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Ghosts, Seances and Spiritualism

Credit: Apparitions; or, the mystery of ghosts, hobgoblins, and haunted houses, developed. Being a collection of entertaining stories, founded on fact ... Public Domain Mark

There was a fascinating article in History magazine this month all about Victorian occultism. I wanted to share some of the facts and stories about how the stereotypical gothic image of a circle of people communing with the afterlife came about. 

In 1848, a devilish spirit called Mr Splitfoot made himself known to 3 American sisters. He tapped out messages on hard surfaces for the psychic girls to interpret, and in doing so, made these sisters famous. It wasn't long before they were charging audiences to watch this otherworldy 'rapping'. 

Can you guess the date when these sisters first communed with this spirit? 

April 1st.

But that didn't matter. The Fox sisters created the first craze for spiritualism. 

And like anything which suddenly takes off, they were soon joined by other people able to speak to those on the other side. 

It is to be noted that the popularity of spiritualism, mesmerism and magic was making waves in the era which is known for its technological growth and scientific thought. Perhaps this was a form of rebellion. Like the paintings which looked back nostalgically to a simpler way of life, maybe communing with the dead was a form of bringing mystery and romance into a mechanised and brutal world. 

Believers and sceptics abounded. One of my favourite poets was on the receiving end of a medium trickster. Robert Browning attended a seance led by Daniel Donglas Home in 1855 in which an apparition appeared and claimed to be the poet's son who had died in infancy. Rather embarrassingly for Home (and a source of poetic inspiration for Browning), the apparition was revealed to be nothing more than Home's veiled foot. Furthermore, if he had done his research correctly, Home would have known that Browning had had no such child. 

Without doubt, the 19th and early 20th centuries were the golden ages for ghosts. Penny Dreadfuls, theatre productions and gothic melodramas became obsessed with the spirit world. Ghost stories saw their heyday.

Interest had started to wane a little before WWI, but during and after the conflict spiritualism had another boom with people hoping to communicate with lost loved ones. 

And it's never really gone away.

There are still plenty of mediums and psychics practicing today, as well as TV programmes like Most Haunted which are always showing on some channel or other. Gothic film-makers and writers continue to draw on the haunted Victorian manor house and the smog-filled streets of London for inspiration – I am one of them myself. 

As the magazine puts its: 'Just like spirits that so obsessed them, the Victorians' fascination with the spiritual continues to haunt us'.

If you'd like to read about some Shropshire ghost stories, check out this blog post I wrote last year after my Victorian Hallowe'en experience at Acton Scott.


My top gothic ghost story recommendations:

The Coffin Path, Katherine Clements

Affinity, Sarah Waters

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

About the author

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers. 

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