Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Victorian Spiritualism and Séances

The Victorian era saw the birth of Spiritualism, which made its way into Victorian culture due to the fall of Christianity through people questioning the “Church’s intellectual and cultural authority” (Wheeler-Barclay, 14-15). Alongside this were “scientific advances and capitalistic expansion: the first, shaking foundations of doctrinal infallibility; and the second redefining middle-class power and position. This produced the opportunity for individuals to challenge dominant ideologies” (Jenkins, 15). For example, the bible was criticised (Lamont, 898), based on the idea that it was written by people from another historical time and should be treated as such (Lyons, 104), as well as the introduction of Darwinism, which inevitably rendered the creation story as untrue if accepted.
Accepting Darwin’s theory meant that the Victorian’s found their faith challenged. Thus thousands of people turned towards Spiritualism, as leaving their traditional Christian beliefs left a gap in their lives. They felt that they no longer had anywhere to turn for guidance in terms of morality in a fast paced, changing society (Lyons, 104). The Victorians were excited about scientific findings, but also worried that they would lead them “to a materialistic worldview [and they] wanted more than a scientific agnosticism” (Lyons, 103). Therefore Spiritualism, if it could be scientifically proved, bridged the gap that Victorians felt from abandoning religion.

S.L Lyon defines Spiritualism, introducing the two core beliefs:
1.      That there is life after death

2.      That there can be communication with the spirit through mediums (105)
Point two was an important part of Spiritualism, which provided the evidence needed for Victorians who had accepted the idea of evolutions put forward by Darwinism. This communication with spirits was done through séances.
Vieda Skultans wrote Intimacy and Ritual based on fieldwork carried out on practicing Spiritualists. From her own experience, she introduces the workings of a séance, explaining that they are conducted in semi-darkness (so that there are no outward distractions) by an advanced medium in circles (6-7).
The outcome of a séance was contact with the spirit world, with the medium being in a state of possession or a trance. The results were classified as either mental or physical. Physical results being: spirit writing, spirit photography, glowing lights, moving objects, sounds and ectoplasms. Mental results included telekinesis, clairvoyance and divination (Lyons, 108).
Telekinesis is the ability to manipulate objects with one’s mind, and clairvoyance being the act of perceiving things out of range of human sense, and finally divination being the ability to foresee future events. 

F. C. E. Dimmick’s Ectoplasmic Photograph of the Medium Mrs. Henderson, 1928.

(Ectoplasms occurred during the trance state of the medium as a result of the séance. The cloth-like substance would come from various orifices on the mediums body, such as the ears, mouth and nose. This would be seen as evidence the spirit trying to materialize.)

The results of a séances were important as they would provide evidence the needed for proof of the after-life, giving the Victorians an alternative to Christianity as well as not interfering with the theory of evolution by contradicting it. Therefore according to Lamont, séances were central to Spiritualism practice and belief as well as being the primary reason for conversion to Spirituality (897-8).
By the late 1860’s séances had become very popular in Victorian society (Lyons, 108). This popularity links with ongoing scientific advances of the period and fall of Christian authority, as Spiritualism bridged the gap people felt after abandoning their religious beliefs. People turned to Spiritualism for “solace as well as hoping the séance would provide existence for the existence of the immortal world” (Lyons, 104). As Skultans explains one of the reasons of conversion and involvement with Spirituality being that it gave “that quality of spiritual balm needed to make life palatable” (5), therefore for the Victorian’s it seemed the answer for the crisis between religion and science.

Most relevant to mainstream Spiritualism were mediums and the séances they conducted. As previously mentioned, the séance would occur in a dark room and with the sitters holding hands, the medium would go into a trance. In this trance the medium would be able to achieve the mental and physical results as part of their communication with the spirit world.

Such a scene occurs in Diary of a Nobody, where in chapter XXII where the Pooter’s are introduced to Spiritual séances. Several séances take place in the chapter, with the participants “sitting in the parlour at a small round table” (202). There are various mentions of Spiritualism, mediums and séances taking place in this chapter.
During one séance, the medium declares that “a message came through the table to her of a wonderful description, concerning someone whom she … knew years ago” (203). This is an example of a mental result of the séance, with the medium surpassing human senses to receive a message.
In another séance dated June 3rd, the table tits towards Pooter, which was interpreted as him requiring to ask the spirit a question, and he does so by asking the name of an aunt. The table then spells out “C A T” (204). This is another example of a typical séance result, demonstrating a physical aspect of contacting spirits. The spirit, identified as “Lina”, has proven its existence by arranging letters on the table.
However in Diary of a Nobody there is scepticism as Pooter is not entirely convinced by Spiritualism and séances, which was common in the Victorian era as Spiritualism provided “limitless opportunities for tricksters and charlatans” (Lyons, 103).
Many mediums were exposed as frauds, faking signs from the spirits. For example, there would often be séances where a sitter would witness a physical result of contacting spirits; seeing a dead relative. This would follow a standard procedure: the medium would be tied up in a cabinet, during this time the spirit would appear and disappear. The cabinet would then be opened with the medium tied up as before. However, many of these spirits would be grabbed by sitters, who would turn out to be the medium (Lyons, 103).
As a result of this, and the scientific advances at the time, many people remained sceptical about Spiritualism, as demonstrated in The Diary of a Nobody, and often saw it as a method of entertainment, keeping their minds open to it. Cummings view on Spiritualism is expressed in chapter XXII: “he was most interested in Spiritualism, although he was bound to confess he did not believe much in it; still, he was willing to be convinced” (202). Diary of a Nobody contributes support to this view as it was serialized in Punch between 1888-9, correlating with growing spirituality and séances. This provides explanation for the popularity of séances in the late 1800’s; that people were both willing to believe, be convinced, or simply be entertained.

