The Victorian Séance:
Spiritualism had been around a long time before it gained popularity in the 1920s. The famous fake medium Madame Helen Blavatsky from the 19th Century and predating her was Hans Mesmer who gave us the word ‘mesmerize’.
In a simplistic sense, Spiritualism is the belief that spirits of the dead have both the ability and inclination to communicate with the living. The afterlife is not a static place but an environment where spirits continue to evolve.
Spiritualism grew out of a desire to communicate with the dead as a way to gain closure in human relationships. I think the movement ran a little deeper than that though, tapping into the desire to speak with the dead, but also a societal-level reaction to established modes of thought, especially religion.
It is well documented that one of the main people who followed the Spiritualist movement was Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1893, Doyle joined the British Society for Physical Research, a society formed in Cambridge one year earlier in order to investigate scientifically the claims of Spiritualism and other paranormal phenomena.
After a number of tests were carried out by the society, Doyle was convinced that telepathy or ‘thought transference’ existed.
Doyle’s son Kingsley died in October 1918 just weeks before the Armistice ended the war. Arthur held numerous séances with his second wife Jean to communicate with his son and other spirits. After his success with the Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle decided to abandon writing fiction and devoted himself almost entirely to the study of paranormal. He was convinced that we could communicate with the dead.
By the 1920s spiritualism found a great revival, especially among middle-class women who lost sons, husbands or brothers in the trenches.
Active in London’s ‘Ghost Club’, Doyle sought proof of life after death and at one point wrote a passionate defense of a spiritualist photographer, Elsie Wright, who claimed to have photographed the Cottingley fairies.
He toured the globe speaking about his research, visiting establishments that held séances such as this. After a long illness he died in 1930, clutching a wild flower and still very much a committed Spiritualist.
One week after Conan Doyle's death, thousands of people attended a séance at the Royal Albert Hall at which a medium claimed to have communicated with him.
Four years later, on 28 April 1934, a séance held by Noah Zerdin in London, attracted a capacity audience of 560 people, with many turned away. It was the first large gathering of its kind to be recorded, and Conan Doyle was one of 44 people heard speaking from the 'other side'.