"Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln," ca. 1920, Library of Congress
Published: October 26, 2012
Halloween â despite its solemn Celtic roots â has become a safe way for Americans to transgress social norms and toy with the idea of ghosts in a family-friendly fashion. But for some, spirits from another plane have always been a very real part of life on this plane.
On this Halloween special, the History Guys explore Americansâ relationship with ghosts, spirits, and witches throughout our nationâs history. Why were colonists so fearful of New England âwitchesâ? How is it that progressive social reformers found a home in the Spiritualist movement of the 19th century? Why do new media technologies always conjure talk of the undead? Can social upheaval help explain our history with the ineffable?
Nate DiMeo tells the story of the Fox sisters in upstate New York and how they were responsible for the birth of a new religion, known as spiritualism, in 1848.
Seek and You Shall Find
Spirit medium Cara Seekings talks with Ed about people â herself included â who can communicate with other planes of existence. The History Guys riff briefly on how, in the past, Americans have tried to communicate with the dead.
Peter talks with Ann Braude of Harvard Divinity School about the intersection of spiritualism and radical politics.
Listener Call 1 and Website Question
The History Guys take a call from a curious fan, and then answer a question from a listener who posted to the BackStory website.
Peter Onuf:Â This is âBackStory,â with us, the American History Guys.Â Iâm Peter Onuf, 18thcentury guy.
Ed Ayers:Â Iâm Ed Ayers, 19thÂ century guy.
Brian Balogh:Â And Iâm Brian Balogh, 20thÂ century history guy.Â [music]
P. Onuf:Â Hundreds of years before any of our centuries, peasants and laborers in the British Isles spent the last night of October wandering from house to house with lanterns made from hollowed-out turnips.Â The flames represented souls trapped in purgatory and at each house, the exchange would follow something like this:Â âyou give me one of these bread loaves youâve baked special for this occasion and in exchange, Iâll pray for your dead relatives to be released into Heaven.âÂ [music]
B. Balogh:Â Sound familiar?Â Well, this proto-trick or treat ritual was known as Souling.Â The occasion was known as Hallowtide and it coincided with the Catholic Holy Days of All Souls and All Saints.Â The Protestant Reformation of the 16thÂ century officially put an end to All Souls Day but at least in the more Catholic corners of the kingdom, Souling persisted.
E. Ayers:Â And so did other Hallowtide traditions like cross-dressing and practical joke playing and all-round mischief making.Â Now, itâs true that the more carnivalesque elements of Hallowtide have always been difficult to eradicate, even when they came to America where they ran up against Victorian impulses that tamed other kinds of once wild celebrations, but the holiday also has much more solemn roots in a time when spirits from another plane were taken very seriously indeed.
P. Onuf:Â And so on todayâs episode of âBackStory,â weâre going to put aside the mischief and candy and devote the hour instead to Halloweenâs more shadowy figures because not only do ghosts, spirits and witches have a history, they have an American history and itâs not just limited to Halloween.Â For believers, the supernatural is a year-long phenomenon.
E. Ayers:Â That was certainly the case in my century, the 19thÂ century, when belief in an active spirit plane blossomed into a full-fledged American religion.Â It was known as spiritualism and while thereâs been plenty of debate about what to make of it, most people agree on when and where it startedâ1848 in a tiny town in upstate New York.Â Weâre going to hand things over now to Nate DiMeo here to tell the story of the Fox sisters.
Tape (Nate DiMeo):Â People said the house was haunted and that was even before the two girls started talking to the dead.Â Kate Fox was 11, her sister Margaret was 14 when they moved into a little house in a nothing village 40 miles east of Rochester, New York, the little house that all their neighbors knew as the one where the traveling salesman had been invited in years before and was never heard from again.Â Never heard from, that is, until one night in March of 1848, when their parents first heard the sounds.Â Some nights it would sound like knocking.Â Other nights like furniture moving and it always seemed to come from the girlsâ bedroom but theyâd open the door and their daughters would be fast asleep.Â They never suspected that their daughters could be tricking them.Â They were just young girls, but they were tricking them.Â What started with a little tap tapping on the wall and tip-toeing back into bed with giggles muffled by pillows got more sophisticated as the nights went on and on the night of March 31st, the Fox sisters revealed the latest in their growing repertoire of ghost-simulating techniques, the one that would place the two girls at the center of a cultural and religious revolution.Â [music]
They called their mother into the room.Â Margaret snapped her fingers onceâsnapâand they heard a tap in response.Â She snapped twiceâsnap snapâand then tapped twiceâknock knock.Â The next night all of their neighbor squeezed into the girlsâ candlelit room.Â They explained that one tap meant yes, two taps meant no and then they started asking questions and in the morning, the audience left convinced that they had spent the night in the presence of a dead man and two girls with incredible powers.
Mr. and Mrs. Fox wanted to protect their daughters and they sent them to live with their responsible older sister, Leah, but they soon found that the ghosts followed the girls and Leah found an opportunity.Â Soon, she had booked her little sisters in a 400-seat theater in Rochester.Â By 1850, they were the toast of New York City.Â People would wait in lines for hours to ask the sisters for words of their dead loved ones on the other side.
