Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
The early literature of American spiritualism is so vast that it is not possible to summarize it here properly. Nonetheless I will present a few comments about selected publications, all of which are freely available in various virtual libraries (click here, here, and here).
A particularly good book giving a general account of the events and phenomena of early American spiritualism is Eliab W. Capron’s Modern Spiritualism (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1855). The opening words of the preface are: “We find ‘the world turned upside-down’ by a new and strange class of manifestations called spiritual. Like most new thoughts of modern times, America gave it birth; but it has since spread all over the globe, and awakened new and novel inquiries wherever man understands the means of communicating to his fellows the discoveries he has made” (p. v). Capron chronicles developments coming from the Fox sisters but the most interesting part of his book are the descriptions of the spread of mediumship in the United States.
In another book, entitled Explanation and History of the Mysterious Communion with Spirits Capron and Henry D. Barron (2nd ed., Auburn, NY: Capron and Barron,1850) presented an account of the mysterious knockings that gave a big impetus to the development of spiritualism, and centered on the Fox sisters. The knockings were first heard by the Fox family. According to the description of an early incident:
“The girls . . . heard the sounds and endeavored to imitate them by snapping their fingers. The attempt was first made by the youngest girl, then about twelve years old. When she made the noise with her fingers, the sounds were repeated just as many times as she made them. The sound was not like that which she made, only the number of raps. When she stopped snapping her fingers, the sounds stopped for a short time. One of the other girls then said in sport, ‘Now do what I do; count one, two, three, four, five, six,’ &c., at the same time striking one hand in the other. The same number of blows or sounds, were repeated as in the other case. As this slight manifestation of intelligence was displayed, she began to be alarmed, and desisted from trying any more experiments. Mrs. Fox then said, ‘count ten,’ and there were ten distinct strokes or sounds. She then said, will you tell the age of Cathy, (one of the children,) and it was answered by the same number of raps that she was years of age. In like manner, the age of her different children was told correctly by this unseen visitor” (pp. 13-14).
A general discussion of the phenomenal, theoretical, and social aspects of spiritualism was Uriah Clark’s Plain Guide to Spiritualism (Boston: William White, 1863). Regarding the variety of mediums Clark cautioned readers that there were so many types of mediums, and so many combinations, that a reliable classification was not possible. Nonetheless he presented the following long list:
“1. The rapping medium was the first developed in this age of spiritual manifestations. We name other phases without regard to order or gradation. 2. The tipping medium. 3. The medium for raising ponderable bodies, sometimes with and sometimes without hands in contact. 4. The musical medium, with instruments and without. 5. The medium for spirit voices, without using the vocal organs, and sometimes with. 6. Writing medium, sometimes by impression and sometimes mechanically. 7. The trance medium, sometimes conscious and sometimes otherwise. 8. Vibrating medium, sometimes shaken and convulsed, and sometimes lifted or impelled without any seeming volition. 9. The transfigured medium, thrilled, exalted and enchanted under celestial influences. 10. Personification medium, imitating words, looks, tones and actions of spirits. 11. Sensation medium, made to feel signals and touches by spirits. 12. Clairvoyant medium, describing persons, spirits, diseases, etc. 13. Healing medium, for the laying on of hands. 14 Painting medium, producing pictures and portraits. 15. Hieroglyphic medium, executing strange scrolls. 16. The medium for unknown tongues, sometimes writing and sometimes speaking. 17. Impressional medium, liable to take on impressions from mortals and from spirits. 18. The clairaudant medium, for hearing spirit sounds and voices. 19. The vision medium, dealing in tropes, symbols, etc., like the Apocalypse. 20. Seeing medium, describing spirit-scenes and forms. 21. The telegraphic medium, sending messages to absent persons, without writing or speaking. 22. Developing medium, imparting influences to develop other mediums. 23. Prophetic medium, giving warnings and predictions. 24. Illuminatti medium, presenting spirit lights. 25. Itinerant medium, sent out after the sick, suffering, tempted, fallen, dying, etc. 26. The psychological medium, liable to be influenced by persons in the form, and subjected to impositions, counterfeits, etc. 27. The psychographic medium, reading persons at a distance, with letters, locks of hair, etc. 28. The speaking medium, speaking under influence, some conscious and some unconscious. 29. The inspirational medium, thinking, feeling, acting, writing, and speaking under a vivid consciousness of the reality of things spiritual, divine and eternal, yet in full possession of all the senses. 30. The improvisation medium, giving music or poetry without premeditation, under spirit influence. 31. The normal medium, without any external signs, realizing the all-pervading atmosphere of the spirit-world with a calm, deep consciousness of angel guardianship” (pp. 169-171).
Many other books presented examples of the fascinating phenomena of spiritualism. Judge John W. Edmonds and physician George T. Dexter, were both investigators and mediums, as seen in the first volume of their Spiritualism (New York: Partridge & Brittan, 1853). The first received visions and the second produced automatic writing. Edmonds wrote about Dexter’s written communications coming from Swedenborg and Bacon:
“All that purports to come from Bacon is always in the same
handwriting; so it is with Sweedenborg (sic). The handwriting of each is unlike the other, and though both are written by Dr. Dexter’s hand, they are both unlike his; so that with ease, when he is under the influence, he writes several different kinds of handwriting, and some of them more rapidly than he can write his own. This he can not do when he is not under the influence; and I have never seen any person that could, in his normal condition, write with such rapidity, at one sitting, four or five different kinds of handwriting, each distinctly marked, and having and always retaining its peculiar characteristic” (p. 50).
Later in the book there are facsimile reproductions of Dexter’s handwriting, and of his writing as Swedenborg, Bacon and other purported spirits (pp. 387-392).
