ASTOP: Spiritualism

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets.  In the late 1980s scientists associated with the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (ASTOP) created a collection of fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics. ICSA (then known as American Family Foundation) received permission to distribute these for educational purposes.

Complete list of fact sheets.

Pseudoscience does not progress, but it does change. It leaps from fad to fad; old crazes are forgotten as new crazes come in, or old, old crazes are revived. One of the longest lasting pseudoscientific fads, dominating the field for almost 70 years from the mid-1850’s to the mid-1920’s, has recently experienced a major resurgence: Spiritualism. In the history of pseudoscience, Spiritualism occupies a central position. In the 19th century, Spiritualism spawned an important offshoot, the synthetic religion Theosophy, which has had a heavy influence on 20th century pseudoscience and pseudoscientists, from Edgar Cayce to Charles Berlitz, from George Adamski to Erich Von Daniken. Even more important, Spiritualism, as it faded in the early 20th century, gave birth to all the familiar folderol about “psychics,” and “psychic phenomena,” including extrasensory perception, telepathy, psychokinesis, psychic detectives, and psychic “supermen.” Key figures in 20th century pseudoscience, like Uri Geller, are direct descendants to the great figures of Spiritualism a century before, particularly Daniel Home and Henry Slade.

The 19th century’s first popular pseudoscientific fad was Mesmerism, or hypnotism as it later came to be called. Most people encountered Mesmerism in the form of a stage act in which a mesmerist “cast a spell” on local townspeople, getting them to act crazy, mainly — to imitate a chicken, etc. — but sometimes to demonstrate supernatural powers such as thought-reading. By 1850 interest in Mesmerism had largely faded — you can watch just so many people imitate chickens before it gets to be a bore — and the stage was set for something new. It came, from the consequences of a prank played by two girls, ages 8 and 6-1/2, on their superstitious and somewhat dimwitted mother. The two girls, Margaret and Katherine Fox, teased their parents by making noises in their attic bedroom at night in hopes of getting their mother to proclaim the house haunted. As both Margaret and Kate later confessed, independently, they were sure their mother would finally catch on to the prank when the produced the mystery noises (“raps”) with their mother watching, as the girls lay in their bed in the attic. Instead, Mom ran out to get neighbors to witness the “miracle” of spirits of the dead communicating with the living via “spirit raps.” Thus, on March 31, 1848, was Spiritualism born!

When the girls’ adult sister, Anna Leah Fox Fish, showed up from Rochester, NY, in the tiny town of Hydesville where her parents lived, she saw the possibilities instantly. Despite the tender age of the girls, they were hauled off to Rochester, and resulting newspaper coverage of the girls’ ability to communicate with anyone’s dead relatives for a fee caused an explosion of interest all over America and Europe. Soon every town of any size had a practicing “medium,” usually a woman, who for the right payment would call up the invisible ghost of Uncle Charlie so that his family could ask him where he buried all the money he was supposed to have had. Fierce competition between rival mediums caused a rapid escalation of the types and kinds of phenomena produced as “evidence” that departed souls were present.

The method of communication inherited from the Fox sisters was incredibly laborious, as an anonymous humorist pointed out in 1854 in depicting Wagstaff, a “writing, tipping, knocking, rapping, and speaking medium.” Sitters of the medium recited the alphabet while the spirits rapped softly or vigorously to indicate a hit:

“A?” (Silence) “B?” (Silence) “C?” (Silence) “D?” (Silence) “E. F. J?” Rap, rap, rap. “O?” Rap, rap, rap. “Well, let the ‘seph’ go, it’s Joseph, ain’t it?” Rap, rap, rap. “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P” — Rap, rap, rap! “P, says I .. what’s the use of wastin’ time. It’s Joseph Pipkins, ain’t it?” Rap, rap, rap!

From loud raps produced near the center of a table, mediums went on to cause the table to tip and turn and even float in the air, still a laborious way of spelling out the spirit messages. The spirits contacted by “Dr.” Henry Slade, more reasonable, wrote in a clear hand on a school slate with chalk or a slate pencil, in the “new look” of Spiritualism for 1860. By this time the full “spirit séance” was born. In a semi- or totally darkened room, customers held hands around a table — usually holding the medium’s hands , too. The medium went into a “trance” and eventually spoke in a strange voice … the spirits were speaking through her! She could then be questioned directly, omitting the laborious spelling out of answers. As “proof” the medium was in contact with the spirits, various “phenomena” were produced. As the room was usually totally dark these phenomena were limited to sounds, odors, luminosity, and the like. Raps sounded, tables tipped, musical instruments played by themselves, ghostly cold winds blew down the necks of the sitters, objects appeared in midair and fell to the tabletop, strange incenses and perfumes were smelled … Following the lead of music hall performers Ira and William Davenport, some mediums allowed themselves to be tied hand and foot with rope before exhibiting their phenomena. Thurs was born, in actual fact, the “escape act” that magicians like Houdini later made a headline feat. But the medium did not observably escape. After the séance she could be found still apparently securely tied, still in a “trance,” whatever that is.

