Ever wonder if Ouija boards and Mediums really speak to spirits? While researching the séance scene in my #1 best-selling Romance novel, SCOUNDREL FOR HIRE (which is currently on sale!), I read about the Spiritual Telegraph, which was a popular way for Victorian Americans to contact their Dearly Departed during an intimate gathering of friends around a parlor table. (Spooky!)
In honor of the Halloween season, here is the first of a two-part series about the women who launched the Spiritual Telegraph movement.
Rapping with Ghosts:
The Spiritual Telegraph
Comes to Victorian America
(Part 1 of a 2-Part Series)
Contrary to the modern-day proliferation of Victorian nostalgia, a woman's lot was tough in 19th Century America. She had absolutely no legal right to refuse her husband sex, nor did she have the legal right to prevent him from beating her.
Victorian women routinely faced unwanted pregnancies and infant mortalities. A middle class woman might seek to distract herself from these hardships by advocating social issues, such as Temperance or Suffrage, but powerful social taboos worked against her, not the least of which was the belief that only harlots attended public lectures frequented by men.
In fact, toward the later half of the century, the term “promiscuous assemblies” was meant to convey that men and women had attended an event. As an armchair historian, I find that usage fascinating, considering the connotation of “promiscuous” today.
Clearly, a woman’s sphere was the home. Unfortunately, the home was typically the setting for illness, hardship, and death. Was it any wonder, then, that Victorian women sought solace from their earthly struggles by trying to communicate with disembodied spirits?
In 19th Century America, the rise of Spiritualism and the "spiritual telegraph" resulted from forces that reshaped sex, religion, and the private and public roles of women. America was undergoing rapid territorial and economic expansion. As in our modern society, technological advances began to outpace the cultural and religious beliefs of the period. The resulting social unrest paved the way for a group of Quakers to become some of the first converts to a budding religious ideology known as Spiritualism.
Now the Quakers of whom I write -- Isaac and Amy Post -- were not your ordinary Victorian Quakers. On the contrary: the Posts were liberal, anti-slavery free thinkers whose Rochester, New York, home served as a waystation for the Underground Railroad. The Posts, along with a rising number of their "Friends" (free thinkers who were also booted out of Quaker society because they had dared to associate with non-"Friends") took the Quaker principle to the extreme. Not only did they believe that God's laws were written in every human soul, they asserted that an unbroken chain of communication existed between the Almighty and all earth-bound beings.
This conviction seemed confirmed in 1848, the year that telegraph lines were raised in Rochester. Morse’s invention allowed people to send messages by means of electricity, a mysterious and not widely understood force at that time. The wireless inspired Isaac Post to formulate the theory that everyday folks like him and Amy could utilize a spiritual telegraph to establish a line of communication between a human medium and people who had died. (Of course, the recent death of their five-year-old daughter was a strong incentive for the Posts to embrace the idea that disembodied spirits could communicate to loved ones who were still living on earth.)
Enter the Fox sisters. For an entire week in 1848, unexplained raps and other spooky noises emanated from their Hydesville, New York, home. On the night of March 31, 11-year-old Kate and 13-year-old Maggie were put to bed early because their parents were determined to get to the bottom of the nocturnal sounds. When the raps began again, the Foxes rushed upstairs only to find the girls in bed. The raps, however, were louder than ever.
To prove she and her sister had nothing to do with the sounds, Kate threw back her covers and jumped to the floor. As her astonished parents watched, she snapped her fingers and commanded, "Follow me." A steady progression of raps followed her. "Now, do as I do," she said, clapping her hands three times. Three distinct raps answered her. "Three raps mean, `yes,’" Kate announced to her gaping parents. Her mother then asked, "Are you a disembodied spirit?" Three rapid raps followed. (Source: OTHER POWERS by Barbara Goldsmith, Alfred A. Knopf, publisher.)
Needless to say, word spread quickly. Gawkers and curiosity seekers made so many pilgrimages to the Fox home that Kate and Maggie soon fled, moving to Rochester to live with an older sister, Leah.
Don't miss Part-Two of this article on the Spiritual Telegraph, which will post on Halloween!