In Spiritualism in America (London: F. Pitman, 1861), published in England, Benjamin Coleman presented the experiences he had with mediums during his visit to the States. A case in point were his experiences with Miss Lord, a physical medium in Portland, Maine. They formed a chain around a large table and musical instruments were placed on a nearby table. According to Coleman the following took place in complete darkness:
“The first manifestation arose from the unseen agents handling the guitar, which was whisked about with great celerity over and around our heads, whilst a quick negro air was capitally played upon it the whole time the instrument was floating about us. I was touched by it on the head playfully several times, and once it rested on my shoulder, the air still continuing, with the strings so close to my ear that they struck me in their vibration” (p. 11).
Many communications were about philosophical and moral topics of various sorts, as seen in the works received by mediums. This literature includes Charles Linton’s The Healing of the Nations (New York: Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge, 1855) and Charles Hammond’s Light from the Spirit World (Rochester, NY: W. Heughes, 1852). The latter has chapters about miracles, prophecy, deceiving spirits, wisdom, repentance, and forgiveness. Some interesting mediumistic communications about “spiritual birth,” or the transition between death and life in the spirit world, were presented by Robert Hare in his Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations (New York: Partridge & Brittan, 1855).
Some of the communications were about philosophical, moral and scientific topics delivered at the request of the public. This was the case of trance speaker Cora L.V. Hatch, as seen in her Discourses on Religion, Morals, Philosophy, and Metaphysics (New York: B.F. Hatch, 1858). Some of the topics of the “discourses” were: Why is man ashamed to acknowledge his alliance to the angel-world, the sources of human knowledge, the beauty of life and the life of beauty, Jesus of Nazareth, the moral and religious nature of man, spiritual communications, and the spheres. Hatch stated in one of her speeches:
“The question is asked: Why are the communications of the spirits so vague, and conveyed in so mysterious a manner as to leave doubts, on the mind, of their being genuine?’ First, if modern spiritualism be true, and if there is a principle by which those in the spirit-world can communicate with persons on the earth, it is controlled by a fixed and positive law; that law as certain when applied correctly, and as uncertain when applied incorrectly, as is telegraphic communication between New York and Washington. If a man along any portion of the route cut the wire, your telegraphic message will stop at that point; or, if there is any fault in the operator, your message will be sent incorrectly. It is the same in communications between this and the spirit world. There are lines of thought and feeling; minds, and tables, and chairs, are but the wires which they use to convey their thoughts. You are at one end of that telegraphic chain, your spirit-friend at, the other. If there is no intervening influence, the message will be conveyed; if, in any way, the line of communication is disturbed, the message will be incorrectly given . . . .” (pp. 264-265).
Also interesting were the various descriptions of the spirit world obtained via
psychic means. This included, but was not limited to, Hudson Tuttle’s Scenes in the Spirit World (New York: Partridge and Brittan, 1855) and Andrew Jackson Davis A Stellar Key to the Summer Land (5th ed., Boston: Colby & Rich, 1867). The latter wrote in his book: “The Spiritual Spheres have been recently termed Summer Lands, and there are, counting man’s earthly existence the first sphere of spirit life, in all six spheres in the ascending flight toward Deity, who fills the Seventh Sphere . . .” (p. 66).
Another influential and widely discussed book was social reformer and politician Robert Dale Owen’s Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1860). Instead of mediumship, Owen discussed phenomena such as veridical dreams, apparitions, and hauntings. He referred to the agency of invisible beings affecting our world:
“As to the proofs of the agency upon earth of these Invisibles, I rest them not on any one class of observations set forth in this volume, not specially on the phenomena of dreaming, or of unexplained disturbances, or of apparitions whether of the living or the dead, or of what seem examples of ultramundane retribution or indications of spiritual guardianship, but upon the aggregate and concurrent evidence of all these. It is strong confirmation of any theory that proofs converging from many and varying classes of phenomena unite in establishing it” (pp. 508-509).
Several books were about explanations of the phenomena of spiritualism. A fascinating one was Samuel B. Brittan’s and B.W. Richmond’s A Discussion of the Facts and Philosophy of Ancient and Modern Spiritualism (New York: Partridge & Brittan, 1853). This consisted in a debate around the physical and mental phenomena of spiritualism in which Brittan represented discarnate agency and Richmond the argument that the Od force could explain the occurrences without recourse to spirits of the dead. The latter point was also developed, with some variants, in other influential books such as E.C. Rogers’ Philosophy of Mysterious Agents (Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1853) John Bovee Dods’ Spirit Manifestations Examined and Explained (New York: De Witt and Davenport, 1854), and A. Mahan’s Modern Mysteries Explained and Exposed (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1855).
Several other authors saw spiritualism as the work of the devil. An example was William Ramsey’s Spiritualism: A Satanic Delusion, and a Sign of the Times (Rochester, NY: H.L. Hastings, 1857). William R. Gordon stated in his A Three-Fold Test of Modern Spiritualism (New York: Charles Scribner, 1856):
“We have proved it a revival of heathenism . . . it is to be accredited to the devil and his angels. Its demonology and its necromancy furnish all the data we need for the estimate of its true origin, nature, and tendency . . . . To consider this phenomenon any other than the work of the devil, is as good as denying the agency, nay, the existence of the devil altogether; for if he has not done this, we should be glad to know what kind of agency he exerts, and what is the peculiarity of the evidence by which his existence is established” (pp. 400-401).
Many other books could be mentioned, among them those authored by Andrew Jackson Davis. Some of them are The Principles of Nature (35th ed., Boston: Colby & Rich, 1847), The Philosophy of Spiritual Intercourse (New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1851), and Memoranda of Persons, Places, and Events (Boston: William White, 1868).
*This is based on my article Early American spiritualism literature online. Journal of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, 2010, 33, 94-100.