Each medium had his own trademark effects, and these tended to become more and more spectacular as the century wore on. Daniel Home “materialized” tiny hands, which appeared at the edge of the table — about as far as Home’s feet could reach! — and which the sitters could touch. By the early 1870’s, mediums were undertaking “full figure materializations.” While the medium retired to another room to “go into a trance,” all the lights were turned out and the sitters sang hymns until they were half asleep … Suddenly, the very form and figure of the departed loved one was dimly seen to enter the room … always wearing a concealing robe, a hood, a helmet, and often even a false beard! These materializations invariably proved to be the most risky of all Spiritualist phenomena. For every medium who was caught releasing her hands or feet to work a trumpet or a tambourine, several were caught playing the part of the “full figure materialization.” The temptation of members of the audience to reach out and grab the “spirit” proved almost irresistible, and every medium who performed such materializations was publicly exposed at one time or another when a skeptic or an overenthusiastic believer accidentally or on purpose jerked off the “spirit’s” robe or hood or wig, to reveal, usually, the medium herself, but always a very much alive and unspiritual person in costume.

Almost every prominent medium was caught in one or more acts of gross trickery. In the Fall of 1888, Margaret and Kate Fox told their full story, confessing to every detail of their original and later trickery, and giving a public demonstration. None of these exposures had any effect on believers, but the scandals and the preposterous claims kept scientists as far away from Spiritualism as they could get, especially after physicist William Crookes (1832-1919) and his girlfriend, medium Florence Cooke, were involved in a remarkable scandal that is still being studied by historians of the period. Crookes later renounced totally all interest in Spiritualism, and in the latter part of his life did reputable — indeed excellent — work in physics. Other scientists who investigated without getting emotionally involved — including Michael Faraday, the greatest experimental physicist of the 19th century — found nothing but trickery and self-deception in the phenomena of Spiritualism.

“Researchers” in Spiritualism tended to have no scientific training at all, like the founders of England’s Society for Psychical Research, who were trained in classics and music. The interest of such societies and “researchers” was shifting by 1890 from Spiritualism to “psychic phenomena” in general. The evolution came about as Palladino levitated tables and caused impressions to appear in wax, “Margery” extruded what looked like a hand carved from liver from her navel; Slade caused the spirits to write with a regular piece of chalk on a regular slate. No two mediums did the same “act.” How then could the totally random range of phenomena all be explained by the same process, “actions of the spirits?” The obvious explanation, that each medium had her own favorite repertoire of personal tricks, was rejected by the “researchers,” since that would leave them looking like fools. The “researchers” thus put forward an alternate conclusion: that what one is seeing in a séance has nothing to do with spirits, but rather is a demonstration of the supernatural mental powers of the medium herself. The information revealed about dead relatives of the sitters thus came not from spirits, but by the medium unconsciously reading the minds of the sitters! (It actually usually came from cold reading of the sitters by the medium before the séance). Mediums, in addition to telepathy, were supposed to exhibit clairvoyance (the ability to see without the use of vision), precognition (the ability to be aware of events before they happen), astral projection (the ability to “project” one’s awareness to spots arbitrarily distant from one’s entranced body), and psychokineses (the ability to move objects by the power of the mind alone). The uncritical marveling at and cataloging of mediumistic stunts thus evolved into the uncritical marveling at and cataloging of supposed mysterious powers of the human mind, and the societies originally formed to “investigate” mediums and séances evolved quickly, by 1890-1900, into societies to “investigate” psychical abilities in humans. The tricks done by the “psychics” under investigation were generally exactly the same as the tricks earlier done by mediums, but they were generally done under different conditions (no darkness, no hand-holding, no tying up the psychic with ropes) that made some tricks more difficult and others much easier to get away with. As a result, the famous “psychics” of the 20th century, like Uri Geller, are very direct heirs of the repertoire of the famous “mediums” of the 19th century.

How direct the connection is between Spiritualism and “ESP” (Extrasensory perception, whatever that is) research can be seen from the early careers of the two best-known 20th century ESP researchers, Joseph Banks Rhine and Dr. Samuel G. Soal. Rhine and his wife Louisa were trained in botany, but after hearing an enthusiastic 1925 talk on Spiritualism by novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, they dove with religious fervor into “psychic” studies that evolved gradually into the notorious ESP “experiments” done at Duke University in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Similarly, Soal’s interest in ESP began with his meeting with a Spiritualist medium in 1922. During the 1930’s he was a sharp critic of the fumbling experiments of Joseph Rhine, but Soal’s own experiments conducted in the 1940’s and 1950’s are equally flawed, and the surviving records of these experiments also indicate that Soal perpetrated a deliberate fraud in recording the data to indicate the presence of more correct guesses than the subjects actually made. Both Soal and Rhine, and most later so-called “parapsychologists,” tended to be motivated not by an spirit of scientific inquiry, but rather by a sort of religious fervor … the “experiments” were done only to “validate” pre-existing beliefs. Rhine was quoted as saying that the primary goal of all his work was to “prove the existence and immortality of the human soul.” A lofty goal indeed, but one science is unlikely ever to achieve, for several excellent reasons! The religious fervor we have mentioned traces back directly to Spiritualism, which survives in the U.S. and England today mainly as a branch of organized religion. Spiritualist churches in areas heavily populated by the retired, such as Florida and Arizona, send hundreds of thousands of believers to summer Spiritualist camps in Indiana and Pennsylvania, where the faithful attend very traditional séances, and the mediums take in many millions of dollars per season. Under the new name of “channeling,” the basic appeal of Spiritualism has also been retreaded for the 1980s with spectacular success.


ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (