Morbid History : Spiritualism

Have you ever sat at a Ouija board with a few friends, put your fingers on the planchette (yes, that is what that pointy thing is called) and tried to talk to a spirit with the intention of communicating and collecting evidence on the unknown?  How about sitting in a circle around a crystal ball and read out tarot card fortunes? No?  Then you missed the craze!

That’s right!  Spiritualism and mediums were the favorite taboo pastime activity during the mid 1800’s to well into the 20th century!  It is considered the Psychedelic Movement of the 1870’s!  Famous people, average people, skeptics, charlatans all set aside their beliefs to try their hand at communicating with the beyond.  Now according to history, spiritualism is a religion or belief system but with very little power and no sense of chain of command which almost classifies many other religions who shall remain nameless. So everybody reading please note that this is not occultism or Satan worshiping. They were, however, very powerful and extremely influential…even in recent times!  So let’s have a look back shall we?  So even if you never put your fingers on the Ouija board perhaps this information will help keep you from doing something you really…really shouldn’t do on your own!  I mean really!

A Little History

The Fox Sisters – According to Spiritualists (most mind you…since no one will ever agree in any religion…ever!) they were the ones who started it all!  They claimed they had be contacted by a dead peddler by “rapping” which I shall discuss in the practices later down the line.  A few reformed Quakers were convinced of their genuine gifts and introduced them to other reformed Quakers and the line of introductions continued on.  This particular religious and intellectual movement was upset by the treatment of women’s rights and with slavery so this religion spoke to many groups…especially to women.

Mediums and seance lecturers made their living entertaining customers with the added element of ghostly hosts.  This became immensely popular during the American Civil War in which many families were never reunited and the feeling of “What if?” and “What happened?” were questions people sought desperately to get answered.  It was this desperate need that brought Spiritualism center stage.  And it was just as prominent during the Civil War as it was World War I!  And you’d be surprised at who supported the exploration of the spirit realm.

One of the first people who comes to mind who was both famous and obsessed with the afterlife is Mary Todd Lincoln.  Hopefully you all know who she was!  The wife of President Abraham Lincoln, Mary was devastated after the loss of not one but two sons!  She is reported to be the first person to conduct seances within the White House.  And Abraham even attended!  After the assassination of the president, Mary then visited William Mumler’s studio. Mumler was a “spirit photographer”. He produced a photograph of Mary with Abraham superimposed in the background with his hands on her shoulders.  This photograph gave Mary great comfort that Abraham was hovering over her yet has be the subject of much debate since that time.  Was it really Honest Abe?

Another famous man who not very many people think of when they think of Spiritualism is Sir Author Conan Doyle.  You know?  The author of the wonderful Sherlock Holmes!  But did you know he also wrote about spirits and the spiritual world?  Sure.  He also wrote about the infamous Cottingley Fairies.  And how about Harry Houdini?  He made it his goal to expose fraudulent mediums!  But did you know about his deal he made with his wife?  The legend goes that he told his wife to perform a seance on Halloween night every year and wait until he contacted her.  They devised a coded message that only he and Bess knew; this would prove that it really was Houdini breaking through from the afterlife. To this date, Houdini has yet to make himself known from the grave.

And who could mention looking for their lost love beyond death without mentioning Queen Victoria?  Queen Victoria had a hand servant named John Brown who was reportedly a medium. They say he enabled the widow queen to communicate with her beloved Albert.  If you know nothing of the history of Queen Victoria’s spectacular mourning for Albert…read here!  However, these two very famous women, Mary and Victoria, had an agenda…talk to their dead family members.  Well, what if you were just curious?  What if you needed to prove spirits exist?  Now that is a whole other situation!

Now we move forward to the beginning of the turn of the 20th century.  Photography is in, electricity is taking the world by storm and science is at the forefront of a new age!  Curiouser and curiouser people start to get excited about absolutely everything!  And why not?  The world is moving faster than ever and people were looking for answer to all their problems.  Darwin is coming along now with his theory of evolution, new elements and medicines (some not so good for you) are being made or discovered!  What an exciting time!  And spiritualism was the most exciting thing one could be doing!  Basically, it was a fad!

There are many methods that one can use to communicate with the dead.

Ouija Board

The first device most people mention is the Ouija board or spirit board. In the early days of spiritualism these boards were basically works of art some being whole tables.  Because of it’s popularity they eventually became mass products of a lovely toy corporation named Parker Bros.  The board consists of the full alphabet, numbers 0-9, yes and no respectively, hello and goodbye and everything is spelled out with a heart-shaped planchette.  Supposedly, as your fingers are lightly touching the planchette the needle slowly moves after you asked your question…well, there’s a lot more to it but if you are that interested you can ask an expert!

