the unquiet spirit of a murdered man

March 4, 2017

evening-scene-on-vauxhall-bridge

Spiritualism and mediums

In the turbulent, revolutionary year of 1848, a new religious movement emerged from the melting pot of upstate New York. The young Fox sisters had claimed to have come into contact with the unquiet spirit of a murdered man in their house, who communicated with them by loud knocks on wood. This very local sensation (later shown to be a fraud) was the origin point for the Spiritualist movement, which elaborated a method of communicating with the dead in séances through mediums. Mediums were often women because they were deemed to have more delicate, sensitive nervous systems than men. Men who were mediums – such as the famous D D Home who so enraged Robert Browning that he was the source for his poem ‘Mr Sludge’ – were often abjected and despised. Although communication with spirits was strictly forbidden in the Bible, this became a popular form of dissenting belief, a ‘proof’ of the survival of bodily death in an era that demanded empirical testing and experiment. The spirits would exchange banal but comforting messages with loved ones; some would elaborate extensively on the social and political institutions of the afterlife, called Summerland by some.

In 1852, the American medium Mrs Hayden came to London to conduct séances with many of the great and good of London society: this was one of the bridge-heads for the spread of Spiritualism to England. It found particular favour in the industrial north of England, where dissenting religion was already strong. Importantly, Spiritualism contested doctrines of eternal damnation for a much more liberal conception of the afterlife. Many men of science were also converts, most famously the evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, partly because Spiritualism was consistently figured in terms of new magical technologies like the telegraph or telephone.

The Victorian supernatural
Roger Luckhurst

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