19th century Spiritualism: Seances, Mediums, Exhibits

the Fox sisters, Leah, Margaret, and Kate

The Fox sisters:

Seances (whereby a spirit is summoned to communicate with the living) became quite popular in the 1800s, due in large part to the Fox sisters.  In 1848, the first recorded spirit-rapping in America took place when Margaret and Kate Fox attempted to communicate with the spirits of the dead.

According to reports at the time, they succeeded in establishing a ghostly dialogue with the spirit of Charles B. Rosna. Using rapping noises as its means of communication, the spirit conveyed the message that he had been killed and buried in the basement of the sisters’ home. When bones were found in their basement, the Fox sisters became a sensation.

Over the years, they continued to give seance demonstrations, attracting a devoted following, along with numerous imitators and, of course, critics.

As adults, the sisters quarreled, and Margaret and Kate each became alcoholics.  Kate’s children were taken away as a result.

Lured by a reporter’s offer of $1,500 to reveal the secret, and desperate for money (which she and Kate soon drank away), Margaret confessed that she had made all the rapping noises by means of a double-jointed big toe, which she could crack at will.  She demonstrated this before an audience of 2,000 at the New York Academy of Music, where doctors observed and verified it as the source of the sound.


Mary Todd Lincoln, with “ghost” of her dead husband, 1869

Mary Todd Lincoln:

One of the most well-known Victorian widows was Mary Todd Lincoln, an avid spiritualist, who held a seance in the White House after her son, Willie, died in 1862.  After her husband’s death, her dedication to spiritualism only deepened.  The photograph to the right was taken by William Mumler, a self-proclaimed “spirit photographer.”  Mumler claimed that the spirits who appeared in his photographs were only evident upon developing the picture and not visible through the lens.

Farnesworth House, Gettysburg, Victorian Seance Parlor:


Quoted from Gettysburg tourism press release:  “The exhibit will take visitors back in time when Victorian widows and families attempted to communicate with the dead. Featuring an ornate Victorian room with an oval table that seats 12, the show begins when guests enter to view the numerous antiquities and curiosities, including an assortment of taxidermy, antique portraits, fossils, and period personal effects that will put visitors in the mood to venture into the unknown. The Victorian attired host will then transport guests into the world of the 19th century, leading the séance as mediums would have done almost 150 years ago.

The show is for entertainment only, with an array of parlor tricks from the time period, including ‘smoke and mirrors.’ The illusions make the audience feel as though the room is filled with spirits as they attempt to solve an authentic Gettysburg murder mystery from 1879. The audience will experience 10 minutes of complete darkness as “spirits enter the room” to play with their senses.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dec 2005:

An exhibition entitled “The Perfect Medium:  Photography and the Occult,” demonstrated through pictures the 19th century’s fascination with the occult.

Edouard Isidore Buguet, Fluidic Effect, 1875


Next week’s blog:  Fakers and Fakery

So, how many of you have attended a seance?  What did you think?  Ever run across something “otherworldly” that you couldn’t explain?  I’d love to hear from you.


Until next week,

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5 thoughts on “19th century Spiritualism: Seances, Mediums, Exhibits”

  1. Amy RomineAmy Romine

    Great post, very interesting. So glad I found you on Gene’s list!

  2. Catie RhodesCatie Rhodes

    I love your history blogs, and I adore this topic. I don’t have anything to add. Just wanted to tell you how cool this was. 😀

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