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Talking to the dead, or spirits, has always been a profitable venture. At one time or another in their lives, many people would like to be able to talk to the dead. Most of these people are comforted by the idea of being able to commune with their friends and relatives again, some just want to find out where grandfather hid his treasure.
The image most of us conjure up when we think of this sort of necromancy is the seance: a group of people sitting in a circle, holding hands, eyes closed, while one of them "channels" a spirit and speaks or writes for it. This style of talking to dead has its roots in 19th century spiritualism.
In the 1840's, the United States and especially New York were a particularly ripe breeding ground for the rise of a new sort of belief about ghosts and the afterlife. Americans were much more willing than Europeans to put aside religious injunctions against communicating with the dead.
A man by the name of Andrew Johnson Davis became famous for hypnotic trances, faith-healing and clairvoyance in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1847, he made a wild statement and prediction. He believed that the spirit of the owner of the body often associated with spirits outside of the body, but that the owner of the body was seldom aware of what was going on. He predicted that it wouldn't be long before his belief was proved by a live demonstration.
Davis got his demonstration just a few years later. In 1848, in the upstate New York town of Hydesville, two young girls named Katie and Maggie Fox "heard" rapping noises in their rundown house. They blamed the noises on ghosts, and at first their parents were certain the girls were just bored and causing trouble. However, time and time again, they could find no evidence that the girls were causing the noises, and eventually they believed.
Many local Hydesville residents came to see the girls and their ghosts. The girls put on an impressive show of communicating with the spirits. They invited people to sit with them and ask questions of the spirits, which the spirits then answered by tapping out numbers or yes and no responses. These were the original seances, and their form is basically unaltered to this day.
Katie's and Maggie's older sister Leah began charging fees for her sisters' services as mediums, as a way of compensation for lost time and lost chances of doing anything else with their lives. There was enough money to be made in it that it was worth doing, because people were willing to pay to see the phenomena.
A short while later, many of the people who'd been guests at their seances discovered that they too could serve as a medium, by communicating with spirits. In 1849, Davis discovered the manifestation of his prediction. People constantly filled the Fox household, asking for demonstrations. Skeptics wanted proof that the whole thing wasn't a hoax created by Katie and Maggie; believers just wanted to witness the miracle.
The Fox household became the center of the spiritualist movement, but as the movement grew, the skeptics at seances began to outnumber the faithful. Mobs of people gathered in front of the house demanding that the girls prove that they were not making the rapping noises themselves.
To discourage the skeptics, the sisters rented the biggest hall in the area and had a public seance. A committee was appointed to find out how the girls were making the rapping noises. After 3 whole days of demonstrating, the committee came away empty-handed and pronounced the girls genuine. They had searched for lead balls in their skirts and many other devices that could be used to produce the raps, but found none.
This was the first time a group of skeptics had examined the evidence in an orderly, large-scale way and pronounced the girls legitimate. They had a new crowd of believers and testimony to support their work as mediums and the newfound religion of Spiritualism.
In 1850 the Fox sisters' fame attracted the attention of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley wanted to find a real spirit medium so that he could contact his dead son, so Greeley sent a Tribune reporter to check out a seance. When the reporter returned convinced, Greeley went to meet the sisters himself. He was a very influential man, and after witnessing their work, he was also convinced that they were legitimate mediums. He fully endorsed them in his newspaper. With Greeley's big city endorsement, the Fox sisters became a phenomenon and went to New York City where they were enormously successful.
The Fox sisters were not alone as mediums, and their work caused many who had witnessed it to try their hand at it. Many of the followers had a vested interest in Spiritualism because they were also the mediums. By 1854, Spiritualism had spread so far that US Senator James Shields of Illinois presented a petition to Congress, signed by 15,000 of his constituents, asking for an official government investigation into Spiritualism. Congress never did anything except joke about the petition, but the 15,000 signatures showed a definite national interest in the rappings.
Though there were approximately 11 million Spiritualists in the United States in 1850, Spiritualism was still criticized by religious people, who believed it was possible but evil, or not possible at all. In 1859, Charles Darwin gave quite a blow to the religious community with the widespread acceptance of The Origin of Species, which contained the theory of evolution. People were torn between believing his scientific evidence for evolution and the religion they and their ancestors had been involved with for centuries. Science and religion were at a direct stand-off. Spiritualism offered a combination of science and religion. There was physical evidence, and the testimony of respected people, saying that there were spirits and legitimate spirit mediums.
Spiritualism made inroads in Europe around this time. It was made fashionable and popular by D.D. Home, who's powers were never shown to be false. Home was supported by a prominent scientist, Sir William Crookes, who also embraced spiritualism. One of the most influential believers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who lost his son and brother at early ages. He lectured to huge audiences and made many converts to Spiritualism, which is still practiced as a religion in England, with its own church.
In 1888, Maggie and Katie Fox returned to the public forefront with the confession that they'd been making the rapping noises all along. They could snap various joints on their bodies, especially their toes, and make the loud, convincing noises. Try as they might, the Fox sisters could not convince their following that they were fakes. They were hounded by devoted Spiritualists who wanted to know why they were lying about themselves. Maggie eventually retracted her confession. Even today, many Spiritualists believe that the sisters only staged some of the rappings, and that some were honest communications from a spiritual otherworld.
Spiritualism didn't remain sensational for long, but it never left American, or world culture. Every time there is a war, its popularity surges, as people look for some way to talk to their dead loved ones. In the 1960s, Spiritualist concepts became integrated into some New Age religion.
Spiritualism was born in an age of science to be a form of religion that was compatible with both the old and new. It held no particular bonds to any specific religion, and each medium interpreted the spirit world differently. Like the world it rose out of and into, it was an individualistic, equal-opportunity movement.