Victorian Spiritism and Science

One of the things that fascinates me about the Victorian age is the way such things as spiritism and belief in the paranormal paralleled a period of increased scientific accomplishment. Mumler_(Lincoln) It’s as though the harnessing of unseen and intangible forces such as electromagnetism and steam brought about a desire to understand the unseen forces of the spirit realm. Séances and attempts to contact the dead became popular. In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, famously held a séance in the White House. Not only did people claim to talk to the dead, some people claimed to photograph them as well, bringing us back to Mary Todd Lincoln. She’s shown in this photo taken by William H. Mumler. As it turns out, Mumler himself was a fraud, exposed by no less than P.T. Barnum, and the image of Lincoln was created through a double exposure.

Ghosts were not unheard of before the Victorian age, but people certainly seemed increasingly preoccupied with them during the nineteenth century. One theory I’ve heard is that it’s related to the rise in people moving from farms to cities beginning during the industrial revolution and increasing through the Victorian age. People suddenly found themselves in more cramped, less familiar surroundings. It certainly seems possible that people could have imagined the spirits of loved ones appearing as a kind of comfort after being uprooted from more familiar environs. What’s more, as more people moved into cities, there were higher rates of death and disease, which might lead to a desire on the part of people to find ways to see loved ones again.

Another suggestion I’ve encountered is more mundane. The Victorian age brought about the introduction of gas lamps, and the pipes weren’t always well sealed. One could easily imagine someone who breathed in poor quality air beginning to see things.

A Christmas Carol

As an author, I’m always fascinated by literary explanations. I’ve seen some point to nothing less than Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as one of the inspirations for the rise in spiritism. The book was, after all, released in 1843, right at the beginning of the Victorian age and was wildly popular, receiving both critical acclaim and being adapted for the stage within a year of release. I do find it fascinating that aside from the ghost of Jacob Marley, most of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol aren’t actually spirits of people who died, but are more angelic figures, concerned about the redemption of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

My novel Lightning Wolves explores this almost contradictory rise of rationality and spiritism as the scientist M.K. Maravilla decides to investigate sightings of a ghost camel near Arizona’s Mule Mountains. Such sightings are actually part of the historical record and may have been precipitated by real camels brought over during the American Civil War.

So, have you heard any other explanations for the rise of spiritism in the nineteenth century? Any stories that might provide some more insight into this interesting period of history?


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