Hello from the Other Side: The Occult Phenomena of Spiritualism in Central Canada

If you think back on any of the horror films you’ve seen recently, or the science fiction novels you’ve read, how many of these have themes or actions where people contact the dead or interact with ghostly apparitions? What about notions of an elaborate spirit world that interrelates with the laws of our physical world? Or individuals with superhuman abilities like mind-reading, clairvoyance, telepathy, or telekinesis? These themes are core aspects of the Spiritualist movement which have been hybridized and diffused, becoming the defining touch to horror, science fiction, and related genres. But where did this phenomena come from and why? While modern media portrayals of Spiritualism may involve Ouija boards and séances to foreshadow the horrific events that result from the release of evil spirits of the Beyond, the actual phenomena of Spiritualism is rooted in a complex network of socio-political interactions at the turn of the 20th century between the advent of science and technology, the women’s rights movement, and WWI.

The information accompanying the spirit album states that the table is levitating – in reality the image of a ghostly arm has been superimposed over the table through double exposure. Photograph 1920 by William Hope (1863-1933). National Media Museum Collection: 2002-5054/10. Public Domain.

Spiritualism arose at the turn of the 20th century, when North American society was dominated by Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. However, traditional beliefs were being challenged by the rise of sects and cults arriving in Upper Canada from the northern United States, including Unitarianism, Swedenborgianism, Universalism, Quakerism, and Shakerism. Many of these new sects adopted and incorporated what can be considered progressive beliefs into their doctrines, including the equality of women and men, a stance against slavery, and an emphasis on an individualistic experience of religion and connection to God1. Concurrently, new developments in science and technology, such as electricity and radios, began clashing with many religious beliefs. The ability of science to transform and harness non-visible matter sparked a notion that science could help to explain or explore religious questions, such as the existence of an afterlife. For instance, while telephones today are commonplace, the idea of a disembodied voice located miles away, speaking to you through a machine, made contact with the dearly departed a relatively logical thought at the turn of the century; for the dead were also disembodied, and perhaps living on in an immaterial plane that we could not see or touch without a proper machine or tool to mediate (like radio waves or magnetic energy). This unique period of cultural change between the late 19th and early 20th centuries fostered an environment that allowed Spiritualism to develop as a faith that drew from the doctrines of established creeds, while actively engaging in the debate over science and religion.

Portrait of Kate and Maggie Fox, Spirit Mediums from Rochester, New York. Along the bottom edge of the daguerreotype “Kate and Maggie Fox, Rochester Mediums, T.M. Easterly Daguerrean” is inscribed. Title: Kate and Maggie Fox, Spirit Mediums from Rochester, New York. UND. Public Domain.

Most Spiritualists credit Kate and Margaret Fox with the creation of the movement in New York State in 18481,2. The sisters worked out a code of raps to communicate with a ghost that had made itself known at the Fox cabin in Hydesville, New York. This ability to communicate with spirits made sensational and often turbulent careers for the Fox sisters, and the phenomena of ‘table rapping’ or ‘table turning’ spread throughout the United States, Upper Canada, and Europe over the next ten years. While the Fox sisters had lived in Belleville, Canada West, up until 1848 and subsequently moved south to the United States, their elder sister Elizabeth married and remained in Prince Edward County, Ontario. Elizabeth’s famous sisters visited her in 1855 and again in 1856, causing a local stir of interest in Spiritualism and occult phenomena. Notable early writers such as Dunbar and Susanna Moodie held multiple séances in Upper Canada after their exposure to the table rapping Fox Sisters in 1855, and helped to spread the phenomena1. In addition to serving as a sheriff for Victoria District from 1839 to 1863, Dunbar was one of many individuals interested in the scientific evaluation of séances and mediums. His years of experimentation included the development of machines and inventions that would aid in the speed and connection of mediums to their spirits.

A noted trend among early spiritualists was a visible bias of female mediums and followers, which some scholars attribute to the influence of the women’s rights movement. The American women’s rights movement also began in northern New York State in 1848, and heavily influenced Spiritualist ideals. While not all feminists were spiritualists, most spiritualists advocated for women’s rights and helped to spread these ideals along with their religious message3. Feminist scholars examining the interaction between the two movements suggest that women may have been attracted to Spiritualism because it provided a space to exercise leadership derived from direct, individual spiritual contact rather than from office, position, or training3.

Margaret and Catherine Fox eventually confessed in 1888 that they created the rapping sounds by popping their toes, rather than obtaining any real connection with the spirit realm4. However, the spiritualist movement had become so popular and widespread that most dedicated spiritualists viewed these confessions as ploys for attention and money. Spiritualism continued to grow as a religion and movement, reaching its peak in the 1930s. Government census records provide a surprising insight into the popularization of Spiritualism as a religion in the early 20th century. The 1901 census was the first time Spiritualism was listed or recorded as a religion, with a total of 616 declarants across Canada5. This increased to 677 in the 1911 census6, and rose again in 1921 with a total of 1558 declarants7. The dramatic increase in declared Spiritualists can be partly attributed to WWI, where many soldiers lost their lives overseas and could not be returned to their loved ones for burial. The promise of Spiritualism to connect people with their lost loved ones attracted many followers. In Canada, the majority of declared spiritualists were located in Ontario, followed by British Columbia and Alberta. By 1921 every district in Alberta had at least one declared spiritualist, and one can assume many more participated on a casual basis in the church services, public séances, or private readings. It can also be seen from the table below that the concentration of Spiritualists is focused on an urban setting rather than rural, a pattern that is seen across Canada. While these records do not account for all participants or the general interest regarding Spiritualism, it can provide a small glimpse into the spread of Spiritualism as a recognized religion.

