The Strange
Spiritualism The Strange

                                by  Joel Bjorling

A dark room.  The only light is from a flickering candle.
People are gathered around a table, holding hands, while a
blind-folded, heavy-set lady, in a long, flower-print dress,
contacts the spirit world. She breathes deeply as she
enters into a trance.  Suddenly, the table begins to weave.
The people around the table realize, to their consternation,
that it is floating!  Not only that, mysterious instruments
are playing–trumpets, accordions, violins–, but there is no
orchestra (no earthly one, anyway!)  Then, a luminous
presence, a child, dressed in a loose-fitting gown,
penetrates the darkness, with messages from “beyond”.
After the child, other “presence's” appear a mother,
father, grandfather, grandmother, even those unknown to
the sitters.  This meeting, or seance, is purported to be
undeniable proof not only that life survives the grave, but
that the “dead” are readily accessible.
 The aforementioned scenario represents the popular
notion of Spiritualism a medium and sitters, a table, a
dark room, ghostly presence's.  Many such meetings have
occurred throughout history.  However,  Spiritualism,
rather than being a parlor game, is, in fact, a religion, with
ministers, congregations, doctrines, and sacraments.  The
largest Spiritualist denomination is the National
Spiritualist Association of Churches, head quartered in
Cassadaga, Florida.  Other Spiritualist churches are the
Universal Spiritualist Association, the Independent
Spiritualist Association, and the Universal Church of the
 How did Spiritualism start?  From antiquity, man
has communed with gods and spirit beings, to gain their
favor, for wisdom, and for protection.  In ancient Greece,
oracles as at Delphi conveyed messages from the Divine
 Modern Spiritualism began in 1848 in Hydesville,
New York, at the home of John Fox.
 When the Foxes moved into their home in 1847, it
already had a history of strange phenomena.  There were
loud, persistent knockings and rapping's.  They were so
pronounced that the previous owner moved away.  The
Fox’s daughters, Kate and Margaret found that the noises
were not random, but they could respond to them with a
code.  With a series of hand claps, they were able to
establish a means of communication.  The noises were
allegedly caused by a spirit entity, whom they called “Mr.
Splitfoot.”  He revealed that he was a peddler who had
been murdered in the house. Years later, human remains
were rumored to have been found beneath the house.
 Word spread about the children’s discovery.  Kate
and Margaret went to live with their older siblings, and
the spirit manifestations followed them.  Blocks of wood,
with messages on them, were scattered about the house of
their brother David.  The messages admonished, “You
must proclaim this truth to the world.”
 Attempts were made to discredit the sisters and the
most dramatic was when Margaret gave a lecture at New
York’s Academy of Music in which she declared the
manifestations to be a fraud. She “demonstrated” the raps
by “standing on a little pine table, with nothing on her feet
but stockings.  As she remained motionless, loud, distinct
rappings were heard, now in the flies, now behind the
scenes, now in the gallery.”  Later, she recanted her
confession, alleging that it was manipulated by the
churches and by the newspapers.
 Contemporary with the Fox sisters was Andrew
Jackson Davis.  He began conveying messages from
“beyond” while he was under hypnosis.  When entranced,
he gave lectures and diagnosed diseases.  Once, he
claimed that the spirit led him into the Catskill Mountains
where he conversed with Galen, the Greek physician, and
with the Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg (Note:
Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist who purportedly
revealed wisdom from the angelic realms.  He was not a
medium, but due to his angelic revelations, he is credited
as being instrumental in the future development of
Spiritualism).   In 1845, Davis began entering self-induced
trances, which he called a “superior condition.”  An
interesting feature of Davis’ philosophy was his teaching
concerning the “Summerland.”  It was where people go
after death.  According to Davis, it “is vastly more
beautiful than the most beautiful landscape on earth.”  It is
not an ethereal, non-material world, but is approximately
fifty million miles from earth.  It is within our solar
system, near the orbits of Venus and Mercury.  One day,
Davis said, astronomers will be able to see it (even with
their physical eyes).
 Throughout its history, Spiritualism has attracted
scientists as William Crookes, William James, and Oliver
Lodge. Scientific interest in Spiritualism was an effort to
counteract Dawinian materialism, to assert that human
value was not merely the product of natural selection.
The study of spirit phenomena was the mission of the
Society for Psychical Research, in England and in the
United States.  They studied topics as telepathy,
clairvoyance, mediumship, and ghost phenomenon.  One
of the most famous cases was the investigation of the
medium Florence Cook by William Crookes.  Cook
presumably manifested the spirit of “Katie King,” who
emerged from a cabinet while the entranced medium sat
inside.  Critics alleged that Cook and Katie King were, in
fact, the same person.  To answer this criticism, Cook was
attached to an electrical circuit that would break if she (as
Katie King) tried to leave the cabinet.  The circuit was not
broken and Katie still appeared.
 The magician Harry Houdini was an aggressive
critic of Spiritualism.  He began to earnestly study it after
the death of his mother.  He wanted proof of life after
death.  Houdini exposed many fraudulent mediums.  He
and his wife devised a code by which either could
