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Unveiled (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

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.

Margaret and Kate Fox, the sisters who invented spiritualism

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 Share on X

Séances 

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. 



RESOURCES

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



19 Comments

  • Linda Curry
    Posted April 24, 2020 at 04:14

    My grandmother (Ruby is based on her in my blog) was an avid fan of fortune tellers. She had an unhappy life so wanted to hear of a better future. She told me of her many visits to fortune tellers including one where she looked in a glass ball and saw herself in bed with a genie sitting at the foot protecting her from her violent husband. It certainly gave her peace of mind.

    • Kristin
      Posted April 24, 2020 at 14:58

      Noooo! Not a violent husband!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 30, 2020 at 07:37

      That’s a sad story, Linda. And yes, I think this kind of things sometimes help us going on, because it give us some hope, beyong whatever dire situation we may live through. That’s why I particularly despise people who take advantage of it.
      There are fortunetellers that really help you, they act a bit like psychologists. But there are other that are only after your money whatever it takes. And these are horrible people.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 24, 2020 at 09:24

    These things still happen today. And the belief is so powerful than even when the “medium” itself says they cheated, people still stick to their beliefs. So strange.

    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 30, 2020 at 07:55

      I think it’s more about what people need than about what the medium actually does. When sorrow is so deep, we need to believe in something, or we’d crash down.
      I wonder whether this Covid situation will cause a resurgence of spiritualism. All the elements seem to be there.

  • Frédérique
    Posted April 24, 2020 at 11:06

    Spiritualism is like religion, it helps people to bear their lives, and find comfort. I guess.

  • Shweta Suresh
    Posted April 24, 2020 at 21:16

    And there are still people going around, looking to gain the trust of people through their fake abilities. I’m surprised to know that it goes a long way back.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted May 4, 2020 at 08:29

      It goes a long way back. Besides, it’s only human to look for any consolation in times of great crisis.

  • The Dream Girl
    Posted April 24, 2020 at 23:32

    Eesh.. all this hookus pookus…

    U is for Uncover
    https://thedreamgirlwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/24/uncover/

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted May 4, 2020 at 08:49

      It came from loss and fear. I can’t judge them too harshly.

  • Sonia Dogra
    Posted April 25, 2020 at 17:58

    Only when you happen to be on a spiritual journey yourself can you understand this entire practice. It dates back to long long ago.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted May 4, 2020 at 09:13

      You know, even if the medium was fake, this could have been a spiritual journey, I believe. Maybe this is why even when the medium was exposed, some people still believed: because they had done their own journey.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 25, 2020 at 21:20

    Very sad that some people are so gullible. I can understand believing in some communication from the dead, but not such orchastrated and that by people who confessed. I was surprised to learn they took to drinking.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted May 4, 2020 at 09:27

      I can’t judge them too harshly, instead. WWI was a horrible experience, and even in Covid 19 crises, I believe we can hardly understand what its aftermath was. The sense of loss was enourmus: for the loss of lives, for the loss of the life they knew, for the millions of wounded in the body and the mind.
      No, I don’t feel like judging too harsh.

  • Keith's Ramblings
    Posted April 26, 2020 at 16:17

    Many people who are desperate will believe in anything in the hope it will bring them solace, so it’s hardly surprising some were taken advantage of by opportunist fraudsters, sad a it was.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted May 4, 2020 at 09:35

      I don’t think it was all bad. Yes, we tend to see the fraud. But there was also solace there, as you pointed out.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 30, 2020 at 16:51

    Belief in something has great power.

    An A-Z of Faerie: Werehyena

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted May 4, 2020 at 09:41

      That’s very true. And often, it doesn’t matter wheter what we believe is damonstrable or not.

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