I've been told that seeing a ghost is a very personal experience. Judging from friends’ stories, it usually happens late at night. It's dark, and the visitation lasts for only a few seconds. The light just turned off. It could have been a cat. This recounting is anecdotal, of course. I have not done any kind of polling on the subject.
However, in 1919, the Syracuse Post-Standard did. It solicited “interesting letters from readers who have had experiences which they regard as supernatural.” Eugene Drake of Auburn submitted an account of a man who had “projected his spirit” into a girl’s body who had recently drowned, and brought her back to life. He won $25, for the story, which he admitted could not be verified save for his theory. So interestingly enough, in the mid-19th century, Spiritualism, or communication with the dead, was not a private matter at all. In fact, Syracuse, “an important Centre…a city of –isms,” as one commentator called it, was not only at the very heart of abolitionism and feminism, but Spiritualism as well.
The first two modern Spiritualists, Kate and Margaret Fox, were 12 and 15 years old when they allegedly received word from beyond. In December, 1847, the girls moved into a house near Rochester, and quickly discovered they could not sleep due to the strange nightly “rappings” emanating from somewhere inside. Kate told the being, “Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,” and began to snap her fingers back. In this way the sisters developed an “alphabet raps” system which allowed further conversation. People began to spread the word about the Fox sisters across New York and eventually the rest of the country. Having it become well known (via the Fox's Spirit friend) that a former tenant had been murdered and buried in their basement couldn't hurt for publicity either.. Then, as now, sick sells.
By 1850, only two years after the Fox sisters made friends with Mr. Splitfoot (a common name for the devil at the time), a local paper reported that “The Rochester knockings have broken out in Syracuse.” In 1856 a writer calling himself “Pupil” estimated that there were “more than a thousand Spiritualists in Syracuse and about one hundred and fifty mediums.” With a population that hovered around 30,000, it would be safe to say that the dead had found a second home in the Salt City.
Séances, abounded. No longer relying solely on rappings, mediums vocalized messages from the other side. In 1850, a curious few gathered at the Genesee Street home of Mr. Savage for a sitting. One guest arrived late, and, “the spirits refusing to communicate until all were present,” held up the meeting. Identifying himself as the apostle Paul, the spirit answered yes/no questions and then told the group leader to enter a, “mesmeric state.” A witness describes what happened next: “We first observed a few spasmodic twitches and the countenance seemed to be illuminated with a smile and expression that denoted great sensation of pleasure, and she began to describe the spirits of the departed – the parents, brothers and sisters of those present.”
As often happens, with publicity comes scrutiny. In 1856, the integrity of a young medium named Mr. Van Vleck was questioned in the Syracuse Daily Journal. The skeptic and an associate met with six men and four women at No. 11 Pike Block to see for themselves. Musical instruments including a harp, banjo, violin and bass drum were collected, and Van Vleck’s arms were tied with harp string to assure an authentic experience. Alas, he complained that it was too painful to proceed, and began to leave. But the group convinced him to try again, and holding hands to prevent a “fraud” from occurring, extinguished the lights. Soon people reported feeling the breeze created by instruments floating by their faces. Some heard them play music. Van Vleck asked to be tied down again and soon “the spirits were lifting him on the table,” chair and all.
Visitations were not merely in-home affairs. The Salt Springs Hotel on North Salina and Wolf Street was supposedly the subject of a “prophecy” in mid-January 1857 which “doomed” the building “to ashes.” The guests took note and, gathering their belongings, “prepare[d] to fly into the streets [despite] this inclement weather, thankful that their lives were saved.” One night the alarm was raised again, but after evacuating the hotel, it was discovered that the chimneys had merely burned out. The moral of the story according to the reporter was “Never try to look into the future further than God intended you should see without the aid of spirits.”
Although many mediums were local, spiritualist celebrities also graced Syracuse with their presence. Ira and William Davenport – known widely as the Davenport Brothers – were from Buffalo. They counted Arthur Conan Doyle and John Wilkes Booth among their admirers, courting praise and scrutiny in America, and during the Civil War, in Europe. As young twentysomethings they too demonstrated their “gift” with a special kind of musical act. It consisted of the brothers being bound and shut into a large cabinet with musical instruments which would be played by spirits. However, a performance in Malcolm Hall in Syracuse left the crowd scratching their heads. Although the bell and tambourine rang, two of the three time the cabinet was opened one or both of the Davenports were untied! “One member pronounced them a downright humbug and imposition.”
