Monday, June 20, 2016

Séances in the Old West

Yes, believe it or not séances were not uncommon in frontier days. In her article TRAIL’S END – Spiritualism: Talking to the dead in the Old West , Rosemary Fetter states, "In Denver, the topic was first mentioned in an 1866 Rocky Mountain News article reporting a lecture by a traveling spiritualist named Mrs. Briggs. Four years later, local believers founded the Colorado Association of Spiritualists, which held its first meeting in Golden."

Ms. Fetter mentions the fascination with psychic investigation and debunking popular in America during the 1870s. She quotes an article from the Denver Times describing a séance given by "Dr. and Mrs. Vail, who had been run out of Pueblo [Col.] a week earlier along with their cohorts, including 'a long-limbed, red-haired, big-footed Missourian, who was pressed into service to act Pawnee.'" The Vails were also thrown out of Denver after their phony performance.

Despite such incidents, in the latter half of the 19th century, many Americans and British. including Queen Victoria, strongly believed in spiritualism - the ability of mediums to talk to the dead. How did this craze begin? As a prank by two young girls.

During the winter of 1847-48, in the hamlet of Hydesville, N.Y., about 20 miles from Rochester, 15-year-old Maggie Fox and her younger sister Katy, plotted to scare their mother by creating sounds that echoed through their house at night. They tied strings to apples and rhythmically dropped them on the stairs to sound like footsteps. According to Maggie in an interview 40 years later, the sisters soon developed a method -- never fully explained -- of cracking the knuckles of their toes or snapping them like one would snap their fingers. They could do this in their stocking feet or even in their shoes. The sounds were loud enough to wake their parents.

The Fox sisters, from left to right: Maggie, Katy & Leah; public domain

Mrs. Fox became convinced their house was haunted, and even though the girls hinted that it might be an April-fools joke, their mother didn't believe them. Word soon got around to their neighbors.. Maggie and Katy found themselves in a quandary. If they admitted their trickery, they would be punished and their family would be ridiculed. As the story of a ghost who spoke to the girls with the mysterious wrapping noises grew, news spread far and wide. The two were soon giving séances with the help of their older sister Leah, who believed in spiritual phenomena.

c.1853, the song Spirit Wrapping published; public domain

The Fox sisters and their promoters encountered harsh criticism from many quarters, but before long, other mediums and "spirit circles" sprang up around the country. By 1852 they existed in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as well as in England and Europe. Various spiritual manifestations appeared, including table tipping, spirit music and dancing lights.

By 1854, spiritualists claimed to have from 1 to 2 million American followers.  In September 1855, Henry Raymond, founding editor of the New York Times, declared that Spiritualism had "an appeal that is wider, stronger and deeper than any philosophical or socialistic theory, since it appeals to the marvelous in man." He added, "In five years it has spread like wildfire over the continent so that there is scarcely a village without its mediums and its miracles. . . ."

Here are a few examples of Spiritualists in the west.

The Magnetic Society of New Orleans:
This was a society of mesmerists, many of whom became staunch believers in the spiritualist movement. One member, Joseph Barthet, edited the New Orleans-based Le Spiritualiste in the 1850s.

From address to American Association of Spiritualists, 1871:
"The Utah Spiritual Movement publicly commenced to work in October, 1869. From its earliest inception it has had innumerable difficulties to contend with in the way of fanaticism and priestly power."

Oregon State Spiritualist Society:
From Morning (Portland) Oregonian, April 7, 1888
"Spiritualistic Incorporation---Articles incorporating the Oregon State Spiritualist Society were filed with the county clerk yesterday by . . . the officers of the society. The objects of the corporation are to investigate and promulgate the religious and scientific truths of spiritualism . . ."

"A Review of the Progress of Spiritualism" by Julia Schlesinger, 1896:
The author begins this lengthy article saying, "The knowledge of, and belief in Spiritualism is quite general upon the Pacific Coast.  As far back as the year 1857 Spiritualism was openly advocated by some advanced thinkers in California. . . .In the city of San Francisco seances were held at the house of Russel Ellis on Sansome street, at the International Hotel, and also at the residence of J. P. Manrow, on Russian Hill, where the most remarkable manifestations occurred."
Sarah Winchester, 1865; public domain

One of the most famous, some would say eccentric, believers in spiritualism was Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun maker William Wirt Winchester. Her mansion, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, was the scene of séances and grew to some 160 rooms, all because of what a Boston medium advised Sarah to do. More about that next month.

In case you're wondering what happened to the Fox sisters, both fell to drinking heavily. A year after Maggie admitted that spiritualism was a fraud, she recanted her confession, but she and Katy lost their believers. Katy died of alcoholism in July 1892, and Maggie in March 1893. 

Yet, spiritualism continues to this day with celebrity mediums claiming to channel the spirit world, New Age philosophies, hundreds of books, television shows and movies featuring conversations with the dead.

Oh, and one of my Texas Devlins characters happens to have a talent for seeing and speaking to the dead. Her name is Nora Taylor. She appears as a toddler in Dashing Irish, where she narrowly escapes death thanks to her empathic Uncle Tye. Later, in the epilogue of Dearest Irish, she shows her astonishing psychic gift.

Sources for this article:

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  1. Quite an interesting read, Lyn! I've stumbled across the Fox Sisters before in the midst of various bouts of research. I love unusual nuggets of history like this--such great inspiration for enriching a western novel! Thank you for a fascinating post concerning the "otherworldly" in the Old West. - Shayna Matthews

    1. Thank you, Shayna. I believe in psychic abilities, having experienced prophetic dreams myself when I was younger. That's why I enjoy weaving in a bit of the supernatural in my books.

  2. Fascinating history lesson on spiritualism. I've experienced a spiritualist church a few time, and have had a few psi-experiences of the other side. Your books sound wonderful.

    1. Hi Savanna. I have never conversed with an entity from the other side, but I wouldn't poo-poo someone who sincerely believes they have. Thank you so much for stopping by. I hope you will give my books a try.

  3. Lyn, I hadn't heard of the Fox sisters. Thanks for the information.

  4. Caroline, I hadn't heard of them either, until I started researching this topic. Thanks for popping in.

  5. Lyn, I believe you have the corner on weird subjects. I liked this one. I am a total skeptic about ghosts and mediums, but it was truly interesting how two girls got all this started--and cracking their toes. Now that's off the rails crazy.
    Thanks for the most interesting article I've read in a while.
    All good things to your corner of the universe, Lyn.

    1. LOL Sarah, I'll share that honor with you. It's fun rooting around in the weird side of history. That toe cracking trick had me raising my eyebrows. I wonder if there was something more the girls never admitted to. Blessings to you, my friend.

  6. Thanks, Lyn, for an interesting post. Although I'm a skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, I have had a few, shall I say, weird experiences that make me question the possibility of the paranormal. By keeping the imaginative door open a crack, I'm able to enjoy such entertaining stories like the ones you've written!

    1. Cheri, you're right to keep that door open. I love letting my imagination run a little wild. So nice to hear you have enjoyed my slightly over the top stories. Thank you!

  7. Fascinating and fun.


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