Mediumistic or Mad? The Precarious Position of Women Who
Dared to Be Spiritualists

Carte-de-visite of Georgina Weldon (1837-1914). Elliot & Fry Studios, circa 1884 [PD]

Carte-de-visite of Georgina Weldon (1837-1914). Elliot & Fry Studios, circa 1884 [PD]

Mrs Georgina Weldon (neé Thomas, 1837-1914) was one of those extraordinary, larger-than-life characters, London-born to landed gentry but with a fair soprano voice and a sense of theatre fairly pumping through her veins. Though she married for love in 1860, she soon found her talents stifled by her husband, William, who forbade her the professional life she craved and demanded she appear only in amateur theatrics and at charity benefits and society events. In the fourth year of their marriage, which had fast turned loveless, William took a mistress to whom he stayed faithful for the rest of his life.

By the end of the 1860s Georgina's amateur croonings had fallen somewhat out of favour and her marriage was in trouble. She conceived a plan to open a musical training school for poor orphaned children, which she did in 1870, based at her own home, Tavistock House in Bloomsbury. Tavistock House was the perfect venue for such a venture: Charles Dickens, one of its previous occupants, had added a small theatre with its own stage. Georgina had some progressive ideas regarding the education of her orphans. In addition to allowing them to run barefoot for quarter of a hour each day, they were to be taught singing, dancing and recitation from the earliest age, raised on a vegetarian diet, encouraged to join her in séances where she attempted contact with spirits, and taken to see opera. In return they were to pay for their keep by giving performances—twee musical programmes that would include a recitation of the history of the orphanage—with the whole troop being carted to the events in a horse and wagon with the words "Mrs Weldon's Sociable Evenings" plastered along the side. Think of Rosalind Russell's stage-mother character in the 1965 film Gypsy and you'll get the idea.

You may have noticed the words "attempted contact with spirits". Although Mrs Weldon was an ardent supporter of spiritualism, who was lauded in the spiritualist press for rushing to the defence of the ghost-grabbed slate-writing medium Henry Slade (see the previous post), she herself was incapable of remaining sufficiently passive in order to foster any mediumistic powers.

In 1875 she and her husband separated, and William moved out of Tavistock House. He gave her the lease plus an annual allowance of £1000 as a settlement. It's impossible to know exactly what happened next, but here are the facts. At the beginning of 1878 Mrs Weldon returned in haste from a trip to France, leaving her orphans behind in the care of nuns at a convent. She brought criminal charges against one of her servants, someone she was convinced had stolen several items from her house. While she was being cross-examined during the servant's trial, the lawyer for the defence suggested that she was suffering from delusions. Within days she had begun to receive calls from pairs of mysterious strangers, people claiming to be fellow spiritualists interested in her charity work and enquiring about her attempts to contact the spirit world. Recognizing that something was afoot, she refused entry to a third delegation, (who, unbeknownst to her, consisted of Dr L. Forbes Winslow—the ink-squirting alienist from the previous post—plus another man from his staff together with a female nurse), and quickly started penning desperate appeals for help to all her friends.

One of these letters was addressed to Mr W. H. Harrison, the former reporter at The Daily Telegraph to whom Florence Cook had written, who was now the editor of The Spiritualist, the leading spiritualist paper at the time. In it she detailed her suspicions that her sanity was being brought into question. Harrison responded the very next day by sending a woman named Louisa Lowe to see her, a woman with whom he had corresponded regarding the danger of men having their spiritualist wives committed to lunatic asylums. Mrs Lowe had barely introduced herself when Winslow and his cronies arrived for a second time and burst into the house. Mrs Lowe quickly took charge. She instructed Georgina to barricade herself in her room and then sent for the police. The first two constables on the scene were reluctant to act, but the third demanded to be shown the lunacy order, issued at the request of Mrs Weldon’s husband and signed by two separate doctors—the mysterious strangers who had come to interview Georgina. Aided by Mrs Lowe and the third policeman, Mrs Weldon was bundled into cab and made good her escape. She managed to stay in seclusion for the full seven days that the lunacy order remained in force.

When she was finally able, she went straight to Bow Street Magistrates' Court and tried to press charges of assault. She was told that, as she hadn't actually been confined, no criminal charges could be brought against Winslow, and that, as a married woman, she couldn't bring a civil case against her husband. But Georgina Weldon was not someone to be easily thwarted. She started a campaign of harassment. She gave interviews to journalists, from daily papers as well as from the spiritualist press, hoping to bait Winslow and her husband into suing her for libel. She spoke publicly and often about law reforms regarding lunacy. She arranged for someone to stand outside Winslow's house strapped into a pair of sandwich-boards proclaiming him to be a body snatcher. And of course she found a way to work readings from her new pamphlet "How I Escaped the Mad Doctors" into her musical evenings, which had regained their popularity.

But questions remain. Was Georgina Weldon mad? It seems unlikely. The Bow Street Magistrate she'd appealed to didn't think so, nor did the various members of the medical profession who bothered to comment on the case in the press. What was her husband's role in all this? Was he in fact an agent provocateur? Did William Weldon stage the thefts from Tavistock House in order to somehow incite his wife? Had he instigated a whispering campaign against her? And what of the good Dr Winslow?

Lyttleton Stewart Forbes Winslow (1844-1913). Photo by Alexander Bassano (1829-1913), date unknown [PD]

Lyttleton Stewart Forbes Winslow (1844-1913). Photo by Alexander Bassano (1829-1913), date unknown [PD]

Dr Lyttleton Stewart Forbes Winslow (1844-1913) was appointed to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1871. In 1874, on death of his father, a man who had helped establish the insanity plea in law, he took over the running of his two private lunatic asylums. He also continued his father's work by appearing as an expert witness at every major murder trial where the defendant plead insanity. By 1877 he had joined the ranks of psychologists (Henry Maudsley, Bedlam's director George Savage, and the University of London's Registrar William Carpenter) who had published articles warning that spiritualism was a major cause of insanity—and in Winslow's case, the major cause—amongst weak-minded, hysterical women.

It's for this very reason that William Weldon approached him in 1878 with a view to getting his wife committed. As it was necessary for two doctors to examine Mrs Weldon before a lunacy order could be issued, they came up with the idea of having them pose as fellow spiritualists. As a result of the interviews, Winslow's first recommendation was that Georgina simply needed a companion, but when Weldon rejected this out of hand, he agreed to take her on as a patient for an annual sum of £400—considerably less than the £1,000 plus rent that Weldon forked out for his wife's yearly settlement.

In the 1880s English law—as regards women—began to change. The Married Women's Property Act of 1882 gave Mrs Weldon an entirely new theatre in which to perform: the law courts. She started bringing civil suits against all those involved in the attempt to commit her, prosecuting each and every one of the cases herself, and between the years 1883 and 1888 she managed to win them all. She became the darling of the press, earned the nickname "Portia of the Law Courts", and found a staunch friend and admirer in W. T. Stead, editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, who is the subject of my next post.

As for Winslow, it appears he suffered quite a reversal of opinion despite the suit she brought. It was he who organized the huge crowd of supporters who had come to cheer Georgina upon her release from a six-month prison term in Holloway in 1885. Her misdemeanour? Libel. It was in fact her second stretch at Her Majesty's pleasure for the same offence. Three years later Winslow became embroiled in the Jack the Ripper case, proposing that the Ripper hailed from the upper classes. So passionately did he expound his theory that for a short time he became a police suspect himself.

Next chapter: W. T. Stead—the man who foresaw his own death?