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.
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:
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.