WWI was a traumatic experience for many nations across the globe. In the trenches of the Great War, a generation of young people lost their lives. When the war was over, the overwhelming common feeling was grief.
People tried to find all ways to cope with the sudden disappearance of their loved ones, often with communal practices of mourn. Sometimes in public celebrations. Sometimes in the building of memorials. And sometimes in the seeking of communication with the world of the dead.
Spiritualism had been around for a long time. It had arisen in the 1800s, a time of unprecedented scientific advancement and discoveries, which created a likewise unprecedented clash between scientific knowledge and spiritual beliefs. Believers started to wonder whether science could prove the existence of the afterlife. If it couldn’t, did this mean that there was nothing beyond the veil?
An answer seemed to come from two American sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaret Fox, who on 31 March 1848, announced they had contacted the dead and got a reply from them.
This was the first step in the rise of Spiritualism, which wasn’t a true religion, and it wasn’t mere entertainment, although it seemed to have characteristics of both.
The movement became very popular, especially with the middle class and involved many thinkers of the time, as well as many scientists. It was so popular that even when the Fox sisters admitted in 1888 to have fake their communication with the dead, the movement still maintained its popularity.
Spiritualism had a sharp resurgence during and after WWI. Spiritualism seemed the answer to the grief of many families, giving them the hope to be able to contact the loved ones that had so violently and senselessly been taken from them. It was an experience that crossed classes and religious inclinations, but that was most popular among women – the mothers and wives and sisters of the fallen of WWI.
Mediums became very requested. Séances took place everywhere, both privately and even publicly. And of course, frauds were numerous.The experience of WWI and the terrible loss of lives caused a resurgence of spiritualism. Everyone wanted to contact their loved ones lost on the battlefields #history Click To Tweet
Séances had been very popular in the 1800s. Then they had known a decline as people like Henry Houdini exposed the many frauds. In the 1920s, after the devastation and the deaths of WWI, séances and mediums became popular once more.
Most often, séances were private gatherings of people – friend and family of the dead, mostly – who would join hands around a table in their darkened drawing-rooms. Guided by a medium, they would chant loudly and wait for an answer to come. The slightest noise, movement or smell was often enough to convince them that the dead had joined them.
This practice reached its pick in the mid-1920s but remained very popular up to the outbreak of WWII.
Frauds were exposed very often, which is how we know that most of the tricks used in these performances were actually quite rough and primitive. They were also quite dramatic and theatrical. But no exposure was enough to weaken the power of mediums and the illusion they created. Many mediums were exposed more than once, yet people continue to turn to them for the same practices and possibly the same tricks.
The people who took part in the séances wanted to believe them. They wanted to believe they could hear the voice of their loved ones again. And maybe the practice in itself, though fake, had some therapeutic power in it and could bring some emotional relief to the mourning families.
Edinburgh News – Spirit of the 1920s lives on in Edinburgh seance
Séances – Seances in the 1850s-1920s
The Guardian – The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances
BBC – History of Modern Spiritualism
The Atlantic – Silencing the Dead: The Decline of Spiritualism
Jay Murray Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995