“Seance at von Erhardt’s – Table in the air” published 1909 by the Bain News Service. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014683123/

Since the peak of the Spiritualist Movement in Canada around 1930, the movement has steadily declined and lost followers. However, Spiritualism still exists today in religion, pseudo-science, and cultural themes. The First Spiritualist Church in Calgary (established in 1920) still practices the Spiritualist doctrine and actively engages in séances and private readings8. Church activities are led by mediums, born with natural talent, with an array of mediumships such as channelling, auto-writing, trance, or trumpet circles. Other spiritualists (or their derivatives) can be found across North and South America, with Spiritism (a branch of Spiritualism) being the third largest religious group in Brazil with over 2.3 million followers. Intriguingly the dichotomy between religion and science inherent in early Spiritualism still continues when it comes to contacting the dead, as investigators of paranormal activity seek to scientifically identify and record paranormal phenomena, often resulting in television entertainment of questionable quality. Societies such as TAPIS (The Alberta Paranormal Investigation Society) or CHAPS (Canadian Haunting and Paranormal Society) coalesced and established themselves out of the early scientific obsession with the physical recording of séances and other spiritual activity. Many modern paranormal investigations still hold true to the experience of séances in the 20th century. EMF meters, which detect and measure electromagnetic fields, are touted as necessary equipment for the identification of ghosts, along with motion sensor cameras, laser thermometers, and listening devices. Other more general influences of Spiritualism include the diffusion of these themes into film and media. While the obvious example of this includes most of the horror genre, science fiction movies such as Star Wars also borrow many Spiritualist themes. For instance, the ‘Force’ is an extension of telekinetic and telepathic abilities that allow greater connection to a plane of being that is removed from the daily life of most people, and can only be accessed and mediated by a specific group of people (Jedi). While Spiritualism as a movement has declined throughout the last century, its cultural effects are still felt through the development and changes of religious groups, paranormal societies, and media.

Can you think of any other media or novels that borrow Spiritualist themes? Let us know in the comments below!

Written By: Talisha Chaput, Summer Graduate Intern, Archaeological Survey

References:

  • McMullin, S. E. (2004). Anatomy of a Seance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada (Vol. 148). McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.
  • Lowe, J., & Zu Erpen, W. J. M. (1990). “The Canadian Spiritualist movement and sources for its study.” Archivaria, 30.
  • Braude, A. (2001). Radical spirits: Spiritualism and women’s rights in nineteenth-century America. Indiana University Press.
  • Davenport, R.B., (1888). The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: being the true story of the Fox sisters, as revealed by authority of Margaret Fox Kane and Catherine Fox Jencken. GW Dillingham.
  • Fourth Census of Canada, 1901, 1 (Ottawa 1901) table 8, pp. 144-145.
  • Fifth Census of Canada, 1911, 2 (Ottawa 1911) table 1, pp. 2-3.
  • Sixth Census of Canada, 1921, 1 (Ottawa 1921) table 34, pp. 572-573.
  • Collett, H. L. (1975). First Spiritualist Church : a short account of Spiritualism in Calgary. Calgary: Century Calgary Publications.

T.G. Hamilton’s Photos of Ectoplasm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0HncGNBCqY

Online records of Canadian Census can be found here: http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/census/Pages/census.aspx

Further Reading:

  • Braude, A. (2001). Radical spirits: Spiritualism and women’s rights in nineteenth-century America. Indiana University Press.
  • Christopher, M. (1975). Mediums, mystics & the occult. Ty Crowell Company.
  • Collett, H. L. (1975). First Spiritualist Church : a short account of Spiritualism in Calgary. Calgary: Century Calgary Publications.
  • Davenport, R. B. (1888). The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: being the true story of the Fox sisters, as revealed by authority of Margaret Fox Kane and Catherine Fox Jencken. GW Dillingham.
  • Lowe, J., & Zu Erpen, W. J. M. (1990). “The Canadian Spiritualist movement and sources for its study.” Archivaria, 30.
  • Massicotte, C. (2013). Talking Nonsense: Spiritual Mediums and Female Subjectivity in Victorian and Edwardian Canada. PhD Dissertation, UWO.
  • McMullin, S. E. (2004). Anatomy of a Seance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada (Vol. 148). McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.
  • Moreman, C. M. (2013). The Spiritualist Movement. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
  • Porche, J., & Vaughan, D. (2004). Psychics and Mediums in Canada. Dundurn.
  • Robertson, B. A. (2016). Science of the Seance: Transnational Networks and Gendered Bodies in the Study of Psychic Phenomena, 1918-40. UBC Press.
  • Roxburgh, E. C. (2008, August). The psychology of spiritualist mental mediumship. In The Parapsychological Association, Inc. 51st Annual Convention & The Incorporated Society for Psychical Research 32nd Annual Convention (p. 204).
  • Washington, P. (1995). Madame Blavatsky’s baboon: a history of the mystics, mediums, and misfits who brought spiritualism to America. 1st American ed. New York: Schocken Books.

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