Spiritualism and the Performing Arts in Early to Mid-19th Century America

Overview of Spiritualism
An illustration of a 19th Century sceance circle.

Antebellum America marked an era of economic, industrial, and population growth. This was an age where formerly religious middle-class Protestants were swallowed by competition and the market, instilling in them a sense of insecurity and depriving them of a sense of order. Patriotism was replaced with materialism, and God was replaced with Self. Meanwhile, the last grasp with the Revolutionary generation and republican values were fading; the death of John Quincy Adams in 1848 marked the loss of the last of the founding fathers.
In America's free fall into oblivion, it desperately struggled to grab hold of anything that would bring back a sense of security and order. For those that were not claimed by the jaws of the Second Great Awakening, there was Spiritualism.
Spiritualism is defined by Webster's New American Dictionary as "a belief that spirits of the dead communicate with the living, usually through a medium."
Practicers of this belief are known as Spiritualists. Brent E. Carroll, author of Spiritualism in Antebellum America, describes Spiritualists, especially those of the American variety, as "rational people in search of a religion that answered their religious questions and spiritual needs."
Its emergence in the United States began in the late 1700's and found its niche in society by the 1840's to 1860's. In its heyday, spiritualism had thousands to tens of thousands of believers spread throughout the United States. To little surprise, it also became one of the most profitable businesses for those that excelled in exploiting it.

Andrew Jackson Davis

It started with a few key figures. The trusted and esteemed 18th Century Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg made a convergence to Spiritualism in the mid 1740s, claiming that he could, "in a state of perfect wakefulness, converse with the angels and spirits." in 1847, Andrew Jackson Davis claimed Swedenborg as his "spiritual guide," and in 1857, he wrote about his experience in his autobiography The Magic Staff. This book highlighted many of what he thought the best ideas were of the Shaker religion, Confucianism, and Christianity. He described himself as a "sickly and untalented" person, one that found guidance through the spirit world. The idea of an all-knowing guide with whom direct communication was possible excited many of the lost and insecure Americans.
The movement caught on especially quick with the Quakers, who had always embraced the idea of a spirit world. Carroll called the Quakers the "John the Baptists" or Spiritualism. In a way, the fact that a respected religion recognized spirituality made it okay and "normal" for other people groups and religions to embrace (thesaurus) the "Swedenborgian Order," as Davis called it. It was especially the Rochester Quakers of New York that transformed Rochester into the first hot-spot of Modern Spiritualism. The December 23, 1873 edition of the New York Times said of the city, "what is known as modern spiritualism may be said to have had its chief start in that historic city." From Rochester, it spread into New York City, then New England, and for a brief period before it faded, the rest of America.
Spiritualism sparked the transformation of religions, such as that of Quakerism to Animalism, or Universalism to Cosmology. It also sparked pivotal and enduring movements, such as Mormonism and women's suffrage. But above all, the movement sparked curiosity. With more and more people claiming to hear "rappings" or talk to their deceased grandfather, all the more people wanted to fulfill their inquisitive and skeptic desires and believe that there was, indeed, a force at work in America. This curiosity of the surreal is what made its way into the performing arts. This was the money maker.

The Fox Sisters

Kate Fox receives an answer to her rappings.

The match that ignited the fuel of spiritualism spread by the Quakers and Swedenborgians was the "Rochester Rappings." It began in the home of John D. Fox, in Hydesville, Wayne County, New York in March 1848. Maggie and Kate Fox were only 12 and 9 years old, respectively, when they first heard the knockings on the walls of their home as they tried to sleep. The knockings became incessant, denying the family of sleep. The sisters found quickly, though, that they could communicate with the spirit. Said the mother, Mrs. Fox:
"I then asked if it was a human being that was making the noises? and if it was, to manifest it by two sounds. I heard two sounds as soon as the words were spoken...When I asked how old it was? it rapped 31 times; that it was a male; that it had left a family of five children..." The Hydesville house became a tourist attraction, and today it is known as the first haunted house.
The Foxes , however, grew weary of the "incessant stream of oglers and curiosity seekers" and "investigative committees." They thought they might escape the rappings by moving to Rochester. Incredibly, the knockings followed them. 34 year old sister Leah Fish heard about the hullabaloo surrounding her family, and she quickly found them. She moved them to her home, and again, the rappings followed. This time, however, the activity of the spirit became more extreme. Leah wrote in her autobiography that the table would sometimes elevate a few inches, and they would often here the mysterious
Leah Fox
sound of liquid running.

