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Public Demonstrations Of Spirit Contact And Psychic Phenomena

Historically, spiritualism was organized in small groups that conducted seances, or meetings for spirit communication. Larger gatherings were held for public demonstrations of spirit contact and psychic phenomena. These gatherings evolved into the Sunday church services that became common in spiritualist churches in the 20th century.

The term Spiritualism today refers to Modern Spiritualism, founded in America in 1848, distinctive from Ancient Spiritualism, which is as old as intelligent man and the foundation of every religion. In ancient times Spiritualism was commonly practiced by all cultures of the earth and was considered essential in the affairs of daily life, matters of state and in religion.

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, when the Church of Rome had complete power and control, the practice of psychic arts was forbidden and many a poor soul paid the penalty. The ban was relaxed when the British Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act of 1735, repealing the law and ending the period of the witch trials. This new freedom paved the way for the advent of Modern Spiritualism, a movement founded upon psychic contact between mortals of the physical world with spirits of the spiritual world.

Modern Spiritualism began in the tiny hamlet of Hydesville, in Western New York State, with the psychic phenomena of mysterious knocking sounds. This single event ushered in a movement of spiritual freethinking that was new to the world and closely allied with the two great causes of the day - the abolishment of slavery and woman's suffrage. Spiritualism was socially different from other religions of the time, particularly in the significant role played by women and lay people. It was not seen as a separate religious movement, but as a way of providing evidence to support religious beliefs in the existence of the soul and in life after death.

Spiritualism's popularity grew during the Victorian Age and gained credibility with the support of distinguished people, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) the scientist Sir Oliver Lodge and the journalist Hannen Swaffer. The movement became fashionable across all social classes and acquired the name "Spiritualism" in the 1850s. Its popularity culminated during World War I, reaching a zenith due to the loss of so many young men. Grieving families turned to spiritualist mediums for succour and many found solace that their loved one killed in battle far from disappearing into oblivion, had transitioned to a higher plane of existence, and that contact with them was possible. In the 1920s, the celebrated magician, Harry Houdini succeeded in his campaign to expose fraudulent mediums which vanquished Spiritualism in America.

Spiritualism does not have a Bible or universally accepted doctrine. However, it does have The Seven Principles that are widely recognized. Within Spiritualism, there are diverse beliefs, as in any religion. From my thirty-four year study of Spiritualism, its mediums and its philosophy, I believe that the little known channelled writings of the Washington, D.C. lawyer, James E. Padgett originate from higher realms and go beyond any other spirit communications that I have examined. For this reason the philosophical portions of this site are based on the knowledge contained in the writings of James Padgett.

Modern Spiritualism is recognized as having begun in 1848 with the phenomena at Hydesville, however, the supernatural experiences of the Swedish Seer Emanuel Swedenborg in 1744, actually ushered in a new spiritual age. Emanuel Swedenborg was one of Europe’s greatest minds, and was brought to the spirit world by Jesus to learn his truths. He had been selected because a mortal was needed, who would be respected among the thinkers of the day, to found a new spiritual movement. Swedenborg was such a man, having an eclectic mind and learned in mathematics, geology, chemistry, physics, mineralogy, anatomy and astronomy. He was one of the outstanding and respected scientists of his time, and a member of Sweden’s House of Nobles.

Swedenborg was indeed brought to the spirit world, attached to his silver cord, to learn the higher spiritual truths. This inspired him to devote the latter quarter-century of his life to theology. Swedenborg spoke of a "New Church" that would be founded on the theology of his works. In 1787, a movement was founded in England on the belief that God explained the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures to Swedenborg. His most well known work, Heaven and Hell, was published in 1758 and, since then, many persons have been influenced either by Swedenborg's writings or by, his movement, the New Church.

