Ghosts of Futures Past
by Tom Ruffles
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The literature on 19th-century Spiritualism continues to grow, as academics get to grips with the mass of primary material and tease out the ramifications of what for so long was regarded by historians as a marginal, eccentric, if not downright unsavoury practice not worthy of their interest. Molly McGarry's book takes Spiritualism out of the séance room and explores its manifestations in the social and political context of the United States in the 19th century. Thus this is much more than a straightforward narrative of the activities of individual Spiritualists. She has built on the foundations laid particularly by Ann Braude's Radical Spirits, which examined the links between Spiritualism and women's rights in the US, and has usefully extended them.
McGarry's prose style is rather dense, which makes the book hard going in places, but it does repay the effort. Like many books of its ilk, it had a previous life in the form of talks and journal articles, and the chapters have a choppy feel, with some more detailed than others. There are five altogether: Mourning, media, and the cultural politics of conjuring the dead; Indian Guides: Haunted subjects and the politics of vanishing; Spectral Sexualities: free love, moral panic, and the making of US Obscenity Law; Mediomania: The spirit of science in a culture of belief and doubt; and Secular Spirits: A queer genealogy of untimely sexualities. Together they provide a survey of various ways in which Spiritualism interpenetrated other aspects of everyday life, but notably the reform movements concerned with abolition of slavery, female suffrage and Indian rights (while the temperance movement is mentioned it is not dealt with in detail).
The first chapter situates Spiritualism as a "movement of consolation" which grew out of the highly developed mourning rituals of the period at a time of increasing secularisation. McGarry describes the growth of Spiritualism from its roots in antebellum America as an amalgam of faith and political action, and she traces its development into a formidable social movement, underpinned by a vigorous specialised press which she has mined effectively to make her points. She treads rather familiar ground in showing how Spiritualism used technological advances, notably the telegraph, to construct an image of itself as cutting-edge (Jeffrey Sconce is mentioned in passing as a 'critic' but his excellent Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television is not included in the bibliography). Spiritualism as characterised by McGarry was part of a complex set of influences that shaped the society of the United States in the Victorian period.
Where she comes into her own is in subsequent chapters where she considers how Spiritualism intersected with those other aspects of cultural life. Indian spirit guides are a staple of Anglo-American mediumship, acting as a conduit between sitters and the deceased communicators. But their presence in American sťances reflected a wider concern on the part of Spiritualists over the way the indigenous population was being treated as white settlements spread across the continent. McGarry sets the Indian spirit guide into a wider context, showing how the colonised, displaced and dispossessed were depicted by Spiritualists, and highlights an ambivalence not only on their part but also of mainstream Protestantism: regret and guilt at the vanishing of the noble savage, larded with a dose of sentimentalism in the face of what was deemed their inevitable extinction, and a sincere wish to right injustice; but also a preference to mourn, safely from a distance - either geographical or even further, across the Great Divide - these powerfully spiritual beings that they had constructed.
Next McGarry turns her attention to the ways in which Spiritualism was bound up with the wider movement that addressed inequalities between the sexes after the Civil War, focusing particularly on free love and dress reform. This was cast by the political Establishment as a battle against obscenity, leading to moral panic which culminated in censorship legislation. A key figure here is Victoria Woodhull, Spiritualist, advocate of free love, ex-prostitute and presidential candidate among other things, who crystallised many of the worries around the emancipated woman. The focus on the postal service as a method of intercepting and censoring anything considered obscene, scrutiny of which became a federal matter, is of central interest. Not only was it was a convenient means of control of material that would otherwise be beyond the reach of officialdom, thereby protecting the middle class home from corruption, but at the same time it increased the influence of the federal government at a time when the country was searching for a sense of national identity. McGarry also shows how, as ever, politicians in trouble can use a moral panic to their advantage to deflect interest by the public in their own activities.
