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May, 2010

5.20.10

The Little Foxes

Below please enjoy a guest post about the origins of Spiritualism by Dianne Salerni, author of the novel We Hear the Dead.

Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox

Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox, lithograph by Currier & Ives. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

SPIRITUALISM, THE BELIEF that the dead dwell in another realm where they can communicate with the living, began as a small movement in the mid-19th century and attracted vast numbers of believers by the end of that century. The idea of “speaking to the dead” still has its place today in popular media, but most people don’t realize that spirit mediums and séances were invented by a pair of adolescent sisters with a clever prank.

On the night before April Fool’s Day in 1848, residents of Hydesville, a small town in upstate New York, were roused from bed by the persistent knocking of their neighbor, John Fox. Mr. Fox frantically bid his neighbors to accompany him back to his house and witness what was happening there: his daughters were communicating with a ghost.

The events of that night were documented in a pamphlet later published by novice journalist, E. E. Lewis. A strange rapping sound emanated from the Fox house—a sound that could not be explained by earthly means, no matter how thoroughly Mr. Fox and his neighbors searched for the cause. When questions were asked, first by the Fox daughters and later by neighbors, the raps appeared to provide answers, knocking once or twice for yes and no. By this spiritual telegraph, as it was later called, the entity identified itself as the spirit of a murdered man buried in the cellar of the house.

Attempts to dig up the cellar resulted in ambiguous evidence, but it was enough to convince the residents of Hydesville. Within a few weeks, word had spread that the two Fox girls—Maggie, age 14, and Kate, age 11—had the ability to call spirits back from the afterlife. The girls were mediums through which the dead could pass messages to their loved ones on earth.

Was it a hoax? Forty years later, Maggie Fox confessed that it was and revealed that she and her sister had, at first, created the rapping noises by snapping the joints in their toes and ankles. Later, they employed other tricks—encouraged and coerced by their older sister, Leah Fish, who realized the potential of their little game and whisked the girls away from Hydesville to set them up as spirit mediums in Rochester, New York.

In Rochester, Leah Fish made a profitable business conducting spirit circles at a dollar a head. Furthermore, she took steps to ensure her success by calling upon her acquaintance with radical Quaker and social reformer Amy Post, who introduced her to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An arrangement of mutual promotion quickly developed. The reform leaders endorsed the spiritualists, and the Fox sisters made certain that the spirits devoted some of their messages to political causes. What started as an evening’s entertainment became a thriving social movement which advocated the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. Soon, new spirit mediums began to crop up all over the country as the movement became more popular and evolved into a religion.

Meanwhile, Maggie and Kate Fox blossomed into America’s first teenage celebrities. Hobnobbing with the rich and famous brought the girls into the social circle of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, a Philadelphia war hero and explorer. Young Dr. Kane immediately saw through their pretense and, developing a romantic interest in Maggie, sought to remove her from the influence of her avaricious older sister. However, not even Maggie’s defection in the cause of love could halt the momentum of her creation. Political and religious forces had shaped spiritualism into a tool for social reform, a means of feminine expression, and a solace to those who found little comfort in more traditional forms of worship.

What began as an innocent prank would shape the history of America and eventually overshadow the two high-spirited girls who began it.

Here is E. E. Lewis’s original pamphlet about the Hydesville Haunting.

And here is Maggie Fox’s signed confession.

Check out Dianne’s blog, follow her on twitter and buy her wonderful book!

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5.13.10

The Medium Had the Message

Eva Carriere

The medium Eva Carrière with a light manifestation between her hands and a materialization on her head. Photograph taken in 1912 by Albert von Schrenck-Notzing.

MEMBERS OF THE Spiritualist movement believed that people lived on in spirit form after they died. These ghostly presences could be contacted through “mediums:” people who were uniquely gifted with the ability to communicate with the spirit world.

Now, by “communicate” I don’t necessarily mean talking. Mediums had all sorts of communication methods at their disposal.

This communication would take place at an event called a “séance.” Here’s an invitation to a séance that our heroine, Jennie, has in her scrapbook; it is based on an actual séance invitation that I saw online from the 1870s.

Seance Invitation

A séance was usually arranged like this: a group of people would gather, often holding hands around a table, preferably in a dark, dark room, presumably to create a welcoming environment for spirits but more likely creating a welcoming environment in which the medium could manipulate his or her various means of speaking with the dead. Which included:

A séance in progress, ca. 1920.

Trances: where the medium fell into a faint or a trance and then spoke as if a spirit was talking through him or her, often in an altered voice. Sometimes there would be one spirit guide who spoke through the medium every time, interpreting what the other spirits in the area were saying. Other times each spirit in turn would get their chance to use the medium’s voice as their own.

Spirit writing: where the medium sat with a pencil or pen, fell into a trance, and began to write as if the dead person were guiding his or her hand. Another spirit writing method involved two slates tied together (that’s old-fashioned little chalkboards used for school lessons way back when). Upon untying them: behold! writing on the boards by unseen hands!

Spirit trumpets: this was exactly what it sounds like. A trumpet hung in the air, and out of it came the eerie whisperings of the dead.

Spirit cabinets: I love this one. The medium got into a special cabinet (I imagine it like a wardrobe or the space that a magician’s assistant gets into only to disappear) and was tied to a chair so that they couldn’t move around. The door was closed, and noises would emanate… rattles, raps, bells….sometimes ghostly hands would be seen floating around the structure.

