24th May 2021. Reading Time: 10 minutes General. 1251 page views. 0 comments.

During the 19th century, there was a movement wherein mediumship and spirit communication became quite popular.  In fact, it became its own kind of religion.  It was known as spiritualism. Is modern-day paranormal investigating an evolved take on spiritualism?

During the 19th century, there was a movement wherein mediumship and spirit communication became quite popular.  In fact, it became its own kind of religion.  It was known as spiritualism.  One of the core beliefs in the spiritualist movement was that a person survives the death of their physical body by ascending into the spirit realm.  For those who had lost faith in traditional Catholic values, spiritualism offered them a new religion.  

When the movement began, church leaders associated the concept of spiritualism with witchcraft while other churches labelled the practices performed by spiritualists as a form of necromancy, a practice that was also forbidden by the church.  In 1898, The Holy Office of the Roman Catholic Church issued a decree condemning all spiritualist practices.  They did however allow legitimate Scientific investigation into these claims. 

In 1893, a nationwide organization was formed starting as the National Spiritualist Association and later becoming the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.  Spiritualist gatherings began as small groups of people conducting a séance to make contact with loved ones.  As popularity grew, larger gatherings were held which resembled more of a recruitment demonstration.  Apparent displays of spirit communication and various psychic phenomena were put on display hoping to attract more people toward the movement.  This soon turned into a Sunday service much like what other churches conduct.  The difference was however on top of the service, one on one sessions with psychic mediums was offered as well as daily seances.  

People turned to spiritualism for comfort.  For some, it was a place they could explore, develop, and even test their psychic abilities.  For others, it was simply a place that gave them the comfort of knowing that life goes on after death and that they potentially had a channel of communication with loved ones who had passed away.

The movement may look a bit different to what it did 100 years ago, but it is still alive and well today in the form of many spiritualist churches.

Spiritualism is a progressive philosophy that has no fixed doctrines or beliefs.

The majority of Spiritualists believe in THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF SPIRITUALISM

The creative divine spirit of the Universe whom we call God

The unity of all created beings

The communion of spirits and ministering guides

The continuous existence of life beyond the veil of death

Communication between incarnate and discarnate spirits

Personal responsibility for all our actions whilst on earth

A path of eternal progress open to all souls

The principles were originally received through the mediumship of Emma Hardinge Britten, one of the many pioneers of Spiritualism, and they are open to interpretation as each person understands them.


Spiritualism during the Victorian Era

Séances, spirit boards, and table tipping started to become quite popular not only within the spiritualist movement but with the general public as well.  Its popularity peaked in the early 19th century, an era in time that was affectionately referred to as the Victorian Era.  The war was over and the World was suffering from the great depression.  People became desperate to contact their loved ones who had passed away, often paying large sums of money to those who claimed they could make contact.  The problem was, while there were likely genuine claims of abilities, there was also a large amount of deception.  Whether it was a pressure to perform and deliver what was promised or maybe they didn’t have any ability, to begin with, the era has been tainted with lies and deception.  

Famous names associated with spiritualism

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Image Source: https://www.biography.com/writer/arthur-conan-doyle

The famous author of Sherlock Holmes was a vocal advocate of spiritualism.

In 1887, Doyle published a letter in the 1887 issue of Light, the journal of the London Spiritualistic Alliance titled 'A test message'.  

After weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa, though I have been to that continent and have never chanced to see one. I felt that if human evidence — regarding both the quantity and the quality of the witnesses — can prove anything, it has proved this. I then set to work to organise a circle of six, which met nine or ten times at my house. We had phenomena such as messages delivered by tilts, and even some writing under control, but there was never anything which could be said to be absolutely Conclusive. That complicated machine, the human body, is capable of playing strange tricks, and what was the possibility of unconscious cerebration, of involuntary muscular action, and of the effect of a dozen heavy hands on one light table, I was never entirely satisfied. I was convinced that others had obtained the phenomena, but not that I had done so myself.

A Test Message is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the magazine Light on 2 July 1887.

In 1893, Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research as a self-proclaimed novice in psychical research.  At the time it was more like a side hobby where he dabbled with table tipping, mesmerism, and thought transference (which would later be known as telepathy).

In 1894, Doyle was part of a research team consisting of Frank Podmore and Dr Sydney Scott to investigate sounds and disturbances at Colonel Elmore's family home.  After spending a few nights and experiencing a 'fearsome uproar' they could not conclude if the house was haunted or if it was indeed a hoax.  It was later discovered the body of a 10-year-old child had been buried in the garden.  Doyle was convinced that he had witnessed psychic phenomena at the hands of the deceased child.

In 1917, Doyle made his first public lecture on spiritualism.  Knowing it could mean the end of his career, he felt it was more important for all of mankind to know.  Psychical researchers often disagreed with Doyle and the people he would advocate for.  At a time when exposing fraudulent mediums was at an all-time high, Doyle garnered a reputation by being too trusting and having too big of a heart.

