"Houdini and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln," ca. 1920, Library of Congress
Published: October 26, 2011
Halloween – despite its solemn Celtic roots – 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 Americans’ relationship with ghosts, spirits, and witches throughout our nation’s history. Why were colonists so fearful of New England “witches”? 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?
Spirit medium Cara Seekings talks with Ed about people – herself included – 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 Onuf: This is “BackStory,” with us, the American History Guys. I’m Peter Onuf, 18thcentury guy.
Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century guy.
Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy. [music]
P. Onuf: 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. The flames represented souls trapped in purgatory and at each house, the exchange would follow something like this: “you give me one of these bread loaves you’ve baked special for this occasion and in exchange, I’ll pray for your dead relatives to be released into Heaven.” [music]
B. Balogh: Sound familiar? Well, this proto-trick or treat ritual was known as Souling. The occasion was known as Hallowtide and it coincided with the Catholic Holy Days of All Souls and All Saints. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century officially put an end to All Souls Day but at least in the more Catholic corners of the kingdom, Souling persisted.
E. Ayers: And so did other Hallowtide traditions like cross-dressing and practical joke playing and all-round mischief making. Now, it’s 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: And so on today’s episode of “BackStory,” we’re going to put aside the mischief and candy and devote the hour instead to Halloween’s more shadowy figures because not only do ghosts, spirits and witches have a history, they have an American history and it’s not just limited to Halloween. For believers, the supernatural is a year-long phenomenon.
E. Ayers: That was certainly the case in my century, the 19th century, when belief in an active spirit plane blossomed into a full-fledged American religion. It was known as spiritualism and while there’s been plenty of debate about what to make of it, most people agree on when and where it started—1848 in a tiny town in upstate New York. We’re going to hand things over now to Nate DiMeo here to tell the story of the Fox sisters.
Tape (Nate DiMeo): People said the house was haunted and that was even before the two girls started talking to the dead. 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. Never heard from, that is, until one night in March of 1848, when their parents first heard the sounds. Some nights it would sound like knocking. Other nights like furniture moving and it always seemed to come from the girls’ bedroom but they’d open the door and their daughters would be fast asleep. They never suspected that their daughters could be tricking them. They were just young girls, but they were tricking them. 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. [music]
They called their mother into the room. Margaret snapped her fingers once—snap–and they heard a tap in response. She snapped twice—snap snap—and then tapped twice—knock knock. The next night all of their neighbor squeezed into the girls’ candlelit room. 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. Soon, she had booked her little sisters in a 400-seat theater in Rochester. By 1850, they were the toast of New York City. People would wait in lines for hours to ask the sisters for words of their dead loved ones on the other side.
William Cullen Bryant caught their act. James Fenimore Cooper. George Ripley, though we don’t know whether he believed it or not. The newspaperman, Horace Greeley, introduced them to New York nightlife and in the pages of his paper, introduced them to the world. Soon people were holding séances like we hold dinner parties but even as spiritualism was sweeping the nation, it was leaving the sisters who started it behind. [music]
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. 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 you’ll believe pretty much anything if you really want to believe it. She revealed all of that but not everything.
She didn’t 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. She didn’t 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 didn’t 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. She didn’t say how she called out to him and how he didn’t call back and how she sat in the dark knowing that he never would.
Kate and Margaret Fox weren’t forgotten, but at the times of their deaths, they weren’t remembered fondly. Each died poor, neither living to see 60. 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 can’t be resisted and you can do with what you will. They tore that little house down in 1904. Inside one of the walls near the girls’ 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. It’s true. [music]
P. Onuf: That’s Nate DiMeo. You can listen to a longer version of this story as well as dozens more of Nate’s American history vignettes at the memorypalace.us.
E. Ayers: You know, guys, there’s actually a post-postscript to this story as well. A year after Margaret Fox’s 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. As it turned out, her recanting didn’t really change many minds one way or another. 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): Yes, they did it. No, they didn’t do it. Yes, they did it. No, they didn’t do it. Back and forth. Back and forth over many many years.
