Florence Cook used to attract large audiences in 19th century America. She was a Spiritualist medium who, as well as offering evidence of dead people, also had a spirit guide called Katie King who would take over her body.
Equally fascinating was Helen Duncan who died in 1956. This Scottish woman became famous during World War Two and was even prosecuted for her work. At one point she gave out information about a sunken warship during a seance. It was still a secret.
Spiritualism is a form of mediumship which first appeared in the 1840s following the antics of the Fox Sisters, who claimed to contact a dead pedlar through a series of knockings. Publicity from the case caused an explosion of such mediumship.
Soon, people throughout Europe and America began to gather in front rooms for a séance, where attempts were made to contact the dead. A medium would go into a trance whilst people held hands around a table. A spirit guide would then take over the person and communicate with the dead.
In its heyday, physical manifestations were said to break out, including spirit hands, table tilting and the appearance of ectoplasm. However, as methods of recording such phenomena appeared, the ability declined, suggesting fraud was involved.
Typical of this was Eusapia Palladino. Researcher Hereward Carrington became convinced she was genuine, offering strong evidence of mediumship and table tilting. But at other times, she was a clumsy fraudster, easily caught out.
At one stage, researchers looked at Spiritualism in the hope of finding proof of life after death, but fraud and delusion led to disappointment. Today, Spiritualist churches have cleaned up much of this fraud, but evidence is still illusive.
Mediums are often said to use ‘cold reading’, where the questions they ask provide hints as to what the client wants to hear. Others, such as 1940s medium William Roy, used apparatus from telescopic rods to fake levitation, to hidden microphones in the anteroom. Even where genuine phenomena is said to exist, telepathy between medium and client could be the cause.
Many mediums seem to have a traumatic childhood and turn in on themselves. This could suggest that their spirit guides could be related to multiple personality, where the mind can fragment into other characters who take over the host. Medium Eileen Garrett admitted she wasn’t sure that her spirit guides were who they claimed to be. Such a phenomenon could also explain why sometimes they appear genuine, and at other times cheat.
Mediumship is, infact, very ancient. In tribal societies a ‘shaman’ would commune with animal spirits to cleanse the tribe. Similar ‘spirit guides’ are used to this day, whilst other mediums have become ‘channellers’, said to be contacting discarnate entities. However, no medium was more famous that Daniel Dunglas Home.
During the 1840s he was famous throughout America and Europe for his small seances where he levitated people, large objects and himself. Witnesses often spoke of the fleetingness of what they had seen.
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