Setting aside for the moment his extraordinary and most lovable personal qualities, the chief qualification that he possessed for the role of the investigator was his crusading zeal. Among all the notable persons attracted to Spiritualism, he was perhaps the most uncritical. His extreme credulity, indeed, was the despair of his colleagues, all of whom, however, held him in the highest respect for his complete honesty. Poor, dear, lovable, credulous Doyle! He was a giant in stature with the heart of a child.

Harry Price

Doyle and famous researcher Harry Price often disagreed, especially when Doyle threw his support behind defamed spirit photographer William Hope in 1922 after Price proclaimed he was a fraud. Doyle went on to lead a mass resignation of members from the Society for Psychical Research claiming the institution was against spiritualism.

If you want to read more about Doyle's involvement in spiritualism, check out this article: Spiritualism and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Harry Houdini

Famous magician Harry Houdini famously exposed many frauds within the spiritualism community.  Spiritualism even brought Houdini and Doyle together as best friends, however, it also tore them apart due to their varying views on the topic.  While Doyle was a vocal advocate for Spiritualism, Houdini spent his time investigating and exposing the frauds.

It is necessary and most important, first to understand that I am not a skeptic regarding Spiritualism.  I am in no position to say that there is no such thing.  My mind is open.  I am perfectly willing to believe, but in the twenty-five years in my investigation and the hundreds of séances which I have attended, I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility of communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond.

I have been to seances where every one heard or saw, according to their own visualization, something which gave them relief, or facts pointing toward the authenticity of communication with the dead.

Harry Houdini

October 30 1922 The Sun Newspaper

Houdini gained a reputation and was not well-liked by the spiritualist community.  It is not hard to understand why.  While many mediums struck up friendships with Houdini and willingly worked with him to try and prove their authenticity, others didn't want to go anywhere near him.  It was these people that Houdini was intrigued by, what did they have to hide?  Of course, they would not ever let Houdini set foot into their séance room.  In order to gain access, Houdini added 'master of disguise' to his list of qualifications.  While he would often dress up and call himself Mr. White or Mr. Smith, his favourite character was said to be an old man with glasses and cane who went by the name of Mr. F.Raud

Image Source: Wild about Harry

You can read more about Houdini's involvement with spiritualists in these articles:

Harry Houdini and the art of disguise 

How I unmask the spirit fakers by Harry Houdini

More famous names associated with spiritualism

When you start digging into the history of spiritualism, you may be surprised by some of the names that pop up!  Here are some articles about famous Australian names that were associated with spiritualism.

3 Famous spiritualists from Melbourne's past

The Aussie Spiritualist A.J Abbott and his Spirit Slides

Richard Hodgson - the Aussie Psychical researcher

It is impossible to condense spiritualism into just one small article, this is just a taste of what it is all about. It does however make me wonder .....

Is modern-day paranormal investigating an evolved take on spiritualism?

Paranormal investigating in a lot of ways has also become like its own religion.  People sometimes turn to religion for a sense of belonging and comfort among many other reasons.  In modern-day paranormal investigation, people have found this sense of belonging and comfort just from the act of participating in a paranormal investigation.  Whether it helps them to validate their beliefs, or maybe it gives us a sense of comfort or relief that life goes on, for many, it becomes a weekly ritual (just like heading to a spiritualist church would).  A lot of people I have spoken to no longer practise the religion they grew up following.  As they have grown up and lived life lessons, some have changed to another or ditched it completely.  Some have adopted religion for the very first time.  Many people like myself also find themselves in the process and feel like they belong to something.  Maybe it is being able to talk to people about things you have seen or experienced without people raising an eyebrow or calling you weird.  Maybe it is finally being able to embrace that spiritual side that was hidden away in you for so long.  There are many similarities that are like almost what could be described like a calling that attracts a person both to religion and to paranormal investigating.

While during the Victorian era, people would hold a seance and sit around a table in a darkened room calling a spirit to come forward, it seems to have evolved to people standing in a circle in a darkened room again calling for a spirit to come forward.  While the techniques used may be different, the concept is basically the same.  The end goal for most is people wanting contact with a spirit or to witness and experience something they believe to be supernatural.  Maybe you are the Houdini trying to understand and debunk it?  It seems we can all find a correlation with the past.

While we may be a bit smarter and not so easily deceived as people were back then, when it comes down to it, in both spiritualism and paranormal investigating, we are in some way looking for something.  The question becomes, does anyone ever find the answer in our lifetime?

Paranormal phenomena associated with spiritualism

From items appearing from nowhere to knocks on a table or a spirit appearing on film, these were all techniques and phenomena produced by mediums during this era.   Here are some articles explaining them in more detail.

Apports, Asports and JOTT

The old school tricks of deception: Rapping

Fake spirit photography has actually been around for centuries

Automatic Writing

The stigma around Ouija Boards





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