19th Century American Spiritualism’s Fading Records

All things are engaged in writing their own history.  The air is full of sounds, the sky of tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures and every object covered with hints, which speak to the intelligent.
Spiritual Republic (Chicago), January 5, 1867

The primary sources for the historical study of nineteenth century spiritualism in America have not been well preserved.  Most important are the many spiritualist newspapers of the time, but much was also published in pamphlets, tracts, annual directories, and handbills.  A very few of the newspapers have been microfilmed, but most have either entirely disappeared or exist only in disintegrating, scattered, single copies in a few research archives in the United States.

Spiritualism is important as an historical phenomenon in itself, but it was also closely tied to the other progressive or radical intellectual, political, cultural, and artistic movements of the time.  Ironically, in an age that saw the historian’s duty as telling the story of the (upward) progress of humankind, progressive spiritualists were not often reckoned to be part of the great march toward that destiny and so most historians, chroniclers, memorialists, and archivists ignored them.

Dore Paradise LostThis website will provide a log of some explorations into the lost land of spiritualist newspapers and other ephemera, in directions that lead off the well-worn paths that historians and enthusiasts have used over and over again to quickly traverse the territory.  It will contain collections of a few original texts, articles, photographs, drawings, advertisements, and notices from the time, analogous to the specimen collections of the nineteenth-century naturalists.  When I discover myself back on the main paths, I will turn back into the thicket, looking for more exotic material.

I explore the land of spiritualism as a visitor, but it is still crowded today by the spiritual descendents of the original inhabitants.  Many of them have forgotten who built the fabulous (but sometimes overgrown and ruined) castles in which they live.

This site concerns itself with spiritualism during its first fifty years, approximately the last half of the nineteenth century.  That spans the period from its unanticipated beginnings, through its period of wild growth in the first couple of decades, through controversies and retrenchments in the 1870s and 1880s, and finally toward when the jubilee of “Modern Spiritualism” (as it was called) was celebrated at the end of the century, shortly after a renewal effort was launched with the formation of the National Spiritualists Association.  By the turn of the century, some spiritualists, who had anticipated a “New Era” of millennial, utopian, religious social reform, had begun to look forward to welcoming the dawn of a “New Age,” a phrase used nearly as early as the mid-century, when the editor of the Boston spiritualist newspaper, The New Era, explained that the illustration on his masthead—that of “angels descending” from heaven to earth—was “eminently significant of the New Age on which our world is entering,” for he believed, like nearly all spiritualists, that angels were, in fact, the spirits of deceased humans.

Have you ever seen the sun rise on the ocean?  The first gray lines tremble on the horizon.  Streaks of gold and crimson slowly rise.  A gray cloud moves across the path and then it turns a crimson cloud, moving across the sky.  On the verge of the horizon trembles the pale morning star, and then the full bright orb Phoebus, in his golden chariot, ascends, and a flood of light spreads over the Universe.  Even thus will dawn the new age of humanity, and not only slavery, but fear, darkness and death will be conquered in the light of the new morning.

From the address of trance lecturer Cora L. V. Richmond to the first meeting of the Texas State Spiritualists Association in 1897, quoted in “The Dawn of the New Age,” The Philosophical Journal (San Francisco), May 27, 1897

What is the New Age?

This website will also provide tools for others to use in their own explorations.  The first tool is already here—a compilation of lists of spiritualist lecturers, mediums, healers, and other progressives, collected from directories, pamphlets, registers, almanacs, advertisements, and notices, convention attendance lists, and organizational membership lists.

This website does not provide a general introduction to the subject of 19th century American spiritualism.  For that, consult the links to books, some old and some new (some of the older books have recently become available online).  One spiritualist’s definition of spiritualism, out of many that were attempted, is given in the link directly below.

What is spiritualism?

Unlike almost every other website on this subject, this one has nothing to prove, one way or the other, about the central claims of spiritualism, but some kind of confession or disclaimer or clarification of its purpose is needed.  I do not believe in spiritualism, the occult, or the paranormal, but I do believe that the life stories of nineteenth-century spiritualists are quite amazing and rich.  I would have been pleased to have counted some of them as my acquaintances and friends, had I lived a century and a half ago, but I confess that if I had attended a spiritualist convention or even a séance, I would have tried to keep my eyes wide open and my wallet tightly closed.  Historians who have written about spiritualism have often enough been awake to its dubious claims to truth.  Some of those claims are documented here, but this website is not set up simply to take shots at the follies of spiritualists.  On the other hand, some of the New Age descendants of spiritualism these days adopt the postmodern critique of objective knowledge and regard practices such as trance channeling as a “way of knowing” apart from—or even superior to—scientific knowledge.  I have no sympathy for that either.  Spiritualism, however, was certainly a spur to liberalizing reforms in American society—egalitarianism, the abolition of slavery, women’s rights—and provided plenty of energy for the nineteenth century’s critique of unjust clerical and civil authority.  It also seems to me to have been partly responsible for unfettering nineteenth-century imaginations and setting them loose to wander through the larger universe.

A lot of the material used for, or reproduced on, this website is from Harry Houdini’s collection of books, newspapers, pamphlets, and other ephemera on the subjects of spiritualism, the paranormal, and magic.  This collection is now under the care of the Rare Books Room staff of the Library of Congress in Washington.  Houdini’s own view of spiritualism was profoundly skeptical.  One cannot doubt that fact after seeing the notations he wrote in the margins of his books.  This website is in basic harmony with his skeptical opinion of the subject, although spiritualism is considered here, not for the validity of its claims about spirits, but as a fascinating but neglected area of American religious history.

Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious—no recommendation or agreement with the views of a particular writer is to be inferred from the fact that I reproduce or quote his or her writings here, or that I list their works in the bibliographies on this site, or that I link to their websites.

 —John Buescher


Ann Braude has published a bibliography of spiritualist periodicals, which includes library locations where they are available to readers: “News from the Spirit World: A Checklist of American Spiritualist Periodicals, 1848-1900,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 99 (1989): 339-462, and reprinted as a pamphlet available from the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.


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