The history of modern spiritualism actually begins with a spectacular and decades-long fraud. The Fox sisters of western New York, the same “burned-over district” where Joseph Smith had his experiences with angels, began communicating with spirits of the dead in 1848 through their “rappings,” which everyone heard and could be easily understood as coded spirit responses to questions. The sisters went on to a triumphant international career, their mediumship passing all tests set for them, until Margaret Fox confessed in 1888 that they had made the rappings themselves by cracking their big toes—not something investigators had thought to check. Fox later retracted her confession; many adherents continued to believe that the sisters had been true mediums.
Spiritualism developed a suite of up-to-date methods. Mediums had to deal with the same charges faced by Burton, that those who claimed to see the spirits were mad melancholy dizzards, but photographic plates could seem to make “objective” records of things unseen—fairy presences, ectoplasm (a substance rather like the “spirit” of the old magicians) and double-exposure ghosts. The Ouija board, introduced as a parlor-game toy in the 1890s, was quickly adopted by spiritualists and employed as a means of communication for decades; in the 1970s the poet James Merrill and his partner used one to get in touch with a large number of spirits—including W. H. Auden’s—who certainly came to bring them metaphors for poetry.
As a movement, or religion, or enthusiasm, spiritualism has fallen some from the days when “trance lecturers” like the Fox sisters could make good livings and William James and Arthur Conan Doyle were prominent followers. The Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, still investigates evidence and reports of ghosts, psychic phenomena, and spirit communications—now called “paranormal,” a word replacing while neatly matching the “preternatural” of Burton’s day—and sometimes getting entangled like old time demonologists in the effort to account for observations in something like current scientific terms.
Spiritualism has always been an optimistic faith, and the Devil plays no part in it, though the beings contacted are often “playful,” tricky like Madimi and company, and can seem to suffer from ADHD. But Alison, the medium in Hilary Mantel’s acerbic 2005 novel Beyond Black, sees it differently. Alison, a fake fortune-teller, has actual spirit guides, evil ones too, and knows the dead well: “It’s no good trying to enlist them for any good cause you have in mind, world peace or whatever. Because they’ll only bugger you about. They’re not reliable They don’t become decent people just because they’re dead.”
6. A Well Without a Bottom
Isaac Bashevis Singer told Cyrena Pondrom in 1968 that he’d read the spiritualist seer Madame Blavatsky [Belgium, page 102] and was himself a deep scholar of psychic research. His tales drew on the legend and folklore of his childhood and youth (as Yeats’ early poems did) because, he said, folklore has already “given clothes” to ideas. “By really calling demons names and assigning to them certain functions, it makes it more concrete,” he said, a concreteness without which writing “becomes philosophy, or brooding.” But behind the old names and functions, Singer says, are real powers. “There are millions and millions of powers, even now, of which we have no idea, which take part in our life, push us or pull us or do all kinds of things with us. It is true I don’t know what these powers are. They may be divine powers or other kinds of powers Nature is a well without a bottom.”
The young William Yeats, traveling in the Celtic twilight around his home in Sligo and collecting stories of Ireland’s powers, its endless pookas, fairies, witches, and leprechauns, asked his neighbor Paddy Flynn if he had ever seen the fairies. Paddy replied, “Amn’t I annoyed with them?”
Canadian subscribers add $10; All other international subscribers add $40.