The Progressive era of the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century sparked a dramatic shift in the American social paradigm. The Industrial Revolution, beginning before the Civil War, forced the rapid conversion of the nation from agrarianism to urbanization with such magnitude that propelled our civilization into a new reality, and with it, new concepts of being, living, and working that were previously never considered. Scientific discovery, industrial technology and social reforms of the Progressive era fired the imagination and provided individuals with a new sense of identity and purpose. New ideas and new possibilities emerged in the minds of men and women once thought as utterly impossible. Nicola Tesla gave us electrical theory and his precursory electronic inventions inspired the work of other inventors for decades to come. Thomas Edison gave the world the light bulb, and Tesla's and Edison's combined efforts literally shed new light on a dark world. Samuel Morse opened the door to instantaneous worldwide, two-way communication, and Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraphy gave us the radio. Aside from the material, human cognitive machinations reconstituted the age-old quest of human physiological and psychological existential understanding. Regarding that quest, history textbooks list The Spiritualist Movement of the early eighteenth century among the various social reformation efforts during the Progressive Era. However, The Spiritualist Movement was not the only spiritual revolution, nor the most recent, but was merely one of an untold number of metaphysical ideations in a long succession of spiritualist movements throughout history.
While history may record a defined beginning and ending of the Spiritualist Movement, Spiritualism is not so finite as it has no beginning and will never have an end. The Spiritualist Movement began on a small farm in upstate New York. In Hydesville, New York in 1847, John David and Margaret Fox and their two daughters, Kate, age twelve, and Maggie, age fifteen, began to experience a strange phenomenon in their small homestead that had already been thought to be haunted. The family became increasingly disturbed by strange sounds of unknown origin. Rappings and knocks on wood and sounds similar to wooden furniture dragged across the floor could be heard almost every night at bedtime. Considered to be paranormal activity, Kate Fox took it upon herself to question and challenge the source of the knockings and eventually developed a system to retrieve yes/no answers from the supposed entity: one knock for ‘no’ and two knocks for ‘yes’. Upon discerning the messages they received from the entity, The Fox Sisters, as they would later be called, determined the entity to be the spirit of a traveling merchant by the name of Charles B. Rosner who was murdered in the house five years prior and buried under the homestead’s basement. Word of the living-spirit interaction got out to the public and had an impassioned ripple effect on and throughout the community.
Soon after, the Fox Sisters were invited to exhibit their ability of spirit communication to the community leaders, Isaac and Amy Post, who identified the Fox Sisters as spirit mediums. The Posts helped the sisters proliferate their ability, capturing the attention of a man named Andrew Jackson Davis. Davis, a self-studied intellectual in the concept of animal magnetism, was so impressed by and believed so whole-heartedly in the Fox Sisters that he developed his spiritualist theories around the phenomena and took the Fox Sisters on tours from city to city showing off the sisters’ psychic abilities. Davis would then give lectures explaining the esoteric “science” behind the events. Thus, Andrew Jackson Davis became the “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism.” Within the next few years, The Fox Sisters gained many more notables in following of the new faith such as P.T. Barnum, Edgar Allen Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Even though Margaret Fox confessed that her and her sister’s promotion of spirit manifestation was a deception, the “exposure did not slow down the growth in spiritualism, nor damage the reputation of the sisters” (Abbott). The Spiritualist Movement was born, and its adherents were known as Spiritualists.
The movement took America and Europe by storm and eventually boasted over eight hundred million members across the two continents. The largest amplification of the Spiritualist Movement came during and after the Civil War by which the staggering death toll sent thousands flocking to Spiritualist churches and seances hoping to make contact with deceased loved ones slain in the war. By the early 1900’s, and as the Spiritualist Movement was sweeping the nation despite serious opposition, such as the great illusionist and magician Harry Houdini who made it his life’s work to discredit the movement, Spiritualism became not only a predominant religious movement but also a new scientific discipline, albeit unempirical. An editorial of the Journal of Scientific Exploration explains the scientific community’s growing interest in Spiritualism during this period stating,
“One of the reasons this period is so important is that some physical mediums clearly stood out from the crowd. No matter how carefully they were controlled, and no matter how alert, competent, and familiar with conjuring were their investigators, these mediums produced effects that couldn’t plausibly be dismissed as fraudulent or attributed to malobservation” (Braude 220).
Therefore, debunkers exposed and routed a great number of obvious charlatans, but more than enough undeniable evidence remained that warranted further attention and study.
