The Bizarre History of Seances

by Catherine Karp

 Thanks to literature, movies, and perhaps even actual experience, most people are familiar with the paranormal activities involved in seances. However, the history behind spirit communication through the body of a mortal medium isn't commonly known, and it's probably not a subject your high school history teacher ever mentioned. If you dig deep enough, you'll find enthralling tales of empowered women, skillful tricksters, and one enraged magician.

What does the history of mediums have to do with empowered females? For starters, the origins of modern seances and spiritualism can be traced to two young girls in Hydesville, New York: Catherine and Margaretta Fox, who in 1848 were aged 11 and 13, respectively. In March of that year, the girls claimed to hear spirit raps emanating from their bedroom, which quickly drew the interest of their parents and, soon after, several neighbors. By May, droves of curious onlookers made pilgrimages to the Hydesville home to witness signs of spirit activity, and within five years close to 30,000 Americans claimed to possess mediumistic powers.

In the wake of the Fox sisters' fame, other notable mediums emerged: Cora L. V. Richmond, who conducted lectures on women's rights while in trances, winning over male skeptics with her virginal beauty. Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who not only demonstrated mediumistic abilities, but also gained fame as the first female to run for president of the United States in 1872. Eusapia Palladino, an Italian-born woman known in the 1890s for her unabashed sexuality and boldness during her seances. Male mediums also appeared in sizable numbers, but, for nineteenth-century women, spiritual powers meant a doorway to fame and adventure…and an escape from the mundanity of domestic lives with few personal rights. Channeling spirits gave women a chance to speak words and ideas not normally permitted to a lady. Because of the thousands of converts to this religion you could see, hear, and touch, people avidly listened to what these females had to say.

But spiritual powers often weren't the actual cause of the phenomena produced at seances. Fraud abounded, and theatrical tricks and sleights of hand successfully convinced sitters they were seeing and hearing spirits in darkened rooms, especially in times of war and hardships when seance guests so desperately wanted to receive proof of an afterlife. A mail-order catalog of the late 1800s even provided customers with seance necessities such as fake hands and rigged spirit slates, going so far as to offer instructions on how to produce tilting tables, sounds from seemingly nowhere, and thought transmission. Mediums often corroborated with one another, circulating secret "Blue Books" that contained information about the local deceased and seance attendees who were the easiest targets. Even the Fox sisters reportedly confessed their fakery forty years after their glorious start in Hydesville, stating that their famous raps that founded a religious movement were produced merely by cracking their toe joints.

To prove they weren't frauds, many mediums underwent test conditions, letting skeptics bind them with ropes and handcuffs and lock them in sealed "spirit cabinets," demonstrating that paranormal activity would still appear despite such restraints. Magicians soon showcased the same feats as entertainment, claiming the mediums' so-called test conditions were simply another example of seance trickery.

In the 1920s, legendary escape artist Harry Houdini embarked upon a zealous crusade to expose crooked mediums. In his younger years, he himself had earned money through fake seances, but he became one of the loudest voices against spiritualism when the death of his mother led him on a fruitless search for a genuine medium. He grew famous for his exposes of spiritual con artists and even traveled to seances in disguise, revealing himself to unsuspecting hoodwinkers when they produced evidence of fraud.

Houdini's most controversial attempt at unveiling a scam came in 1924, when he joined a committee to judge mediums vying for a prize offered by SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine. The first medium who could produce authentic paranormal phenomena would win $2,500, and the most likely candidate was Boston medium Mina Crandon, known in her spirit circles as "Margery." Like her predecessors, Margery too gained female empowerment through her séances. Formerly the bored wife of a prominent surgeon twenty years her senior, she suddenly created glamorous social events via her sittings and spoke through the voice of a witty, often-vulgar "spirit control": her dead brother Walter.

The highly publicized investigations of Margery often kept Houdini from concentrating on other aspects of his career. Plus they directed attention away from other mediums around the world--ones who might have proven to be more legitimate than Margery, who was ultimately denied the prize due to too many indications of fraud. Nevertheless, Margery went to her deathbed refusing to confess she was a sham. After his own death, Houdini failed to return to the world of the living through seances, as he told his wife he would try to do if spiritualism were indeed genuine. To this date, seances are still held every year in an attempt to contact Houdini on the anniversary of his death, which just happens to be Halloween.

The post-Margery and Houdini eras have been quieter in terms of famous mediums and widespread booms in seances. Yet as long as people strive to find proof of an afterlife, this intriguing aspect of modern history will probably never fade. Moreover, seances will undoubtedly live on as long as literature and films continue to dive into haunting stories of ghostly visitors from the other side…even though spiritualism is a case where truth is often stranger than fiction.