On October 21st, 1888, a 54-year-old Margaret Fox sat on the stage at the New York Academy of Music in front of two thousand paying customers and showed them all how she spoke to the dead.Â She told them about how 40 years before back in that little house in the nothing town after a few nights of knocking and tip-toeing back to bed, she and her little sister realized that they could both crack their toes and no one could see them doing it and that when they did, people actually believed they were hearing from dead people, because sounds are hard to place in space and because youâll believe pretty much anything if you really want to believe it.Â She revealed all of that but not everything.
She didnât tell them about how she and her little sister started to unravel not long after Horace Greeley introduced them to the world and to worldly things like power and wealth and wine.Â She didnât tell them about how her sister began to believe that maybe there was something to it all, even as they both struggled under the growing weight of their shared secret and she certainly didnât tell them about the night she tested her own believed after scurvy had taken the life of a Polar explorer who had taken her heart and how she broke down and tried to contact him, tried to do for real what she had spent the last nine years pretending to do.Â She didnât say how she called out to him and how he didnât call back and how she sat in the dark knowing that he never would.
Kate and Margaret Fox werenât forgotten, but at the times of their deaths, they werenât remembered fondly.Â Each died poor, neither living to see 60.Â The people who still clung to spiritualism were glad to see them go and people who never believed, they were, too.
Now, there is a postscript here that really canât be resisted and you can do with what you will.Â They tore that little house down in 1904.Â Inside one of the walls near the girlsâ room they found the skeleton of a man believed to be a traveling salesman who appeared to have been murdered a few years before the Fox family moved in.Â Itâs true.Â [music]
P. Onuf:Â Thatâs Nate DiMeo.Â You can listen to a longer version of this story as well as dozens more of Nateâs American history vignettes at the memorypalace.us.
E. Ayers:Â You know, guys, thereâs actually a post-postscript to this story as well.Â A year after Margaret Foxâs big confession, she sat down with a newspaper reporter and said, you know, it was actually the confession that was a hoax, that she really just did the confession for the money and in fact, you know, those spirit rappings had been real all along.Â As it turned out, her recanting didnât really change many minds one way or another.Â Her credibility was pretty much shot by then, but what it did do is provide just enough fodder on both sides for people to continue debating this issue for generations, all the way up to the present day.
Tape (Cara Seekings):Â Yes, they did it.Â No, they didnât do it.Â Yes, they did it.Â No, they didnât do it.Â Back and forth.Â Back and forth over many many years.
E. Ayers:Â Thatâs Cara Seekings.Â When it comes to the question of whether the Fox sisters were faking it, sheâs very much in the no-they-didnât camp.Â Now, she acknowledges that the world of spirit mediums has always had its share of frauds, but she says that when you strip away the showmanship, communication with another plane really isnât all that out of the ordinary.
Tape (Cara Seekings):Â You know, we all grew up with that woman in our neighborhood who knew things before anybody else knew them.Â She knew who on the block was pregnant and who on the block didnât have enough food on their table and she just knew things and no matter what culture, I mean, the Italians call her strega, for example.Â The Irish call her a wise woman or a seer, so thereâve always been those people, but I think the Fox sisters made it appear more organized.
E. Ayers:Â Now, the way she tells it, Cara Seekings herself has always been one of those people. When she was 3, the spirit of her long-dead grandfather arrived and told her things sheâd have no way of knowing otherwise.Â Ever since, sheâs been carrying messages to people from the other side.Â Seekings lives in a community of other spirit mediums in upstate New York just a couple of hundred miles from where the Fox sisters grew up.Â Itâs called Lily Dale and it dates all the way back to 1879 when American spiritualism was in full bloom, but from the vantage point of people living there today, spiritualism is very much alive and well.Â This past summer, Seekings says, some 28,000 visitors came to take part in workshops and spirit readings and sessions of mediumship.Â In fact, attendance was at an all-time record.
Tape (Cara Seekings):Â Many people, when they come, for example, for a reading, are seeking.Â I mean, theyâre searching.Â Theyâre looking for confirmation validation that their loved one is okay.Â Sometimes theyâre looking for explanation.
E. Ayers:Â So, is spiritualism basically a religion of comfort?
Tape (Cara Seekings):Â I believe it is.Â People who love us still love us, whether theyâre on this plane or in another plane of existence, so my mother who was quite apt to give her opinion when she was on this earth and shall we say intervened without request, nothingâs changed.Â Sheâs still quite apt to intervene without request.Â [laughter]Â [music]
E. Ayers:Â Thatâs Cara Seekings, a spirit medium living in the Lily Dale community of upstate New York.Â You can find out more about Lily Dale and listen to more of our conversation at backstoryradio.org.
B. Balogh:Â Guys, Ms. Seekings referred to this phenomenon across cultures and I was wondering if you could help me just pin this down to the American variant.
P. Onuf:Â Yeah.Â All people throughout time have believed that thereâs a world beyond the material world we encounter but Americans in their can-do pragmatic sort of way have from the very beginning sought to engage with that world beyond through individual efforts, not through the mediation, not through the clergy, not through the church.Â I think this is really part of the Protestant tradition.
E. Ayers:Â Iâve just one word for you then that kind of, as they say, problematizes that, Peter.Â Think what it is that Cara Seekings is and what is required for connection with the spiritual world.
P. Onuf:Â Right.
E. Ayers:Â The medium.
P. Onuf:Â Yes, thatâs a good point.
E. Ayers:Â So ironically, itâs Protestant in the sense that it doesnât exist in a church but I think whatâs strange about it is theyâre saying only a few people actually have the gift.