Educated followers of the Spiritualist Movement helped to develop this new parapsychological science by referring to and incorporating the theories and teachings of the forerunners of modern psychology such a Franz Mesmer. In the 1700’s, Franz Anton Mesmer of Vienna, Austria researched astronomy and its magnetic effects on human health as it pertained to his theory of Animal Magnetism. Mesmer used alternative healing techniques in which the subject would be mesmerized into an altered state of consciousness. During this half-sleep state, the subject’s ailments reportedly healed through the power of suggestion. Mesmer’s technique would be later coined as hypnosis by hypnotist John Braid in 1841. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), designated as “The Father of Spiritualism” is another major reference source of the Spiritualist Movement. Further justification of Spiritualism came from the resurgence of Old World, pre-Christian era Paganism. The basic tenets of Spiritualism are derived from shamanic beliefs and practices of indigenous cultures all over the world and dating back to the beginnings of man. Humans are naturally hard-wired with gravitation towards spiritual thought, and our evolutional development has always carried with it conscious and subconscious awareness of the mind-body-spirit connection. It has been the lifelong study of philosophers throughout the ages from Sophocles to Egyptian sleep temples to the Greco-Roman Oracle of Delphi and on. Over the course of human existence, spiritual philosophy evolved into intricate webs of thought and discipline branching into various organized religions, eclectic and personal spiritual paths, even transforming into concrete, empirical scientific disciplines of sociology, psychology, and healthcare.
Technological advances of the nineteenth century has also lent credibility to the Spiritualist Movement as some scientists and engineers converted and redesigned electronic instruments for use in paranormal investigation and spirit communication. These wondrous technologies produced the world we live in today, but one invention served in quite a different capacity. Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph in the 1870’s which recorded audio on a foil cylinder. For the first time, music and human voice can be recorded and played back to a fascinated audience. Edison’s phonograph, designed initially to revolutionize the music entertainment industry, also served a latent function; it may have enabled communication with the dead.
Progressivists utilized cutting-edge technology of the times to further the study and practice of communication with the afterlife. Later investigators and practitioners found the phonograph to be a useful tool for the endeavor. In fact, the first known case, decisively coining the term Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), was entirely unexpected. In 1901, anthropologist, Waldemar Bogoras, used a phonograph in Siberia to record the sounds, chants, and incantations of a Chukchi tribal elder during a shamanic ritual. During the ceremony, Bogoras quietly observed. When Bogoras played back the audio of the ritual from the phonograph, he heard voices that apparently did not belong. These voices were not speaking in the Chukchi language but spoken in English and Russian. Bogoras could not explain where the voices were coming from since he was the only person of Anglo decent present at the ritual. The disembodied voices remain unexplainable to this day. Demetrius, the Co-Founder of the Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society (OCPRS), mentions Bogoras’ findings in the society’s newsletter stating, “According to some sources, the Minnesota State University continues to maintain and study the recording. Despite examinations by physicist, the recording remains unexplainable”. Demetrius goes on to state, “Bogoras’ recording is not only the earliest but is the most credible and fascinating piece of evidence considered to be paranormal.” News of Bogoras’ discovery found its way back to America which sparked the Spiritualist Movement’s increased usage of the phonograph to attempt communication with the beyond. Groups of individuals conducting seances using the phonograph to play specific musical selections that were thought to stimulate spirit activity wildly proliferated. After completion of the seances, researchers scrutinized the phonographic recordings attempting to audibly detect subtle verbal utterances from the ranks of the deceased.
Inspired by the Spiritualists use of his phonograph, Edison and his assistant, Dr. Miller Hutchinson, embarked upon a project in the 1920’s to invent a telephonic machine designed for the sole purpose of communication with the dead. Edison announced his development of the device in an article of The Scientific American in 1921, by stating:
If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical or scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect, other faculties, and knowledge that we acquire on this Earth. Therefore, if personality exists after what we call death, it is reasonable to conclude that those who leave the Earth would like to communicate with those they have left here. I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something. (Lescarboura 458)
Unfortunately, Thomas Edison died in 1931 before he could finish his project and no other successor appeared to continue his work. New and improved technologies such as the gramophone and the radio soon replaced the phonograph, and the search for intelligent supernatural afterlife continued through them. (Yarbrough)
With the film and television industry notwithstanding, technological advances in the late 1920’s leveled off as the Progressive era tapered to its inevitable end. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing devastation of the Great Depression deprived American society of its former glory. Progressivism and the zeal of social reform lost its luster. The 1930’s marked the end of the Progressive era as America returned to an isolationist state, and with it, the Spiritualist Movement. However, Spiritualism was never truly abandoned but only retreated to the shadows of society and reserved for itself the proverbial backseat until it found future favor in the hearts and minds of society once again. Another major social paradigm shift shook the foundational laissez-faire social attitude and revitalize the U.S. economy as well as the American individual from lowly farmer to factory foreman to federal politician. The Great War, or World War I, awakened the American spirit and pushed the passive into action. As the death toll of the war escalated, a revival of the Progressive era Spiritualism emerged just as it did, and for the same reasons, as the Civil War decades prior. From there, the Spiritualist Movement relocated its path and reembarked upon its evolutionary course.