E. Ayers: That’s Cara Seekings. When it comes to the question of whether the Fox sisters were faking it, she’s very much in the no-they-didn’t camp. 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 isn’t all that out of the ordinary.
Tape (Cara Seekings): You know, we all grew up with that woman in our neighborhood who knew things before anybody else knew them. She knew who on the block was pregnant and who on the block didn’t 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. The Irish call her a wise woman or a seer, so there’ve always been those people, but I think the Fox sisters made it appear more organized.
E. Ayers: 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 she’d have no way of knowing otherwise. Ever since, she’s been carrying messages to people from the other side. 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. It’s 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. This past summer, Seekings says, some 28,000 visitors came to take part in workshops and spirit readings and sessions of mediumship. In fact, attendance was at an all-time record.
Tape (Cara Seekings): Many people, when they come, for example, for a reading, are seeking. I mean, they’re searching. They’re looking for confirmation validation that their loved one is okay. Sometimes they’re looking for explanation.
E. Ayers: So, is spiritualism basically a religion of comfort?
Tape (Cara Seekings): I believe it is. People who love us still love us, whether they’re 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, nothing’s changed. She’s still quite apt to intervene without request. [laughter] [music]
E. Ayers: That’s Cara Seekings, a spirit medium living in the Lily Dale community of upstate New York. You can find out more about Lily Dale and listen to more of our conversation at backstoryradio.org.
B. Balogh: 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: Yeah. All people throughout time have believed that there’s 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. I think this is really part of the Protestant tradition.
E. Ayers: I’ve just one word for you then that kind of, as they say, problematizes that, Peter. Think what it is that Cara Seekings is and what is required for connection with the spiritual world.
P. Onuf: Right.
E. Ayers: The medium.
P. Onuf: Yes, that’s a good point.
E. Ayers: So ironically, it’s Protestant in the sense that it doesn’t exist in a church but I think what’s strange about it is they’re saying only a few people actually have the gift.
P. Onuf: But I think the promise really is that this medium is in some senses just the tool or the instrument does not have authority. The authority comes from that other realm–
E, Ayers: Right.
P. Onuf: And it’s enabling people to hear a language they couldn’t understand otherwise.
E. Ayers: So it’s like a Protestant minister who comes in and says here’s what the Bible says. I’m going to translate that for you, but I have no real authority because this is between you and God.
P. Onuf: That’s right. And everything in between fades away. That is, institutions of hierarchy and control. Instead, this is the fantasy and it’s an American fantasy that we encounter the cosmos on our own. [music]
E. Ayers: Peter, I have news for you that’s a lot less cosmic and that’s that it’s time for a quick break. When we get back, we’ll hear what the movement to abolish slavery had to do with those rap rap rappings in the night.
P. Onuf: More “BackStory” coming up in a minute. Don’t go away. [music] We’re back with “BackStory,” the show that looks to history to explain the world we’re living in today. I’m Peter Onuf, the 18th century guy.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, the 19th century guy.
B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy. With Halloween in the air, we’re spending the hour looking at how previous generations of Americans have contended with the spirit world. 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 19th century.
P. Onuf: We also touched briefly on the way spiritualism dovetailed very nicely with the particularly American impulse to go it alone, to live one’s life without the interference of authorities from the church or any other institution. 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): The first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York occurred just down the road from the first spirit rappings right about the same time and a lot of the same people were involved. A lot of the people who attended the first Seneca Falls convention were also going to séances with the Fox sisters and seeking spirit communication.
P. Onuf: That’s Ann Braude, a historian at the Harvard Divinity School who’s written about the intersection between spiritualism and radical politics and those radical politics weren’t limited to feminism. In fact, Ann told me it was a small group of very active abolitionists who first took the Fox sisters seriously and helped organize the girls’ first public séances.
