26 July 2023
Spiritualism, Creatively Reimagined
Lesley Finn is a writer and artist based in New Haven, Connecticut, and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
A library is an excellent place to connect with the dead. After all, many of its books, papers, and artifacts were made by those no longer living. But what about really connecting with the dead?
I came to the British Library to research Spiritualism, a religious movement with the core precept that the soul survives physical death, and that the living can communicate with the spirit world those souls inhabit. As a writer working on ghost stories and a visual artist working with text and book arts, I was fascinated by the drama of Spiritualism’s séances, the concepts explored by the movement, and the possibilities of visually interpreting its archival material. Much of what I write and make is concerned with how relationships endure barriers of material, time, and distance, and Spiritualism offers a unique way to think through this concern.
One distance that Spiritualism bridged was the Atlantic Ocean. Though the religion originated in the United States in the 1840s, it came to Great Britain soon after, and many of the movement’s notable practitioners crossed back and forth on visits. Transatlantic exchange shaped this spirituality—one that has been marginalised in the historical imagination as occult and other, though it was a popular religion for nearly a century, replete with churches and published hymnals.
At the same time that households across the US and Britain were establishing practices to communicate with the dead, the technology of the telegraph, another practice of communicating across space and time, spread in usage. The telegraph, a mechanism that relied on magnetic fields and electricity to transmit words from one person to another, had much conceptual overlap with the séance, which communicated disincarnate messages from the dead through the magnetic field and electricity of the human body, specifically that of a spiritual medium. This parallel was embraced by Spiritualists of the time, who called the séance a spiritual telegraph, and titled a periodical that circulated in the US in the 1850s with the same name.
The majority of Spiritualism’s history in the US and Britain takes paper form: in addition to periodicals like The Spiritual Telegraph, there are books published by The Spiritualist Press and other houses, along with photographed and written documentation of séances by groups like The Ghost Club (British Library Add MS 52258-52273) or by investigators (more on that later). The British Library contains a noteworthy addition to this history: the Dan Zerdin archive, which contains a rare 1934 recording of what was at the time considered the world’s largest séance. The Zerdin recording offers a first-hand, unfiltered experience of the historical Spiritualist movement.
With support from the Eccles Centre, I launched a project to study the archive and transcribe the recorded spirit messages from the séance into another form: telegrams. My idea was to take this documentation from an understudied religious movement and creatively reimagine it, with the goal of disrupting fixed narratives of “archives we are inclined to overlook,” to quote historian Tina Campt. Dominant culture is quick to dismiss the veracity of these spiritual communications, but what happens when we see them in a material form accepted by dominant culture? Perhaps changing the material encounter with an archive can shift our thinking and cultivate space for alternative accounts of experience.
I came to the work not knowing what I would find, expecting to be a bit disturbed. After all, years of watching horror films had taught me to be afraid of voices from the beyond. But what I found was a recording that documented a gathering of people working toward the common end of love, understanding, and community. Joyful messages rise above the static of the record. Fight the good fight. You’ll have all the help you want. Bless you. The 564 people in the London audience laugh and gasp, as do the 36 people participating in the séance on Aeolian Hall’s stage. At one point unexplainable piano chords drift through the recording; the sound is soothing, not haunting.
If contemporary attitudes towards séances and mediums are shaped by fear and othering, the same is true of past attitudes. The shadow of skepticism looms large in the history of Spiritualism, and I glimpsed it often in my research. In the catalogue listing of the Zerdin archive, for example, spirit voices are noted with the grammatical equivalent of a raised eyebrow, the scare quote. In contrast, the Zerdin archive includes a document that lists the people in spirit who communicated through the medium as attendees alongside the living, no distinction whatsoever.
I wonder about these subtle frames of doubt, how they shape our encounter with the archive. I repeatedly saw scare quotes in my research into other mediums, especially with the American medium who went by the name of Margery. In the decade before the Aeolian Hall séance, Margery visited London and became the subject of an extensive investigation by the Society for Psychical Research. Malcolm Bird, an American parapsychologist, authored a portion of the investigation’s outcomes, including the book “Margery”. Seeing her name on the cover and title page in quotation marks—regardless of how Bird or the publishers intended to use them—primes the reader to approach the material through the lens of doubt.
It's hard not to see the skepticism of Spiritualist experience as tethered to gender. Male mediums existed but women were the majority. Male mediums were investigated, but the archives are not filled with that documentation; instead we have accounts of vaginal searches that preceded Margery’s sittings, of photos of her in various restraints that would test her validity. Let’s not forget this was a religion, a belief system. Imagine an archive documenting Catholic mass, the priests required to prove transubstantiation as empirical, scientific fact!
The desire for proof is understandable, but can be limiting and misguiding, especially in the case of connecting with the dead. By rejecting an aim to falsify Spiritualist practices, we might create room for observation and insight that opens rather than shuts down possibility. British Library holding C1080/21 offers a practical tip.1 Here the medium of the Aeolian Hall séance, Florence Perriman, is asked to describe what it felt like to channel spirit voices. Her reply: “It’s a peculiar sensation at the back of my neck. It seemed to come both from the back of my neck and from the throat—can you imagine a tooth being drawn? Well, it’s just as though something was being drawn out of the back of my neck.” Being alive to sensation, to the peculiar, to our own processes of drawing out—Perriman’s note on communing with the dead sounds like research advice to live by.
Interview with Florence Perriman. 1934?. British Library, Sound and Moving Image shelfmark: C1080/21.