Over the next four decades, refueled by subsequent conflicts such as World War II, The Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the Spiritualist Movement remained intact even though it never fully recovered its prominent position on the societal stage it once held in the early 1900’s. Spiritualism diverted on a new trajectory in the 1960’s and 70’s as paranormal studies transitioned from the domain of the general layman to scholarly review. Scientists in the fields of technology and healthcare began taking a closer look at undeniable and overwhelming amount of unexplainable aspects of supernatural experiences. Much was reasonably explained away and those things disproven were cast to the side, but much more created more questions than they answered. With the general but undeclared sentiment of, “If there is nothing to it then there would be nothing to experience,” paranormal studies captured the attention and imagination of the scientific community and thus, furthered its evolution from merely the stuff of fiction and fantasy to serious empirical study.
A 2013 BBC News article entitled, The people that think they tune into dead voices, investigated a critical moment in paranormal investigation history with the study of early EVP experimentation. In 1969, a Latvian doctor, Konstantin Raudive, publicly introduced a machine that he had been using for experiments in spirit communication. Raudive’s technique used basic radio frequency to produce what he called “white noise” as a medium and energy source for spirits to use for communication with the living. During the sound of constant radio static, the investigator would ask a series of questions, then stop the device and playback a recording of the static session to listen for possible answers to the questions. Raudive called his technique Electronic Voice Projection or EVP (Jenkins). His technique proved to revolutionize the field of paranormal research that continues development to this day.
Mass media television broadcasts greatly impact our lives today more than any other time in American history. Reality TV was born in the 1950’s through the 1960’s when producers and directors began experimenting with unscripted drama formats, but it wasn’t until the late 80’s to early 90’s that Reality TV reached its highest apex. Television producers broke the mold of contrived “perfect family” sitcoms and debuted television shows such as “Cops,” “Survivor,” “American Idol,” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” From the midst of these new provocative, unscripted dramas in which anything could happen, paranormal reality shows, documentaries, and docudramas specifically focused on ghost hunting took root and began transforming viewer perceptions about the existence of human and other ethereal spirits walking amongst us. The Travel Channel capitalized on the massive ratings these paranormal shows were producing and became more of a ghost channel than what its name advertises.
“Paranormal State” and “TAPS” were the first of a long line of competitive television programs featuring groups and societies of paranormal investigators dedicated to serious paranormal research while inspecting abandoned buildings and graveyards attempting to locate, communicate with, and document spirit manifestations. Equipped with all the latest cutting-edge electronic detection devices derived from the Industrial Revolution and the Spiritualist Movement of the eighteenth century, a new version of the Spiritualist Movement is underway. Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) recorders, electromagnetic frequency (EMF) meters, night vision/full spectrum video cameras, FLIR thermal cameras, motion detectors, and ghost boxes are just some of the modern technological adaptations of eighteenth century and early nineteenth century components. With modern technology in hand, paranormal investigators on and off the record have conducted thousands of cases and captured, documented, and recorded an extensive amount of unexplainable phenomena. Seeing is believing, and even though paranormal research is still in its pseudo-scientific infancy, the truly scientific community can no longer deny the incontestable evidence.
The mysterial trappings of the Spiritualist Movement predates the Fox Sisters by millions of years, ever since man began standing upright and making stone tools. Existence of the human soul, death and life after death, the Spirit World(s), the mind-body connection, and the mysterious emergent properties of human intelligence and potential have plagued scientists and philosophers for ages. Driven by technology, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are the beginning of a new spiritual era as modern scientists conceptualize and theorize on these age-old questions. As empirical supernatural study moves into the scientific realm, the Spiritualist Movement, in any form, is here to stay and will continue to push the boundaries of human development and enlightenment for many more ages to come.
“History of Modern Spiritualism.” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/spiritualism/history/history.shtml. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
Abbott, Karen. “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.” Smithsonian.com, 30 Oct. 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-fox-sisters-and-the-rap-on-spiritualism-99663697/.
Braude, Stephen. "Editorial." Journal of Scientific Exploration, vol. 28, no. 2, Summer2014, pp. 219-227. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=97436411&site=ehost-live.
Demetrius. “The ‘Ghost Box’ Fraud.” Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society, Toronto, Canada, 17 Feb. 2011, https://ocprstoronto.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/the-%E2%80%9Cghost-box%E2%80%9D-fraud/.
Jenkins, Jolyon. “The People Who Think They Tune into Dead Voices.” BBC News, 25 March 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21922834.
Lescarboura, Austin C. “Edison's Views on Life and Death.” Scientific American, vol. 123, no. 18, 1920, pp. 446–460., www.jstor.org/stable/24991827.
Yarbrough, Don. Blog Post. “The Phonograph: The First Paranormal Communication Device.” Blogger.com, 12 March 2018, https://donparadocs.blogspot.com/.
Originally authored: 6 April 2018