Spiritualism: Talking to the Dead in Post-Civil War America.

March 12, 2017

After the Civil War many in our nation were emotionally vulnerable. In some communities, as many as twenty-five per cent, or more, of the men under thirty had been killed in the war. Many of the survivors returned home with missing limbs, or other physical problems, and they all carried their own dark memories of the war. Post-Civil War America was, in many ways, a nation still in torment, and deeply mourning the tremendous number of deaths (650,000 plus) in which nearly all families suffered. Many historians believed that spiritualism, which had been a somewhat stagnant movement in previous decades, convinced its followers that mere mortals were able to communicate with the dead.

Lizzie Keyser had the rare talent of making people, especially large groups of people, that they at least for a moment, could cross over and communicate with deceased loved ones. This, of course, was not a free service, and according to an article in the May 13, 1869 Cincinnati Times Ms. Keyser conducted an evening seance in an assembly hall in the city which drew over 900 people. Lizzie Keyser, who was described as frail and sickly, proceeded to slowly walk around the room and “spot the spirits of the lost dead.” She would stand next, or near where the supposed apperition appeared, and seen only by her. Before the evening was over she named 41 spirits in the room, all of various ages and gender, and including a number of deceased Civil War soldiers. Lizzie would take a moment and offer a brief vignette of the individuals, sometimes including color of hair, and eyes, and short summary of their life and how they died. When describing a departed soldier she said, “the spirit of the soldier was wearing a blue coat, and his name was Daniel , and, he said to give a kiss Ada for him and give his love to Kate.” Several in the audience began to weep when they heard this. Another spirit said her name was Louisa Bassett, and a family member spoke up and said that she had died four years prior, and the family missed her. The biggest gasp from the audience came when Lizzie mentioned that the late Clarkson Fogg was one of the spirits in the room. Fogg, who had been killed in the battle of Vicksburg, had a number of his family members, including his mother, in attendance. The article listed each of the 41 spirits contacted, who they were , and if anyone in the audience acknowledged the spirits existence that evening. The dead were all acknowledged, and the large crowd was overwhelming pleased, as well as, astonished by the results of the evening. It is unlikely, however, if anyone noticed the two people who had arrived with Lizzie that evening. Unlike Lizzie Keyser, they were familiar with the city and its people, and probably provided the personal background data that she used in the seance.

Many seances included special effects, sometimes the levitation.

In the late 19th and early 20th century spiritualism was a movement as real as any experienced by our nation. It was defined as both a science and a philosophy, but predominantly seen as new religion. Some sources suggest that as many as twenty-five percent of adult Americans claimed to have experienced an apparition and, or, even participated in a séance. Hollywood has gone to great efforts to spin séances in many of their horror — thriller type movies, all including a dark room, table and all the seated participants touching each other’s fingers to form a circle. A medium is usually seated at a table, and after reading a biblical scripture calls for the dead person to come forward, and be heard. This manifests itself through an actual voice, or knockings, or an undetermined sound in the room or building. and then. In addition to the séances, there are numerous accounts of the dead supposedly communicating with their loved ones through letters, dreams, telegraphs, strange images in photographs, and even telephone calls. Most people would come away thinking that a séance is pure fictional entertainment, and the perpetrators tricksters and criminals. There were, however, many hard core followers, and, in many cases these followers had suffered their own personal losses, and desperately wanted to believe that they could talk to their loved one, once more.

Willie Lincoln died in February 1862 of typhoid fever. He was the subject of multiple seances performed for his mother Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mary Todd Lincoln tried numerous times through séances to speak with her dead son Willie. Her husband, President Abraham Lincoln even accompanied her to at least one séance in the White House. Apparently these were not successful. Mrs. Lincoln claimed, however, that Willie appeared before her at night and stood silently at the foot of her bed.It is easy to dismiss the mediums and physics that were spinning their tricks to make a buck, but not as easy to dismiss the believers.

Sometimes even a trusting audience could lose its patience, especially when a seance is poorly executed. In an article in the Duluth News Tribune, February 24, 1896, “ Fraud Exposed,” a Professor Gilmore had a large crowd fooled that they were communicating with the dead. In a dimly lit room, the charade was going well. After hearing a number of knockings, and garbled voices, the audience was gripped in anxiety, when someone turned the lights on exposing the Professor Gilmore standing with a white sheet covering himself. The angry crowd turned into a mob and they chased the trickster out of the building demanding their money back.

There are other stories, however, that are not so easily dismissed:

Sarah received visits in her dreams from her dead daughter. The six year old had died of tuberculosis the previous year. (1916)

Joseph claimed that his son appeared before him when he was walking through the woods. Seventeen-year-old Luther had been killed at Flanders in World War I. (1919)

Rose woke up to see her dead sister sitting at the end of her bed. Her sister’s husband and their three small children were also standing close by. “We are all right” the dead sister said. They had all been killed in a horrible house fire a few weeks before. (1905)

Many experienced their life changing moments independently, and without coercion or influence from mediums or mystics. Grief crossed all social-economic lines, and surprisingly, many prominent and well-educated citizens were believers, and some became leaders in the movement.

