The Age of Occultism

It seems today like we live in a time of enlightenment, an age as free from superstition as there has ever been. But you only need go back a few generations to find a very different world. It was in this world that spiritualism emerged. In the late 19th century superstition still had an iron grip on society. And if anything, the expansion of scientific and historical research only helped further this. Across Europe secret occult societies emerged, led by mysterious figures from the east. Claiming knowledge of ancient religious practices, they said there was a hidden world out there. A world of magic and the supernatural. Some of the most influential members of society fell under theory spell, often dedicating decades to studying the occult. The word occult comes from Latin, roughly meaning “Knowledge of the hidden”.

In centuries gone by it referred to the study of alchemy and astrology, but now it came to be more associated with the paranormal. With the advent of photographic technology, doctored images circulated appearing to show ghostly apparitions. Rumor spread that dead people could genuinely be contacted through rituals called seances. Many equated such practices with witchcraft and called for spiritualism to be banned. But the Victorian upper classes couldn’t get enough of it. Even Queen Victoria was known to take part in seances, as was Abraham Lincoln.

The Age of Spiritualism

In fact, by the end of the 19th century there were more than eight million followers of spiritualism in Europe and North America. It’s hard for us now to imagine spiritualism being such an influential force. As a religious movement it emerged in the mid 18 hundreds, and in a matter of years exploded in popularity. There are historians who specialize in the rise of spiritualism. If you ask me those people are clearly wasting their lives, but that’s beside the point. Most of them argue that spiritualism truly began with three siblings in up state New York.

In 1847 the Fox family moved to a village that doesn’t even exist any more. Their new home was large but surprisingly affordable. But for some reason locals didn’t want anything to do with it. Almost immediately they began to experience strange noises, knowing and scratching late at night, with no clear cause. Then one night, when the knocking sounds were especially loud, one of the siblings tried to communicate with whatever was causing the noise. On a hunch she challenged it to guess her age, knocking once per year. According to the story it not only guessed her age but spelled out her name one letter at a time. Whatever entity was in their home it was clearly intelligent.

Going Professional

In time they found out they were in communication with a ghost, or at least, the spirit of a man once murdered in their home. Perhaps this was why the house was so avoided by locals. The parents could find no record of a murder taking place there, but still they sent their two daughters away, Kate to live with their sister Leah and Maggie to live with their brother David. But it wasn’t long before they began to hear the noises again. Rumor spread that these girls were able to communicate with the dead, attracting attention from the radical Quaker community. Within a year they had a significant following and were in New York working as professional mediums. Many of America’s rich and famous came to the Fox sisters and took part in seances. With a complex code they would interpret the ghostly knocking by which the dead communicated.

The Birth of a Movement

By now their older sister Leah was working with them, claiming to be a medium herself. As their success grew more people came forward, claiming the power of mediumship. Spiritualism swept America like a wave. Entire churches were built in it’s name. Newspapers founded to spread the belief Within five years the movement had two million followers. Most mediums were pure charlatans. Those who took part in a seance wanted it to work. It didn’t take much to fool them. Often the table around which they sat would begin to slowly rotate. As those present had grown up in a world without electricity, it’s easy to understand their gullibility. But other experiences were more difficult to explain. There are reports of some mediums demonstrating genuine levitation, floating into the air before their clients. Some even claimed they could cause spirits to physically materialize for all to see.

Katie King

Ghosts of spiritualism
All kinds of photos emerged appearing to show paranormal encounters: possession, materialization, ectoplasm, creepy ridiculous French children, and of course, ghosts. This photograph was said to show the era’s most famous ghost, Katie King. First materialized by British mediums in 1872, news of her existence soon spread across the world. She was said to be the young daughter of an English lord who commit suicide in the 1850s. At first it sounded like just another urban legend. But with more and more people claiming to have seen the ghost during seances, the question of her existence became a fierce public debate. Hoping to put it to rest the scientist Sir William Crookes decided to investigate. With a house full of his friends and relatives, Crookes invited the original medium to contact Katie King, who was still only 15 herself.

According to those present, they witnessed her materialize another teenage girl, who spoke up identifying herself as Katie King. She told them her story, shook their hands, and disappeared in front of them. But before she vanished this photograph was taken. It was later published as part of Crookes report. In it, he determined that the ghost was real. That the medium had produced genuine paranormal phenomena, and that the Fox sisters were equally genuine in their claims of mediumship. A report like this from such a respected scientist was unheard of. Many took it as proof of spiritualism and the occult. Months later mediums in New York also began claiming to materialize Katie King. Some mediums paid young women to play the part of the ghost. Yet either way countless people on either side of the Atlantic believed they had seen her.

The Beginning of The End

By now the Fox sisters were exhausted. Constant work and travel had taken a toll, leaving with a reliance on drugs and alcohol. No one around them was surprised by this – communicating with the dead takes a lot out of you… Trust me, I was told so by a ghost. Eventually the sisters had a falling out and went their separate ways. Soon after Maggie Fox publicly revealed the whole thing had been a hoax, that it all began as a simple trick on their parents. As it got out of hand they adapted, fearing what would happen if they admitted inventing it all. And the linger it went on the harder it got to reveal the truth. Now the world knew the truth – it was all nonsense… or so it seemed.

Proponents of spiritualism now defended their movement like never before, Katie Fox denied ever being a fraud and Maggie later recanted her confession. And so spiritualism steamed ahead, gaining millions of more followers in following decades.