Séances and Table Tipping in the 19th and 20th Centuries
A Fascination With the Dead
Thinking about what people experienced in their everyday lives back in the 1800s and early 1900s would make many of us realize how easy we have it today. People in the Victorian era saw more than one person in their immediate family die. So you can imagine how death might have affected their lives on a very deep level. Some of these people became so fascinated with death and with reaching their loved ones that they began trying to make contact with their dead loved ones.
Contact was attempted through séances and mediums, table tipping and spirit writing, and sometimes through spirit photography. But were these methods actually successful or were they all a hoax? We'll explore the world of séances in the Victorian era and see how it brought about an entire religious movement known as Spiritualism that has survived to this day. We will also explore the key figures in the Spiritualist movement and see how they influenced the world around them and the world unseen.
The Fox Sisters & Cora Hatch
Spiritualism was a movement that was considered a new religion that focused a lot of its efforts on talking to the dead. There were a few key people to whom we can attribute the establishment of Spiritualism. The Fox Sisters were probably the most famous of these people. Leah, Margaret, and Kate Fox were three ordinary farmer's girls in the state of New York in the 1800s. They would have been just like any other group of forgotten sisters from that time period, except for the fact that they could talk to the dead. One spirit, in particular, is what started the whole thing...a spirit by the name of Rosna. When Margaret and Kate were 15 and 12, they began hearing tapping noises on the floor and walls...in their own bedroom. These tappings were noticed by their mother, father, and eventually, the entire town was talking about the unusual tapping noises coming from the Fox house.
The two Fox sisters began talking to the tapping noises, and when they asked certain questions the tapping noises would answer with a certain number of taps. These tapping noises were said to have been made by the spirit Rosna, who was a peddler in the 1800s. He told the girls that he had been murdered by the previous home's owner and buried in the cellar. The Fox family tried desperately to dig up the cellar floor to find the spirit's remains but found nothing but a tin box and some hair that wasn't fully identifiable as a human's. People from all over came to watch the Fox sisters communicate with the tapping spirit. Pretty soon, the Fox sisters were the most famous mediums in the country and so began the Spiritualist movement. If you were wondering where Leah Fox came into play, she was the eldest sister who capitalized on her younger sisters' talent. She had no real supernatural powers of her own but was utterly obsessed with ghosts and the paranormal.
Another rather famous Spiritualist and medium was Cora L.V. Scott, also known as Cora Hatch at her most popular time. Cora was married at least three times, but during the time she was Cora Hatch she was most revered for her "trance lecturing". It was thought that she could go into a trance and allow the spirits to talk through her. There were a couple books written with her lectures, much of them emanating a very pantheistic point of view. Cora wasn't one to do much of the table tipping or elaborate séances, but she was always one to give her knowledge while in her trance-like state. She was famous with the men, as she was beautiful, eloquent, and intelligent. She was another of the key persons in the Spiritualist movement of the Victorian era. But there were many others...
What a Séance Room Might Have Looked Like in Victorian Times...
Séances and Contacting the Dead
So what were the Victorian séances like? Did a couple of children sit around a Ouija board and hope to talk to the devil? No, it was much different than what we might imagine a séance to be nowadays. Séances were taken very seriously but the people who performed and endorsed them. Imagine this:
You walk into a room with hardwood floors, your heels loudly clicking notifying all of your presence. The room is quite dark minus a few lit candles on a round table in the middle of the room. The air in the room is rather cold, chills frequently shoot up your spine. You've got the goosebumps, and there's no hiding that you're a bit reluctant of this upcoming event. You've been invited to a séance...you look around the room. Your Aunt Betty, Uncle Peter, and Mama are all there. Daddy is out of town and won't be home for days still. Mama wanted to try to talk to William. He's been gone for almost a year, and Mama can't stop crying over him. She heard that the next-door neighbor was what the town calls a "Spiritualist"...which is someone who believes and talks to spirits, and so she asked her to come over and put on a séance. You sit down and everyone interlocks hands. The medium (your neighbor) gives instructions for everyone to relax...and then the ritual starts.
These séances could be frightening in nature, but sometimes they could be rather boring too. It really all depended on who was leading the séance in those times. Since the beginning of the Spiritualist movement and the Fox Sisters' phenomenon, many fraudulent mediums came forward...greedy people just trying to make a buck or two off the poor folks in mourning. So one had to be wary of who was trying to scam and who was actually an authentic medium. But one thing is for sure, when the real seances happened...you would have known it.
You might have heard strange sounds, rappings on the floors, ceiling, or walls. Perhaps a bell ringing in the distance. Maybe the medium in your séance performed some spirited writing, which is when the medium writes while in a trance allowing the spirits to communicate through her and onto a piece of paper. Or maybe the medium used a tarot deck or spirit board. The ways in which mediums and spiritualists communicated with the spirits was vast—just as it is today.
