The end of fall is the season when the veil between our world and the spirit world is thinnest. That means Halloween is the best possible time to try to communicate with ghosts and spirits! How many of you have gotten together and played with a Ouja board for fun? If you have, you’ve participated in one of the most popular activities to come out of the spiritualism movement.
Simply put, spiritualism is the belief that human personalities continue to exist after death and that it is possible for the living to communicate with them via a medium. During the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, it was extremely popular in the United States and England. The movement is usually given a starting date of 1848, when Kate and Margaret Fox claimed that they had established contact with the spirit responsible for producing a series of “rapping” sounds in the family house located in Hydesville, New York. Although the sister later admitted that this was a hoax, spiritualism gained considerable prominence in the following decades. It was characterized by its desire to make communication with the spirit world an empirical, scientific endeavor. Unlike Christian mysticism, spiritualism did not aim to have an inward-focused religious experience. Instead, it focused on tangible manifestations of ghostly presences: something knocking on the walls, a table levitating, or spirit writing.
Although spiritualism wanted to earn recognition as a science, it was not embraced by members of the scientific community – except by Robert Hare, the former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. After resigning from his post in 1848, he became a devoted spiritualist. While this might seem counterintuitive for a man of science, it was actually a logical conclusion for his line of scientific inquiry. As a chemist, Hare was particularly interested in the idea that certain phenomena – heat, for example – were actually invisible forms of matter. For him, it was not a great stretch of the imagination to think that the phenomena observed at séances were just another form of invisible matter. In order to prove the validity of spiritualists’ activities were authentic, and not being manipulated by fraudulent mediums, Hare devised something called a spiritscope (the image at the top). This device allowed the spirits to engage in spirit writing without passing through a medium – the medium is present as a sort of focusing device, but is not the means by which the spirits point at the letters. Those of you who have played Ouija probably know how easy it is to inadvertently move the planchette. The spiritscope was designed to remove this potential for human interference.
His scientific contemporaries did not take kindly to Hare’s spiritualist bent, and he was denied requests to speak at the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This only made him cling to spiritualism with greater stubbornness. When he died in 1858, he was sure that he stood his work would usher in a new era of scientific inquiry. Time has proven him wrong, but when you pull out the Ouija board this Halloween season you might want to take a moment to consider the fact that you are keeping the legacy of spiritualism alive.
R. Laurence Moore. “Spiritualism and Science: Reflections on the First Decade of the Spirit Rappings.” American Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4 (October, 1972): 474-500.
Timothy W. Kneeland. “Robert Hare: Politics, Science, and Spiritualism in the Early Republic.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 132, No. 2 (July, 2008): 245-260.