P. Onuf:Â But I think the promise really is that this medium is in some senses just the tool or the instrument does not have authority.Â The authority comes from that other realmâ
E, Ayers:Â Right.
P. Onuf:Â And itâs enabling people to hear a language they couldnât understand otherwise.
E. Ayers:Â So itâs like a Protestant minister who comes in and says hereâs what the Bible says.Â Iâm going to translate that for you, but I have no real authority because this is between you and God.
P. Onuf:Â Thatâs right.Â And everything in between fades away.Â That is, institutions of hierarchy and control.Â Instead, this is the fantasy and itâs an American fantasy that we encounter the cosmos on our own.Â [music]
E. Ayers:Â Peter, I have news for you thatâs a lot less cosmic and thatâs that itâs time for a quick break.Â When we get back, weâll hear what the movement to abolish slavery had to do with those rap rap rappings in the night.
P. Onuf:Â More âBackStoryâ coming up in a minute.Â Donât go away.Â [music]Â Weâre back with âBackStory,â the show that looks to history to explain the world weâre living in today.Â Iâm Peter Onuf, the 18thÂ century guy.
E. Ayers:Â Iâm Ed Ayers, the 19thÂ century guy.
B. Balogh:Â And Iâm Brian Balogh, 20thÂ century history guy.Â With Halloween in the air, weâre spending the hour looking at how previous generations of Americans have contended with the spirit world.Â In the first segment, we heard the story of the Fox sisters, the two girls from upstate New York who may or may not have really channeled the death, but who undoubtedly kicked off the spiritualist movement that flourished in the second half of the 19thÂ century.
P. Onuf:Â We also touched briefly on the way spiritualism dovetailed very nicely with the particularly American impulse to go it alone, to live oneâs life without the interference of authorities from the church or any other institution.Â Well, at the very same time that spiritualism was coming on the scene, another group of Americans was also starting to challenge established systems of authority.
Tape (Ann Braude):Â Now, why would abolitionists and reformers care about spiritualism?Â This is the big question.
P. Onuf:Â One answer, says Ann Braude, is that many of those abolitionists were also Quakers.Â Like spiritualists, Quakers didnât have much use for religious authorities and also like spiritualists, they were very much into the individual soul.Â Quakers believed in the inner light, that there was something of God in each person and so the possibility of communicating directly with departed souls was, to Quakers, kind of like, well, talking to God, but then there was also that issue of authority.
Tape (Ann Braude):Â What the radical abolitionists believed was that slaveholders were usurping the place of God by asserting their authority over one of Godâs creation.Â Now, once this issue of slavery raised this question about human authority over other human beings, that issue got applied in all kind of other areas and thatâs where we start to see the womenâs rights movement emerging out of the abolition movement.Â Spiritualists saw that when a husband exercised authority over a wife, that was also usurping the place of God, so spiritualists really pushed this idea of self-sovereignty and they really understood it also as extending to the marriage relations and this is where spiritualists get involved with free love.
Now, when we hear the term free love, we think about a kind of libertarian sexual license.Â Thatâs not what they meant.Â Often, free love, for spiritualists, could result in a much more restrictive approach to sexuality because they believed that each of us has a spiritual affinity and that thatâs foreordained by God and that if we are married to someone who is not our true affinity, thatâs not a real marriage, so if youâve found yourself married, as I believe many people in America have, to someone who is not your true spiritual affinity, they would condemn sexual contact within that marriage and see it as only something that could occur in these very special circumstances.
P. Onuf:Â So, Ann, hereâs another example of what would in Victorian America be seen as a transgressive dangerous attitude thatâs become pretty much standard in modern America, that is, the belief in at least the fantasy of romantic love and that spiritual affinity is pretty much mainstream.
Tape (Ann Braude):Â I think youâre right.Â That has become a very mainstream idea.Â Spiritualists are not the only ones who contributed to the notion of romantic love.Â Many strains of Protestantism did move in that direction in the 19thÂ century, but spiritualists did push it to an extreme position which is not that different from what we see today.
P. Onuf:Â So, in many ways, when we think back to the spiritualists, thereâs a kind of a shock of recognition in their positions.Â On the one hand, theyâre at the margins, theyâre radical free spirits.Â On the other hand, we can identify with them as their audiences could, large audiences could, in the 19thÂ century.
Tape (Ann Braude):Â Thatâs right.Â I think that in some ways itâs easier for us to identify with spiritualists than it was for people in the 19thÂ century because the ideas of Calvinism, the ideas of infant damnation, the idea that one member of your family might go to heaven and another might go to hell and that your immortal souls would be separated for eternity, those are much less familiar ideas today than they were at the time when spiritualists were challenging them.
I think the large crowds drawn by spiritualists in the 19thÂ century also reflected the time they were living in.Â There was no television.Â There wasnât a lot of excitement.Â When the spirit medium came to town, that was something to see and people did, whether they believed in it or not, they went out to see this and many people reported that that was the first time that they had seen a woman speak in public and many of them were very surprised by what they saw and even if only a few of those people were converted to spiritualism, with spirit mediums traveling throughout the country, that amounted to a significant movement.
