Ghost stories have been part of our popular consciousness from ancient times. The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Celts, and the Mesopotamians all believed the spirits of the dead could return to earth. In China and Mesoamerica major festivals evolved around honoring and pleasing the dead. From the Vikings to ancient India, Africa to the Native Americans, every culture on the planet has a belief in spirits or ghosts woven into its roots.
Considering the similarities between many of these beliefs, it’s shocking that it took until the 1800s for a single religion to evolve, tying them together: Spiritualism.
It started with the Fox sisters in 1848, but quickly grew into an international phenomenon, particularly popular in the US and England. The beauty of Spiritualism was that it didn’t usurp existing belief systems, but overlapped them, meaning that practitioners were Catholic and Protestant, Jewish and agnostic. While some approached the set of beliefs from a religious perspective, there were many others who took a strictly scientific view.
Spiritualism’s popularity only grew. The late 19th century was a time when there were great strides in medicine and science, but many questions still remained unanswered. People’s faith in religion was shaken, and would only be tested further with the Civil War. As the dead and dying filled southern fields, people were looking for answers, something to believe in. But more than anything, they wanted solace.
Both Queen Victoria and the Lincolns were known to hold seances in their residences as they grieved for their own losses. With the most powerful people in two nations taking part, it’s no wonder that Spiritualism spread like wildfire. By 1882 the Society of Psychical Research had been established in London, to test mediums and psychic phenomenon. Two years later a sister organization opened in the US. The SPR and ASPR still exists today, maintaining libraries that are open to the public.
The unstable feelings that lead to a boom in Spiritualism in the 1860s and 1870s began to wane as the century closed. While there were still believers, still seances held and research being done, it became less mainstream as the years passed. It would take a massive tragedy to bring people back to the fold–and they found it.
Between WWI and the Spanish Influenza, at least 70 million people died between 1914 and the end of 1919–roughly 20% of the world’s population, though some modern estimates put the death rate even higher. Death was at the door, and it wasn’t just on the battlefields. It stalked the streets, haunted schools and churches, and struck with brutal efficiency, often killing in as little as twelve hours. People struggled to understand what was happening, even as they tried to process the growing losses. It wasn’t uncommon for an entire family to be wiped out in 24-48 hours. Children were left orphaned, and many of the ill who might otherwise have recovered died from lack of care, because there was no one there to make food, keep the fire going, bring water or provide basic sanitation assistance.
More than anything, people wanted answers. So they turned to the only people who seemed to provide them: priests and pastors, but also scientists and mediums.
Spiritualism was different from other religions and denominations in that it allowed women to become ordained, to lead churches and to preach. In fact, one of the reasons it was so popular among women from the start was that it gave them a modicum of power and control over their lives. Long accused of being “too emotional” to handle such positions, the Spiritualist Church valued their emotional connections to themselves, each other, and to the universe, their ability to pick up on subtle signals in the people and spaces around them. Was it any wonder that the “spirits” they contacted frequently argued for women’s rights, even suffrage?
Following the flood of death from 1918-1919, international interest in spiritualism spiked for the last time, a matching flood of interest that lasted into the 1930s, when Americans and people around the world became too preoccupied with merely scraping out a living from day to day to worry about what lay beyond. While the church itself has never regained the numbers it had between 1848 and 1928, it still survives, and people the world over still commune with spirits and ghosts. As Caitlin Doherty pointed out, following 9/11 America experienced another smaller peak with an explosion of ghost-related shows, such as Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters, and Ghost Adventures, just to name a few.
Grief is difficult. Sometimes it makes no sense whatsoever. But out of the psychic research of the 19th and early 20th centuries we have the development of early psychology and a wide variety of scientific investigation techniques that were later applied to other subjects.
We may never really understand what happens after death. Ghosts, reincarnation, angels–there are many possibilities. But perhaps the most important thing is that no matter what we think happens, we continue to have something to believe in.
The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher
Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blume
Ghostland by Colin Dickey
Growing interest in Spiritualism During and after WWI
7 Facts about Spiritualism in WWI
Spiritualism in WWI
The Rise of Spiritualism after WWI
Living with Dying
Ouija Boards and Spiritualism
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