Thursday, November 2, 2023


Magicians Who Have Died during the Bullet Catch

   The bullet catch is one of the most interesting illusions to be done in the Victorian era. The effect, its namesake, either catching the bullet in their own mouth or inside a plate or small bowl. Seems simple in concept, but the execution (pun intended) is a lot harder than it seems. The premise of the illusion needs a non-firing gun that seems to still fire or the introduction of a blank bullet or the riskiest method, a bullet that will not cause harm. One of the earliest documentations of this illusion is in Threats of God's Judgments by Reverend Thomas Beard in 1631, even though it was performed around 50 years before the book was written. It became a favorite of street performers during the 1700s, and to this day, it is responsible for killing at least six.

   One of the first to die is Madame DeLinsky, the assistant to her magician husband, who was shot in 1820 during a performance in the royal court of Germany. During this time, guns were loaded using cartridges, which were made of paper, and inside of this this cartridge was gunpowder as well as the bullet. For those that don’t know me, I am also a Revolutionary War reenactor, and so I own several guns of this manufacture and am very familiar with their loading. The cartridge is removed from the pouch and then the cartridge is opened using the teeth and the contents are put into the barrel of the gun. During this performance of the trick, the soldiers who performed the illusions was secretly bribed to make sure that the bullet was bitten off from the cartridge and kept in their mouth while the gunpowder was put in the gun. Unfortunately, one of the soldiers was very nervous and accidentally loaded the bullet as well as the gunpowder. When the bullet struck Madame Delinsky in the abdomen, several of the audience fainted. Medical treatment was given but unfortunately Madame Delinsky would pass away two days later. The truly sad part of this story is that her husband, who was supervising the illusion onstage, went mad shortly after witnessing the death of his wife and their unborn child.

   Another was Arnold Buck who was killed in 1840. During his performance of the illusion, Buck had an audience member shoot the gun. While Buck loaded the gun, he would palm the bullet instead of putting it inside the barrel and the gun was then handed over to a member of the audience. The audience member, a known troublemaker, secretly put a handful of nails into the barrel which killed the magician upon impact. In the movie The Prestige (2006), Christian Bale’s character Alfred, talks about the dangers of having an audience member as the person firing the gun. In the movie, Alfred talks about a button being inserted in the gun. Even just a wood or metal button would be lethal at that range.

  Next, was Professor Adam Epstein who died in 1869. His death was one of blatant stupidity. The magician’s wand is great for misdirecting and doing tricks like the cups and balls, it’s not good for using as a ramrod for your gun. The wood that is used for ramrod is usually a walnut or a maple and usually has a metal endcap, and used to taking punishment, the magician’s wand is not. Epstein used his wand as a ramrod too many times and didn’t take the time to make sure his wand came out alright. When the gun fired, he was struck in the forehead by the flying shards from his broken wand.

  Only about twenty years later, Harry Franklin Sartelle was killed by performing The Bullet Catch. The 23-year-old magician was just starting out when he died in 1889. Unfortunately, I cannot find more information on what went wrong with the trick that caused his demise.

  One of the most famous though was Chung Ling Soo who perished in 1918. Born William Ellsworth Campbell Robinson, William first started performing by masquerading as an Egyptian and then a Hindu magician.  He would settle on the Chinese persona that he would tailor for many years until his death. His final act was known as “Condemned to Death by The Boxers" in which he would face a firing squad while he held a silver plate. The guns were gimmicked and had two chambers. One in which to insert a round and another for the gunpowder.  The freak accident occurred when one of the rifle’s chambers hadn’t been cleaned properly and was clogged with gunpowder residue.  This residual gunpowder caused the bullet to exit the barrel and struck the magician. When I read about this freak accident, I was reminded of the accidental death of film star Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow. Robinson, who never spoke English to maintain his Chinese persona and would use interpreters screamed, "Oh my god, something's happened. Lower the curtain." He died the next morning. Harry Houdini, who was a friend of Robinson wanted to try the trick himself after the death of his fellow magician, but the words of Harry Keller, one of the most famous magicians during the Victorian Age chided him with this letter:

“Now, my dear boy, this is advice from the heart, DON’T TRY THE D—N Bullet Catching…no matter how sure you may feel of its success. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will “job” you. And we can’t afford to lose Houdini. You have enough good stuff to maintain your position at the head of the profession. And you owe it to your friends and your family to cut out all stuff that entails risk of your life. Please, Harry, listen to your old friend Kellar who loves you as his own son and don’t do it.”