P. Onuf:Â In some ways, if spiritualists were challenging prevailing values, particularly in the Calvinist establishment, at the same time they were emphasizing family values because spirit communication was overwhelmingly with family members, so in some ways, they were ultraconventional in the emphasis on family values.Â I wonder if you could tease out that paradox.
Tape (Ann Braude):Â Youâre absolutely right.Â In many ways, spirit mediums and spiritualism pushed to its logical extreme, the direction that 19thÂ century America was moving in, of rejecting separation of families at death and we see that in the rural cemetery movement where cemeteries are starting to look a lot like the suburbs with family plots and beautiful green gardens in cemeteries where people can go to maintain those connections with their loved ones who are no longer with them, spiritualism says if we can keep those connections after death as many Protestants acknowledged at this point, then why canât we communicate, why canât we speak to them?
P. Onuf:Â Thatâs Ann Braude, Director of the Womenâs Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.Â Sheâs the author ofÂ Radical Spirits:Â Spiritualism and Womenâs Rights in 19thCentury America.Â [music]
B. Balogh:Â If youâre just tuning in, this is âBackStory,â and weâre talking about spiritualism and other instances of the supernatural in American history.Â As usual, weâve been inviting your feedback on Facebook and backstoryradio.org and our producers have invited a few of the people who left comments there to join us on the phone.
P. Onuf:Â Hey, guys, weâve got a call from Ripton, Vermont.Â Itâs Bryant.Â Bryant, welcome to âBackStory.â
Caller (Bryant):Â Greetings, gentlemen.
P. Onuf:Â What spirit moved you to call us?
Caller (Bryant):Â Well, thatâs pretty good.Â I hadnât thought about that cell phone as [00:30:36 / ??] before.
E. Ayers:Â Yeah, well, he thought about for about three weeks, Bryant, so donât be that impressed.
Caller (Bryant):Â Well, I had a couple of questions for you guys.Â Iâm thinking about spiritualism and contemporary new media, so not our contemporary but 19thÂ century new media.Â How did that impact spiritualism?Â Iâm thinking of electrical platforms, the telegraph, the telephone, the gramophone, the photograph, and the different ways that people reacted to them, the anxieties to light.
P. Onuf:Â Yeah.Â Iâll just start off with a very very brief mention of spirit photography which was a big deal in the 1850s and â60s and it was really believed that the right kind of exposure, so to speak, would give you images of spirits and that this was actually a scientific enterprise to establish empirically the presence of spirits.Â It seems so crazy to us because we associate it with anti-science and superstition, but spirits and spiritualism was really pretty mainstream and there were efforts by serious people we would call, and they would call themselves, scientists, to establish the authenticity of the spirit realm.
E. Ayers:Â And the telegraph was not unlike that.
P. Onuf:Â Good point.
E. Ayers:Â There was a sense that now thatâs a new medium, so to speak, to really connect the departed with the living which is not so crazy when you think about it.
P. Onuf:Â I like that about medium, Ed.
B. Balogh:Â I do, too.
E. Ayers:Â You like that?Â Okay.Â You guys are quick on the uptake, but the thing that happened was, okay, we can now send messages instantaneously anywhere and not be there with our bodies.Â Is that really so different from imagining that people who used to be here can now communicate with us, so, really, almost instantly, from the time the telegraph was invented, it became imagined as the physical embodiment of how we could finally do what weâd longed to do throughout humankind which is talk to those weâve lost.
B. Balogh:Â Yeah, and what it really did, it in essence eliminated distance that stood between two people being intimate.Â I mean, you couldnât have that kind of intimacy when you had geographic physical distance, but the telegraph really kind of allowed that in an instantaneous fashion.
Caller (Bryant):Â You mentioned the intimacy of the telegraph, how youâre in the Crimea and Iâm in Paris and you click and I hear the tat-tat-tap, but whatâs interesting is that itâs still very thickly mediated by Morse.Â Itâs non-tangible.
E. Ayers:Â Yes, very much so.Â We needed that so that we could invent the radio and television and have more intimacy, Bryant.
Caller (Bryant):Â I feel more intimate already.Â [laughter]Â But thereâs a parallel to this which is that at the same time, the 1800s also sees the photograph, the gramophone, the telephone, which donât have that kind of thick mediation.Â I mean, theyâre immediately apparent.Â I mean, obviously we can get [00:27:41 / ??] and talk about the different levels of interpretation of photography, but you tapping in Morse requires decoding and if I can just use a pun, decryption, but if I hear your voice on the gramophone after you have died, thatâs a profoundly different experience.Â Do you think that the medium in spiritualism is doing more of the former, being the decoder, the encrypter, decrypter and less the latter in a media sense?
E. Ayers:Â Well, the people who really brought spiritualism to the American population, the Fox sisters, ironically, communicated with the spirit world through something much like Morse code.Â It was knocking on the doors or somewhere in the room or some people said their toes, but that would be a skeptic speaking.Â And so, ironically, when the first connections with others come through code, theyâre imagining the connections to the dead coming through code as well and youâre exactly right, Bryant, what that means is that it requires an interpreter.Â It requires somebody who is the equivalent of a wire, whoâs more sensitive than normal people, someone who not only has the capacity to connect but also the intellect to translate and to speak through them, so I think thatâs one reason the word was called âa mediumâ early is because it was really all about the interpretation, so, you know, itâs kind of funny, as people develop new technologies, the dead developed along with them.Â [laughter]Â And so we start outâ
P. Onuf:Â And we never stop learning.Â [laughter]
E. Ayers:Â Exactly.Â It just shows that youâre never too old to learn a new trick, right?Â Bryant, I just have to ask youâwhere does your very nuanced interest in this topic come from?
