Psychic mediums played a defining and fascinating role during the Victorian Era. For context, the Victorian Era began when Queen Victoria assumed the English throne in 1837 and ended when she died in 1901. During the Victorian Era, a transformative movement swept over the world. For the first time in a long time, people came to believe they could communicate with the dead, or more precisely, they could communicate with the spirits of the deceased in their afterlife. This pervasive movement became known as Spiritualism and the rituals used to communicate with the afterlife spirits were called séances. Séances were usually led by a psychic medium and the psychics were usually paid for this service.
The Origin of Psychic Séances
In Ancient Times and continuing into the Middle Ages, psychic mediums were sometimes used to communicate with recently departed loved ones and with ancestors. However, there was a long historical pause on these types of practices when the dominant religions of the Renaissance Period frowned on these practices and forbade them. However, in the Victorian Era, this began to radically change as people felt freer to defy the church on such matters and some religious movements actually condoned the practice of communicating with the dead.
While indirect, the revolutionary scientific advancements of the time (see below) seemed to heavily influence the spread of Spiritualism and the widespread practice of psychic séances. In fact, séances became one of the most popular pastimes during the Victorian Era. In many cases, séances were an entirely somber event with only the loved ones of the departed present, plus the psychic medium facilitating the séance. However, séances also grew to be a source of entertainment for many people of the Victorian Era. You could even say Victorians developed an all-consuming fascination with ghosts and spirits, which were also heavily featured in popular fiction and periodicals of the time.
The earliest known Victorian Age psychic séances actually started in the newly formed United States, not England. To envision this great moment, we must travel back to western New York, to the small town of Hydesville. Here, there lived three sisters who would become legendary mediums. Their names were Margaret Fox, Kate Fox, and Leah Fox. Collectively, they become known as the “Fox sisters” and probably everyone in the Spiritualism Movement of the Victorian Age would have known their names.
The Fox Sisters were just little girls when they first acquired regional fame as mediums. They seemed to be in the right place at the right time or it probably would have never happened. The region of New York they lived in was known as the “Burned-over District,” so named because of the religious “free thinkers” who lived there and were drawn to the region. Progressive religious thought was said to have “burned through” this area even giving birth to new religions that attracted quite the following.
So, when the Fox Sisters started talking about communicating with the spirit of a murdered man who lived in their basement, this particular region was far more receptive to believing what they said than almost anywhere else would have been. Friends of the family, radically minded Quakers, were also helpful in initially lending credibility to the Fox Sisters’ claims, as were those in the area interested in establishing Utopian Societies
The Fox Sisters invited people into their home to hear the “raps” the “ghost” made as he attempted to communicate with them. It wasn’t long before the Fox Sisters were leading séances to communicate with this troubled spirit. After they achieved a degree of fame, they began charging for these séances and their psychic abilities became a legend. This opened the door for other psychically inclined people to begin holding séances of their own. The practice of séances became so popular it spread across the country like wildfire.
Were Victorian Psychic Séances a Passing Fad?
Although psychics were known to communicate with the dead and carry back messages to the living during Ancient Times and the Middle Ages, Victorian séances carried this practice to a whole new level. Further, they only got more popular as the Victorian Era progressed. Some séances were conducted with such sensational melodramatic practices that some were actually held in playhouses or concert halls and had large audiences. By the second half of the nineteenth century (mid to late 1800s), Victorian séances had become at least part theatre, although the psychic gifts of many psychic mediums were deemed very real.
How Did These Victorian Séances Become Popular Outside the United States
In October 1852, Maria B. Hayden, a rapping spiritualist from Boston, visited England, along with a lecturer in hypnosis. The popular press had a field day since she was the wife of an influential and affluent newspaperman. From this, the Spiritualism movement, as well as the practice of psychic séances spread across the UK as quickly as they had spread across America. The movement also extended into other parts of Europe but was most popular in England and “across the pond” in the United States.
Who Exactly Participated In Psychic Séances and Practiced Spirituality?
Pretty much everyone participated in Spiritualism in the Victorian Era! Psychic séances were well attended by all walks of life but were probably most heavily attended by people from the growing Middle Class, although séances were also quite popular with the affluent. People, in general, were working fewer hours and making more money per hour of work. This allowed them to have more time to pursue other interests.
Before the Victorian Era, people tended to live on their worksite or very nearby. However, during this era, people started living away from their place of employment which gave them more privacy in their personal life. They were also freer to do as they pleased and were less restricted by their employer. Farmers and industrial workers, in particular, became quite involved in Spiritualism and psychic séances, especially in the latter half of the Victorian Era.
Queen Victoria herself is known to have held many séances in the palace, including some to communicate with her deceased husband, Prince Albert. After his death, a talented psychic medium named Robert Lees, only 13 years old at the time, brought Queen Victoria a private message from her departed husband, less than a year after his death. The message contained a pet name the queen had used for the prince that only she and he knew and shared in private. The young psychic was also able to provide many other details that led the queen to become a strong believer in psychic abilities and communicating with spirits in the afterlife.
What Was a Typical Victorian Era Psychic Séance Like?
As with the plethora of melodramatic plays that existed during the Victorian Era, every psychic séance was different in some way. They did trend toward more dramatic later in the period as psychic mediums tried to outdo each other. Typically, attendees would gather in a dark room around a wooden table. Sometimes, the psychic medium would have a crystal ball on the table but every psychic had his or her own props they preferred such as longhorns and spirit candles. Sometimes, participants would be asked to hold hands and or close their eyes while the psychic medium attempted to communicate with the dead.