communicate following their deaths. According to popular
reports,  his wife alleged that since his death in 1926, no
message had been received from Houdini. However, the
medium Arthur Ford, in his book Unknown but Known,
stated that after Houdini’s death, messages from Houdini
were conveyed through Ford’s spirit guide Fletcher.  The
Ford-Houdini seances were attended by the editor of
Scientific American, who published a review of the case.
Ford wrote that “Beatrice Houdini testified, when the long
sequence was completed, that the message was the one
she and her deceased husband had agreed upon, and that
it had been transmitted in their private code.”
 The contemporary religion of Spiritualism has no
floating tables or disincarnate voices.  Many of the
services are similar to those of mainstream Protestant
churches.  There are readings from the Bible, a sermon
(often given in trance), and hymns as “In the Garden” or
“Beautiful Garden of Somewhere.”  A distinctive feature
of a Spiritualist service is the “Spirit Greetings.”  These
may be given by various members of the congregation, not
just the minister.  They are psychic impressions or
messages that are given via trance.
 In the Spirit Greetings that I have attended, the
psychic may “touch in” with the sitter by the latter
responding with “hello” or “thank you.”  This, apparently,
gets them into the sitter’s “wavelength.”  The psychic may
give a symbolic message as “I see an Indian carrying a
boat,” or something more direct, “I see a grandmother
standing over your shoulder, giving you flowers.”  Often,
the messages involve American Indians as characters or as
conveyors.  This is because, according to Spiritualists,
Indians were believers in life after death and communing
with spirits.  Some Spiritualists believe that each of us
have Indian “guides,” or spirit advisors.  Commonly,
spirits of Indian children are “joy guides,” who manifest at
the beginning of seances.  They have high, sing-song
voices, with a bright, enthusiastic personality.
 What are we to make of Spiritualism?  Is it a
genuine religion, or is it a clever hoax?  Religion should,
perhaps more than anything else, give people an
understanding of the meaning of life and death.  If not,
then it fails in its most basic purpose. After all, death is a
stark reality of life.  Essentially, I would suggest, religion
is not merely a recitation of creeds, but, more specifically,
it is a way of life, albeit a perspective on life.  In this
sense, Spiritualism meets a very innate need, which is
hope for the future, even beyond physical death.  It gives
promise amidst tragedy.  If death is not the end, then
disability, misfortune, or devastation is not the final
verdict of life.  This is, I would offer, is a most blessed
 Spiritualism offers hope beyond death, but it’s
efforts to actively contact the dead can lengthen the
grieving process.  We may have hope beyond death, but
our deceased loved ones have, in fact, passed on.  They
are no longer of this world.  It has been suggested that an
incessant yearning for them or wanting to contact
them binds them to the earth. Whether or not that is, in
fact, true is impossible to say, but wanting them to return,
or passionately desiring to contact them does not promote
healing. Instead, it creates an emotional attachment.  Hold
their memories dear, remember them with fondness, but
for now, anyway, we are in two different worlds.  We
have to go on living.
 One needs to be skeptical when it comes to
Spiritualism because it has been the realm of hucksters
and frauds, who cannibalize a very tender, human need,
which is the assurance of life beyond death. People have
exclaimed, “But the psychic told me things that only I
know!”, or “I know that message was from my wife
(mother, father, grandfather, etc.).”  Houdini astounded
audiences with his clairvoyant feats, but they were tricks.
Former psychic Lamar Keene, in his book The Psychic
Mafia (St. Martin’s Press, 1976), reported that psychics at
Camp Chesterfield, Indiana often disguised themselves as
spirits, or collected information on sitters, alleging them to
be messages from beyond.
 The fact that there have been tricksters does not
negate the possibility of life after death, nor the possibility
of postmortem communication.  It is difficult to tell if a
psychic or medium is “legit,” even for a skilled psychical
researcher.  Often, the bereaved want to hear from their
deceased love one so much that they suspend critical
judgment.  Each person must weigh the pros and cons of a
psychic, but with the death of a loved one, grief must give
way to healing.  That, and that alone, is paramount.
 Since time immemorial, people have sought advice
from transcendent realms, through oracles, psychics, and
mediums.  We cannot know for certain the nature of life
after death or even if it exists at all–, but Spiritualism
offers a perspective of hope, a way of thinking about life
and death.  Perhaps that perspective is its greatest

1.    For more information on the Fox sisters and the early years of
Spiritualism, see my book Channeling: A Bibliographic
Exploration (Garland Publishing, 1992), The Heyday of
Spiritualism by Slater Brown (Hawthorne Books, 1972), Here, Mr.
Splitfoot by Robert Somerlott (Viking Press, 1971), Beware
Familiar Spirits by John Mulholland (Scribner’s, 1975), and Facts,
Frauds, and Fantasms by Georgess McHague (Doubleday, 1972).
2.    For more information on Andrew Jackson Davis, see my book
Consulting Spirits (Greenwood Press, 1998), and “Andrew Jackson
Davis: Prophet of American Spiritualism”, Journal of American
History, by Robert W. Delp.
3.    Arthur Ford, Unknown but Known, New York: Harper and
Row, 1968, pp.12-13.


             Written by Joel Bjorling - Contact: John McMahon,

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