Caller (Bryant):Â Well, Iâve been studying how people create fiercesome stories about new media and in order to understand the current generation of how we do this in digital media, Iâve been looking back at antecedents through the past two centuries and, in fact, Iâm almost willing to bet that no sooner do humans invent a new medium that we also figure out a way of haunting it.
E. Ayers:Â So howâs the Internet haunted?
Caller (Bryant):Â In all kinds of ways.Â I mean, we have now itâs actually pretty common to expect that social media services have provisions for postmortem care for the data of members, so if you die, what happens to your Facebook?Â In fact, you can do a kind of nice digest of American cultural history by looking at what we think the Internet is doing to us in a bad way, so thereâs this mix of child pornography, violence, al Qaeda, and copyright violation and itâs a good question, whatâs worse.
B. Balogh:Â That pretty much sums it up, doesnât it?Â [laughter]
P. Onuf:Â I thought it ended flatly, actually.
Caller (Bryant):Â Well, thanks, gentlemen.Â This is a lot of fun.Â I really appreciate it.
B. Balogh:Â Thank you, Bryant.Â Itâs a great call.
Caller (Bryant):Â Bye bye.
P. Onuf:Â Well, our own website, backstoryradio.org is definitely haunted by the spirits of a whole lot of listeners who have left comments about todayâs topic.Â I want to channel one of them for you guys.Â This is from David [Hogg] who wants to know why spiritualism seemed to find a bump in popularity after major military conflicts, like the Civil War, World Wars I and II.Â What do you think, Brian?Â Is he on to something here?
B. Balogh:Â Yeah, I mean, we could just take the last 15 years or so.Â Thereâs a Pew study that shows that the number of people who think that they have been in the presence of a ghost has doubled from 9% to 18% just in the last 15 years.
P. Onuf:Â Okay, your centuryâÂ Whatâs happening?Â Come on.
B. Balogh:Â Weâre currently fighting a couple of wars, but Iâm not really sure thatâs the reason.Â In fact, I would point to economic uncertainty and during uncertain economic times, people are reaching outâ
P. Onuf:Â Whoa, whoaâ
B. Balogh:Â Theyâre seeking. Â Theyâre looking for different kinds of answers.
P. Onuf:Â Youâre suggesting thereâs a material explanation for the belief in the spiritual.Â It sounds veryâÂ Oh, wow.
B. Balogh:Â I always do, Peter, but, you know, our caller, Iâm inclined, knowing nothing about the 19thÂ century, to believe maybe on the money vis-Ă -vis the Civil War.
P. Onuf:Â Yeah, isnât that right, Ed?Â I mean, is there a lot of spiritual activity in the Civil War?
E. Ayers:Â There really was.Â I was going to suggest that thereâre just twice as many ghosts today as there were 15 years ago.
P. Onuf:Â But the accumulation over time, I mean, reallyâ
E. Ayers:Â Yeah, exactly.Â You know, in all seriousness, obviously the Civil War was a time of enormous suffering and loss and weâve got to remember that the Fox sisters, thatâs only 12, 14 years before the outbreak of the Civil War and so spiritualism is already going full bore at the time the Civil War breaks out.Â And almost immediately people start wondering if thereâs not some way to talk to our lost son because one of the horrible things about the American Civil War with the new artillery and other forces of destruction, that bodies just disappear, are vaporized, and people donât have dog tags and so that sense of longing is even stronger when somebody dies a thousand miles from home and nobody has any idea where he might be.
P. Onuf:Â And, Ed, many of the soldiers who die are quite young.Â I mean, these are people who are just leaving home for the first time or who are recently established.Â Some are married, of course, but these are soldiers who never had a chance to fulfill their lives on earth.
Itâs time for another short break, but donât go away.Â When we get back, weâll put aside the spirits and move on to those witches and weâll take more of your phone calls.
P. Onuf:Â Remember, if youâd like to be a caller on a future show, have a look at our website to see the topics weâre working on.Â Thatâs backstoryradio.org.Â Weâll be back in a minute.Â [music]Â This is âBackStory,â the show that takes a topic from the here and now and plumbs its historical depths.Â Iâm Peter Onuf, your guide to the 18thÂ century.
E. Ayers:Â Iâm Ed Ayers, your guide to the 19thÂ century.
B. Balogh:Â And Iâm Brian Balogh, guide to whatever is left over.Â Today on the show, weâre taking on some of the spirits, witches and other supernatural phenomena that have haunted the American past.Â Weâre also taking on some of the listeners who have been haunting the âBackStoryâ website.
P. Onuf:Â Hey, guys, we have a call from Tiffany in Chicago.Â Tiffany, welcome to the show.
Caller (Tiffany):Â Hi.
P. Onuf:Â So, whatâs on your mind or moving your spirit, as the case may be today?
Caller (Tiffany):Â Well, Iâm wondering if you can comment on some ideas that Iâve read about regarding the Salem witch trials.
P. Onuf:Â Okay, the Salem witchcraft.Â What about it?
Caller (Tiffany):Â Well, Iâve read a little bit about how some of the women who were accused of witchcraft, they were often wealthy or unmarried or kind of out of the norm of the regular role of women at the time.