Considered the “John the Baptist of Spiritualism”, Andrew Jackson Davis was a prolific spiritualist author and the proclaimer of the coming revelation of Spiritualism. Davis grew up in a small town along the Hudson River in New York State. Young Davis showed signs of clairvoyance and heard voices. In 1844, he had an experience that changed the course of his life. On the evening of March 6th, he experienced a trance-like state, and when he gained full consciousness the next morning, he was some forty miles from Poughkeepsie, New York, where he had entered into the trance. Davis claimed, during this time, to have met the spirits of Galen, the Greek physician, and Swedenborg, the Seer. Davis may have had a vision or been teleported, or perhaps he walked the distance while in trance – no one can say for certain. Regardless of what occurred, the effect on him was profound, and afterwards, he traveled extensively, lecturing, and authored thirty books that became the philosophical foundation of early American Spiritualism.

In 1847, Davis predicted that it would not be long before the afterlife would be proven. His validation came a year later in Hydesville, New York with the phenomena later known as the “Hydesville Rappings”.

During the month of March 1848, strange knocking noises began to plague the Fox family shortly after they moved into a two-room cottage on a small piece of land at Hydesville, New York south of Rochester. The cottage was intended to be a temporary home while a suitable family home was being built adjacent to an uncle’s property.

Neither the Foxes’ nor their neighbors were able to determine the origin of the sounds, and, not only could the knocks be heard, but those who were present could feel the disturbance. So, just to have fun, the two young girls started talking to the unknown entity and gave it a name “Mr. Splitfoot”. Surprising to them it answered back with loud rapping sounds. The initial communication was a simple: one rap for yes, two raps for no. Then the family’s eldest son David devised an alphabet code system whereby he would recite the letters and when he reached the correct one Mr. Splitfoot would rap. Though laborious, words could be spelled out and it was learned that the unearthly sounds came from the spirit of a traveling Jewish peddler named Charles B. Rosna. He had been robbed and murdered by the previous occupant, a Mr. Bell, and his remains were buried in the cellar. It was learned that the peddler had left a wife and five children behind who had no way of knowing what happened to him. The noises presumably were his attempt to inform his family of his demise, which induced him to remain earthbound to make contact.

Digging by the neighbors commenced in the cottage cellar, but spring flooding had prevented any immediate discovery. In the summer it continued and bits of teeth, bone fragments and the peddler’s tin box (where he kept valuables) were unearthed. I personally saw these artifacts on display in 1989, in the basement museum of Lily Dale’s Skidmore Library.

Many people began to investigate, overwhelming the Fox family to the point where they could not tend to their daily affairs. The Foxes decided to move to Rochester, where their son David lived, which did little good, for the peddler followed and continued making contact. The noises could hear by all, but no one could explain them. Supportive friends arranged for a public demonstration at the Corinthian Hall, the city’s largest assembly.

A committee was appointed to investigate the sisters before the demonstration. The committee thought that the girls made the rapping sounds by cracking their knee joints, but they passed every test, and the committee had no alternative, but to declare the phenomenon authentic and allowed the girls to go on stage.

Horace Greeley owner of the New York Tribune and was a pivotal figure in the founding of Modern Spiritualism. The Hydesville Rappings were by no means the first reported knocks in history, but what made them unlike others, was the publicity given them by Greeley and his newspaper.  

Horace I. Greeley was born in Amherst, New Hampshire, in 1811, where he trained as a printer. He later moved to New York City and became a journalist working for the New Yorker, and in 1841 he established the New York Tribune, a newspaper he edited for over thirty years. Greeley had a strong moral tone and used his paper to campaign against alcohol, tobacco, gambling, prostitution, capital punishment and slavery.

Greeley was alerted to the Rochester demonstration by a letter sent to the paper. He had lost a son and was willing to look into the matter. He dispatched a reporter, Charles Partridge, to investigate, who returned with a favorable report. Greely arranged for the sisters, with their mother as chaperon, to come to New York City, where further examination took place by the scientific community. Greeley produced public demonstrations at a theater off Broadway. The girl’s performances caused a sensation and were responsible for bringing psychic phenomenon to the forefront of the American scene.

In the end, Greeley stated, “I am convinced that the sounds and manifestations were not produced by Mrs. Fox or her daughters, nor by any human being connected with them.”

With the Fox Sisters manifestations now all the talk, mediums no longer had to fear ridicule and condemnation. Séances began popping up throughout New England, and communication with the departed became popular and fashionable as something new and exciting among the middle and upper classes.

