convinced of their abilities. A demonstration given by Maggie and Kate also supposedly convinced their older sister, Leah, that they could communicate with otherworldly spirits. She then took charge of her sisters’ careers and managed them for some time.

It was announced in the fall of 1849 that the rapping spirits had demanded Maggie and Kate demonstrate their skills to the public. The demonstration took place at Corinthian Hall in Rochester on the evening of 14 November 1849. The cost for a spectator to see the girls in action was 25 cents and those who paid saw a ghost rap out messages in muffled tones. Witnesses were amazed and the next morning a committee was formed in response to critics who demanded that the rappings be explained.

Despite an investigation the committee could not adequately describe how the rappings happened. This therefore created greater fervor among the public and before long believers were besieging the girls with requests for séances so that they could talk to their dead loved ones. Moreover, as this was the first demonstration of spiritualism held before a paying public, it inaugurated a long history of public events featuring spiritualist mediums.

By 1850 the Fox girls were famous for their demonstrations and séances which were being held in New York. Their activities also attracted many notable people among whom was William Cullen Bryant, George Bancroft, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Horace Greeley, Sojourner Truth, and William Lloyd Garrison. In addition, demonstrations by the Fox sisters attracted imitators and soon hundreds of people were claiming they too possessed the ability to communicate with the spirit world.

There were some other spiritualists who became famous around this time. One was Cora L. V. Scott. She came on the scene before the American Civil war and was described as young, beautiful, and fascinating. Her audiences were struck by the contrast between her physical girlishness and the eloquence with which she spoke of spiritual and esoteric matters while claiming that spirits were speaking through her and that she was just a vessel for them.

Cora L. V. Scott. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another well-known spiritualist was Paschal Beverly Randolph. He was a mixed race gentleman who supported and aided the abolitionist movement. In addition, he was an American medical doctor, writer, occultist, trance medium, and spiritualist. He was also likely the first person to introduce the principles of erotic alchemy to North America and is known for helping to establish the earliest Rosicrucian order in the United States.

Daniel Dunglas Home was also considered a spiritualist. He claimed that he heard noises and saw inert matter move. He became one of the most successful spiritualists in Boston and over time he acquired many wealthy clients. He eventually traveled to London in 1855 where he was introduced to the well-known Welsh social reformer named Robert Owen, who in turn presented him to people like the novelist Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the scientist Michael Faraday, and the poet Robert Browning. In addition, Home was tested in the early 1870s by William Crookes, a British chemist and physicist best known for pioneering vacuum tubes, who declared Home to be a “valid and genuine” spiritualist.

spiritualism - Daniel Dunglas Home

Daniel Dunglas Home. Author’s collection.

Many famous people also supported the idea of spiritualism. This was particularly true around the time of the American Civil War. In fact, the surge in support for spiritualism during the Civil War and then again during World War I was due to the massive battlefield casualties. Spiritualism during these times helped provide comfort to the living and it also softened the loss those left behind experienced when loved ones died horrifically in war.

Among some of the well-known people who believed in spiritualism was President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. She became involved the same year that Samuel Clemens began using the penname of Mark Twain, because her son William “Willie” Wallace died of typhoid fever in February of 1862. Hoping to find comfort she began organizing séances at the White House to reach out to her dead son and her husband sometimes attended these events.

Mary Todd Lincoln. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Séances were not the only way that the public became convinced mediums and spiritualists had a connection with the dead. Willliam Mumler, who was a jewelry engraver, became a full-time spirit photographer after accidentally developing a picture of himself that appeared to feature the apparition of his dead cousin. Mumler went on to become a full-time spirit photographer providing the public with images of various spirits alongside the living. In fact, one of his most famous images he produced was a photo of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband.

William Mumler’s photo of Mary Tod Lincoln with the ghost of her husband. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides providing comfort to the living, spiritualism also took hold because it was one of the only ways that women found a voice in public. Female mediums could provide positive messages about women’s issues. These messages were also more readily accepted because such ideas were not coming directly from women but rather from the “spirit world.” That was also why many women who supported suffrage openly embraced spiritualism.

One suffrage supporter who also supported spiritualism was Victoria Woodhull. She was an American leader of the women’s suffrage movement who also embraced the idea of free love. However, because of her unorthodox beliefs, critics claimed she was possessed by the devil and referred to her as “Mrs. Satan.” That was because they found her ideas and beliefs threatening to traditional American values and morals.

Victoria Woodhull. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Another supporter of women’s rights and spiritualism was Ascha W. Sprague. Born 17 November 1827, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Sprague became ill with rheumatic fever at the age of 20. She credited her eventual recovery to intercession by spirits and became an extremely popular trance lecturer who traveled around the United States until her death in 1861.

Another spiritualist was Laura de Force Gordon. They 18-year-old became involved in the movement in 1855, along with her parents and siblings, after the death of her sibling. By 1860 Gordon was speaking on the subject in and around Boston. By the late 1860s, she was also supporting and speaking about women’s rights. This resulted in her eventually speaking about suffrage in San Francisco, which then launched the women’s movement there. Furthermore, she went on to give hundreds of lectures about suffrage across California, ran for state senate, and wrote the Woman Lawyer’s Bill in 1878. Unfortunately, she died before women’s suffrage became law.

