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It is very easy to imagine the Victorians as dour narrow-minded moralists. While Victorian society was undeniably conventional and repressed, many Victorians were also imaginative and open to new ideas. There were great scientific advancements during the Victorian era. Charles Darwin first posited his theories of evolution, Richard Owen produced the first life-sized reconstructions of dinosaurs and Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. There were also significant developments in metaphysics and spirituality. William Westcott founded the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society. Today, Blavatsky is commonly regarded as the mother of the modern mind, body, spirit movement.
One of the biggest crazes in Victorian England was spiritualism. The spiritualist phenomenon had originated in the United States in 1848 with two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox. They claimed that a spirit entity regularly communicated with them by rapping on furniture in their home. The Fox sisters caught the attention of a set of radical Quakers and the spiritualist movement was born. By the 1870s mediums such as Daniel Dunglas Home and Florence Cook had gained fame and notoriety. As spiritualism grew mediums began to use increasingly elaborate paraphernalia to facilitate the appearance of spirits during seances. Spirit trumpets amplified the voices of spirits; spirit slates were chalkboards which produced messages written by spirits; seance tables were specially designed to rotate or levitate when spirits appeared; spirit cabinets were closets where the medium sat during the seance.
Throughout the mid-to-late nineteenth century, a great deal of sensationalism and controversy developed around spiritualism. This grew out of the conflict between the spiritualist movement and material science. ‘The phenomena chase the scientists and the scientists run away from the phenomena,’ claimed the Russian journalist Alaksandr Aksakov when writing about a botched investigation into mediumship by the St. Petersburg Scientific Committee. Helena Blavatsky was equally critical. In her seminal esoteric work, Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky suggested that the scientific methods used to investigate spiritualism were not fit for purpose, ‘Many educated men and women have tried and failed to understand spiritualism’s unpredictable phenomena. They may have failed because their investigations were flawed or because spiritualism’s secret force is impossible to comprehend.’
The height of the spiritualist craze in Victorian England produced a number of key players. Among the skeptics were the scientists Michael Faraday, Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall. Faraday even developed a device called the Indicator or Medium-Catcher. This elaborate contraption consisted of a series of cardboard discs attached to the seance table. Faraday claimed that if the discs moved it was evidence that the attendees had caused the table to move and rise up themselves. Spiritualists rejected the idea that this proved anything. They claimed that if the attendees did move the seance table themselves, they were simply acting under the influence of powerful spirit entities.
Among the supporters of spiritualism were scientists such as Alfred Wallace, Alexander Butlerov, Joesph Buchanan and Marc Thury. Perhaps the most notable advocate was the physicist Sir William Crookes. Crookes observed a number of seances under test conditions in his London home. Although he accepted the idea that spiritualist phenomena might be trickery he also posited other hypotheses. These included the theories that spectral apparitions were caused either by the mental power of the medium or by beings from other planes of existence.
Perhaps the most famous players in this metaphysical soap opera, were the spirit entities themselves. A pirate named John King, his daughter Katie King (pictured) and a mournful spirit known only as Peter all made regular appearances at London seances. Crookes observed Katie King during many of these sessions. He believed her to be a real spirit entity. He felt she was most likely some kind of fairy or a powerful force of nature. However, he was adamant that she was not the spirit of a departed human being.
Helena Blavatsky criticised scientists of the time for not really investigating the phenomena of spiritualism in any meaningful depth, ‘If on one hand we cannot very well blame them for stepping back at the first sight of what seems really repulsive, we do, and have a right to, censure them for their unwillingness to explore deeper.’ Blavatsky makes an interesting point. Although a number of Victorian spiritualists were revealed as fraudsters there were still some spiritualist phenomena that defied explanation. Blavatsky believed those phenomena were serious enough to warrant deeper investigation.
Perhaps it was the philosopher John Fiske who best summed up the challenge facing both the supporters and debunkers of spiritualism. Fiske argued that no scientific test could be applied to spiritual phenomena since spirit existed beyond the material realm. In his book the Unseen World, published in 1876, he suggested that scientists ‘accept the position that spirit is not matter, nor governed by the laws of matter, and refrain from speculation concerning it restricted by their knowledge of material things.’ The spiritualists could not entirely prove the existence of spiritual phenomena but neither could the scientists entirely disprove it. Looking beyond the claims and counter-claims of both sides, perhaps there was a hidden gift in the Victorian spiritualist craze. Whatever the ultimate truth, this fascinating period in history encouraged many people to carefully consider that there might indeed be other planes of existence beyond the physical world.
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