Tape (Ann Braude): Now, why would abolitionists and reformers care about spiritualism? This is the big question.
P. Onuf: One answer, says Ann Braude, is that many of those abolitionists were also Quakers. Like spiritualists, Quakers didn’t have much use for religious authorities and also like spiritualists, they were very much into the individual soul. 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): What the radical abolitionists believed was that slaveholders were usurping the place of God by asserting their authority over one of God’s creation. 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 that’s where we start to see the women’s rights movement emerging out of the abolition movement. 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. That’s not what they meant. 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 that’s foreordained by God and that if we are married to someone who is not our true affinity, that’s not a real marriage, so if you’ve 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: So, Ann, here’s another example of what would in Victorian America be seen as a transgressive dangerous attitude that’s 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): I think you’re right. That has become a very mainstream idea. Spiritualists are not the only ones who contributed to the notion of romantic love. Many strains of Protestantism did move in that direction in the 19th century, but spiritualists did push it to an extreme position which is not that different from what we see today.
P. Onuf: So, in many ways, when we think back to the spiritualists, there’s a kind of a shock of recognition in their positions. On the one hand, they’re at the margins, they’re radical free spirits. On the other hand, we can identify with them as their audiences could, large audiences could, in the 19th century.
Tape (Ann Braude): That’s right. I think that in some ways it’s easier for us to identify with spiritualists than it was for people in the 19th 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 19th century also reflected the time they were living in. There was no television. There wasn’t a lot of excitement. 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: 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. I wonder if you could tease out that paradox.
Tape (Ann Braude): You’re absolutely right. In many ways, spirit mediums and spiritualism pushed to its logical extreme, the direction that 19th 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 can’t we communicate, why can’t we speak to them?
P. Onuf: That’s Ann Braude, Director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. She’s the author of Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in 19thCentury America. [music]
B. Balogh: If you’re just tuning in, this is “BackStory,” and we’re talking about spiritualism and other instances of the supernatural in American history. As usual, we’ve 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: Hey, guys, we’ve got a call from Ripton, Vermont. It’s Bryant. Bryant, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller (Bryant): Greetings, gentlemen.
P. Onuf: What spirit moved you to call us?
Caller (Bryant): Well, that’s pretty good. I hadn’t thought about that cell phone as [00:30:36 / ??] before.
E. Ayers: Yeah, well, he thought about for about three weeks, Bryant, so don’t be that impressed.
Caller (Bryant): Well, I had a couple of questions for you guys. I’m thinking about spiritualism and contemporary new media, so not our contemporary but 19th century new media. How did that impact spiritualism? I’m 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: Yeah. I’ll just start off with a very very brief mention of spirit photography which was a big deal in the 1850s and ‘60s 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. 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: And the telegraph was not unlike that.
P. Onuf: Good point.
E. Ayers: There was a sense that now that’s 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: I like that about medium, Ed.
B. Balogh: I do, too.
E. Ayers: You like that? Okay. 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. 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 we’d longed to do throughout humankind which is talk to those we’ve lost.
B. Balogh: Yeah, and what it really did, it in essence eliminated distance that stood between two people being intimate. I mean, you couldn’t 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): You mentioned the intimacy of the telegraph, how you’re in the Crimea and I’m in Paris and you click and I hear the tat-tat-tap, but what’s interesting is that it’s still very thickly mediated by Morse. It’s non-tangible.
E. Ayers: Yes, very much so. We needed that so that we could invent the radio and television and have more intimacy, Bryant.
