- Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America
The origin of modern spiritualism is often identified as the famous “Hydesville rappings,” which took place in a small town near Rochester, New York, in 1848. This was the first occasion when the Fox sisters channeled spirits who answered questions by shaking furniture and “rapping” or “knocking” on walls. By the end of the century there were reportedly 12 to 13 million spiritualists in North America and approximately 35,000 practicing mediums; there were also several million followers in England and roughly 150,000 in Paris. Geoffrey Nelson’s Spiritualism and Society (1969) linked the rise of spiritualism to unsettling social conditions, a sudden influx of immigrants, and an accelerating rate of industrialization, thus depicting spiritualism as an attempt to restore a spiritually based social unity that would counteract these divisive and fragmentary influences. More recent studies, such as Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (1989) and Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (1990), focus primarily on gender politics, and spiritualism is now more often celebrated as a political movement that promoted women’s suffrage. Molly McGarry’s Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America expands on this notion of spiritualism as a radical political movement by examining the spiritualists’ involvement in a wider array of progressive causes, including Native American rights, censorship debates and queer politics.
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In the first chapter McGarry addresses the gender politics of the spiritualist movement. Like Braude and Owen, McGarry points out that spiritualism was the only 19th-century religious movement that openly recognized the equal rights of women, and spiritualist meetings provided a public forum in which women could express their own political views and opinions. McGarry adds, however, that spiritualists often went further than most suffragists by also advocating free love, voluntary motherhood, and marriage law reform.
In the second chapter, McGarry examines the spiritualists’ engagement in Native American issues. During séances, for example, spiritual mediums frequently channeled Indian spirit guides who openly expressed their anger and resentment toward white people. While these spirit messages may be interpreted as expressions of white guilt, McGarry argues that spiritualists also “labored for progressive reform and took part in concrete work undergirded by a commitment to ameliorating the damage done by white colonists” (p. 80). Not only did spiritualists meet with Native Americans at conventions and camp meetings, but “the Spiritualist press was a lone voice calling for justice for Native Americans” at a time when Native Americans were being consistently demonized in the mainstream press (p. 88).
In the third chapter McGarry explores the connections between spiritualism and obscenity law. While the claims here are slightly more tenuous, McGarry argues that Anthony Comstock’s attempts to control the mail system contradicted the spiritualists’ desire to promote the free exchange of ideas. In promoting free love, for example, the spiritualist press was often accused of publishing obscene material, and Comstock himself even attempted to arrest several spiritualists for publishing such material in their newspaper. McGarry also draws a connection between the spiritualists’ use of photography and Comstock’s fear that this technology would bring “a contaminated public culture into the sanctity of the private sphere” (p. 114). In other words, just as séances enabled the channeling of spirits, new technologies of reproduction and distribution enabled the transmission of potentially dangerous and infectious information.
In the fourth chapter McGarry examines the ways in which the scientific and medical establishment attempted to rationalize spiritualist practices by characterizing them as a form of hysteria. In the 1870s, for example, neurologist Frederic Marvin claimed that spiritual mediums suffered from a disease caused by an unhealthy tilt of the uterus, which he referred to as “mediomania” (p. 125), and neurologist George Beard described the spiritualist trance...