P. Onuf:Â Right.Â Well, thereâre been lots and lots of books written about Salem witchcraft with lots of different explanations.Â Many of them center as you have, Tiffany, on the question of marginality or the fancy word, liminalityâpeople who are âinâ but not âofâ the community, who are âothered,â as the expression goes, who identify as alien and foreign, whether they are ethnically different and, of course, Tituba was a West Indian slave.Â Sheâs the source supposedly of some of the magic lore in the accusations and itâs really a fascinating question of why this one community should be the site for this outbreak and for the subsequent conviction of all these witches, but maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is that everybody believes in white and black magic in this period, practically everybody.Â In other words, when you make this accusation, itâs really reflecting an explanation for things that happened that makes sense, so in a way, I think we over-explain witchcraft because we want to translate it into 21stÂ century terms and say what would make us do something like this.Â Is it generational strife?Â Is it the search for some scapegoat or something or it ergotism, something in theâ
E. Ayers:Â Thatâs what I think.Â The LSD in the grain.
P. Onuf:Â Yeah.
B. Balogh:Â Iâm sorry, guys.Â Can someone tell me what ergotism is?
E. Ayers:Â The thesis is that there was a sort of fungus, I believe, that was in the wheat of Salem at this time and it literally had a mind-altering capacity.Â I think this obviously bears the marks of its time of argument.Â I donât think this is taken too seriously now.
P. Onuf:Â No, thatâs right.
E. Ayers:Â But as Peter was saying, the idea that we can reduce this sort of past belief into something social seems to be a kind of a modern reductionism.
Caller (Tiffany):Â Yeah.
E. Ayers:Â And obviously people are just setting aside the obvious argument that in fact there were witches [laughter] and, of course, from the viewpoint of the time, there were.Â Thatâs just a category that we donât believe exists anymore.
B. Balogh:Â So, Tiffany, can I steal a little of your caller time and ask the guys when we stopped believing in witches.
Caller (Tiffany):Â Sure.Â I would like to know that, too.
E. Ayers:Â So, in the 18thÂ century, right, Peter?Â Is it the 18thÂ century?
P. Onuf:Â Yeah.Â Really, I think in a serious way, an idea of modern Christianity began to dominate in pulpits throughout New England and British America and there was a movement away from magical explanation and an effort to suppress the idea that there were still crazy things, miraculous things, happening in our midst in an effort to understand Godâs creation and what we would call rationalistic terms.
E. Ayers:Â So, in a way, it was empowering God.
P. Onuf:Â Yeah, I think so.Â Thatâs the big move from a kind of a God and spirits who are eminent in everyday life to a more distant clock-maker God.
E. Ayers:Â Yeah, yeah, yeah.Â But, Peter, I mean, the whole context of witchcraft was Christianity, though, right?
P. Onuf:Â Yeah.Â Thatâs true.
E. Ayers:Â So, it wasnât really just a rise of Christianity.
P. Onuf:Â Oh, no, I meant the triumph of what we could recognize as modern Christianity.Â I think as youâre suggesting, Ed, we exaggerate the difference, the mystical magical elements are still very prevalent in many branches of modern Christianity so I donât want to exaggerate the difference.Â Itâs just that there was a campaign from the pulpits to suppress magic and magical beliefs.
E. Ayers:Â Thinking about it from the perspective of the South which we would think would be a place if you didnât really know much about American history, you would think it would be the most folkloric part of the nation and would be especially susceptible to this but, of course, the South prided itself.Â In fact, Virginia looked down on New England because it seemed especially prone to stuff like witchcraft.Â I mean, that was the main way to explain abolitionism and feminism away.Â These were the people who also believed that there were witches.Â [laughter]Â Really, itâs true.
P. Onuf:Â No, thatâs right.Â But I just want to make a defense of my native New England ancestors.
E. Ayers:Â Iâm not attacking them.Â Iâm justâ
P. Onuf:Â Okay.Â I donât want to take this too personally, but Iâm very upset with whatâ
E. Ayers:Â Yeah, thatâs right.Â And that is documented.
P. Onuf:Â You know Salem is all about, Tiffany, and guys, what Salem is all about is the legal system operating to sort out the evidence and to convict.Â We focus on the irrational beliefs, the stupidity of these people, but whatâs remarkable is the wayâ
E. Ayers:Â They go about it.
P. Onuf:Â They go about it.Â That is, they had institutions, legal institutions, state institutions, that were capable of doing this and, of course, there was a great morning after, kind of we shouldnât have done that, but it was the legal system in conjunction with popular beliefs that produces these results.
E. Ayers:Â Yeah, you know, the only thing we have in the 20thÂ century, Tiffany, that comes close to that is NFL replay.
Caller (Tiffany):Â [laughter]
P. Onuf:Â Oh, how about the World Cup, man?
B. Balogh:Â Well, yeah, they donât have that.Â They donât have it.Â Thatâs exactly my point.
E. Ayers:Â This is very amusing, but I do believe youâve had witch trials in your own century, Brian.Â I think about the Army-McCarthy hearing.