   And finally, we have H.T. Sartell, who went by the stage name of “The Black Wizard of the West” who died in 1922 in Deadwood, South Dakota. This was a case of mistaken identity of the worst kind. Sartell would use wax bullets that would break apart in the barrel and the projectile would become harmless to the magician. The major problem was that his assistant, his wife, wanted to get rid of him, so she simply switched the wax bullet for a real one. Again, there is something to be said about who you let point the gun at you.

   The Bullet Catch is an amazing illusion that belongs to the past. As technology progressed, the trick became more advanced to satisfy a new audience generation. And the more convincing that you try to perform it, the more deadly it can become. Yes, the Bullet Catch is still done today, and has been performed by great magicians such as Penn and Teller and David Blaine. I also saw it done live in LA at a “Parlour” magic show, a Parlour that contained about 300 members in the audience. It was okay. The illusion was with a modern pellet gun instead of a real gun and it was mounted on a tripod (it was of course in LA). There was a disconnect between the illusion and the audience because of the tripod and the pellet gun being set up by the magician himself. The setup was too long and the instructions to the audience member who actually fired the gun were too winded and so by the time the magician got set to do the trick, I almost wanted to see something go wrong just to see what would happen.


By the way, I was told that the Bullet Catch is the only illusion that I am not allowed to perform.

Monday, July 24, 2023


   I am continuing my posts about famous Victorian magicians, and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about one of my favorites, Alexander Hermann. Born into a family of magicians, Alexander will become one of the most famous magicians of the Victorian period.

   The start of Alexander’s career as a magician began with his father, Samuel Hermann, who was not only a physician, but also toured Europe as a magician. One of Samuel’s patrons was the Sultan of Turkey, who paid large amounts of money just to get Samuel to perform for him. Samuel even performed for Napoleon, who gave him a gold watch which he carried with him until the day he died.

   With the birth of Compars his eldest son, Samuel settled in France and became a full-time physician. Compars, who also went by the name “Carl”, was schooled by his father in the conjuring arts. Carl began touring throughout France and he gave command performances in Paris and Versailles. Carl then went to medical school, but the magician bug had bitten him hard, so he dropped out of school to tour as a conjurer. In 1853 when Carl returned home from touring around Europe, he saw that his 8-year-old brother, the youngest of all the children, Alexander, was being schooled in the magician’s craft from his father.  Without permission from his family, Carl “kidnapped” his brother and took him on tour with him. First stop, St. Peterburg and Alexander’s first lesson on becoming a stage performer. Carl made Alexander a part of his act, and in his spare time, he schooled his younger brother in magic. They toured throughout Russia, Germany, Italy and Portugal, and when they eventually returned to their parents’ house in France, Alexander was already on his way to becoming a magician extraordinaire. Alexander stayed with his parents until he reached 11 and then went to live with Carl in Vienna who continued to foster his education in magic. They toured America in 1860 but left because the Civil War had just erupted and went down to South America. Alexander was becoming a better magician than Carl could have imagined and so they split company and Alexander toured on his own until 1867 when he again joined forces with Carl, and they would tour one more time together.  In 1871, Alexander was signed to a 3-year contract with the Egyptian Hall in London.  In London he will meet a dancer by the name of Adelaide Scarcez, who will later become his wife.   In March of 1875 they were married, and the ceremony was officiated by the mayor of New York. In July of 1876, he became a naturalized citizen and bought a mansion in Long Island, New York and here he would become known as Hermann the Great.

   Adelaide and Alexander toured throughout the United States, South America and Europe for many years until they met Carl in Paris in 1885. Carl was jealous of his younger brother’s talents and so they decided Carl would have Europe as his stage while Alexander would stay in America. Two years later, Alexander was shocked by the death of his brother, his mentor. A part of him was gone.