Caller (Bryant): I feel more intimate already. [laughter] But there’s a parallel to this which is that at the same time, the 1800s also sees the photograph, the gramophone, the telephone, which don’t have that kind of thick mediation. I mean, they’re immediately apparent. 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, that’s a profoundly different experience. 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: 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. It was knocking on the doors or somewhere in the room or some people said their toes, but that would be a skeptic speaking. And so, ironically, when the first connections with others come through code, they’re imagining the connections to the dead coming through code as well and you’re exactly right, Bryant, what that means is that it requires an interpreter. It requires somebody who is the equivalent of a wire, who’s 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 that’s one reason the word was called “a medium” early is because it was really all about the interpretation, so, you know, it’s kind of funny, as people develop new technologies, the dead developed along with them. [laughter] And so we start out–
P. Onuf: And we never stop learning. [laughter]
E. Ayers: Exactly. It just shows that you’re never too old to learn a new trick, right? Bryant, I just have to ask you—where does your very nuanced interest in this topic come from?
Caller (Bryant): Well, I’ve 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, I’ve been looking back at antecedents through the past two centuries and, in fact, I’m 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: So how’s the Internet haunted?
Caller (Bryant): In all kinds of ways. I mean, we have now it’s 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? 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 there’s this mix of child pornography, violence, al Qaeda, and copyright violation and it’s a good question, what’s worse.
B. Balogh: That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? [laughter]
P. Onuf: I thought it ended flatly, actually.
Caller (Bryant): Well, thanks, gentlemen. This is a lot of fun. I really appreciate it.
B. Balogh: Thank you, Bryant. It’s a great call.
Caller (Bryant): Bye bye.
P. Onuf: Well, our own website, backstoryradio.org is definitely haunted by the spirits of a whole lot of listeners who have left comments about today’s topic. I want to channel one of them for you guys. 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. What do you think, Brian? Is he on to something here?
B. Balogh: Yeah, I mean, we could just take the last 15 years or so. There’s 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: Okay, your century– What’s happening? Come on.
B. Balogh: We’re currently fighting a couple of wars, but I’m not really sure that’s the reason. In fact, I would point to economic uncertainty and during uncertain economic times, people are reaching out–
P. Onuf: Whoa, whoa–
B. Balogh: They’re seeking. They’re looking for different kinds of answers.
P. Onuf: You’re suggesting there’s a material explanation for the belief in the spiritual. It sounds very– Oh, wow.
B. Balogh: I always do, Peter, but, you know, our caller, I’m inclined, knowing nothing about the 19th century, to believe maybe on the money vis-à-vis the Civil War.
P. Onuf: Yeah, isn’t that right, Ed? I mean, is there a lot of spiritual activity in the Civil War?
E. Ayers: There really was. I was going to suggest that there’re just twice as many ghosts today as there were 15 years ago.
P. Onuf: But the accumulation over time, I mean, really–
E. Ayers: Yeah, exactly. You know, in all seriousness, obviously the Civil War was a time of enormous suffering and loss and we’ve got to remember that the Fox sisters, that’s 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. And almost immediately people start wondering if there’s 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 don’t 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: And, Ed, many of the soldiers who die are quite young. I mean, these are people who are just leaving home for the first time or who are recently established. Some are married, of course, but these are soldiers who never had a chance to fulfill their lives on earth.
E. Ayers: No, that’s right, and the average age of the Civil War soldier is 21 years old and here, these are people, literally as they would’ve said at the time, in the full flower of manhood and just when that comes, they are suddenly gone, so you would’ve found all across America, I think especially in the North, séances and unified attempts, not to mention, of course, many desperate prayers when people are alone, that they might hear a word of encouragement, of connection that even though they had been destroyed on the battlefield before they’d had a chance to really live their lives, that on some sphere they were happy, that they were fulfilled, that they were at peace, and that they were in touch with their family back home, so it’s not a surprise that Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln actually have séances in the White House to talk to their son who died not in war, but way too young, and when they did so, there was no great scandal that this was some rise of superstition in the White House. This wasn’t some scandal, but rather another heartbreaking version of the same kind of conversation that people all across the country were trying to have. People understood the longing to talk to someone who’d been lost way too soon. [music—“Once I had a child. He was wilder than moonlight. He could do it all. Like he’d been here before . . .”]