Spiritualism grew rapidly and became so popular that in 1926 an anti-fortunetelling bill was introduced in Washington. If passed, it would have outlawed the psychic arts for monetary gain, making it punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment. Harry Houdini had even testified before a congressional sub-committee against the spiritualist mediums, however, because of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, the proposed ban failed to pass Congress.

In 1856, under contract to a theatrical company, Emma Britten sailed from Southampton to New York City. There, through the mediumship of Miss. Ada Hoyt, Emma converted to Spiritualism and was to become one of its most important advocates.

Born in London in 1823, the daughter of a sea captain, she was a talented musician and singer. Her mediumistic gifts included automatic and inspirational writing, psychometry, healing, prophecy and inspirational speaking. Emma was unequaled in her zeal, commitment and enthusiasm for she traveled in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand expounding the philosophy of Spiritualism.

Emma is given credit for having received in 1871, at least the first four of the seven original principles of Spiritualism from Robert Dale Owen, an American statesman then in the spirit world. The principles are used today by the British spiritualists and in the Commonwealth Countries; the American Association has drafted its own.

A principle pioneer of Spiritualism Judge John W. Edmonds, was Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court. In 1851, Judge Edmonds began investigating mediums and witnessed several hundred manifestations in various forms, keeping very detailed records. The spirits communicated that the physical manifestations had a simple purpose – to prove their existence despite the fact that they were visually imperceptible. When Judge Edmonds went public with his findings in a book in 1853, simply titled, Spiritualism, he was attacked by the press, the pulpit, and the politicians and forced to resign his post on the bench and return to private practice.

The president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, began exploring Spiritualism after the death of their 11-year-old son Willie, by visiting mediums and sitting in circles. The president took a passing interest in the phenomena and later became an advocate. There are claims that Abraham Lincoln the 16th President received guidance from spirits who communicated through mediums in crucial decisions of national importance. There exists a story that at one sitting, after Nettie Colburn went into trance, she spoke to the President about his duty to free the slaves. There is also hearsay that there was spirit influence in his most profound works - the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Spiritualism gave rise to a belief in spirit contact, which appealed to many celebrated people of the time: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Cullen Bryant, Thomas Carlyle, Emily Dickinson, Sir William Crookes, Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Russell Wallace, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Queen Victoria, and W. B. Yeats were all investigators and proponents of the new spiritual science.

Harry Houdini was Spiritualism’s greatest antagonist. He was born Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874, the son of a rabbi. His family immigrated to America in 1878. Houdini began performing at the age of nine with a trapeze act, then magic and, in 1893, began experimenting with the escape arts. He became widely known as "The Handcuff King", and in 1900 he toured England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Russia. With his success, his interests expanded and, in 1918, he signed a film contract and went to Hollywood. In the 1920s, after the death of his mother Cecilia, he turned his interest toward making contact with her and eventually to debunking the spiritualist mediums. His training and background in magic allowed him to expose fraud that had successfully eluded scientists and academics.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born May 22 1859, in Scotland, where he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He practiced as a physician specializing in conditions of the eye. In 1902, Edward VII knighted him for his role in the Boer War in South Africa. Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, and he eventually became wealthy through the popularity of the series. He had an insatiable interest in psychic phenomena and dedicated the latter part of his life to the advancement of Spiritualism lecturing worldwide and becoming the movement’s most renowned exponent.

Sir Arthur and Houdini met in 1904 while Houdini was performing at the Brighton Hippodrome. Both men were world famous, although their careers were very different. Their mutual interest in the paranormal brought them together and they had a great respect for one another. Sir Arthur invited the Houdini family to his home in Sussex and a close friendship ensued.

In June of 1922, Sir Arthur and his family were on an American lecture tour, the weather was hot, and the Doyle's decided to take a brief holiday in Atlantic City. They invited the Houdini's to join them. While there, Houdini spoke touchingly of his mother who had passed in 1913. Sir Arthur suggested to his wife, Lady Doyle, who was an automatist, that she try and write a message for Houdini from his mother, which she did.

