Spiritualism: Background information when reading The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

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The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

by Valerie Martin

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2015, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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Beyond the Book:
Spiritualism

Print Review

The Fox sisters The notion of "life after death" is a core tenet of Christianity, but when the Fox sisters said they communed with dead spirits in their farmhouse in upstate New York in 1848, many began to define this central belief differently. After the Fox daughters heard repeated tapping in their wood-framed house, they were convinced that the ghost of a dead peddler who was murdered years ago in the house was trying to contact them. They organized a system of claps to communicate and began to ask questions. The questions were answered, and they rented out the local church, charging admission, to show off their discoveries. The Fox girls became local celebrities and soon gained the attention of Horace Greeley, the editor of New York Tribune, who publicized their talent. In 1850, P.T. Barnum, the owner of the famous circus, even invited them to showcase their abilities. Other mediums soon began to hold similar events - known as seances - to contact the spirit world.

The religion known as Spiritualism was off to a racing start. Though the notion of immortality and communing with the dead were not new, and existed well before the Fox sisters, Spiritualism took hold in 19th century America because of a special set of cultural circumstances. The American Revolution encouraged questioning of religious authority. Romanticism had sparked an increased interest in individual communion with God. There were social factors too. People began to move from the country to the cities, dividing families, making immediate family members more precious. Women's suffrage found commonalities with Spirituality, as women were able to function in important ways within this church where they couldn't in others.

As a result of all of this, Spiritualism struck a chord and people all over America and in Britain, began organizing seances to talk to dead people. These were held in shadowed rooms, often with attendees sitting around a table. Theatrics - such as out-of-season flowers arising from nowhere, strains of deathly music drifting through the air - were included to provide convincing evidence that dead people were not really dead but sitting, invisibly, in the same room. Many sceptics, like William James, famed psychologist and brother to writer Henry James, investigated fraud, but the heaviest death blow to the movement came from one of its own founders.

When Margaret Fox admitted in 1888 to lying about communicating with the dead, many were relieved to have the truth aired, while others, mostly ardent Spiritualists, refused to believe her. Still, Margaret's assertion that the taps she heard on the walls were not from a dead peddler but her own toe joints - she was able to subtly pop her toes while on stage to simulate the sound of a rapping knuckles on a wooden wall - was hard to refute. It was also revealed that the sisters would occasionally drop an apple tied to a string to simulate finger-tappings.

Though Spiritualism still exists today, it lost most of its followers after Margaret and other mediums were revealed as frauds in the late 19th century.

Picture of Fox sisters from left to right: Margaret, Kate and Leah by Undream

This article was originally published in February 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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