B. Balogh:Â Very interesting.
E. Ayers:Â Why do we call them âwitch trialsâ or âwitch huntsâ?Â Why is that the analogy that we use?
B. Balogh:Â Well, I think that what these âwitch huntsâ imply is exactly what you guys were talking about.Â Itâs going back to all those fancy words that Peter used.Â Letâs leave ergotism out, but there was a liminal, there was marginality, and if in fact those were the types of people that made for good witches, then the witch hunts of the 20thÂ century against communists, for the most partâ
P. Onuf:Â Right, right.
B. Balogh:Â Were people who seen as marginal but insidiously blending in with the regular population and we needed witch hunts in order to sort them out.
E. Ayers:Â Well, see, and I think another implication of witch hunt is that to look is to find, right?Â Thatâs the idea is that weâre going to go out and weâre going to find the source of an evil that weâre imagining and to actually look for that person is to guarantee youâre going to find them and I think, too, it has a lot in common with conspiracy theorists today.Â Thereâs a fixation on evidence, right?
B. Balogh:Â And a fixation on suppressed evidence as well.
E. Ayers:Â Thatâs right.Â Exactly.Â So, you know, thereâs something about the witch hunt thatâs deeply American, I think.Â Itâs empirical.Â Itâs not mystical.Â Itâs legalistic.Â Itâs not folkish.
B. Balogh:Â Yeah, and whatâs very American, itâs a group activity.Â It almost always involves the collective.
E. Ayers:Â Right, right.Â So, Tiffany, I mean, youâve really conjured upâ
P. Onuf:Â OhâÂ [laughter]
E. Ayers:Â A bubbling cauldron of perplexing questions.
P. Onuf:Â Are you employing an accusation here?
E. Ayers:Â All Iâm saying is thereâs a strong hint of an eye of newt around here, if you know what I mean.
B. Balogh:Â Would that be coming from you, Tiffany?
P. Onuf:Â You are a bewitching caller, Tiffany, and thank you so muchâ
Caller (Tiffany):Â Well, thank you.
B. Balogh:Â Thank you very much, Tiffany.
P. Onuf:Â Bye bye.
E. Ayers:Â Bye.
Caller (Tiffany):Â Bye.Â [music]
P. Onuf:Â Weâre going to take another call now and itâs going to be from Elena out in Exeter, California.Â Elena, welcome to âBackStory.â
Caller (Elena):Â Thank you very much.
P. Onuf:Â Whatâs on your mind?
Caller (Elena):Â Well, I know that the safest stance for historians and educated people is to take the debunking stance and to seek a rational scientific or psychological explanation.
P. Onuf:Â We donât debunk here.Â We rebunk.Â [laughter]
Caller (Elena):Â You rebunk.Â Okay.
E. Ayers:Â Well, we just bunk.
Caller (Elena):Â Well, which century would be the most likely to find someone who was actually trying to connect and to learn about the unseen and the unknown and not try to prove that these incidences are fake?
P. Onuf:Â Oh, weâre all raising our hands here.
Caller (Elena):Â Youâre all claiming it?
P. Onuf:Â Yeahâ
E. Ayers:Â Yeah, weâre dyingâ
B. Balogh:Â Weâre all pointing at Ed.
P. Onuf:Â Weâre going to let Ed, Mr. 19thÂ Centuryâ
E. Ayers:Â Yeah, we think the answer is easy.
B. Balogh:Â Well, which is always a danger sign.
E. Ayers:Â Exactly.Â Well, Iâll tell you what Iâm thinking about which is the creation of the American Society for Psychical Research which took place in the 1890s which is the perfect overlap between sort of the birth of what we would think of as professional social science and medicine with a realization that the more you learn, the more that there might be to learn and so, really, one of my favorite people in all of American history, William James, that we think of as the father of pragmatism and he was the leader in all of this and he said, look, why would we rule out that there are dimensions of experience that we cannot understand, that we cannot see.Â He said scientists are discovering all over the place that there are elements of the physical world that are invisible to us, so he actually risked quite a bit in his career to sponsor people who were claiming that they could communicate with and see elements of the psychic world, so I think itâs at the pivot of the 19thÂ to the 20thÂ century the combination of new means of exploring people and physical phenomenon with a belief coming off the great century of spiritualism.
P. Onuf:Â Yeah, yeah.
E. Ayers:Â But by this time youâve had a half century of spiritualism being taken for granted as something thatâs worthy of serious consideration, so to answer your question, it actually has a fairly clear answer and Iâm going to say itâs in the 1890s, the first decade of the 20thÂ century.
P. Onuf:Â Well, Elena, Iâm not going to argue with Ed.Â We always defer to him on this program.Â Heâs a very dominant guy.Â [laughter]Â But what William James is doing is really a culmination of a long build-up.Â The spiritualism actually is deeply rooted in the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18thÂ century and itâs the combination of looking for explanations with a new kind of scientific worldview but that accepts the reality of other dimensions.Â Iâll just give you one example because all I know about is Thomas Jefferson but Thomas Jefferson is a materialist who believes that we continue in some form after life.
E. Ayers:Â He did?
P. Onuf:Â Yeah.Â It was for me fairly difficult to come to terms with this whole notion of materialism thatâs established in European philosophy of the endurance of matter and therefore a kind of eternity thatâs only in the modern period that for most scientists we live in a disenchanted world and theyâll say, oh, yes, you can have faith and believe in stuff that we canât explain, but thatâs different.Â Thatâs a very modern idea, isnât it, Brian?
