Friday, April 3, 2009

I see dead people, you see dead people, we all see dead people.

19th Century America saw some gruesome trends. An obsession with figures like Jane McCrea, and the subsequent theft and probably sale of many of their bones, was one such trend, reflective of the medieval European obsession with the bones of saints. The obsession with death and the dead was a big part of the spiritual movements that began shortly after the start of the industrial revolution (and amplified after the civil war). I described a bit before the effect this had on middle and upper class health attitudes and practices. Those movements have had a long lasting effect on the way we eat and advertise. And with those movements, came a great deal of fraud in the form of “snake oil” salesmen, and woefully misguided advice from eccentrics like Dr. Kellogg.

Many of the same people engaging in the health and sanitarium movements were also attracted to popular physics and mediums, and new religious groups that supported the use of psychics and mediums, such as the Theosophists and the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge.

The Fox sisters (Leah, the very gifted Kate, and Margaret, young ladies from Hydesville in upstate New York), who were frequented by believers like poor Sojourner Truth (who also received yogurt enemas from Kellogg), most frequently employed “rapping” (a tactic common in séances, particularly after the Fox sisters’ success). The rapping effect, according to Margaret Fox’s public demonstration and confession, was produced at times by tapping and cracking her toe and ankle joints. She and her sisters were able to do this loudly enough that it could be heard throughout a large room. In a house without a great deal of ambient noise (all of our modern conveniences make a lot of it), this rapping would be sufficiently loud to frighten and convince the attendees of a séance. Dim lighting and the willingness of the attendees to be convinced were sufficient to make the sisters extremely popular. But Kate and Margaret were also alcoholics and a bit self sabotaging. Margaret took short term money for her confession, effectively ending long term cash flow for herself and her sister, who was a more talented performer and successful “psychic.”

The Fox sisters, with the help of their Quaker friends, were largely responsible for the birth of the American “Spiritualist” movement.

It’s easy to dismiss Victorian spiritualists as fools, and unfortunately their apparent susceptibility to, in hindsight, obvious fraud, damages the reputation of many figures who were otherwise known to be intelligent and progressive, and who are responsible for the Women’s movement and the abolition of slavery. But sometimes it seems big hearted, “do gooder” types are the most susceptible to this sort of exploitation. While creepy, the desire to communicate with deceased relatives and historical figures is kind of sweet, in a way. I guess. Mostly it’s macabre.

I’m sympathetic, I suppose, in that I imagine these intelligent and religious people in a rapidly changing world, obsessed with the novelty of scientific observation and technology, seeking to blend two worlds together. If one firmly believes in a soul and an afterlife, certainly one would want to use the new and exciting scientific methods to prove those things exist. Visitors to mediums like the Fox sisters often called themselves “investigators”(much as “ghost hunters” do now). It was a pastime of the rich to play scientist in the world of ghosts, and to try to find, with all the proper witnesses and documents, the best possible proof of the existence of ghosts. Combine those beliefs with the grief that follows the sort of young death that was rare enough (compared to even 100 years prior) to be somewhat unexpected and tragic but common enough to create a huge market of young grieving mothers and fathers and widows/widowers. It was very easy for two groups to find an audience with these people; the well intentioned but deluded, and hucksters. Sometimes, between these groups, there were grey areas. Lie long enough, you’ll start to believe it yourself.

Psychics who were simply seers, giving straightforward predictions of the future or messages from the dead were out of vogue. Audiences didn’t just want answers and comfort, they wanted a show. If you were going to be rich and famous post the Fox sisters, you needed to bring something new to the table—something frightening and entertaining.

There are many different kinds of psychic ability, you see. A medium in the Victorian era helped him or herself acheive greater fiancial success if they could develop several of these skills. These types of “psychic ability” became popular and were named at different times. So I’m using the modern names, and will try to highlight those that are particularly popular among Victorian audiences. I gathered these from a few different sources, and the list isn’t complete I’m sure.