   The Hermanns did phenomenal illusions including a levitation that was the envy of all, especially of Harry Kellar, another American magician, who claimed he invented the levitation illusion. But, if you remember my post about Maskelyne, magicians told their own lies. Alexander was also known for his card skills and sleight of hand. One of Alexander Hermann’s most famous tricks is that of the Bullet Catch, which is as deadly as it sounds, and many things have gone wrong for other magicians doing it (including Chung Ling Soo, which will be in my next article).

  Adelaide and Hermann were touring the East Coast in their private train car when Alexander had a heart attack. He whispered to Adelaide, "Make sure all in the company get back to New York.” In his last moment, Alexander Hermann was thinking of other people, not himself. A doctor was called but it was no use, Hermann the Great was dead at the age of 52. Hermann’s funeral was attended by several thousands of people wanting to pay their respects to Herman the Great for not only was Alexander a great magician, but also a philanthropist.  He gave many performances for those who could not afford his tickets and was even the first magician to perform at Sing Sing prison.

  After his death, Adelaide kept up the family tradition and started performing Alexander’s illusions and her own sleight of hand. She even toured with Leon Herrmann, Alexander’s nephew, but they soon parted ways and she became known as “The Queen of Magic”. Adelaide performed magic for several years before she finally retired at 75.  She died in 1932 where she was finally laid to rest next to her husband.


   In my upcoming posts I want to do a series of blogs about famous magicians in the Victorian Age, and I would like to start with someone that many of you may not know. In the world of Victorian magic, one name stood alone, John Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne, born in 1839, in the town of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, was the son of a saddle maker, and when he came of age, he was apprenticed to a watch maker, a skill that would serve him well when he became a magician.

  Maskelyne’s first brush with magic wasn’t with a magician but with Spiritualists. Maskelyne was working in the watchmaker’s shop when he got an unusual request to repair a machine that was called an “instrument of surgery” by its owner, a spiritualist.   As John started tinkering with this piece of machinery, he found that he could mount it to his leg and use it to make rapping sounds very discreetly under a tabletop. Later he had the chance to see further trickery happen when at the age of twenty-six he saw the Davenport Brothers use their Spirit Cabinet. The Davenports didn’t call themselves magicians but spiritualists.   They toured the United States and Europe under the guise of being tied up in a special cabinet in which spirits would play musical instruments. During this performance Maskelyne saw the “flash”, where a magician unwittingly does something that shows how the trick is done and understood how the cabinet illusion worked.  He stood up in the theater and told the audience that he could recreate the Spirit Cabinet communication without the aid of anything supernatural.  Maskelyne, along with his friend cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, built a giant Spirit Cabinet and revealed the trickery of the Davenports in a show in Cheltenham.  In this performance they also included comedy illusions including one where Maskelyne and Cooke were transformed into a woman and a gorilla.  After several successful local performances, they decided to become professional magicians and went on tour.  They expanded their routine and eventually became famous and highly successful and performed across the country.  Maskelyne would often perform short plays and do illusions as part of the act on stage. Their tours included a tenure at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly which started in 1873 and would continue until the Hall closure in 1905.

   After the death of George Alfred Cooke in 1905, Maskelyne made David Devant his new partner. Devant started working for Maskelyne in 1893 at the Egyptian Hall, working as a conjurer as well as a creator of illusions until he and went out on his own creating his own show. After Devant came back in 1905, he came now with street experience and new insights on manufacturing magic tricks, and along with Maskelyne created many of their best illusions.

  Many of Maskelyne illusions are still performed today. Probably the most famous of these illusions is Levitation. Harry Kellar was also known for this illusion and claimed that he was the inventor though in truth Kellar had bribed one of Maskelyne’s technical assistants, Paul Veladon, and stole the illusion. 

  When Maskelyne first witnessed the Davenports’ Spirit Cabinet illusion, he was driven to expose fraudulent spiritualists and mediums who took advantage of other people.   In 1876, Maskelyne was called as an expert witness for the prosecution in the matter of Henry Slade, a medium who was being tried for fraud. Like Houdini, Maskelyne brought his magic skills to unmask those who claimed supernatural powers and would continue with this for the rest of his life.   In 1891 he and Psychiatrist Lionel Weatherly published a book called The Supernatural?  This book offered logical explanations to spiritualistic practices, the occult and supernatural phenomena. 