Here is a brief list of prominent citizens who supported the notion of spiritualism:
Oliver Lodge was a British physicist and developed some of the most important patents concerning wireless technology.
Arthur Conan Doyle was the author of the famous Sherlock Holmes stories. Both Lodge and Doyle’s sons were killed on the battlefields during World War I. Each publicly admitted that they had communicated with their dead sons and even lectured before large crowds trying to convince the populace that it was possible to communicate with the dead.
Some others who supported the movement were: the author Charles Dickens, world renowned scientist Dr. William Crooks and two Nobel laureates, physiologist Charles Richet, and physicist Pierre Curie.

Arthur Conan Doyle was the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes series. Doyle was a fervent believer in spiritualism. His son was killed in WWI and Doyle believed he was able to contact him.

Men, especially notable men of the time, were thought to be the ones in charge of the movement, but they were not. They gave the movement what it needed … credibility, but the women, many nameless and now forgotten, did the majority of the work. They led discussions in lecture halls,and portrayed themselves as mystics, or organizers, and most importantly, they were the mediums found at most of the séances. A good medium could make a decent living. Many supported their families with the funds made by convincing others that they could speak with the dead. Tragic events, such as wars, famines, diseases, fires, and even the sinking of ships spiked the need and the usefulness of mediums and séances.

Eusapia Pallidino was considered the leading psychic of the period. She admitted later in life that she had indeed cheated and deceived people into believing the unbelievable.
Eusapia Pallidino performing a seance.

In January 1910, the Boston Journal reported that two prominent Harvard professors held very different views about spiritualism, and especially about Eusapia Pallidino, who was considered the country’s leading psychic. Professor Hugo Munsterberg, a psychologist, said that Pallindino was a “complete fraud and humbug.” Professor William James, however, considered Pallidino’s talent as “probably genuine.” Eusapia Pallidino’s performances sometimes turned into seance circus feat, that included voices, moving objects, and the sudden chill of a cool breeze blowing through a darkened room. Munsterberg, with the help of an assistant who was hidden under a table, caught Pallidino levitating the table with her foot. It was also observed that Palladino kicked her shoe off the other foot and used her toes to move a guitar in the séance cabinet. Münsterberg also claimed that Palladino moved the curtains from a distance in the room by releasing a jet of air from a rubber bulb that she had in her hand. In the end, Munsterberg’s efforts did not matter, since he charges of fraud did not seem to phase Pallidino and the public continued to attend, and seemingly believe in her seances. Later, Eusapia Pallidino told a reporter that she indeed cheated and that her “sitters had willed her to do so.” In other words, she gave the customers what they wanted. Eric Dingwall, a journalist investigating spiritualism at that time, came to this conclusion about Pallidino , saying she was a “ “vital, vulgar, amorous and a cheat.”

Professor Hugo Munsterberg considered Eusapia Pallidino a complete fraud.

Tragedy created opportunity for mediums. W. T. Snead, a leading spiritualist of his time, drowned on the Titanic in 1912. Soon after his death, mediums on both sides of the ocean claimed that the apparition of Dr. Snead appeared and communicated in their séances. Snead brought them greetings from the other side, and according to the mediums, described the Titanic’s final minutes. The desperate passengers were confused and scared, so said the apparition through the medium mouths. This type of hysteria gave momentum to the movement, and also enriched the bank accounts of those encouraging the charade.

There is little doubt that of the many séance organizers – the mediums and psychics were the worst type of criminal trickster. They preyed upon the emotions of desperate individuals who were dealing with the deep grief of losing a loved one. It is likely that most of the victims probably realized that their experience was a hoax, and that they had been taken advantage of, both emotionally, as well as financially. When possible a number of the mediums and their associates were prosecuted. Others did not see themselves as victims. Despite knowing that they had been duped, they were still able to find a strange type of peace from their personal experience. As mentioned, the individuals who experienced the dead without séances or third party assistance remained content with their memories. Many went to their own graves believing that they had connected with their loved ones.

The notion of “talking to the dead” was an answer for many, but others viewed it as a despicable fraud, and, a fraud that took emotional, as well as financial advantage of those already suffering. Spiritualism is grounded in deep sadness, and an overwhelming need to say goodbye to those already deceased.The Civil War brought about the end of slavery and the re-emergence of the Union. Soon after the war ended, however, the collective memory of millions longed to capture a glimpse, or have one last moment,with a cherished loved one who had been killed in the war.

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at: allencornwell@mac.com

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