Astral Projection – The ability to leave the body in spirit form and travel somewhere else. This is handy if you are finally settled into bed, but suddenly realize that you may have forgotten to lock the front door. You can go check in spirit form, so you don’t have to waste your time getting out of bed right after you’ve settled into a comfortable position. If you’re really good at it, you could in theory lock the door.
Aura Reading – Reading Auras.
Automatic Writing – This I’ve actually done to freak out my friends, entirely fraudulently. This was done sometimes by Victorian psychics. Typically, the non-dominant hand is used, and, while in a trance or trance-like state, the psychic allows his or her arm to be used by spirits to right messages for the living. I plan to write dirty limericks, when I am dead.
Channeling – This is the ability “mediums” use to allow the dead to vocalize through them. There are two types of channeling: direct voice, which employs psychic ability to give the spirits the power to speak somehow, and trance speaker. Trance Speaking is the most well known form of channeling, as the medium allowed the spirit to use the mind and body of the medium to speak. Some psychics took this as far as claiming temporary possession by a spirit. This was very popular among Victorian audiences, and of course very easily faked.
Clairaudience – This is tricky. It is the ability to hear the immediately inaudible. For instance, the psychic can hear a conversation taking place miles away. Psychic eavesdropping.
Clairvoyance – The ability to see things obstructed from view. Clairvoyance is not the ability to tell the future. Clairvoyants can see things in the physical world that are at a distance, behind a wall, under the bed, etc etc. This was a common ability claimed by Victorian psychics.
Clairsentience – The ability to sense thoughts/feelings/memories in another. If you forget where you put your keys, a Clairsentient could recover the memory, or sense how sad you were about losing your keys.
Divination - Fortune telling and other attempts to predict our AMAZING FUTURE. The reading of taro cars, etc, falls into this category. This has been popular for thousands of years, ‘cause everyone wants to know about the future!
Dowsing – Using a divining rod, other sticks, pendulums, magic objects to find water or lost objects.
Empathy – Like Troy on Star Trek TNG. You can sense the feelings of others.
Intuition – Women have it, I’ve heard.
Levitation – Look at you! Way up high! In the air! In the sky! You are the luckiest boy in the world. This was much appreciated by victorian audiences.
Mind Over Body – I’m keeping this on the list because of the influence Buddhism had on Theosophy and other branches of Spiritualism. It’s basically the ability to suppress one’s own thirst, hunger, exhaustion. Some people consider this a psychic ability.
Precognition – Seeing the future! But on your own, not through divination, and usually only a little bit.
Psychometry/Materialism – The ability to touch an object and sense events, people, feelings, locations, etc the object was associated with.
Pyrokinesis - You can start fires WITH YOUR MIND! I doubt this would have been popular in any firetrap victorian house.
Telekinesis/psychokinesis - Moving objects using your mind. Very popular with the victorians, a neat "parlor trick."
Telepathy - The ability to communicate with another person with your mind, but without your mouth.

One of the best and most convincing of these performers was Daniel Dunglas Home (March 20, 1833-June 21, 1886), a Scottish emigrant descended from a line of “seers,” for whom psychic ability may have taken a back seat to more impressive feats. He thought happy thoughts (probably…I think that’s how it works) and flew.

Home was a clairvoyant, he channelled spirits, he dabbled in telekinesis, and he levitated like nobody's business. Because we don't have photographs or videos of these levitations, it's difficult to say how he did it exactly. He certainly had assistants, and typically performed in dimly lit environments (despite his own declaration that all seances should be performed in the light.

Home was the author of a handful of books, including an autobiography which you can get online on google books titled "Incidents in my life." Home was one of a number of psychics who saught to debunk the work of others in his profession he believed to be frauds. Home did not believe, according to his book "Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism," that spirits could be called forth and manifest in a solid form. Florence Cook, for instance, a young British medium who became famous in the early 20th century, claimed to be able, once conveniently hiding in a closet, to be able to call forth Katie King, a "spirit" who looked a lot like Cook and was so strongly manifested that she was able to touch seance attendees. The "ghost" of Katie King is pictured, in her spooky ghost costume.

Home also believed that seances held in darkness left too much opportunity for trickery. Yet, of course, Home too kept the lights low.

I'll be reading Daniel Dunglas Home's books, and passing the savings on to you. I'll also ramble a little about what psychics and magicians intersect.

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