It’s time for another short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, we’ll put aside the spirits and move on to those witches and we’ll take more of your phone calls.
P. Onuf: Remember, if you’d like to be a caller on a future show, have a look at our website to see the topics we’re working on. That’s backstoryradio.org. We’ll be back in a minute. [music] This is “BackStory,” the show that takes a topic from the here and now and plumbs its historical depths. I’m Peter Onuf, your guide to the 18th century.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, your guide to the 19th century.
B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, guide to whatever is left over. Today on the show, we’re taking on some of the spirits, witches and other supernatural phenomena that have haunted the American past. We’re also taking on some of the listeners who have been haunting the “BackStory” website.
P. Onuf: Hey, guys, we have a call from Tiffany in Chicago. Tiffany, welcome to the show.
Caller (Tiffany): Hi.
P. Onuf: So, what’s on your mind or moving your spirit, as the case may be today?
Caller (Tiffany): Well, I’m wondering if you can comment on some ideas that I’ve read about regarding the Salem witch trials.
P. Onuf: Okay, the Salem witchcraft. What about it?
Caller (Tiffany): Well, I’ve 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: Right. Well, there’re been lots and lots of books written about Salem witchcraft with lots of different explanations. Many of them center as you have, Tiffany, on the question of marginality or the fancy word, liminality—people who are “in” but not “of” the community, who are “othered,” as the expression goes, who identify as alien and foreign, whether they are ethnically different and, of course, Tituba was a West Indian slave. She’s the source supposedly of some of the magic lore in the accusations and it’s 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. In other words, when you make this accusation, it’s 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 21st century terms and say what would make us do something like this. Is it generational strife? Is it the search for some scapegoat or something or it ergotism, something in the–
E. Ayers: That’s what I think. The LSD in the grain.
P. Onuf: Yeah.
B. Balogh: I’m sorry, guys. Can someone tell me what ergotism is?
E. Ayers: 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. I think this obviously bears the marks of its time of argument. I don’t think this is taken too seriously now.
P. Onuf: No, that’s right.
E. Ayers: 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): Yeah.
E. Ayers: 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. That’s just a category that we don’t believe exists anymore.
B. Balogh: So, Tiffany, can I steal a little of your caller time and ask the guys when we stopped believing in witches.
Caller (Tiffany): Sure. I would like to know that, too.
E. Ayers: So, in the 18th century, right, Peter? Is it the 18th century?
P. Onuf: Yeah. 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 God’s creation and what we would call rationalistic terms.
E. Ayers: So, in a way, it was empowering God.
P. Onuf: Yeah, I think so. That’s 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: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, Peter, I mean, the whole context of witchcraft was Christianity, though, right?
P. Onuf: Yeah. That’s true.
E. Ayers: So, it wasn’t really just a rise of Christianity.
P. Onuf: Oh, no, I meant the triumph of what we could recognize as modern Christianity. I think as you’re suggesting, Ed, we exaggerate the difference, the mystical magical elements are still very prevalent in many branches of modern Christianity so I don’t want to exaggerate the difference. It’s just that there was a campaign from the pulpits to suppress magic and magical beliefs.
E. Ayers: Thinking about it from the perspective of the South which we would think would be a place if you didn’t 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. In fact, Virginia looked down on New England because it seemed especially prone to stuff like witchcraft. I mean, that was the main way to explain abolitionism and feminism away. These were the people who also believed that there were witches. [laughter] Really, it’s true.
P. Onuf: No, that’s right. But I just want to make a defense of my native New England ancestors.
E. Ayers: I’m not attacking them. I’m just–
P. Onuf: Okay. I don’t want to take this too personally, but I’m very upset with what–
E. Ayers: Yeah, that’s right. And that is documented.
P. Onuf: 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. We focus on the irrational beliefs, the stupidity of these people, but what’s remarkable is the way–
E. Ayers: They go about it.
P. Onuf: They go about it. 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 shouldn’t have done that, but it was the legal system in conjunction with popular beliefs that produces these results.
