I promised I’d get back to the historical posts and today I’m making good on that. Spiritualism is something I hadn’t paid much attention to before I started researching Victoria’s life. I actually had no idea it dated back to before the Civil War; I associated it more with the seances and Ouija boards of the WWI time period. But, not for the first time, I was wrong.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, here’s a brief definition of Spiritualism from Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s “a movement based on the belief that departed souls can interact with the living. Spiritualists sought to make contact with the dead, usually through the assistance of a medium, a person believed to have the ability to contact spirits directly. Some mediums worked while in a trance-like state, and some claimed to be the catalyst for various paranormal physical phenomena (including the materializing or moving of objects) through which the spirits announced their presence.”
A Brief History of Spiritualism
Spiritualism was popular from about the 1840s – 1920s, peaking during times of crisis like the Civil War and WWI when widows and families left behind attempted to contact their departed relatives.
Although it has connections to the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, most Spiritualists date the founding of their movement (at least in America) to March 1848 when two of the Fox sisters from Upstate New York claimed they made contact with a spirit through a series of raps or knocks. They became famous almost immediately and many people sought to emulate their fame, including Buck Claflin. (The Fox sisters later admitted to the whole thing being a hoax affected by cracking their toes.)
Mediums used a variety of techniques to contact the spirits including going into trances, conducting seances, channeling automatic writing, using planchettes (but not Ouija boards until 1890), table turning/vibrating/levitating, and more.
It is interesting to note that during the 19th century, women were discouraged from speaking in public forums. Doing so was thought to bring shame upon their father/husband and family. However, women were taken seriously when they acted as mediums, for it was not them speaking, but the spirits through them. It’s possible that many female Spiritualists, Victoria included, used their “gifts” as a way of being able to subvert the gender expectations of their time.
Spiritualism is still practiced today, largely through Spiritualist Churches and as part of the New Age movement.
Victoria Woodhull, Spiritualist from Childhood
Victoria’s mother, Annie Claflin, was a Spiritualist who passed her beliefs on to her daughters, especially Victoria and Tennie. From a young age, they both showed signs of clairvoyance. (For the sake of argument, let’s pretend the gifts were real; I think she believed they were and no one knows if they were real or were just imagination or a coping method for two abused girls.) Victoria mentions in her biography (dictated to Theodore Tilton) that from the time she was five, she could commune with two of her sisters who died as babies (Odessa and Delia) and her childhood caretaker, Rachel Scribner. (There are stranger tales of the spirits in her biography, but we’ll let those go for now.)
Victoria believed her personal spirit guide was the Greek orator Demosthenes, whom she saw and conversed with from an early age. But she was 30 before he revealed his name to her. According to Victoria, he prophesied that she would rise to greatness in a city filled with ships, speak before large crowds, and become ruler of her people.
Victoria’s father, Buck, took advantage of his daughters’ gifts and put them to work as clairvoyants and magnetic healers (another gift passed down from Annie) when they were young teenagers. He worked them for 13 hours a day, charging $1 per person.
It is said Victoria followed the advice of the spirits as she moved around the country with her first husband and children, letting them direct where they went. Later on, Demosthenes directed her to St. Louis, where she met her second husband Col. James Blood (who happened to be President of the St. Louis Society of Spiritualists) and they were”betrothed by the powers of the air.” Demosthenes later directed her to New York, where she, Tennie and their family would find success in the stock market and in politics.
I haven’t been able to find a solid account of how exactly Victoria contacted the spirits (I chose the most common methods, seance and trance, for my novel). But we know she continued practicing throughout her career and likely throughout her life. She said that the spirits directed her speeches (they were the ones who inspired her to reveal what she knew about Henry Ward Beecher and his affair with Lib Tilton). Cornelius Vanderbilt employed Victoria as a medium. When asked how he became so rich in the stock market, reportedly said, “do as I do, consult the spirits.” (It’s much more likely Victoria got her stock tips through human connections than from the spirit world.) According to Tilton, “every night, around 11 p.m. or midnight, two or three times a week, [Victoria and James] held court with the spirits. When she entered into a trance, her husband dictated what she said and saw. When she woke, she often had no memory of what transpired.” Victoria was so prominent in the Spiritualist community that she served as President of the American Association of Spiritualists.
If you want to read a great book on Spiritualism during Victoria’s lifetime, check out Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers, The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. It’s a long book, but the most in-depth on the subject I’ve found.
Most biographies of Victoria mention her Spiritualism. I also recommend the following articles:
Spiritualism in Encyclopedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/topic/spiritualism-religion
Hix, Lisa. “Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead.” Collector’s Weekly. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/ghosts-in-the-machines-the-devices-and-defiant-mediums-that-spoke-for-the-spirits/
“The annual convention of the American Association of Spiritualists in Boston, Massachusetts, 1872.” The Banner of Light, The Boston Investigator, The New-York Times, The Brooklyn Eagle. http://spirithistory.iapsop.com/1872_american_association_of_spiritualists.html
What had you heard about Spiritualism before this post? Did you know Victoria practiced? What do more would you like to know about it?