   Even though Maskelyne left this world in 1917, he left a huge mark on the magic community. Not only was he a master of illusion but his work with cards was phenomenal. In 1894, he published Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of The Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. This book would be the bible for card workers for years and included an excellent chapter on an apparatus known as a “holdout” which is the main reason magicians had to show that there was “nothing up their sleeve”. It is a fascinating book and I recommend it to all magicians who do card magic.

  Maskelyne was also an influence on his son and grandson who both became stage magicians. Jasper Maskelyne, his grandson, has been credited for creating large-scale deceptions and camouflage to aid the British government in their fight against the Germans during World War II.   

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Remembering the TItanic

I had to take a break on my Victorian magician posts so I can talk about something near and dear to my heart, the sinking of the Titanic, which happened 111 years ago today. Almost everyone knows the story of the Titanic, the largest streamliner of its time, carried almost 2,225 passengers and sinking in the North Atlantic, leaving nearly 1,500 dead. I wonder what it would have been like to be on that fatal cruise. Most of us would ask for a quick death, or at least a painless one, but the Angel of Mercy was nowhere to be found. Crew and passengers struggling to decide who will leave the sinking ship in the lifeboats, shortly after the iceberg struck the ship (approximately 11:40 ship’s time on April 14th) and the eventual sinking about 2:20 am. Three hours. Three hours to decide who will live and who will die. 

When John Jacob Astor IV was travelling with his wife, and seeing the mayhem that was surrounding him, he quietly helped his wife, her nurse and maid into a lifeboat. When he was told by a Titanic crew member that he should join them because she was in a “delicate condition” he declined, saying that no man will leave the boat until all the women and children are off first. He later was said to have asked the lifeboat number so that he could find them later. There would be no later. John Jacob Astor IV was found floating dead in the water days later and was taken aboard the Mackay-Bennet on April the 22nd. 

In this small article I have noted only one of the countless heroic acts that happened in the early morning hours on April 15, 1912. I have in my possession an interesting artifact, an original copy of the Wreck Commissioners report of the bodies of the crew and passengers that were recovered by the Mackay-Bennet. This is the listing for Astor:


CLOTHING – Blue serge suit; blue handkerchief with "A.V."; belt with gold buckle; brown boots with red rubber soles; brown flannel shirt; "J.J.A." on back of collar.

EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten-franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook.


When we read about those who passed with during the Titanic sinking, we usually call them victims, but so many of them they are heroes. They died so many others may live. 

You want to know what is most heartbreaking about this disaster…the lifeboats were only 60% full.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Story behind the Legend…

Almost everyone knows of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Most of my readers have watched a movie or two including Tim Burton’s version and of course the Disney cartoon. Irving’s famous story led him to acclaim both in Europe as well as America, but what about the man behind the story and what led him to create one of the best pieces of fiction in early American history. 

Irving grew up in Manhattan, New York, one of 8 children in the household. Washington was named after the famous general George Washington. Irving met George Washington himself at the age of 6 when Washington was inaugurated in 1789. They say that the President laid a hand on the head of young Washington and blessed him, an incident that must come across as more of a prophecy instead of a chance meeting. Young Washington was meant for greatness. 

An outbreak of yellow fever in Manhattan in 1798 gave the Irving Family a reason to go stay with family friends in Tarrytown. It is during this time that young Washington heard of a nearby town named Sleepy Hollow, which was known for its large Dutch community, and their ghost stories. He also visited with friends in Johnstown, New York and on the journey to Johnstown he will cross the Catskill Mountains, which will also affect him and will be instrumental in Irving’s writing. 

Irving started his writing career in 1802 at the age of 19. He started by writing letters that were published in the New York Morning Chronicle under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle. He wrote letters about the social style of New York as well as the theater scene. This makes me think of Lady Whisteldown in Bridgeton. By 1804 he traveled throughout Europe and by 1806 he traveled back to America in hopes of becoming a lawyer. When he was in law school, he began hanging out with a group that called themselves “The Lads of Kilkenny “, a literary movement that published a magazine named Salmagundi. The magazine was an instant success gaining Irving accolades for his writing. It was in Salmagundi that Irving gave New York the nickname of “Gotham”, such as Gotham city in Batman. Gotham is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town”.