Some reports seem downright satirical. A 1858 news brief noted under the heading “Strange” that a Mr. Edgerton of Pompeii, an unbeliever, had “received” three bullets in his body during a sitting in his house. “The bullets were thrown by some invisible agency and struck him on the heart, but not severely.” Edgerton changed his mind after the incident, and the journalist wryly noted that this could no doubt be “partially attributed to the receipt of the mysterious bullets.”
From the very beginning, many people expressed skepticism, and not only from a naturalist position. Many members of local Presbyterian Methodist churches, for example, argued strenuously against Spiritualism’s compatibility with Christianity. One letter to the editor, signed “Orthodox,” claimed that it was tempting many believers and even clergy from their traditional faiths. He called spiritualism no less than “the sin-accursed undermining power.”
But there was was a deeply serious and yes, a religious side to communion with the dead. One may well wonder how the young Fox Sisters had pioneered such a popular movement. During thethe first half of the 19th century, western and central New York was host to a particularly wide range of alternative yet popular religions including the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Shakers, and the Oneida Community. Spiritual fervor was so strong that Presbyterian leader Charles Grandison Finney later called the area the “Burned-Over District,” which historian Whitney Cross wrote, “adopt[ed] the the prevailing western analogy between the fires of the forest and those of the spirit.”
Professor of Classics, Philosophy and Religion Cathy Gutierrez lectured at Le Moyne College in November, 2015 and explained that Spiritualism’s foundations lay in 18th century Europe. At the time, she said, Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that heaven was “a bustling society of schools, clubs and social institutions like marriage,” that had three tiers corresponding to its inhabitant’s level of moral advancement. What this meant was that instead of worrying that they and their loved ones would spend eternity in hell for their sins, moral and spiritual progression could continue in heaven, where everyone would be admitted.
She added that, Andrew Jackson Davis of Poughkeepsie, New York expanded Swedenborg’s three tiers of heaven to seven. Gutierrez noted that Jackson, who lectured in Syracuse with his wife in 1856, taught that heaven would be magical – in seventh heaven, spirits could eat aromas.
For many alienated groups, including women and black people, the Spiritualist hubbub sometimes presented opportunities for a select few. In 1857, seventeen year old Cora V. Hatch performed at Myer’s Hall (formerly on East Washington Street), and was awaited with great anticipation as “one of the most remarkable women the world had ever produced.” Unfortunately, historians have pointed out that female and black mediums were often presented as ordinary only when exhibiting the extraordinary. About Hatch, it was said that usually “she is simple and childlike to a charming degree, but on stage, when laboring under what she believes to be the spirit agency, her flights of eloquence are bold, lofty, sublime and beautiful beyond description.” This condescension may have been one of the reasons that the abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote of his distrust of the “genuineness” of rappings. In a short letter, he assured a recent host – worrying she had misheard him – that he thought that it was the lack of critical examination of spiritualism that was “atrocious,” not the company he had shared at the sitting.
Numerous public debates were held between believers and unbelievers, so it would be rash to think that the faith was uncritically accepted by any group in particular. Indeed, Arthur Conan Doyle, the master of detective stories went to his grave a staunch believer while Harry Houdini tried to show that the Davenport Brothers were mere amateur magicians.
Professor Gutierrez mentioned that one of the things that fascinated her about the subject was the connection between faith and many forms of technology, which also excited people in the 19th century. This could be why musical instruments were so much a part of Spiritualist demonstrations before spirit photography became popular into the twentieth century. Today, it would be the internet that's haunted - at least according to the 2014 horror movie, Unfriended.
Whatever one believes about the truthfulness of spiritualism, séances often provided consolation to grieving loved ones who were suffering wrenching losses. Also, the sense of curiosity and wonder that drew crowds to see demonstrations was another reason for its success. The archives of the Onondaga Historical Association is full of information about the history of Spiritualism in Syracuse. Besides newspaper clippings, there are boxes of books, artwork and photographs by and of a famous local Spiritualist named Helen Butler Wells, who, Gutierrez noted with delight, would not be listed as the author of her channeled books in the Library of Congress’ new system. In other words, the spirits are all right.
Thanks to Dr. Cathy Gutierrez, Dr. Ranjit Dighe of SUNY Oswego, and Sarah Kozma of the Onondaga Historical Association.