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In part-one of last week's column about the Spiritual Telegraph, we learned that the Fox sisters, who lived in New York, were able to communicate with disembodied spooks through raps, finger snapping, and voice commands.

In this post, which concludes the series, we learn how séances and Ouija boards became popular conduits for mediumship in the Spiritualism movement of Victorian America.


Rapping with Ghosts:

The Spiritual Telegraph

Comes to Victorian America

(Part 2 of a 2-Part Series)

Read part one here.


In the Rochester area, spooks were making themselves heard in many homes. Spirit communications had become more sophisticated. At first, messages were spelled out by a series of raps, from 1-26, corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. Then people began speaking the letters of the alphabet, and the spirits rapped at the appropriate letter. Spirit messages were communicated even faster when 11-year-old Kate Fox would fall into a trance and speak directly with those who had died. Around this time, Kate contacted Quaker Amy Post to say she had received a message from the spirit of the Posts' 5-year-old daughter.

Austin, Texas, USAIn Rochester, seances were conducted around parlor tables, where men and women held hands to form spirit circles. Ouija boards were common accessories in the community’s sitting rooms.

In the Fox household, family and visitors reported the cool touch of spirit hands. At dinner, guests would often hear rappings. Sometimes, they would witness one end of the table rising up and thumping down, sending plates and glasses flying.

As these stories gained greater circulation, newspapers clamored for an end to what they claimed was unabashed humbuggery. The Fox sisters agreed to a public demonstration of their strange powers.

The following November, Amy Post chaperoned 13-year-old Maggie Fox and her sister, Leah, as they traveled to the largest auditorium in Rochester. In a back room, a sour-faced committee of ladies instructed them to strip off all their clothing, which appalled Amy, who draped the girls’ naked bodies in borrowed shawls while the girls’ garments were minutely examined. When this procedure was completed, they were marched on stage to face a committee of men who had been chosen for their skill at exposing frauds.

As the inquisition began, Maggie's and Leah's skirts were twisted around their ankles and tied securely with handkerchiefs. Their feet were held down by their inquisitors. When these precautions did not eliminate raps, ventriloquism was suspected. The girls were then gagged, but the spirits continued knocking.

Their inquisitors then decided to test for electrical energy. Almost a century before, Benjamin Franklin had said that electricity represented the force of disembodied spirits. Hoping to demonstrate a hoax, the inquisitors demanded that the sisters stand on pillows to keep them from transmitting electrical forces that could somehow rattle the floorboards. But when Maggie and Leah called upon the spirits, time and again, rapping came from the floor. No trick was exposed, and a new religious movement was underway.

By 1850, two million Americans had converted to Spiritualism. By 1863, while the country was torn by Civil War, Spiritualists had grown to seven million. The appeal of this ideology was two-fold. First, Spiritualism contradicted strict Calvinistic principles of the time. Louise Chandler Moulton, an early convert to Spiritualism, was typical of the women to whom this ideology appealed.

Born to Calvinist parents who banned the reading of romances, dancing, and games of chance (including backgammon), Louise claimed she was plagued throughout her childhood by "an awful foreboding of doom and despair." She would wake "in the depth of the night, cold with horror" and think, "Why, if I'm not among the elect, I can't be saved, no matter how hard I try." (Source: OTHER POWERS by Barbara Goldsmith, Alfred A. Knopf, publisher.) Through Spiritualism, her fate was now in her own hands.

High mortality rates, especially during the war, also furthered the appeal of Spiritualism. In New York State, as the first rappings were heard, half of all reported deaths where children under the age of five. Deaths often occurred at home, where the sick were most likely attended by women.

Consumed by loneliness and grief, Victorian females, particularly the middle-class Christians who feared Hell, wanted to see their loved ones safe in Heaven. Spiritualism gave them both the permission and the means to communicate with these departed souls. In fact, Spiritualists responded to death as a transformational event. Rather than mourn, they wore white at funerals, and mediums were usually present to deliver messages from the newly arrived souls in Summerland (the Spiritualists' name for heaven).

Because Victorians attributed purity and passivity to females, women were ideal vehicles to channel messages from the spirit world. By the 1850s, a group of female trance speakers were among the first women permitted to address assemblies of both sexes.

Speaking with the authority of the spirits, but without personal responsibility for what was said, these women, unlike other free-thinking females before them, could not be censored for their statements. No matter how poor their education, women now commanded the attention of Victorian leaders. These female Spiritualists could relay to their husbands, preachers, and government officials the wisdom of Socrates, Benjamin Franklin, and other exalted men of history.

Not surprisingly, the rights of the Victorian female were very much on the minds of these spirits, who advocated social issues, such as Temperance or Suffrage, and better treatment of women by their husbands.