E. Ayers: Yeah, you know, the only thing we have in the 20th century, Tiffany, that comes close to that is NFL replay.
Caller (Tiffany): [laughter]
P. Onuf: Oh, how about the World Cup, man?
B. Balogh: Well, yeah, they don’t have that. They don’t have it. That’s exactly my point.
E. Ayers: This is very amusing, but I do believe you’ve had witch trials in your own century, Brian. I think about the Army-McCarthy hearing.
B. Balogh: Very interesting.
E. Ayers: Why do we call them “witch trials” or “witch hunts”? Why is that the analogy that we use?
B. Balogh: Well, I think that what these “witch hunts” imply is exactly what you guys were talking about. It’s going back to all those fancy words that Peter used. Let’s 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 20th century against communists, for the most part–
P. Onuf: Right, right.
B. Balogh: 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: Well, see, and I think another implication of witch hunt is that to look is to find, right? That’s the idea is that we’re going to go out and we’re going to find the source of an evil that we’re imagining and to actually look for that person is to guarantee you’re going to find them and I think, too, it has a lot in common with conspiracy theorists today. There’s a fixation on evidence, right?
B. Balogh: And a fixation on suppressed evidence as well.
E. Ayers: That’s right. Exactly. So, you know, there’s something about the witch hunt that’s deeply American, I think. It’s empirical. It’s not mystical. It’s legalistic. It’s not folkish.
B. Balogh: Yeah, and what’s very American, it’s a group activity. It almost always involves the collective.
E. Ayers: Right, right. So, Tiffany, I mean, you’ve really conjured up–
P. Onuf: Oh– [laughter]
E. Ayers: A bubbling cauldron of perplexing questions.
P. Onuf: Are you employing an accusation here?
E. Ayers: All I’m saying is there’s a strong hint of an eye of newt around here, if you know what I mean.
B. Balogh: Would that be coming from you, Tiffany?
P. Onuf: You are a bewitching caller, Tiffany, and thank you so much–
Caller (Tiffany): Well, thank you.
B. Balogh: Thank you very much, Tiffany.
P. Onuf: Bye bye.
E. Ayers: Bye.
Caller (Tiffany): Bye. [music]
P. Onuf: We’re going to take another call now and it’s going to be from Elena out in Exeter, California. Elena, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller (Elena): Thank you very much.
P. Onuf: What’s on your mind?
Caller (Elena): 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: We don’t debunk here. We rebunk. [laughter]
Caller (Elena): You rebunk. Okay.
E. Ayers: Well, we just bunk.
Caller (Elena): 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: Oh, we’re all raising our hands here.
Caller (Elena): You’re all claiming it?
P. Onuf: Yeah–
E. Ayers: Yeah, we’re dying–
B. Balogh: We’re all pointing at Ed.
P. Onuf: We’re going to let Ed, Mr. 19th Century–
E. Ayers: Yeah, we think the answer is easy.
B. Balogh: Well, which is always a danger sign.
E. Ayers: Exactly. Well, I’ll tell you what I’m 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. 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 it’s at the pivot of the 19th to the 20th century the combination of new means of exploring people and physical phenomenon with a belief coming off the great century of spiritualism.
P. Onuf: Yeah, yeah.
E. Ayers: But by this time you’ve had a half century of spiritualism being taken for granted as something that’s worthy of serious consideration, so to answer your question, it actually has a fairly clear answer and I’m going to say it’s in the 1890s, the first decade of the 20th century.
P. Onuf: Well, Elena, I’m not going to argue with Ed. We always defer to him on this program. He’s a very dominant guy. [laughter] But what William James is doing is really a culmination of a long build-up. The spiritualism actually is deeply rooted in the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century and it’s the combination of looking for explanations with a new kind of scientific worldview but that accepts the reality of other dimensions. I’ll 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: He did?