In most séances, sounds such as rapping and tapping would occur. In some psychic séances, glowing orbs or faces would appear. Sometimes, objects such as curtains would move inexplicably. Violins were known to stay playing on their own. The departed would sometimes speak in their own voice through the psychic medium. In other cases, the psychic medium would pass along a message from the departed to the attendees, including information that would be meaningful and known only to them. It is believed that some of these psychic mediums were phonies and capitalized on the grief of survivors or on the morbid fascination with death. However, it is also believed to this day that some of the psychic mediums who led these séances during the Victorian Period were truly gifted psychics.
Psychic Séances Were Bolstered By the Rapid Advancement in Science
To understand why psychic séances became so popular in the 1800s, you must first have an understanding of how times were changing — and how rapidly they were changing! People who lived in the Victorian Era were firsthand witnesses to many remarkable advancements in technology that today we simply take for granted. Almost in the blink of an eye, the impossible was becoming reality, including things that totally transformed the lives of people. Scientists were producing life-changing technology that might almost seem like magic to the masses of the Victorian Era. Moreover, this was a technology that people could see, touch, and or hear even if their mind kept telling them it wasn’t possible.
The dramatic and rapid rise of new technology in the Victorian Era changed the mindset about what was possible in life. In this context, it suddenly didn’t seem as farfetched to communicate with people who had died, and for these people to send back important messages. To fully understand this, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a Victorian person and see things the way they saw it. Think about this. For the first time ever in history, a woman in New York could actually have a verbal conversation with her sister in Virginia about their ailing father in England, all through a “magical box” on the wall. To Victorians, this was nothing short of a MIRACLE… and from here, it wasn’t as giant a leap to think you could communicate with the departed. In fact, Thomas Edison actually wanted to invent and patent a “phone” to speak with the afterlife spirits. Wish he had 🙂
Just how remarkable were the scientific developments that made communicating with the departed seem possible?
In 1837, the telegraph was born. Suddenly, messages could be sent around the world in mere seconds. Before this, messages took weeks, even months, to receive. To Victorians, this was bigger than the Internet was/is to us in modern times! The rapid spread of the telegraph machine and telegraph service was probably the first major scientific “miracle” of the Victorian Era and it began to crack the ice on what people thought was possible. Minds had been expanded and were now receptive to the possibility of psychic ability.
But… the advent of the telephone caused an even bigger stir during the Victorian Era! People could actually HEAR the voice of their loved ones, hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away! Rural doctors could suddenly call ahead to hospitals in big cities and they could easily order the medicine they needed. Business partners around the globe could communicate quickly. The telephone, which we now take for granted, was like a miracle to Victorians. If you could communicate directly, with no delay, with a person 300 miles away, then maybe you could communicate with those in the spirit world.
Steam trains made personal travel and the transportation of goods orders of magnitude easier. To Victorians, the steam engine train was as remarkable as a teleporter would be to people today! There were many other miracles at this time too… telescopes, smallpox vaccinations, and miraculous advancements in farming and manufacturing practices. It was a time of remarkable and almost unbelievable change. People began to believe anything was possible.
The Influence of the Civil War and the Crimean War On Psychic Séances
Average natural lifespans were short during the Victorian Era, ranging from about 41 years at the beginning of the period to about 50 years toward the end of the period. This meant there was constant sadness over the death and long periods of mourning in most Victorian households. This was made even worse by the horrific death tolls of the Civil War in the United States and high casualties of English soldiers sent off to fight the bloody Crimean War. Young widows, fatherless children, and grieving parents turned to psychic mediums to help them communicate with their departed loved ones who had died before their time, and many whose bodies were never returned for burial. It became commonplace for psychics, often called spiritualists, to conduct séances in private homes for grieving families.
So many grieving families had no closure when their loved ones died on the battlefield with no marked grave. Psychic led séances gave people the opportunity to say a proper goodbye and for the departed to convey their last words of wisdom through the psychic medium. Séances were also a quicker way of communicating with their loved ones than waiting for the afterlife upon their own death. Many churches and clergy railed against these practices but the draw that séances had for offering this closure and comfort was just too strong for the churches of the day to overcome it.
Victorian Psychic Séances Appealed To the Conscience of the Progressives
Progressive minded people during the Victorian Era were more heavily drawn to psychic séances and Spirituality than others. The most dominant progressive issues of the time were the Abolitionist Movement (the movement to end slavery), the Suffrage Movement (the movement to give women the right to vote), and the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of North American (mistreatment of “Native Americans”). It is no surprise that the spirit guides who spoke through the psychic mediums during séances were forcefully against slavery and the oppression of the indigenous people. It is even said that “Indian ghosts” and “slave ghosts” would sometimes appear during psychic séances. It seems these séances were the one way people had to wrestle with matters of conscience and spur these Victorian age activists on with their mission.
Although formal séances are not as popular today as they were in Victorian times, you won’t have to look very hard to find psychics who specialize in communicating with the departed. In fact, many psychics communicate with spirit guides to provide guidance to those who seek their help. In this way, Spiritualism is still very much alive and probably always will be. It is a powerful force and a deep source of wisdom and inspiration.