By 1809 Irving completed A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. This was his first major book and was a lampoon on New York politics and local history. This gave him the limelight and other publishing firms started to take notice of him. He became one of the first editors that would publish Francis Scott Key’s poem "Defense of Fort McHenry" which we know today as the Star-Spangled Banner. Irving joined the war in 1814 when British troops attacked Washington D.C. The war crippled his family’s merchant business and in 1815 he traveled to Europe in hopes of keeping the family business alive. What he thought would be a quick jaunt became 17 years. 

In 1817, Irving visited the man who became an inspiration for all his future writing, Sir Walter Scott. In 1819 he started publishing The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent which would be published in New York under a seven-volume series. In the first volume Irving recalled the Catskills Mountains of his youth and published “Rip Van Winkle”, a story that he wrote in one night. Within the six volumes would be his most prolific piece, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a great story to tell around Halloween. It has all the trappings of a good gothic ghost story. A protagonist who is out of his element, a town that has a secret and an antagonist who may not be what he seems. And with all of that, enough history to make it believable. Irving remembered his trip to Tarrytown, the nearby Sleepy Hollow and the old Dutch community. And with that, he started to write. The greatest inspiration for the story itself, comes from Sir Walter Scott in a poem he wrote called The Chase, in 1796, which was a translation of The Wild Huntsman which is a translation of a German poem by Gottfried Bürger. The poem is about a wicked hunter that is hunted by the devil himself and the poem is believed to have been part of the inspiration for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The legend of a headless horseman is not new. Tales of a headless specter on horseback can be seen in multiple legends, including Nordic and Irish. The Dullahan is a mythological figure out of Ireland. This headless ghost is seen on a black horse, sometimes carrying his own head up high or sometimes  the head is tucked under the arm. The Dullahan is also seen as a headless coachman driving a hearse to collect the dead. 

Irving also drew elements from the Revolutionary War for Sleepy Hollow.  The revolutionary war was recent history and familiar to the people living in America at the time.   He painted the picture of the desolate landscape from The Battle of White Plains which occurred in October, 1776. Irving writes about the area south of the Bronx River where Loyalist Rangers and Hessian Jägers were said to have patrolled, and the headless horseman is one of the Jägers that was killed and beheaded by Continental militias. In the Legend of Sleepy Hollow this headless corpse was recovered by the Van Tassel family and buried in an unmarked grave. As Irving wrote it:

“Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper, having been buried in the church-yard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head; and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the church-yard before daybreak.”

Ichabod Crane’s ride as he tries to evade the headless horseman is open to interpretation, was the headless horseman indeed a spirit or was it Brom Bones in disguise?  After the horseman hurled his pumpkin towards Ichabod, no one knew of the fate of the schoolmaster. Gunpowder, his loyal steed, was seen eating grass near his master’s house. Ichabod’s hat, and the smashed Jack-o'-lantern, were seen nearby. But what became of Ichabod? Was he scared away by headless spirit or was he spirited away by paranormal forces at work? Either way, without Ichabod Crane, Brom marries Katrin Van Tassel and they will live out the rest of their days forever. 

Along with the Turning of The Screw, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, ends ambiguously. Both of these stories are ghost stories that may or not be filled with ghosts. Washington Irving’s story is both gothic and American. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, along with Rip Van Winkle, will make Irving a legend in literature alongside other greats of the time period including Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

Friday, December 9, 2022

A Goodnight for a Ghost Story

“The story has held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should be essentially be…” 

Not the words of horror maestro Stephen King, or perhaps from the legendary Peter Straub, who unfortunately passed away last year. But another genius who was not recognize in his own time, Henry James. 

James was known for such works as ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, and ‘the Wings of the Dove’ , he perfectly captured a time when ~ on Christmas eve there were no presents in sight and no merriment to be had, instead it was time for a ghost story.  

Acknowledged for his literary modernism, penned the novel The Turn of the Screw’ in 1898. In his later years, James wrote what motivated him to create such a story, and it was none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson. James wrote in a letter to A.C. Benson, son of Edward “Your Father repeated to me the few meager elements of a small and gruesome spectral story that had been told him years before and that he could only give the dimmest account of.” 