P. Onuf: Yeah. It was for me fairly difficult to come to terms with this whole notion of materialism that’s established in European philosophy of the endurance of matter and therefore a kind of eternity that’s only in the modern period that for most scientists we live in a disenchanted world and they’ll say, oh, yes, you can have faith and believe in stuff that we can’t explain, but that’s different. That’s a very modern idea, isn’t it, Brian?
B. Balogh: Yes. I think that’s right, Peter, but being the 20th 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: Ohhh–
Caller (Elena): 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. 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: You need to explain automatic writing to me.
Caller (Elena): Okay. I was actually in the room where she died several hours before she died. I would go sit in this room with a piece of paper and I would be I wouldn’t say asleep or in a trance state, but I wouldn’t be thinking consciously about what I was writing. It would almost be going through me as I was writing it and I wasn’t 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. 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. I was aware of– I don’t know how to describe it, but I aware of the presence of other beings in a way that I haven’t been since. 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 Betty—her name was Betty [Dietrich]—and before she died, was walking into a room and just feeling these incredible presences.
B. Balogh: Well, I wanted to say that while the 20th century clearly can’t 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 I’ll just read you a little poem from the beginning of one of the sermons on their website. “I believe that when you die your life goes on. It doesn’t end here when you’re gone. Every soul is filled with light. It never ends and if I’m right, our love can even reach across eternity. I believe. I believe.” So, there’s a little shout out for the National Spiritualists Association of Churches and so you’re not alone out there.
P. Onuf: Yeah.
Caller (Elena): Well, that is good to hear.
B. Balogh: Thank you so much, Elena.
Caller (Elena): Well, thank you. I love your show and I really really appreciate your taking my call.
B. Balogh: Thanks, Elena.
E. Ayers: Bye bye. [music]
B. Balogh: Guys, I have a confession. I did not want to do this show and it has something to do with personal belief. I have very little brief for spiritualism but listening to you, I have come to appreciate the great importance of people’s yearning to communicate and to transcend the media that is commonplace in their lives and the people who they can actually see and I’m going to confess for the 20th 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 20th century version of dealing with these issues.
E. Ayers: You know and I guess I’d like to put in a word for your century, Brian.
B. Balogh: Thank you, Ed. Well, can I sing “Kum Ba Yah” in the background here?
E. Ayers: No, no, no. Just think of it as 19th century condescending to your century is the way I that I imagine it. [laughter] 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. And it’s a way of, okay, so there’s a cardboard skeleton hanging on the front door. That’s a scary thing that we kind of use Halloween to tame, right? And the idea of carnival, of getting a chance to dress up like somebody else, to be scary even though you’re five years old or whatever, I think we might cut ourselves a little bit of slack on this. Halloween may be more of a continuum even though it’s in many ways a perversion of real spiritual longing. On the other hand, it makes the unknown a little bit less frightening and I’m not sure that’s ever a bad thing.
B. Balogh: Ed, I couldn’t have said it better myself and it’s lucky you said it well, because we’re once again out of time. I’m off to spend some quality time with a plastic pumpkin full of processed sugar.
E. Ayers: Which, of course, will give Brian the necessary energy to respond to all the comments you listeners leave for us at backstoryradio.org. Stop in and let us know what you think. Thanks for listening and Happy Halloween.
P. Onuf: “BackStory” is produced by Tony Field and Catherine Moore. Jamal Milner mastered the show and Gaby Alter wrote our theme. “BackStory’s” executive producer is the very spooky Andrew Wyndham.
E. Ayers: Major support for “BackStory” 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: Support also comes from the National Endowment for Humanities, UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, the Cary Brown-Epstein and the W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Charitable Foundation, James Madison’s Montpelier, Marcus and Carole Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Jay M. Weinberg, Austin Ligon, and an anonymous donor.
Tape: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Brian Balogh is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. [music]