Using a séance as a means of communicating with spirits became not only popular but fashionable in the nineteenth century. The idea of using a spirit medium to communicate with those who have passed on goes back at least 1760 when George, First Baron Lyttelton published the book Communication With the Other Side. Séances grew in popularity during the nineteenth century with the rise of spiritism. Note, I use the word “spiritism” to denote a belief in spirits and the ghostly realm as distinguished from spiritualism or spirituality, which might concern one’s religious beliefs. The idea of using séances to communicate with the dead was further popularized by a grief-stricken Mary Todd Lincoln, who attempted to speak to the spirit her son Willie, who died in 1862. In the photo at left, we see a typical nineteenth century séance held by John Beattie in England, in 1872.
At a typical séance, people would gather around a table. The spirits might communicate through disembodied voices, the blasting of trumpets, or by writing messages on a piece of paper. Sometimes the table might levitate through the power of the spirits. As it turned out, many spiritual mediums of the age were simply frauds. The disembodied voices might be a confederate waiting in the wings. With the lights low, the medium might write the messages themselves. Levitating a table is actually pretty easy, if there is a central pillar under the table and all the people place their hands on the surface. The medium can get their feet underneath and push it one direction or the other. Here I am demonstrating the technique at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in 2013.
Note that I have everyone gazing into the crystal as a way to distract their attention from what I’m doing. Having their hands flat on the tabletop actually helps me lift the table and guide it because they’re balancing the table for me. When their hands are not on the table, the table has a tendency to tip one direction or the other.
A variation on having everyone place their hands flat on the table is having everyone hold hands. This happened because many spirit mediums used to summon spirits to write their messages on slates. Often these spirit mediums simply wrote their messages on the slate in the dark. Holding hands was a way to demonstrate that the medium’s hands were occupied. The medium Henry Slade overcame this difficulty by learning to write with his feet. He was so dextrous he would place the slate on the tabletop without being noticed!
It strikes me that there’s a lot of dramatic potential for using séances in either steampunk or historical fiction. Many of the people who requested séances were in emotional distress because they’d lost loved ones. Whether the medium of your story really summons a spirit or is a fraud, there’s a lot of potential for creating a scene that changes the direction of the story. In a steampunk story, I could imagine a lot of gadgets being used to create a fraud. You could even imagine such a story taking a horrific turn when they think the medium believes they’re creating a fraud and a spirit really appears!
Perhaps my favorite fictional séance happened in the television show Star Trek. In the episode “Wolf in the Fold,” Chief Engineer Scott has been accused of murder. A medium tries to get to the truth, but the lights go out. When they come back on, it appears Scotty has killed the medium. The episode was written by the horror master Robert Bloch, who is best known for writing Psycho. I won’t spoil what happens in the Star Trek episode, but Bloch uses the séance to suspenseful effect and sets the stage for the final science fictional solution to the mystery. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth seeking out.
“John Beattie Eugene Rochas seance photo” by Eugene Rochas – http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/bulletin/2002/images/seance2.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.