The following chapter discusses the ways in which Spiritualists fared when confronted by the increasingly powerful medical profession. Nonconformist behaviour by female Spiritualists led them to be classified in terms of pathology, with the diagnosis of 'mediomania', insanity caused by Spiritualism, which was a label linked to that of hysteria. That this was a real problem for female Spiritualists on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly those with unsympathetic husbands, can be seen in the story of Louisa Lowe, given a chapter in Alex Owen's The Darkened Room, or Georgina Weldon's self-explanatory 1882 book How I Escaped the Mad Doctors, published "in the hope of inducing the public to enquire into the state and abuses of the lunacy laws." At a time when psychiatry was staking its territory, and was an exclusively male preserve, it is not surprising that the woman's perspective was systematically ignored, though as McGarry points out, the female Spiritualist's body as a site of inspection by male 'experts' goes all the way back to the way the Fox sisters were treated in 1848, at the very beginning of the movement.
The final chapter is perhaps the most interesting as McGarry has a wider interest in gay studies. It looks at the tensions between the medical profession's attempts to fix 'male' and 'female' and 'heterosexuality' and 'homosexuality' as categories, and how again Spiritualists so often transgressed these boundaries. So Dr Mary Walker, "the most distinguished invert in the United States" was a Spiritualist but also a cross-dresser who won the Congressional Medal of Honour as a surgeon during the Civil War (performing her duties dressed in male uniform) yet was arrested in 1878 for wearing trousers in public. Male mediums too created categorisation problems because of their passivity and the sense that being controlled was unmanly, and they were frequently described in terms more generally reserved for women; Andrew Jackson Davis, the 'Poughkeepsie Seer', was referred to with words like 'slight', 'delicate', 'refinement' and 'grace' - and that was by Emma Hardinge Britten, hardly a critic of Spiritualism.
Also disconcerting to the forces of conservatism were mediums who spoke with the voices of the opposite sex, and here it is surprising that although William James is mentioned from time to time, nowhere in the book is there a reference to one of the most significant mediums of the century, Bostonian Mrs Piper (whom James championed) and her male controls. Yet McGarry strays outside the 19th century to devote her final pages to English novelist and psychical researcher Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall (who called herself 'John'). Interestingly, again not something McGarry mentions, Radclyffe-Hall worked extensively with Mrs Osborne Leonard whose spirit control was Feda, a teenage American Indian girl (their sittings were the subject of a major report by Radclyffe-Hall and Lady Troubridge published in the Society for Psychical Research's Proceedings in December 1919).
While this is an excellent book that genuinely expands the subject, there are a few reservations. One is that in demonstrating ways in which Spiritualism is relevant to social studies, there is the danger of rendering it more monolithic than it was. On free love, for example, Susan Willis Fletcher says in her Twelve Months in an English Prison (1884) that James Burns, publisher of the English Spiritualist newspaper Medium and Daybreak, had accused her of being the "champion of Mrs Woodhull and of 'free love', which he had a mission to trample out." Shifting the focus to the intersections of Spiritualism and other aspects of social life is valuable, but there is a trade-off in the lack of detail about the different wings of the movement itself.
Spiritualism was always by its nature torn between past, present and future, which perhaps accounts for a certain timelessness - putting it kindly - in Spiritualist journalism. But it is too simple, as McGarry does, to suggest that by seeking to communicate with their dead ancestors Spiritualists were speaking with the past. On the contrary, the consolation they sought entailed the recognition that their loved ones existed in the present and would continue to do so until a time when all would be reunited. Although it wouldn't be as snappy, the book's title might more appropriately have been Spirits of Past's Future.
McGarry gives the impression that Spiritualism more or less disappeared with the end of the 19th century, partly transforming into Theosophy and also becoming subsumed into sexology. This rather does it a disservice, and would probably startle many Spiritualists! Actually it fluctuated through the twentieth and still holds on, albeit much less significant than it was in its heyday. Although we tend to think of Spiritualism now as introspective, it has always contained an element of social justice. McGarry shows how 19th-century Spiritualists could be surprisingly radical, and the price they often paid for expressing their beliefs. Overall this is a useful addition to both American historiography and to the history of Spiritualism.