B. Balogh:Â Yes.Â I think thatâs right, Peter, but being the 20thÂ century guy and coming from the therapeutic century, Elena, I need to ask you how you feel about all of this and more specifically, what brings you to this question?
P. Onuf:Â Ohhhâ
Caller (Elena):Â I have had experiences, both the group-type of experience with Ouija boards, levitations of tables, that I went into the experiences very very skeptical but my own actual experience of seeing it and of getting knowledge and guidance that was beyond the scope of the people who were actually doing it, that was one.Â And the other experience that I had personally was at the death of somebody that I greatly respected experiencing automatic writing and channeling of her voice.
E. Ayers:Â You need to explain automatic writing to me.
Caller (Elena):Â Okay.Â I was actually in the room where she died several hours before she died.Â I would go sit in this room with a piece of paper and I would be I wouldnât say asleep or in a trance state, but I wouldnât be thinking consciously about what I was writing.Â It would almost be going through me as I was writing it and I wasnât aware of it until I would read it later and it was in her voice and in her style of talking and I never have really fully understood it.Â It was a wonderful way to reconnect and people that have tried to explain it have said that was your grief or whatever or that was the part of her that you incorporated and all of that could be true, but also at the time right before her death, when I went into the room, there were a lot of people that loved her in the room.Â I was aware ofâÂ I donât know how to describe it, but I aware of the presence of other beings in a way that I havenât been since.Â I think a lot of people have had that kind of experience, you know, a cold chill through the room or whatever, and maybe laughed it off or tried to deny it, but this experience before Bettyâher name was Betty [Dietrich]âand before she died, was walking into a room and just feeling these incredible presences.
B. Balogh:Â Well, I wanted to say that while the 20thÂ century clearly canât claim the peak position for the serious inquiry into the spiritual, there are spiritual organizations that live on and earlier this morning I went to a website for the National Spiritualists Association of Churches and Iâll just read you a little poem from the beginning of one of the sermons on their website.Â âI believe that when you die your life goes on.Â It doesnât end here when youâre gone.Â Every soul is filled with light.Â It never ends and if Iâm right, our love can even reach across eternity.Â I believe.Â I believe.âÂ So, thereâs a little shout out for the National Spiritualists Association of Churches and so youâre not alone out there.
P. Onuf:Â Yeah.
Caller (Elena):Â Well, that is good to hear.
B. Balogh:Â Thank you so much, Elena.
Caller (Elena):Â Well, thank you.Â I love your show and I really really appreciate your taking my call.
B. Balogh:Â Thanks, Elena.
E. Ayers:Â Bye bye.Â [music]
B. Balogh:Â Guys, I have a confession.Â I did not want to do this show and it has something to do with personal belief.Â I have very little brief for spiritualism but listening to you, I have come to appreciate the great importance of peopleâs yearning to communicate and to transcend the media that is commonplace in their lives and the people who they can actually see and Iâm going to confess for the 20thÂ century, I think Halloween is a pretty pale version of dealing with the really serious set of issues of death, of yearning, and distance that you Peter and Ed have been discussing during the show along with some of our callers, so I apologize on behalf of the 20thÂ century version of dealing with these issues.
E. Ayers:Â You know and I guess Iâd like to put in a word for your century, Brian.
B. Balogh:Â Thank you, Ed.Â Well, can I sing âKum Ba Yahâ in the background here?
E. Ayers:Â No, no, no.Â Just think of it as 19thÂ century condescending to your century is the way I that I imagine it.Â [laughter]Â Halloween, obviously, is a transparent commercial ploy to sell a lot of candy and stuff, but we might think why do our children like it so much, you know.Â And itâs a way of, okay, so thereâs a cardboard skeleton hanging on the front door.Â Thatâs a scary thing that we kind of use Halloween to tame, right?Â And the idea of carnival, of getting a chance to dress up like somebody else, to be scary even though youâre five years old or whatever, I think we might cut ourselves a little bit of slack on this.Â Halloween may be more of a continuum even though itâs in many ways a perversion of real spiritual longing.Â On the other hand, it makes the unknown a little bit less frightening and Iâm not sure thatâs ever a bad thing.
B. Balogh:Â Ed, I couldnât have said it better myself and itâs lucky you said it well, because weâre once again out of time.Â Iâm off to spend some quality time with a plastic pumpkin full of processed sugar.
E. Ayers:Â Which, of course, will give Brian the necessary energy to respond to all the comments you listeners leave for us at backstoryradio.org.Â Stop in and let us know what you think.Â Thanks for listening and Happy Halloween.
P. Onuf:Â âBackStoryâ is produced by Tony Field and Catherine Moore.Â Jamal Milner mastered the show and Gaby Alter wrote our theme.Â âBackStoryâsâ executive producer is the very spooky Andrew Wyndham.
E. Ayers:Â Major support for âBackStoryâ comes from the University of Richmond, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation committed to the idea that the future may learn from the past.
B. Balogh:Â Support also comes from the National Endowment for Humanities, UVAâs Miller Center of Public Affairs, the Cary Brown-Epstein and the W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, James Madisonâs Montpelier, Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Jay M. Weinberg, Austin Ligon, and an anonymous donor.
Tape:Â Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia.Â Brian Balogh is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia and UVAâs Miller Center of Public Affairs.Â Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond.Â âBackStoryâ was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.Â [music]