Transcript of Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle
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Written by Lindsey Beckley
Produced by Jill Weiss Simins
Voice actor reading from newspaper: The town of Andrews [Indiana] . . . is much disturbed over the result of several spiritualistic séances, which have been held there by a medium named Johnson.
The first séance was held last Saturday night. At the meeting the terrible wreck at Keller’s station some years ago was called up. The five men killed in that wreck, including Trainmaster Wilcox, were talked to, and the noise made by the fated train, the puffing of the engine and the crash of the wreck were plainly reproduced. Those who were present in the room were terribly frightened, so realistic was the scene. A second séance was held at the residence of Robert Hart, with twenty people present. At this séance there were the customary exhibitions of tambourine playing, bell ringing, etc. While the bell was ringing someone requested that it be thrown, and it was hurled across the room with great violence, breaking a lamp chimney in its flight. After the séance was over the medium requested his audience never again to ask the spirits to throw anything, because that was one thing they always did when commanded.
Beckley: Scenes such as this, described in the July 11, 1893 issue of the Indianapolis News, were more common place in the Hoosier state than you might imagine at this time. By the late 19th century, American Spiritualism had swept the nation, including Indiana. And if you look past the spectacle described in that article – the tambourine playing, bell ringing, and flying furniture – you can glimpse the complexities surrounding Spiritualist beliefs. That story, like so many stories in Spiritualism, begins with tragedy. Five local men were killed in a dreadful accident, and here were their neighbors and friends still trying to find closure by calling them back from the dead. In this episode, we’ll explore a movement that meant different things to different people. For some, a night of entertainment. For others, a coping mechanism for unbearable grief.
I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.
Beckley: American Spiritualism, as opposed to spiritualism in the general sense of the word, was a religious movement based in the belief that not only do spirits exist, but they’re able and willing to communicate with the living through mediums. The root of the movement can be traced to the spring of 1848 when the Fox family began to hear knocking noises coming from the walls of their Hydesville, New York home. As the knockings continued, two of the Fox children, Margaret and Catherine, discovered that they could communicate with what they had come to believe was a spirit. Soon, the sisters took this new-found talent to nearby Rochester, New York, where they met prominent Quaker abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post.
In turn, the Posts introduced the young women and their ability to communicate with spirits to their prominent Quaker, Abolitionist, and Methodist friends. Through this network, Spiritualist beliefs were introduced into the highly mobile upper crust of East Coast society. This, alongside the accessible nature of the new movement which replaced the hierarchy and specialized facilities of other religions with a more informal structure, allowed Spiritualism to spread rapidly. Just months after the initial rappings were heard in Hydesville, there were thousands of so called “spirit circles” communicating with sprits in drawing rooms and kitchens up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Spirit circles, or séances, were a part of Spiritualism from the very beginning. Early séances conducted by the Fox sisters were described by historian David Chapman.
Voice actor reading from Chapman: Séances would begin with a prayer, while the party sat around a wooden table in a darkened room. If a spirit made its presence felt, participants could ask it yes-or-no questions, or the spirit might ‘call for the alphabet’ by knocking five times in rapid succession. If this happened someone would recite the alphabet until a knock was heard on a particular letter. This would be repeated until words and sentences were spelled out. The spirits had to be treated with great respect, or else they might refuse to participate.
Beckley: Soon, public demonstrations where hundreds of people gathered to witness the Fox sisters communicating with the spirits were organized.
Beckley: This is yet another factor in the rapid dissemination of American Spiritualism – each and every person who attended a séance or public demonstration was able to go back to their home town and hold a similar circle in their own home, with their own friends, who could in turn repeat the pattern, spreading the movement even further.
In this way, Spiritualism quickly reached the Midwest. By the mid-1850s, less than a decade after the Fox Sisters first made contact with the spirits in upstate New York, Spiritualism was fairly widespread in Indiana. It’s hard to estimate the number of practitioners since there was no formal system of reporting, but one historian claims that by the 1860s, 90% of Angola, Indiana residents were practicing Spiritualists. Of course, that’s an extreme case and the rest of the state was by no means majority-Spiritualist, but it shows how deeply the new religion had permeated Hoosier society. To get an idea of what at least some Indiana spirit circles were like, let’s look at Charles Cathcart, a judge and ex-congressman turned spiritualist.
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Beckley: Originally a skeptic, Cathcart attended his first spirit circle at the home of Mr. Poston of La Porte County, Indiana, with the goal of exposing the fraud he was sure was taking place there. The séances held at this particular circle were much different from those held by the Fox sisters which I described earlier – you see this a lot in Spiritualism since there was no official church structure and practitioners were able to just kind of make things up as they went along. The Poston circle, styled after circles held in Ohio, was a lively affair, similar to that described in the newspaper article at the top of the show.
