Trance Lecturers: There’s No Business Like Show Business

Although spiritualism and séances were always to retain a strong domestic, amateur appeal, in that they remained essentially private affairs practised by middle-class enthusiasts dabbling in table-rapping and table-turning in their own homes, they were destined to became public, professional affairs as well.

The small band of pioneers from Rochester (dubbed by many as "the Rochester rappers") received spirit messages urging them to hold an open meeting where their powers could be investigated and tested. This was a risky move, for although the spirits obliged with their normal fare of raps and knocks, the men who were testing the mediums refused to believe that they were caused by any outside agency.

Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New York Tribune, published their report, but also appended a note suggesting that their tests were invalid because of the men’s obvious bias. Supporters rallied to the call, giving testimony about the Fox sisters’ abilities. Rather than stifling spiritualism, the report fed the public interest in the girls.

Under the watchful supervision of their mother, the three Fox sisters began giving public sittings at Barnum's Hotel in New York in the spring of 1850. There’s a contemporary description written by a Mrs Emma Hardinge, who was later to become a medium in her own right, which gives us some idea of the pressure the girls faced. She talks of "pausing on the first floor to hear poor patient Kate Fox, in the midst of a captious, grumbling crowd of investigators, repeating hour after hour the letters of the alphabet, while the no less poor, patient spirits rapped out names, ages and dates to suit all comers." Although most of the press reports denounced them as frauds, Horace Greeley published a supportive and sympathetic article in his paper. After a tour of the Western States, the Fox family paid a second visit to New York, which again attracted an intense public interest, both positive and negative.

Easterly's Daguerreotype Gallery, St. Louis, 1851

Easterly's Daguerreotype Gallery, St. Louis, 1851 [PD]

For some years the two younger sisters, Kate and Margaret, made their living by giving séances. An extraordinary daguerreotype of Kate and Margaret Fox exists in the Missouri History Museum, made by the daguerreotypist Thomas M. Easterly at his studio in St. Louis, Missouri when the sisters stopped off there during their national tour of 1852. Do take the opportunity to click on this link and have a look. A daguerreotype is a photographic likeness made directly onto a sheet of polished silver-plated copper; no intermediary negative is used and no prints can be made, and consequently each daguerreotype is a one-off original. I wanted to use this image to head up this post, but although the copyright on the original expired long ago, the copyright on the reproduction that you see did not.

One of the early communications that the Fox sisters received had claimed that "these manifestations would not be confined to them, but would go all over the world." Their public demonstrations were proving to be so popular that now others began to copy and improve upon their format. In an incredibly short space of time the movement swept across the Northern and Eastern States of the Union, with mediums (or "trance lecturers" as they were known) competing to produce increasingly startling phenomena. A repertoire that had started as a simple series of loud raps and knocks now included the appearance of "spirit-lights" and disembodied hands and faces, automatic writing whilst the medium was apparently in a trance, channelled spirits who spoke to or through the medium, objects that moved by themselves, and even levitation. Spiritualism had become show business.

Prominent practitioners at this point included a certain Mrs Hayden, the two Davenport brothers, and Daniel Dunglas Home (all four of whom I will discuss in greater detail in a later post), the beautiful young Cora L. V. Hatch, Achsa W. Sprague, an abolitionist and advocate of equal rights for women, and Paschal Beverly Randolph, an intriguing man of mixed race who was one of the earliest abolitionists.

Paschal Beverly Randolph

Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875) [PD]

Paschal Beverly Randolph was one of this new breed of mediums to rise to prominence in the early 1850s. He was eloquent and good-looking, with a commanding stage presence and a compelling personality to match. From a young age he’d been obliged to make his living as an irregular crewman aboard a number of commercial vessels. His travels had taken him to England and France, and as far east as Persia, and had introduced him to a wealth of new ideas, religions and esoteric beliefs. It was during this time that he developed an deep and abiding interest for gnosticism, freemasonry, sexual magic and the occult.

On his return to America he started writing books (he wrote over fifty of them during his lifetime), many of which were vehicles for his masonic beliefs. Two of these have been lovingly recreated as e-books and are available as free downloads from the wonderful Gutenberg Project (though I warn you now, they are both written in the heavily veiled allegorical style that is typical of most masonic texts). As well as writing, Randolph set up his own publishing house and trained as a doctor. He also established the first Rosicrucian organization in America, the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross). All through this period he worked as a trance lecturer, using his stage appearances to argue the case for the abolition of slavery.

As admirable as all this may be (though it does go some way to demonstrate the strong bond between spiritualism and radical reform), the real reason for his inclusion here is that he provides an interesting link to next month’s post. It is claimed that in 1851, at the age of 25, Paschal Beverly Randolph made the acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln and struck up a friendship that lasted until Lincoln’s untimely death. Despite the fact that Lincoln’s second son, Eddie, had died the previous year from tuberculosis, it’s far more likely that the medium offered the great man his views on abolition, and not some form of spiritualist communion with his dead child. But, as we will see next time, Randolph was not the only medium to make Lincoln’s acquaintance.

Next chapter: A séance in the White House