Spirit Photography
As mentioned before, one of the physical results of a séance and proof of Spiritualism as a practice was spirit photography. This gave evidence of the séance, working to convince people as “the camera as regarded as an instrument of revelation than of deceit” (Green-Lewis, 3).
In Framing the Victorians by Jennifer Green-Lewis talks about photography of that era. How it was seen to link with realism, representing truth in social representation (25-6), but this idea of realism and “use of photography as testimony is premised on a common belief in world” (227). With the popularity of séances and spread of Spiritualism, spirit photography became proof of life after death and thus seen as a “natural product of the supernatural world” (231). Therefore the existence of spirits became this premised common belief of the Victorian period. Through this, spirit photography was able to service Spiritualism by acting as truth, showing that science had the means of capturing “subjects beyond the spiritual world” (Green-Lewis, 232). This gave Spirituality the scientific side needed to adhere to the idea of life after death, responding to the Victorian’s needs for something more than ‘scientific agnostism’. Due to this, spirit photography was seen to have little to do with artistry but as an “urge to gather signs of resorts, scenes, objects, and persons in the name of ownership and in the spirit of possession” (Green-Lewis, 231).

Below are some examples of spirit photography. The question most people face is whether to believe the afterlife has been captured on camera or if it is a trick of the photographer or medium.

First is Frederick A. Hudson, England's first spirit photographer. His earliest results were obtained in 1872 and he was often caught dressing up as the ghost. 

Mr. Raby with the Spirits "Countess," "James
 Lombard," "Tommy," and the 
Spirit of Mr. Wootton's Mother. Hudson, 1875
Lady Helena Newenham and the Spirit
 of Her Daughter”. Hudson, 1872.

F. M Parkes was another famous spirit photographer. His earliest images were made with a medium, following directions from the spirits, the photographic plates be placed in his control in the darkroom before they were inserted in the camera so they could be "magnetised." 

"Mrs. Collins & Her Husband's Father, Recognized by Several.". Parkes, 1875

William Eglinton was Britain's most prominent medium, turning to Spiritualism around 1874. He was known to levitate, write messages from spirits in chalk and transport himself to another room.  Eglinton is mentioned alongside spirit photography; the actual photographer is unknown. 

(Left) Mary Burchett with Spirit of her School-Master, 1886
"Taken in my room with my own camera and plates by Mr. Eglinton and developed directly afterward in my presence” (

Some critics argued that Robert Boursnell’s spirit photographs were faked, claiming the spirits remained unchanged in different photographs. This revelation, however, appeared to have made no difference to Boursnell's supporters. 

“Couple with the Spirit of an Old
Family Doctor who Died
 Around 1880”. Boursnell 1893.
Self-Portrait with Spirits”. Boursnell, 1902.

The photograph above was taken in 1895-6 by Boursnell of the spiritualist, J. H. Evans with a spirit child. (

Works Cited:

American Museum of Photography. Do you Believe? Science vs Séance. 2000. Web page. 25 February 2014. <>

Bright Bytes Studio. Jack & Beverly’s Spirit Photographs. Boursnell Photographs. 2009. Web. 25 February 2014. <>

Green-Lewis, Jennifer. Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism. New York: Cornell University Press, 1996. Print.

Grossmith, George. Diary of a Nobody. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994. Print.

Jenkins, Ruth Y. Reclaiming Myths of Power: Women Writers and the Victorian Spiritual Crisis. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1995. Print

Lamont, Peter. “Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis of Evidence”. The Historical Journal. 47. 4. (2004): 897-920. Jstor. Web. 25 February 2014. <>  

Lyons, Sherrie Lynne. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. Web. Ebrary. 25 February 2014. <>

Skultans,Vieda. Intimacy and Ritual: A Study of Spiritualism, Mediums and Groups. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. Print.

Wheeler-Barclay, Marjorie. The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860-1915. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. Ebook Ebrary. 25 February 2014. <>

1 comment: