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  • Anatomy of a Séance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada
  • David Marshall (bio)
Stan McMullin . Anatomy of a Séance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central CanadaMcGill-Queen's University Press. xxxiv, 260. $80.00, $27.95

At one telling point in Stan McMullin's fascinating Anatomy of a Séance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada, he recounts how William Arthur Deacon, the famed book review editor of the Globe, declined to review Trails of Truth, a book documenting the séances held in the St Catharines area in the late 1920s. He confessed to being personally neutral and certainly not hostile to the subject of spiritualism. Still he felt reluctant to write anything about spiritualism because public opinion on the subject was so divided and strong that publishing a review in any newspaper would be certain to 'stir a hornet's nest.' As McMullin explains, those who held séances and a host of other people exploring the paranormal, such as fortune tellers and palm readers, were subject to prosecution under the Witchcraft section of the Vagrancy Act. McMullin's book, therefore, is an exploration into the underground or the margins of spiritual and religious life in Canada.

Historians have concentrated on spiritualism's relationship to larger social and cultural issues, such as its role in providing a scientific or [End Page 418] material foundation to Christian belief, and its relationship to feminism and other reform-oriented political movements, including the abolition of slavery in the United States. But McMullin's objective is primarily to recreate the inner world of spirit communication. What precisely happened during a séance? Who was involved? How did the spirit world appear and communicate? What motivated individuals to participate? What, if any, institutional structures developed around spiritualism? These questions drive McMullin's account, and the result is a finely detailed look into the inner world of spiritualism. The book is replete with long and detailed firsthand accounts of spirit communication. McMullin's extensive quotation from the primary sources draws sceptical readers into the private world of spirit communication. Historians have either ignored or consciously avoided the thorny problem of what actually happened during spirit communication. McMullin's ability to recreate a finely detailed look into the necessarily concealed world of séances and spiritualism is testimony to his excellent research and keen sensitivity to the spiritualist movement.

Anatomy of a Séance begins with the experience of Susanna and John Dunbar Moodie in the 1850s, moves through the late Victorian generation of spirit seekers, then discusses early twentieth-century figures who claimed their work in spirit communication was related to the emerging science of psychic research. He concludes with a discussion of Canada's best-known spiritualist, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who went to great lengths to keep his spiritualist activities hidden from the public. As late as the middle of the twentieth century, spiritualists still struggled with a legal system and public opinion that regarded spiritualism as somehow unsavoury. The analysis of the Rev B.F. Austin, who was found guilty of heresy by the Methodist Church in Canada for his spiritualist beliefs and activities, is a particularly valuable addition to historiography. McMullin clearly demonstrates the complex relationship between spiritualism and Christianity through his recreation of the séances, which in many cases look suspiciously like a church service. During many spiritualist meetings, prayer was held and there was hymn singing. Moreover, séances and church worship were ultimately concerned with trying to understand the miraculous, the character of a supreme being, and the possibility of life everlasting.

One theme that connects the people in this book is that a recent death of a loved one or family member inspired their pursuit of mediums and spirit communication. This book, therefore, is not only about the highly secretive world of spirit communication but also about how generations of Canadians dealt with their grief. As McMullin demonstrates, this phenomenon became more commonplace in the wake of the slaughter of the First World War and the flu epidemic that followed so hard on its heels. [End Page 419]

David Marshall

David B. Marshall...


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