Rapping: this is ye olde favorite. Where a medium would ask the spirits questions, and then merely ask for a series of knocks as responses to yes or no questions. One rap for yes, for example, two for no. Easily done with cracking knuckles or knocking on something hidden in your skirts. It was often accompanied by table tilting: meaning that the table that the invitees were sitting around would start tipping under their hands, as if moved by ghostly means.

Some of these were so clearly hoaxes it’s hard to believe that anyone could actually fall for it. But they did.

Seance Circle

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5.11.10

The Editor’s Table, Vol. I: A Gentle Remonstration

Miss P

Photograph reproduced with permission by the estate of Prudence Peaseley.

THE EDITOR’S TABLE: “In which our Esteemed Editress, Prudence Peaseley, extends herself from beyond the grave, to give, this week, some Gentle Remonstrations with regard to the Frequent Application of Inconvenient Adjectives.”

Go on, Miss P:

It’s almost noon and you’re three coffees deep inside a page-long description that has more twists and vistas than a Bolivian overpass.  You’re rereading, as you have every day for the past three months, and you’re taking your own breath away, but in the back of your mind, an itch. It’s lovely, right? But maybe it’s also, just possibly, utterly mind-numbingly dull?

The answer, Gentle Writer, is Hells yeah. But fret not. We at PtD.com are all for the gothic flourish, and we’d never want to tread on your soaring truth. But if perchance you have fallen down a descriptive rabbit hole, we want you to get up. Really.

Help us to help you. Simply open your doc and enter a word search for:

bougainvillea

mote

crepuscular

piscine

frisson

gloaming

vertiginous

pellucid

diurnal

flaccid (we kid, we kid. best word ever.)

Any matches? Oh, Excellent. Now, delete that whole paragraph. And then go ahead and delete the next paragraph, too. Just to be safe.

You’re very welcome.

Have a multitudinous day.

(borgeous: BORE-jess. adj. when boring fights gorgeous, and wins.)

“We try to do all this, and if we succeed, we are delighted.”

—P.P., ed., R.I.P.

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5.7.10

The Uses of Snail Mail

envelope front

From my personal collection. A long-haired guy with a Confederate flag being shot out of a Union cannon. Is that a little slave boy there, too?

OF COURSE, LETTERS were just about the only means of long-distance communication during the US Civil War (messenger = excessive. telegrams = expensive. telephones = nonexistent.) They also happened to be an excellent means of propaganda-delivery. The outside of envelopes were emblazoned with slogans and anti-each-other caricatures by the creative folk working for the governments on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

envelope back

From my personal collection, from the back.

A wonderful collection of these crazy envelopes can be found at the Roosevelt Civil War Envelopes Collection, part of Georgetown University’s Digital Special Collections Library. It was donated to the library by Archibald B. Roosevelt, Jr., an American intelligence officer and grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. The collection consists of 370 illustrated envelopes; fascinating stuff. The titles and descriptions of the images alone are worth a visit. Like this keeper:

The pig (Union) will root out the truffle (Confederacy) or die
description: “A pig, representing the Union, is rooting out a truffle, representing the Secession. The pig has the words ‘Root or Die’ in its side. The pig also has a saddle in it, from which the Union flag is flying.”  or

Old Secesh

Old secesh

Old secesh
description: “An amphibian or a lizard. The animal portrayed seems to have have characteristics of both.” or

Little devil blowing bubbles
description: “A little devil is blowing “Seccesion” soap bubbles using material from a “Treason” tray.”

My very favorite is this one:

Abraham Lincoln as pharmacist

Abraham Lincoln as pharmacist

Abraham Lincoln as pharmacist
description: “Lincoln is portrayed as a pharmacist with the names of Union generals on the products that surround him in a pharmacy. The products are meant to cure the illness of secession. The Confederate leaders are shown being hung in specimen bottles.”

Specimen bottles? Wow.

I used similarly colorful envelopes as reference for the letter illustrations in Picture the Dead. Here are some of them.

Envelope: Quinn to Jennie

Envelope: Toby to Jennie

Envelope: Will to Jennie

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5.2.10

How to Draw Like Lisa B.

MY ILLUSTRATIONS WERE created digitally, but I tried to give them an air of old-timey authenticity by basing them on real 19th century photographs. Here’s how they were created:

I started with an old photograph. I tried to find photos of people who closely matched the image I had of the character in my head. This was Quinn. I’ll post more of my models in a later blog entry here.

Step 1

Model for Quinn, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Sometimes I reworked the photo by hand, tracing and sketching and scanning it back into the computer.

hand sketch

For group photos, I occasionally took different characters out of different photographs and made a composite.

hand sketch

Other times I simply traced the photograph as it appeared on my computer screen. I used a software program called Adobe Illustrator. It’s a vector-based drawing program, which means it’s a bit like creating one’s own dot-to-dot.

After tracing, I filled in the elements with blocks of flat color.

Then I refined the art with thin lines and more color. I often played with the hair or clothes, if what I wanted the character to look like differed from the original photograph.

Finally, I added the background. I made the background patterns by tracing old Victorian wallpaper patterns.

Done!

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