Spiritualism is the belief that the dead are inclined to and have the ability to communicate with the living. According to the Camp Chesterfield website, a “spiritualist is one who believes, as part of his or her religion, in communication between this and the spirit world by means of mediumship, and who endeavors to mold his or her character and conduct in accordance with the highest teachings derived from such communion.” Thus, many seek moral and ethical guidance from those spirits, who are constantly evolving. Historically, spiritualism hit its peak from the 1840s to the 1920s. Though still alive and thriving today, spiritualism’s membership decreased greatly by the late 1880s due to accusations of fraud. Regardless if you are a believer or not, we must acknowledge that every religion or area of study has its fraudulent members.
According to Wikipedia, “Many prominent spiritualists were women, and like most spiritualists, supported causes such as the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage.” Ann Braude of the Harvard Divinity School once wrote, “Not all feminists were Spiritualists, but all Spiritualists were feminists” (I’ve been excited to check out her book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America). While some women moved spiritualism forward, others worked to discredit its allegedly fraudulent members. Today we meet two of them.
Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1845-1936)
Eleanor (Nora) was an advocate for women in higher education and principal of Newnham College of Cambridge University (1892). She received honorary degrees from the universities of Manchester, Edinburgh, St Andrews, and Birmingham. She was also one of the first of three women to serve on the Royal Commission of Secondary Education. A feminist, she was an advocate for women in higher education. Impressed? Well, we haven’t gotten to the supernatural part yet.
Eleanor’s academic pursuits focused on electrical resistance and psychical phenomena. She even worked closely with the Noble Peace Prize Winner of of Physics, John William Strutt 3rd Baron Rayliegh. She was elected the 12th president of the Society of Psychical Research (her husband, Henry was the first president). This society claimed to be”first society to conduct organised scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.” Its stated purpose was to “to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated” (source). This group exposed a lot of fake phenomena with Eleanor being very skeptical of mediums. According to Wikipedia:
In 1886 and 1887 a series of publications by S. J. Davey, Richard Hodgson and Sidgwick in the Journal for the Society for Psychical Research exposed the slate writing tricks of the medium William Eglinton. Sidgwick regarded Eglinton to be nothing more than a clever conjurer. Due to the critical papers, Stainton Moses and other prominent spiritualist members resigned from the Society for Psychical Research.
In 1891, Alfred Russel Wallace requested for the Society to properly investigate spirit photography. Wallace had endorsed various spirit photographs as genuine. Sidgwick responded with her paper On Spirit Photographs (1891) which cast doubt on the subject and revealed the fraudulent methods that spirit photographers such as Édouard Isidore Buguet, Frederic Hudson and William H. Mumler had utilized.
The group itself was often divided on spiritualism. Once, member Arthur Conan Doyle led a mass resignation of 84 members, arguing that the society was anti-spiritualism. Eleanor had her hand in causing resignations, too. You can read more about her work with the society here.
Rose Mackenberg (1892-1968)
Another skeptic of mediumship, Rose Mackenberg worked closely with Harry Houdini to expose fraudulent mediums. During the 1920s there was a resurgence of Spiritualism. With the destruction of WWI and the Spanish Flu Pandemic came a desire to communicate with loved ones lost. Proponents of this movement include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but not all spiritualists were trustworthy. Some mediums used people’s grief to make a profit. Many magicians worked to publicly expose and embarrass these mediums. One was Harry Houdini, who put together a task force to catch these fraudulent “ghost racketeers” (the slang “ghost racket” was used during the late 19th century to describe the con of posing as a medium or physic so to draw money out of vulnerable people).
Before meeting Harry Houdini, Rose Mackenberg worked as a private investigator. On one challenging case involving a medium giving bad investment advice, she sought out Harry’s expertise. Harry was so impressed with her logic and wit that he invited her to join his “secret service.” She wasn’t the first woman to join his team, as Julia Sawyer (his niece) and Alberta Chapman were already members. According to an Atlas Obscura article:
This clandestine team traveled ahead of Houdini’s touring schedule, visiting towns and cities where he was due to perform and infiltrating the local Spiritualist “scene” to gather evidence of fraud. These details were passed on to Houdini, who would then expose the fraudsters during his shows.
As expected, Houdini and his secret service made a lot of enemies and this sometimes got violent. Harry recommended that Rose carry a gun, which she refused. Instead, Rose wore elaborate disguises as a safety precaution.
Rose worked as the chief investigator and claimed to have investigated 1,000 mediums, all of which were fake. Rose was widely perceived as an expert, giving lectures on how to avoid scams and serving as a courtroom expert. Two memorable stories involving the adventures of Rose in the courtroom follow (both from Wikipedia):
“In the first session of the 69th Congress, an anti-fortunetelling law for Washington D.C. was put forward on the urging of Houdini. The Copeland-Bloom bill (H.R. 8989) came before a House committee beginning February 26, 1926. Houdini was to testify in its favor.
Following the same pattern as during the tour, Mackenberg visited local Washington mediums in the days prior to the hearings. She targeted local mediums including Jane B. Coates and Madam Grace Marcia who were scheduled to testify against the bill. Her testimony on May 18, 1926 included the revelation that Coates had told her that Senators Capper, Watson, Dill, and Fletcher ‘had come to her for readings’ and that ‘table tipping seances are held at the White House’ with President Coolidge and his family. This was met with raucous denials in the committee room, and a ‘fracas’ ensued. The meeting was adjourned. President Coolidge did not officially respond to the accusation but unofficial denials were made known in the press. Ultimately H.R. 8989 did not pass, but the hearings received wide press coverage.”
“After Houdini’s death in October 1926, Mackenberg continued to investigate fraudulent psychics for over 20 years and serve as an expert on them in various venues.One court case in Pennsylvania involved the 1939 will of Augustus T. Lockwood. He had bequeathed a large sum of money to a ‘Spiritualistic College to Educate Mediums’ at Lily Dale, New York, a famous camp and meeting place for Spiritualists. The state of Pennsylvania sought to invalidate the will, in part on the argument that the bequest would benefit criminal behavior and thus would be ‘against public policy’. Mackenberg was called as the ‘star witness’ and the state was successful at trial. The case was appealed, however, and overturned by higher courts.”
“Death and the Birth of Feminism” – Death and the Maiden
“The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism” Smithsonian Magazine Online
The History of Spiritualism, Vol 1 – Arthur Conan Doyle (free download!)
“Houdini’s Greatest Trick: Debunking Medium Mina Crandon” – mental_floss