Research and Recap: Madame Elaine and the Spiritualism Phenomenon

Serving some real history after
Tales from the Table!

What happens when Madame Elaine, spirit medium from the 19th century, throws a dinner party? Hopefully you got your answer during Tales from the Table: Dinner Theater at the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society…

… But if not, we hope your interest is piqued!

Our first-ever Research and Recap blog post is dedicated to our first-ever dinner theater.

Let’s start with the setting, shall we?

Madame Elaine’s Tent of Spiritual Enlightenment was based on 19th century traveling spirit mediums. Spiritualism was a common practice in the late-19th century. Most Americans had lost at least one family member during the Civil War. Practicing Spiritualism was an attempt to see their loved one had made it safely to the other side. Seances, planchettes, tarot cards, palm readings, and crystal balls were all in vogue.

 

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The first known use of the word spiritualism was in 1796. Noah Webster may have heard it, but it was not included in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language.

Madame Elaine was not a real person, but she was based in fact.

Karen Abbott cites the Fox sisters from Hydesville, New York, as the instigators of the spiritualism craze in a Smithsonian Magazine article, “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.” The three sisters claimed to have nightly experiences with spirits. It was a sort of call-and-response; the girls would ask a question, requesting the answer be delivered by a series of knocks, or “raps,” on walls, doors, tables, et cetera.

Their abilities seemed legitimate. Naturally, this terrified their mother. She wasted little time sending her daughters to stay with their aunt in Rochester, New York. Systematically, the Fox sisters shared their abilities with the Rochester community.

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The Fox sisters, from left to right: Leah, Kate and Maggie. From “Radical Spirits,” c/o Smithsonian Magazine.

At the time, Rochester served as a hub for social and religious reform movements. Rochester residents were enthralled when the sisters flaunted their abilities to bring forth spirits through knocks on walls, tables, and floorboards. They were soon sent from these reformers’ parlors to a nation-wide tour, selling their services for one dollar per session.

The success of the spiritualism movement is not just due to the persistence of later-proven frauds like the Fox sisters. The idea of contacting those in the beyond brought comfort to those who had lost their loved ones to war, migration, or disease. It was alluring; here were some answers to burning questions.

Were the deceased comfortable? Had they made it safely to the other side? What wisdom could they share with their living loved ones?

Spiritualist leaders and practitioners were primarily women. Only men could become ministers; ministers were outspoken on socio-political issues in the 19th-century. Female spirit mediums could communicate with those beyond the veil and bring messages of comfort to their communities.

Some saw the potential for profit in offering comfort. On March 30, 1904, The Hartford Courant advertised eight clairvoyants’ services: 

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Seriously. No fewer than eight clairvoyants advertised their services in The Hartford Courant on March 30, 1904. This isn’t even the peak!

Though it is quite possible these clairvoyants were honestly spirit mediums congregating in the progressive city of Hartford, Conn. with its famous, influential residents (Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Charles Dudley Warner, Samuel Colt… the list goes on), it is also possible some merely saw dollar signs circling their clientele. And clairvoyants tended to leave after relatively short stints in big cities, so it is possible their services were not genuine.

So, Madame Elaine was based on the idea of the transient clairvoyant. As she said in Tales from the Table, it’s a “perfectly respectable practice!”

 

TL;DR: Spiritualism allowed women to have a public voice during an era of tremendous change and political upheaval, but some mediums were less than sincere.

 

Next time we’ll dig into Henry Kalber’s story.

Yes, he was really a gravedigger in West Hartford.

No, it wasn’t as creepy as it might sound.

 

 

Wait, wait… here’s a sidebar tidbit with which you can impress your friends:

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Merriam-Webster is spouting tons of knowledge about Franz Mesmer, hypnotist whose fame came just a generation before the Fox sisters’, in their definition of mesmerize. And now you know!

Save that one for Trivia Night on March 30, 2017!