Victorian Seance Sittings
By Black Shuck Cambridge Ghost Tours, Oct 12 2015 04:36PM
In anticipation of our Halloween event 'Voodoo Victoriana', our team have been researching the history of 19th century spiritualism and seances here in Cambridge.
Of course, famously modern spiritualism as a movement (not the actual practice of contacting the dead which cultures have done for thousands of years before) came across the pond from America in the days of Queen Victoria. The Fox Sisters from New York starting to communicate with an entity in their house, starting the now famous way of communicating with the dead via seance ' rapping' or knocking in the 1840s. These knocks were able to answer questions, tell the sisters information and later the spirit confessed to being a pedlar who had been buried in the cellar. Interestingly, a skeleton was found in the cellar, but not until 1904.
Spiritualism started with the Fox Sisters, but so also did the accusations that displays of mediumship were forged. They were regularly investigated, often by professors of US universities - who all concluded the same; that the raps were made via the girls cracking knuckles or toe joints. In 1888, some 40 years after the sisters had started their successful careers in hosting seances, (by now two of them were living and working in England), they confessed to their fraud. The second youngest, Margaret confessed the raps were made via bone cracking. She later recounted her confession but the damage was done, the sisters died in poverty after their former supporters left them in droves and they were buried in Brooklyn, NY in a pauper's grave.
Whilst the Fox Sisters died a death, spiritualism did not. Interestingly, many books and works still cite the Fox Sisters without a single mention of their confessions of fraud. Thousands of mediums filled the parlours of America and Britain, following in their footsteps. Part of the appeal of the 19th century Seance room to us is the question of reality and fakery. It is a question posed today as psychic mediums such as Psychic Sally and Derek Acorah are supposedly 'outed' as frauds, but still maintain a legion of fans. For those of you who have come on our 'Wickedness & Witchcraft' Tour, you may recall Edward Kelly and John Dee having the same issues in the Tudor age! The question remains whether someone with a natural gift to contact spirits or recieve information is able to consistantly reproduce this skill night after night under stage conditions - or do they resort to other means? Is proof of fakery on one occasion, proof that there is no reality in mediumship at all?
This question is why we are keen to reproduce the experience of a medium's Victorian parlour on Halloween night! Cambridge is home to the origins of the first paranormal investigative organisation in the world - The Ghost Club (Haunted Cambridge Tour guests may recognise the name!). In 1862, the group which had its start at Trinity College, investigated the Davenport Brothers claim they could contact the dead via a 'spirit cabinet' - which was revealed as a hoax. During the early years of the club, members were mainly Cambridge academics - and Charles Dickens!
Whilst the Ghost Club moved to London further into the 19th century, Cambridge was still home to scientific seances, a number of which we have been inspired by for our event. In 1895, Cambridge academics outed Italian born medium Eusepia Palladino as a fraud during a Cambridge home seance. These academics included Henry Sidgwick, the founder of Newnham College - and one of the founders of the SPR, Society of Psychical Research, the 'other' institute aside from the Ghost Club to investigate seances and the afterlife. Critics at the time thought it was harsh for the medium, Ms Palladino to be so humilated in public. The society concluded Ms Palladino was simply kicking furniture across the room, rather than it being manipulated by the spirits she sought to contact.
So - spirits emerging from cabinets, automatic writing slates, images in mirrors, table rapping, ectoplasm, spirits 'rings', spirit photography, was any of it real? We shall be giving you the chance to experience all of these paranormal phenomena as they were experienced in the Victorian age - and for you to make up your own mind...
Go to Halloween on the website for tickets!