“Oh, my darling thank God, thank God, at last I am through. I’ve tried, oh so often. Now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy, my own, beloved boy. Friends, thank you, thank you, with all my heart for this. You have answered the cry of my heart and of his. God bless him a thousand fold, for all his life for me - never had a mother such a son. Tell him not to grieve soon he will get all the evidence he is anxious for. I want him to know that I have bridged the gulf, which is what I wanted, oh so much. Now I can be in peace.”

This is a beautiful note that has an authentic ring and is congruent with what one may imagine a loving mother would express to a son she dearly missed. Nevertheless, Houdini could not accept the unworldly communication as genuine for three reasons.

  • I. His mother could not speak or write English. However, in Spiritualism, it is generally accepted that spirits can readily learn other languages.

  • II. Lady Doyle had the habit of drawing a cross on the top of the page for protection before she wrote a letter from a spirit. Houdini, being the son of a rabbi, was not about to accept a cross or Christianity as having anything to do with his mother.

  • III. The psychic session had taken place on his mother’s birthday, June 17th, but there was no mention of the significance during the contact. Sir Arthur insisted that the message was genuine. Houdini felt a mockery had been made of his deepest feelings and their friendship was at an end.


Houdini continued attempts to contact his mother through spiritualist mediums, but, time after time, he experienced fraud in the séance room. He became so outraged that he launched a campaign to expose fakes. Houdini was world-renown, and with word of his exposures out, he had to disguise himself to be admitted into séances. When he deduced how the trickery was done, Houdini would jump to his feet and shout loudly, “I am Houdini, and you are a fraud.”

Houdini even had a stage act debunking psychic phenomena, showing the audience how the phenomena were produced by mechanical trickery. His show was a sensation and contributed to the public’s distrust of mediums. In 1926, after receiving an unexpected blow to the abdomen, Houdini died leaving it known that he had prearranged a coded message with his wife, Beatrice, which only she knew.

Arthur Augustus Ford of Georgia developed his psychic abilities during World War I, while in the army. In 1927, he traveled to Great Britain where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remarked "One of the most amazing things I have ever seen in forty-one years of psychic experience was the demonstration by Arthur Ford.''

In 1928, Ford went into trance, and his spirit guide Fletcher, a Canadian lad, announced that there was a woman present whom he had not seen before and that she was eager to make contact.

The woman said, “I am the mother of Harry Weiss (Houdini), and for many years my son has waited for one word that I was to send back, “forgive”, now that I have, my son will be able to communicate for himself. Houdini’s widow Beatrice was notified, and a series of ten sittings were arranged during which apparently Ford brought through the code to Mrs. Houdini from her husband.

The code made headlines. The press accused Mrs. Houdini of giving it to Ford in advance of the sittings. She defended herself in this letter saying, “Regardless of any statement made to the contrary, I wish to declare that the message, in its entirety and in the agreed-upon sequence given to me by Arthur Ford, is the correct code prearranged between Mr. Houdini and myself.” She further stated that she did not need money and had no intentions of going on stage, nor, as some newspapers suggested, a lecture tour. Nevertheless, the power of the press was able to convince the public that the code was not properly given.

Mystery still surrounds Houdini with a contrary story, that the code was never given during the private sittings with Ford, and because of this, Mrs. Houdini would hold a séance each anniversary of her husband’s death (Halloween Eve) comprised of friends and people mostly in magic. The séances went on until 1936. Here is a photograph of the final séance held at the rooftop room of the once famous Knickerbocker hotel in Hollywood. The sitters pleaded with Houdini to come through, but to no avail a response was never received. There is really no way to know if the code was given or not. Regardless of what actually occurred, the consensus of the general public was, if Houdini couldn’t prove an afterlife, there must not be one. This resulted in the public’s further loss of confidence in Spiritualism, which contributed sharply to its decline.

Spiritualism exists today predominantly in the English speaking countries. In America there are five spiritualist camps that have seasons, Lily Dale in New York is the largest and is also the headquarters for the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, which has spiritualist churches in many parts of the United States.

Great Britain is considered the world hub of Spiritualism. It has more spiritualist churches, mediums, centers, colleges and publications than the rest of the world combined. Its showplace is the Arthur Findlay College at Stansted Hall in Essex, owned by the largest spiritualist association, the Spiritualists National Union.



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