The Spiritualist lecturers

By the summer of 1875 Caroline Slemmer Jebb was gradually adjusting to the slow pace of life as a don’s wife in an ancient university town, so different from her home in busy, modernizing Philadelphia. ‘Term is over now, and we have settled down into quietness with a little variety furnished by a set of spiritual séances,’ she told her sister, a tone of exasperation creeping into her letter.  Although she was now quite fond of Cambridge, and of her husband Richard Claverhouse Jebb, she could not understand the hold that spiritualism had over his Trinity College friends. For her it was ‘the most arrant nonsense and imposture’ and she mocked Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers (‘these great geniuses’) for being so willing to be taken in: ‘both seem as easy to delude and as anxious to believe as any infant.’

The Victorians’ fascination with spirit mediums claiming to channel communication between the living and the dead reached its peak in the mid-1870s. In the name of ‘scientific investigations’ into spiritualist phenomena, groups of learned people were attending séances in elegant drawing-rooms all over the country; in January 1874 Charles and Emma Darwin took part in one at Erasmus Darwin’s London house along with George Eliot and G.H. Lewes. ‘Mr Lewes I remember was troublesome’, recalled Henrietta Darwin, ‘and inclined to make jokes and not sit in the dark in silence’ (Browne, 405).

But despite such scepticism, scholarly interest in analysing spiritualist phenomena was steadily growing. The informal discussion group that Sidgwick and Myers began in Cambridge in 1874 was soon joined by Sidgwick’s former students Edmund Gurney and the future prime minister Arthur Balfour; it was during one of their séances at Balfour’s London house that Sidgwick met Arthur’s sister Eleanor, and they married in 1876. The Cambridge group was a forerunner of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) that was founded in London in 1882 (see Jane Dismore’s guest blog for more about the SPR’s early years). The SPR’s archive at Cambridge University Library featured in an episode of the recent Netflix series ‘Surviving Death’, as reported here.

Women who claimed clairvoyant gifts are the subject of Emily Midorikawa’s new book, Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint, 2021). She traces the origins of the Modern Spiritualist movement to a small hamlet called Hydesville in New York County, where two young sisters appeared to be contact with unseen presences. The ‘Rochester rappings’ made Kate and Maggie Fox famous, and soon they and their older sister Leah were giving public demonstrations to large crowds in concert halls throughout North America. The craze soon crossed the ocean to Britain. ‘Table turning particularly caught on among working people in the Yorkshire town of Keighley, with its history of social and political radicalism’, Midorikawa notes, ‘as well as with the leisured classes residing in the nation’s capital.’ Queen Victoria recorded in her diary how, during their spring holiday at Osborne House in 1853, she and Prince Albert had engaged in the practice with their ladies-in-waiting.

But there was more to this era-defining phemomenon than an amusing parlour game or the studies of Cambridge scholars. Out of the Shadows shows how a handful of women made successful careers out of spiritualism on both sides of the Atlantic, by taking their talents as spirit mediums from the private drawing-room to the public stage. Kate, Maggie and Leah Fox, Emma Hardinge Britten, Victoria Woodhull and Georgina Weldon all became ‘grand successes’, and ‘came to wield extraordinary levels of social or political clout in an era when female voices seldom garnered much serious attention.’

It’s a beautifully written and absorbing book that criss-crosses the Atlantic as it reveals how these six women used their spiritualist gifts to gain power, money and remarkable influence. The story of how the British-born Emma Hardinge climbed the social ladder in the USA is particularly engaging. In the mid-1850s she struggled to make a living as an actress in London before, as a last-ditch effort to revive her career, taking up the offer of nine months’ work in a Broadway production. While in New York she met Ada Foye and other luminaries of the early American séance scene. They spotted her talents and encouraged her to give up her stage career and promote spiritualism instead. Her first Spiritualist performance was with a group of fifty singers performing a cantata written by Hardinge but imparted, she claimed, ‘by a power that worked through my organism.’ The New York Herald was impressed, commenting that ‘whoever the Spirits that controlled Emma Hardinge might be, they could at least make good music’. She could be one of the ‘leading musicians and composers of the age’, they added, if she chose to ‘give up the shadow’ of spiritualism.

But Hardinge was clairvoyant enough to predict that her gifts as a ‘spiritualist lecturer’, combined with her stage presence, would take her further. Before long she was travelling around Canada and North America, ‘trance lecturing’ before distinguished male audiences (including priests, lawyers, doctors and reporters, she recalled) and answering their questions. As with her music, she claimed to have no awareness beforehand of what the spirits would tell her to say, which included outspoken (and therefore unladylike) views on controversial topics of female emancipation and the need have sympathy for ‘fallen women’. When it came to speaking out, it might have been easier to tell herself and her audience, as Midorikawa says, ‘that she was merely a mouthpiece for dead – usually male – spirits.’

As her fame grew, Hardinge became more confident in her oratorial skills and in 1864 threw her weight behind the campaign to re-elect Abraham Lincoln as president by giving a speech in San Francisco entitled ‘The Coming Man; or the Next President of the United States’. Lincoln’s committee of supporters was so impressed by the crowds she drew that they asked if she would ‘stump the State for Lincoln’. Her unusual status as a female campaign orator giving a 32-date lecture tour drew the crowds and helped to ensure Lincoln’s resounding victory in California. When Lincoln was assassinated five months later, Hardinge was invited to deliver a eulogy the next day in New York City, the first to be given in the city. Before an audience of over three thousand she gave her Great Funeral Oration on Abraham Lincoln. As Midorikawa writes, ‘that a woman, not American-born, was afforded this honor demonstrates the heights to which the former player of bit parts on Broadway had risen in less than a decade’.

It was well known that the president’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, had held séances at the White House to try to reach their young son Willie, who had died during Lincoln’s first term in office. Later she was photographed by the ‘spirit photographer’ William H. Mumler, with the ghostly presence of Lincoln behind her, his hands resting protectively on her shoulders. ‘The picture, ersatz but powerful, exemplifies the “peace and comfort to the weary soul” that Mumler trumpeted as his hallmark’, Dan Piepenbring writes in the New Yorker. There’s a similar image of Hardinge below.

Emma Hardinge Britten, by W.H. Mumler

After Henry Sidgwick’s death of cancer in 1900 Eleanor Sidgwick was convinced that he was also not far away, communicating with her from ‘the other world’. It was a comfort that Caroline Jebb in Cambridge was denied. ‘So many things I would have told him, such love and worship I would have shown him’, she wrote three years after Richard Jebb died. ‘Now he cannot see, he cannot feel or hear, though I spend my days in trying to reach him.’ Perhaps she too reached for spiritualist powers in the end, but sadly without success.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Sources

Emily Midorikawa Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint, 2021)

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003)

Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychic Research in England 1850-1914 (CUP, 1985)

Mary Reed Bobbitt, With Dearest Love to All: The Life and Letters of Lady Jebb (Faber and Faber, 1960)

Several of Emma Hardinge Britten’s books are held in Cambridge University Library.