Beckley: Cathcart arrived to the séance armed with a homemade device that, when deployed, would light up the room in a flash. The lights were put out and the show started with a spirit referred to as “old king” taking up a bass drum. Cathcart deployed his flash device and described what he saw next in the Spiritual Telegraph, a New York-based spiritualist newspaper.
Voice actor reading from newspaper: What a picture for an artist! . . . [I] witnessed the stick beating the drum as if handled from above, and no mortal nearer than about eight feet of it! After striking a few blows by itself, in the light, the stick rose yet higher and leisurely, a curve in the air, gingerly fell on the shoulder of Miss Poston.
Beckley: With this shocking turn of events, Cathcart was a convert. He started his own spirit circle, also in LaPorte County, which was attended by many of his affluent acquaintances. Unsurprisingly, given the theatrical nature of his first encounter with Spiritualism, Cathcart’s own circles were quite showy with flying furniture, disembodied voices, and a veritable ensemble of spirits playing everything from a triangle to the guitar. Obviously, this strain of Spiritualism is much closer to entertainment than to the expression of grief it was for many others. This included May Wright Sewall, who is better known as Indiana’s preeminent suffragist.
In 1895, Sewall’s husband and work partner, Theodore Lovett Sewall died. In the wake of his death, she wrote:
Voice actor reading from Sewall: Unlike many bereaved, I did not seek to forget my sorrow or him whose removal had caused it; on the contrary, I strove to keep the memory of him always present in my own mind.
Beckley: This reluctance to “move on” or forget is prevalent in many who eventually find themselves face to face with a medium, attempting to contact the dead. So it was with Sewall. In August 1897, after delivering a suffrage speech at Lily Dale, one of the largest Spiritualist camps in the country, a series of misfortunes stranded her in the camp for several days. During that time, she met with a medium, a meeting which she describes in her book Neither Dead Nor Sleeping.
Voice actor reading from Sewall: In that sitting, quite contrary to my own expectations, and equally so to any conscious desire, I received letters written upon slates which I had carefully selected from a high pile of apparently quite new and empty ones, had carefully sponged off, tied together with my own handkerchief, and held in my own hands, no other hand touching them. These letters, when read later in my room. . . were found to contain perfectly coherent, intelligent and characteristic replies to questions which I had written upon bits of paper that had not passed out of my hands.
Beckley: From that first experience, Sewall began visiting mediums on a regular basis and kept in regular communication with her deceased husband for the remaining two decades of her life. This was a something she did not share publicly. Neither Dead Nor Sleeping wasn’t published until July, 1920, twenty-three years after she first made contact with her deceased husband. In it, she revealed her Spiritualist beliefs and experiences and laid out her reasons for that belief.
The book was fairly well received, being heralded as an exceptionally logical exploration of the practice of Spiritualism, if a surprising subject for a woman of Sewall’s esteemed reputation to write on. But just two months after its release, with the revelation of Sewall’s convictions still fresh in the minds of Americans, Sewall died in Indianapolis. Her death following so close on the heels of Neither Dead Nor Sleeping resulted in the majority of her obituaries giving an inordinate amount of weight to that part of her life, leaving some of her very impressive accomplishments in the shadows.
Of course, Sewall wasn’t the only prominent Hoosier Spiritualist. Long before Neither Dead Nor Sleeping revealed May Wright Sewall as a convert, Dr. John and Mary Westerfield of Anderson, Indiana, were introduced to the movement. This introduction would eventually lead to the establishment of what would become one of the nation’s most prominent Spiritualist centers.
In 1855, John’s and Mary’s only son, John Jr. died at the age of fourteen. The couple, who organized lectures on various topics of a scientific and pseudo-scientific nature, were already familiar with the idea of Spiritualism. So, perhaps it was natural that they turned to the comfort offered by mediums in their grief. Over the next months, many of those who had attended their lecture series also converted to Spiritualism and this small group began to advocate for a state-wide organization of Spiritualists.
Beckley: Alongside this effort to organize, the Westerfields also began searching for a location for a Spiritualist camp, where believers could congregate and commune.
Beckley: From these efforts, the Indiana Association of Spiritualists was founded in the late 1880s, and in 1890, thirty acres of land was purchased in Chesterfield, Indiana where their Spiritualist camp – Camp Chesterfield – was established.
If you’re imagining a small, backwoods operation, you’re mistaken. When the camp opened, there was a dining hall, lodging house, two séance rooms, a few small cottages, and a tent auditorium structure that seated 500 people. By 1895, an office building, Bazaar building, stables, a grocery store, an ice cream parlor, and a wooden auditorium building had been added to the site, showing a phenomenal amount of growth.
This was far from the last growth spurt that the camp experienced. Under the leadership of Mable Riffle, the camp reached its zenith in the 1920s. Two fully furnished hotels were constructed, as well as a chapel, several more cottages, and a decorative outdoor area. By 1927, the six week season at Champ Chesterfield was drawing an average of 20,000 people. Some of these visitors came seeking the thrill of communing with the spirits and others looking to reach deceased loved ones during a time a grief, illustrated by the increase in attendance in the wake of both World War I and World War II.