Table Tilting

This is a very long and unique process.  You sit with your hands on the table and ask your question.  Then you feel the table move and you start blaming everyone around you for doing it.  Surprisingly, you are too shocked by the movement to continue fighting so you start asking for taps in alphabetical sequence.  Then you get bored translating the taps and tilts.  Still it is very effective for communicating with the beyond but not as popular as a Ouija board….which is far less noisy and not as chaotic.

Pencil Planchette

Similar to a Ouija board planchette this is simply a pencil attached to a planchette in which, after contact is made, the pencil will write out the message on a piece of paper.   Since spirits are obviously horrible at writing anything down, the Ouija board is still far more popular.


This is also associated with table tilting as a spirit will tap the alphabet almost like Morse code to communicate.  This was a problem since most people weren’t as savvy with translating Morse and since I doubt every spiritualist took a crash course in spiritual tapping translation this was not a completely effective method.


One if the most popular methods next to the Ouija board.  This involved a spiritual medium seated at a table with several people “channeling” their energy into the medium to contact a spirit guide.  Thus the medium would then channel the spirit through themselves.  Tarot cards might also be used along with blind writing.  Ectoplasm (actually gauze or in some cases goat stomach) spewed from the mouth, behind the ear, from anywhere really.  There are even cases of female mediums using semen to squirt from bottle hidden in their…and I’m just going to stop because I think I’ve given you enough building blocks to shape the rest of that nightmare!

Spirit Photography

One of the many benefits of photography is it shows the world proof that someone or someplace exists.  Those poor but proud shoemakers of Hoboken might never have been able to physically go to the Taj Mahal…but they could see it for their own eyes in pictures.  Until the invention of photography many people took other peoples word on if something existed or not.  Pyramids of Giza, tree climbing goats, and the mysterious and elusive evidence of the existence of ghosts!  The earliest photographs of spirits are by far the most believable!  However, this was also met with hoaxes and frauds but then again it’s all in the eye of the beholder!  No really…most of it is a hoax.

Spiritualism Moves to the 20th Century

Around WWI we have yet another massive resurgence of spiritualism!  It’s basically the same deal as the Civil War where families wanted to know about their lost loved ones.  Soon the world would also be swept in the roaring twenties and the Egyptian craze which fit perfectly into spiritualism.  The curses and haunting of ancient pharaohs…yes, this was appealing to many! They even had a Boris Karloff movie “The Mummy” about resurrecting spirits and rituals!  However…here is where it hits it’s biggest snag.

You remember when I said Houdini was out for fraudulent spiritualists?  That he debunked tricky mediums?  Well, this actually might have had a huge hand in the discrediting of spiritualism.  He was sort of like the Velma (that brainy chick from Scooby-Doo who always wore the orange sweater no matter what the climate!) sneaking into seances and pointing out the strings and hidden wires making bells ring, chalk float, and stool slide across insanely polished floors!  He would even go so far as to have reporters and law men accompany him in…under disguise of course.  And even though he and Sir Author Conan Doyle remained friends for years they always argued about the possibility of talking to the dead.

Soon after this time seances and palm readings became more like a fun past time or game rather than an actual credited religion.  Many fraudulent mediums and hoaxers were out of business or working carnies in the hopes of preserving what credibility they had.   The world hit a substantial rut of reality with Adolph Hitler and WWII and everyone chose to deal with life rather than life after.  Soon, all spiritualism had become was a bunch of fun hokum that they could laugh off when they walked away.  Spiritualism itself would never fully recover.  But the fascination with the dead and mystic realm still had followers and leave it to those hippie pot loving flower children of the 60’s and 70’s to bring it to a whole other darker place.

Even though Spiritualism has been associated with the occult for many years it wasn’t until the 70’s that they somewhat meshed the two into fetish and Satanic rituals.  I use the term Satanic loosely since most (not all!  There really was some horrible cults out there!) were just in it for the thrill and didn’t really believe anything.  Again…it was a fad!

Then came home movies and surveillance cameras.  After the grimy bedrooms scenes were finished, some people feel like they caught authentic evidence of the supernatural while many played with the minds of their viewers.  This has helped and plagued Spiritualist findings for decades.  Are they credible?  Have they been manipulated like many early spirit photographs had?  Is what you’re seeing real?  Still, no one really can answer.

Nowadays spiritualism as a religion is not so important as finding the truth about the beyond.  Many TV series exist (some are better than others) but the intrigue for the afterlife will probably never reach it’s peak again.  However, now many people are willing to open up about their own experiences.  The shadows, the pictures, the scratch marks and the mystery surrounding all of it.  And, like in Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven, to think it all started with a little rapping.