» Welcome the Undead: Spiritualism and the Victorians

Welcome the Undead: Spiritualism and the Victorians

seanceThis was first posted on the Dashing Duchesses (Nov 4, 2013) and is cross-posted with permission.

Spiritualism (or a belief in the ability to communicate with the dead) rose to prominence in the Victorian era, my favorite historical period to write about and study. Many theories abound as to why the Victorians developed such a strong sense of spiritualism, from the sometimes oppressive atmosphere of Victorian society, to Queen Victorian’s obsessive mourning after the death of Prince Albert, to the rise of the upper middle classes, who had far too much time on their hands. While one may be tempted to prescribe religious importance to such beliefs, in truth spiritualism was also rooted in the burgeoning scientific beliefs and discoveries of this era, and a need to seek an outlet from religious expectations of propriety.

Fox_sistersWith etymological origins in the French word for “seat”, seances were meetings where people gathered for the express purpose of communicating with the dead, assisted by an expert medium. Beginning in 1848 with the famous Fox sisters (right) of New York (who could produce a remarkable array of “tapping” from almost any inanimate object), séances soon spread across the pond and became wildly popular in Britain. The process of assembling friends and family for the single-minded purpose of communicating with the dead offered wealthy women a chance—perhaps, even, an expectation—to shrug off the conventions of Society while simultaneously upholding Victorian notions of family as the center of their universe. Séances captured the imagination of educated, intelligent figures, including Mary Todd Lincoln, who held several such sessions during house parties and while in residence at the White House to communicate with her deceased children. These were attended by President Lincoln and other prominent members of Society, which no doubt lent some weight of authenticity to the process.

Among the higher social classes, spiritualism collected ardent and devoted followers, and séances became popular as social pastimes and party games. Artwork and etchings from this time period show women and men dressed in stunning evening wear, awed by such events as “table-turning” and “spirit-rapping”. Levitation of people and things, mysterious floating lights, raps and tapping, pinches and hair-pulling—all delighted and terrified Victorian audiences, especially during parties. Where else were you not only permitted to dress up and hold hands with a member of the opposite gender, but it was absolutely necessary for the process?

Victorian English seance

Cynics loudly decried such activities as the work of talented heisters. There were certainly elements of showmanship to a successful séance—most agent mediums were female, and many were beautiful, desirable, and scandalous.

Cora Scott HatchOne such medium was Cora Scott Hatch (left), who from the age of 15 enthralled audiences with her beauty and supernatural elegance (and who was married a jaw-dropping four times).  Scientists obsessively studied mediums who claimed they could communicate with the dead, seeking to expose them. While some objectors became convinced of their authenticity (and presumably enamored of their feminine charms), others decried the talents of such mediums as “sorcery”, or, worse, “frivolity” (truly, was there anything worse in the Victorian era than to be called useless?) Some outspoken critics of the Fox sisters claimed their famous “rapping” sounds originated from beneath their long, full skirts, but who would dare try to expose them (and their ankles) to the truth? The increasing use of props like “spirit trumpets” (which magnified the whispers of the dead) and “spirit slates” (on which would magically appear messages from beyond) seem to confirm the idea of stage magic being prominent to the process to the modern reader. But imagine, if you would, how exciting—and titillating—such things must have been to the strait-laced Victorians!

Jennifer McQuiston writes Different. Historical. Romance set in the Victorian era, and tries to avoid Ouija boards at all costs. Her first book, What Happens in Scotland, was a NYT bestseller, and her second book, Summer is for Lovers, is available now. Her third historical, Moonlight on My Mind, is available for Pre-Order and will be released March 25 2014: given that it is a murder mystery, she is already regretting not writing a scene with a séance in it! Follow her on Twitter at @jenmcqwrites, or on Facebook at