Throughout its history, Camp Chesterfield hosted mediums with a wide variety of different Spiritualistic abilities. These included materializing mediumship, a phenomena where a medium summons the physical form of a spirit, and spirit photography, in which the forms of dead loved ones can be seen in the presence of their living family members. And also slate writing, or writing done without the aid of human hands – usually on a slate using chalk.
Yet, not everyone who experienced these supposedly otherworldly happenings were convinced by their experiences at the camp.
Beckley: In 1925, at the height of its popularity, reporter Virginia Swain attended the camp and participated in several séances, which seem to have quite missed the mark on all accounts. The first of a long series of articles written about her time there starts.
Voice actor reading from newspaper: I have met a brother whom I had never heard of before. Nevertheless he died in my arms six months ago – he told me so himself!
Beckley: She goes on to detail a long list of almost laughably bad readings she received at the camp, but even more damaging than the bad press – she reported the perceived fraud to the police and on the very same day her first article ran, news of a mass arrest of 14 mediums was reported. The charges were dropped just weeks later, but the exposé and the arrests left a wake of soured public sentiment in its wake.
In 1960, scandal arose once again when Tom O’Neill, editor of the popular Spiritualist magazine the Psychic Observer and researcher Dr. Andriga Puharrich uncovered fraud while trying to capture the first motion pictures of the materialization of a spirit. With the full knowledge and permission of the mediums conducting the séance, the two men took an infrared camera into the séance room. Looking through the lens of the camera, they saw that what in the dark had looked to be wispy figures emerging from nowhere were actually workers of the camp entering the séance room from a hidden door.
When these findings, and the images captured during the séance, were published in the Psychic Observer under the headline “Fraud Uncovered at Chesterfield Spiritualism Camp,” something rather surprising happened. It was O’Neill, rather than the camp, that came under fire, with droves of advertisers dropping their support for the magazine, eventually leading to its demise. I suppose that’s a clear demonstration of just how deeply adherents to Spiritualism hold their beliefs.
Perhaps the worst blow to the camp came in 1976, when medium Lamar Keene wrote his exposé The Psychic Mafia, in which he laid bare allegations of widespread fraud throughout the camp. According to his claims, there were rooms full of tens of thousands of notecards with information on every person who had ever had a reading at the camp. He told stories of stealing, pickpocketing, and more, all in the name of a good spiritualist reading.
But, of course, even this exposé didn’t spell the end for Champ Chesterfield, which is now considered to be the longest continually active Spiritualist camp in the nation. The camp, like Spiritualism itself, has persisted through scandal, bad press, and more. Today, the camp is a mixture of American Spiritualism, with several resident mediums available for readings, New Age Spiritualism, with meditation retreats and Tai Chi classes, and a training center for up and coming Spiritualist leaders.
Even outside of historical camps like Chesterfield, of which there are a handful left scattered across the country, we still hear the echoes of Spiritualism in modern America. Take, for instance, mediums such as TLC’s “Long Island Medium,” Theresa Caputo, or if you’re a 90s kid like me, Sylvia Brown. Like the Fox sisters in the mid-1800s, these women mix entertainment with amateur grief counseling, helping people through difficult times by giving them the chance to communicate with lost loved ones. Or, if one wants to be cynical about it, using people’s grief for financial gain and personal fame.
But that’s what makes Spiritualism such a wonderfully complex topic. It can be a coping mechanism. It can be entertainment. It has film-flam men and sincere practitioners. Some people feel genuinely helped, and others feel helplessly duped. And we didn’t even get to this, but it was led, in large, by women and had close ties with both the abolition and women’s suffrage movements. But many of its practitioners, like May Wright Sewall, were tarnished by their association with it. Spiritualism is often used as an entry point into ghost stories and ghastly tales, something to be trotted out for Halloween and then put back into the closet with the paper skeletons on November 1, but that paints a much more one dimensional picture of it than in reality. Join us in two weeks when we dig further into this topic with Ball State University professor Rachel Smith, who studies the intersection of Spiritualism and feminism.
[THH theme music]
Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark and Dr. Michella Marino of IHB for lending their voices to today’s episode. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for Listening.
Show Notes for Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle
Braude, Ann, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Britten, Emma Hardinge, Modern American Spiritualism, New York: MDCCCLXX,
Chapin, David, “Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
Keene, M. Lamar, The Psychic Mafia, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1997.
Sewall, May Wright, Neither Dead Nor Sleeping, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1920.
“Events in Hoosierdom,” Indianapolis News, July 11, 1893, 6.
“Mediums Under Bond After Raid,” Muncie Evening Press, August 24, 1925, 1.
“Camp Chesterfield: A Spiritual Center of Light,” campchesterfield.net.