I think the real difference between séances today and séances in the Victorian era is the desperation for the people who get involved. Again, many of us today see and experience some death during our lifetimes, but in the times when no antibiotics or western medicine could heal even the smallest of sicknesses, people of those times faced death on a yearly basis. They lost so many people that were dear to them that all they could do was go on with life...but others wanted desperately to make contact with their loved ones on the other side. This longing to make contact might have stemmed from a tradition of our ancient ancestors...to honor and revere the dead. The belief that the other side was merely through a very thin veil...and sometimes we can see through that veil to the spirits on the other side.
Did you know that Mary Todd Lincoln (President Abraham Lincoln's wife) conducted more than one séance in The White House during the 1800s? Yes, her son Willie died at a young age, and since his death, she was obsessed with Spiritualism and anything having to do with contacting the spirit world. She wanted to talk to her dead son...and it didn't matter what it took to do so. Even good ol' honest Abe gave in to her desires and was said to have joined in the seances at one point. Could they have opened a portal in The White House itself? There are many tales of it being haunted, after all.
Spirit Photography & Ectoplasm
Spirit photography became a popular thing in the Victorian era, another side effect of the Spiritualist movement. What was spirit photography? To put it simply it was the belief that photographs could capture ghosts on camera during a séance. I am a believer that spirits can easily be picked up on film and video; however, when it comes to the actual photographs produced from the Victorian era, they are not very believable and many of them have been debunked.
Take for instance the work of T.G. Hamilton. He traveled around with one particular medium named Mary Marshall and supposedly captured ectoplasm in his photography. Ectoplasm is a liquid-type substance that spills from a medium's orifices during a heavy séance or contact with the dead. T.G., unfortunately, was faking this ectoplasm and taking photographs using double-exposure methods and fake supplies such as pantyhose, gloves, etc. to make the photographs look real. Check out the picture to the right as a blatant example. Many times the "spirits' faces" would show up in these pictures enveloped in the medium's ectoplasm.
Even though there were many frauds during this time of mystery and growth, I believe that there were just as many real mediums.
Spirit photography must have been a spin-off of the Victorian post-mortem photography, which was a custom that was very widespread for that day and age. If you were to ask people today what they thought about taking pictures of dead relatives, they would be repulsed and left aghast. But back then, and as I've said before, death was a part of many peoples' every day lives...and many times they were not able to afford photography during a person's life. And so they had pictures taken of them in death so as to hold on to that last glimpse in time. Perhaps they thought that taking pictures during séances would reveal their dead loved ones' spirits on the other side.
So now we get to the really interesting stuff. We know about the spirit rappings that made the Fox Sisters so famous and prevalent amongst the Spiritualist community. But there were other ways to talk to the spirits. One of the most popular but most daring ways to make contact was the method of table tipping (or tilting). It was also one of the cheapest and easiest ways to make contact with the other side. People from all walks of life, with or without a professional medium, could try to make contact with the other side. All they needed was a quiet place, themselves, and a table in the middle!
Table tipping was exactly how its name implies. A small group of people would sit in a circle around a relatively smaller round table (usually) and try to make contact with the other side. They would ask questions and the spirits were thought to tip and tilt the table in certain directions as to answer a "yes" or "no"...and sometimes more. The tables have even been known to levitate...literally leave the floor and travel mid-air during a particularly strong séance. The people in the room would no doubt have believed wholeheartedly that this was the work of the spirits...potentially past loved ones. But since the Victorian times, this phenomenon has been examined by scientists and paranormal investigators alike. A few of them have put forth theories that spirit contact does not cause the table tipping phenomenon, but in fact, it is caused by collective energy...a collective thought that literally manifests into reality. Could the spirit rappings and ouija boards also be just manifestations of collective energy from a group of individuals?
A Hoax or Reality?
The Spiritualist movement beginning in the 1800s has lasted through to today. It has evolved and morphed into more than one denomination and sect, including European and Latin American types. While Spiritualists are mainly focused on talking to the other side, they also believe in a God and find that some of these spirits are indeed beneficial and are God's messengers. Of course, if you're not careful, you could run into a spirit that isn't so beneficial or positive. And that's where the Fox Sisters and others got themselves into trouble in Victorian times.
There were a few people who traveled around the country with a sole purpose of debunking fake mediums and séances. One of these debunkers was none other than the amazing Houdini. The ironic thing is that Houdini used his phony magic to trick people into believing in the unknown and mysterious...but then later in his life he spent all of his efforts debunking others who tried the same things in order to make a buck. But was he right? Were all of the Spiritualists and mediums fake, or were some of them real and genuine in their beliefs and actions?
If we were to go back in time to the Victorian era, would we find that the séances were all a farce? Would we laugh at the idiocy, or would we see that these people were actually talking to their dead loved ones? What do you think...hoax or reality?
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Nicole Canfield