Laura de Force Gordon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although there were many supporters of spiritualism, there were also many skeptics. In fact, some of them defined spiritualism as a Satanic delusion and claimed it was a deception being wrought upon a naive public. There were also several investigators who exposed spiritualism as a fraud, such as Frank Podmore of the Society for Psychical Research, Harry Price of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, and professional conjurer John Nevil Maskelyne.

Another vocal skeptic was Reverend Synder. In 1884, he critiqued British-born Henry Kiddle’s belief in spiritualism. Kiddle was a United States educator who supported the idea of spiritualism and wrote a book detailing spiritual communications in 1879. Synder sent his critique of Kiddle to the editor of the Globe-Democrat:

“When I declare that I do not believe these things I call in question no man’s intelligence, veracity or intellectual culture. I still assert, without, I think the loss of intellectual humility that I have seen nothing but gross and palpable fraud in spiritualism. … A certain gentleman in London placed a hundred-pound note in the vaults of the Bank of England, announced in the Times that the medium who could tell him the number of the note should have it for his pains. The gentleman, I believe, is still the possessor of his property. … If Mr. Kiddle … can tell me where, within the limits of St. Louis, I can find a man or woman able to prove in any rational manner the reality of the phenomena upon which the claims of this believe are based, I shall be under deep and lasting obligation to him. … I have never known of a well attested fact which was not explainable on the theory of clairvoyance, mind-reading and shrewd guessing. … The ‘Hydesville case’ happened thirty-seven years ago, and within that time no man can tell what mythical accretions may have formed around it. … spiritualism has added nothing to the intellectual, moral or religious possessions of the race of age … Admitting spiritualism to be true, the truth it holds is no substitute for a scientific, rational and philosophic religion. … my genial critic presents no reason, I think, why I should change my mind.”[3]

spiritualism - photo

Another example of spirit photography. This photo shows John K. Hallowell with super-imposed faces of fifteen deceased people including George Washington and Queen Victoria. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Henry Ward Beecher, an American Congregationalist clergyman, who was involved in the highly publicized Beecher-Tilton scandal, was also a critic of spiritualism. His wife, Eunice White Beecher, was likewise a fierce opponent. She considered spiritualism ludicrous and once stated:

“My husband thought it was absurd, too, and nothing could change him from the opinion. He often said that the so-called Christian science and spiritualism did more harm than all the assaults of infidelity … but after the death of my husband, … some of those people-the Spiritualists-seemed to look upon me as their legitimate prey or object of conversion, according to the light in which you choose to regard it. A clergyman in Chicago gave me a great deal of annoyance by sending letters in which he said Mr. Beecher had been heard from in the other world and that he said for twenty years he had been preaching error, but now he was preaching truth. Another letter said that Mr. Beecher had sent word from spirit land through ‘Pet’ Anderson, a female medium … I wrote saying that … my opinion of spiritualism was that it was a glaring absurdity … It was the most preposterous, childish nonsense that was ever penned. I could not imagine how such supreme nonsense could be conceived.”[4]

Henry Ward Beecher. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Reverend Thomas DeWitt Talmage, a United States preacher, clergyman, and divine, did not support spiritualism either. In fact, he hated it. Of it he once stated:

“I have never attended a seance … nor … have I ever seen anything result from spiritualism on this earth but wreck and ruin. Spiritualism makes infidels of people and fools of the wisest men. It is a monstrous immorality. It destroys family relations and is prolific of all kinds of abominations. … It comes to people when they are frenzied by losses of family or friends.”[5]

Thomas DeWitt Talmage. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1851, a relative of the Fox family, Mrs. Norman Culver, confessed in a signed statement that she had assisted the Fox sisters during their séances. She maintained that the sisters had no special gift and that they could not talk with the dead. She stated that Maggie and Kate revealed to her that that the rapping noises were achieved by the girls snapping and cracking their toes, knees, and ankles.

The idea that the sisters were frauds continued and by the 1880s Maggie and Kate had developed severe drinking problems. They also became embroiled in a fight with their sister Leah. This resulted in Leah and other Spiritualists accusing Kate that she could not properly care for her children. Around this same time, Maggie became convinced that the spiritual powers she possessed were diabolical and she converted to the Roman Catholic faith. A few years later, still upset at their sister Leah, Maggie and Kate decided to go a step farther.

In 1888, a reporter offered the sisters $1,500 if they would “expose” the secrets behind the rappings and their supposed ability to talk with the dead. Maggie and Kate then appeared publicly at the New York Academy of Music on 21 October. A crowd of 2,000 were on hand as Maggie demonstrated to them how they achieved the rappings, which doctors verified were accomplished by the women cracking their toe joints. Maggie also told her story of how the deception worked and signed a confession, which resulted in the New York World publishing it.*

Despite Maggie Fox’s confession spiritualism remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. It also remained popular despite critics and investigations that exposed deception and dishonesty in seances and spiritual demonstrations. During this time spiritualist groups and organizations continued to be formed and these helped to further the popularity of spiritualism, which then spread throughout the world becoming particularly popular in the U.S. and U.K. In addition, spiritualism also continued into the 1920s when it then evolved into three different directions, all three of which still exist today.

*Maggie recanted her confession in writing in November 1889.


  • [1] H. Urban, New Age, Neopagan and New Religious Movements (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), p. 69.
  • [2] Detroit Free Press, “They Cracked Their Toes,” March 27, 1892, p. 14.
  • [3] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Modern Spiritualism,” December 31, 1884, p. 6.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Views on Spiritualism,” February 19, 1893, p. 2.

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