The telling of a ghost story one Christmas Eve became one of the classic ghost stories of the Victorian Age, of all time actually.

The strange fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, wrote his Christmas time horror story ‘The Festival’. In the story, a young man returns to his hometown seeking his birthright, and terrible fates await him. Lovecraft, set the scene, as only Lovecraft could do:

“It was the Yuletide that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.”

As Lovecraft’s protagonist makes his way through the ‘shallow, new-fallen snow’ … did the young man walk there, did he take a bus or a train? Lovecraft never said, but that is not important...

The town of Kingport, a fictional town, was inhabited only in Lovecraft’s mind, like Derry in King’s imagination. The town itself becomes a minor character in the story:

 “Beside the road at its crest a still higher summit rose, bleak and windswept, and I saw that it was a burying-ground where black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse. The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.”

In ‘The Festival’ there is an encounter by firelight that changes everything. 

All the world is familiar with Charles Dickens immortal classic ‘A Christmas Carol’. In the story, the central character Ebinezeer Scrooge is visited by three specters, although Dickens used the word “haunted” by these apparitions, which is nearer to the truth. 

As the ghost’s paint pictures of Scrooge’s life in the past, present, and the future, he is struck by certain dread. In the final haunting, Scrooge witnesses the last of the spirits that is pointing to a lonely site: 

“A churchyard. Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place! The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.” 

In this tale, Scrooge makes amends saying:

"Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe, "hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?"

Scrooge avoids his fate, a desolate early grave.

A Christmas Carol is one of the most ghostly tales you can tell at Christmas that has a happy ending. 

But there is no happy ending for The Turn of the Screw’:

“ … the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him-- it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

Happy Christmas everyone …. Time for a good ghost story.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Spiritualism and Feminism

For the past few months, it has been my pleasure to be giving nighttime tours by lantern light at the beautiful Villa Montezuma in San Diego, CA.  At the end of the tour, we gather in the music room and I give a talk on what is Spiritualism. One of the points that I try to make is the importance of the women’s movement and Spiritualism and how they went hand-in-hand with each other during the Victorian time period into the 20th Century. The Fox sisters and their famous spirit communication in Hydesville, NY in 1848 will start a movement that is still going on today. Their alleged rappings from a spirit caused a sensation and people from all over came to witness them in action. This would only be the beginning.

Starting in the mid nineteenth century, sentiments were changing about mainstream religion and places such as upstate New York became an epicenter for alternative spirituality. Groups such as radical quakers, who believed that all were equal despite race or gender started to embrace facets of Spiritualism and these ideals will carry into other circles. 

As Spiritualism grew, women took to the forefront of the movement and séance circles and Spiritualism churches started to grow. Abolitionist and social activist Sojourner Truth, herself a freed slave, will embrace Spiritualism and will be the leader of a Quaker community known as Harmonia in 1857. Truth will be a great orator for the equality of both African Americans and Women’s rights during the mid to late 19th Century. The Civil War only made Spiritualism more attractive to many after the carnage of the war left great scars upon America. When Willie, the favorite son of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, passed away from typhoid in 1862, Mary started to hold seances in The White House in hopes of communicating with their son.

One of the most fascinating and controversial women of the movement was Victoria Woodhull. Woodhull was a sideshow clairvoyant and through her oration skills and her business savvy, became the owner of the first woman-owned stock brokerage house as well as the first publishing house. Woodhull also ran for President of the United States in 1872. Her running mate was Frederick Douglass. Though this presidential run was more of a publicity stunt than an honest run for the White House, Woodhull held center stage in both Spiritualism camps and American politics. 

So, why are these women lost in obscurity? The answer may be found in the records of Spiritualism themselves. The Spiritualist movement had no leader and no true tenets or testaments of faith. There is no roster of followers and so there is no true number of how many followed this alternative spiritual movement. People interested in the history of the feminist movement may be familiar with Sojourner Truth and Victoria Woodhull but so many more are lost in the annals of time; the small voices that had a roar in the circle of Spiritualism and women’s rights.