The ambitious older sister began to organize seances, where the curious or skeptic passerby might be able to experience the Rochester Rappings. If they were lucky, the table might even rise or they might be touched by the spirit. Although Leah claimed to never charge admission, she would collect donations. Was the family now

benefiting from their situation?
Among the curious passersby were the occasional cynics. Famed skeptic E.W. Capron performed a series of tests on Kate, and was apparently blown away by the
Maggie Fox
results, claiming to believe their tale to the fullest. In November 1849, with the help of Capron, the sisters upgraded the small house seances to public demonstrations. According to the New York Times, "within a few months Spiritualism had thousands of converts and was an established faith."
Kate Fox
Obviously, the money kept on coming in, and it is not doubtful that Capron saw a share of that wealth...Maggie and Kate rose to professional popularity and national recognition, eventually becoming a household name. Newspapers both praised and doubted the sisters, ever-increasing their audience. Church attendance dwindled as their audience grew. The poor victims of a haunting somehow managed to benefit from the rappings, and, wrote the New York Times, "were enabled to visit the principal cities in the country, [drawing] a considerable amount of gold into their purses." They were truly the first to have turned the spiritual into a performing art.
All good things, however, must come to an end. After a thorough examination, doctors from the School of Medicine of the University of Buffalo offered this scientific explanation for the rappings:
"The displacement occasioning the knockings is sufficient to remove the ridge of bone which divides the two articular surfaces of the upper extremities of the tibia from its situation in the sulcus between condyles of the femur and to carry it, more or less, upon the surface of the outer condyle. This movement gives rise to the first sound, and the return of the bone to its place causes the second sound, which, in the Rochester knockings generally follows quickly on the first."

Maggie admitted/paraphrased, "...my sister Kate was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers she could produce certain noises with her knuckles and joints, and that the same effect could be made with her toes." Their falsehood and their fame was eventually eclipsed by the sudden random explosion of others claiming to be mediums, and the two sisters abandoned mediumship in 1866. Kate disappeared, and Maggie died a penniless alcoholic. The two, though, will always be remembered as the pioneers of profitable spiritualism in America.

The Davenport Brothers

After the Fox Sisters, stage -medium performances became more elaborate. The goal was not just to make the "spirits" apparent to the audience, but to make them able to perform acts that were seemingly impossible to man. The Davenport Brothers were the frontier-settlers of extreme stage mediumship.
The brothers took their start in Buffalo, New York. After the claims of the Fox Sisters to hearing bumps in the night, the brothers joined the ranks of those also claiming similar occurrences. Heavy pounding and shifting of furniture was the usual, but the Davenport brothers, Ira Erastus and William Henry, added apparitions and voices to their list of supernatural occurrences. The children were even known to be levitated several feet in the air and suspended for several minutes.
They made themselves public in 1856, almost a decade after the Fox Sisters had done so. They started, like most others that excelled in their profession, with street performances, making their way to small venues, and eventually touring the country and parts of Europe.
Ira and William, however, rose to prominence especially fast with their invention and perfection of the "cabinet" seance. The brothers' arms and legs were secured with rope, their arms bound to each others by a metal rod between their legs. They were restrained to a bench and placed in a large wooden cabinet. The lights would dim and the crowd would fall silent. From here,
The Davenport Brothers in their Cabinet
they would vary their act. Sometimes, the brothers would reappear when the cabinet was opened, still bound, but wearing the other brother's jacket. Other times, they would come out of the closet completely free, and then return into the cabinet and somehow be bound again. Other times still, musical instruments would be placed in the box, and when the cabinet was shut, coherent music would be heard. When the cabinet was reopened, the brothers would still be bound. All the while, the brothers claimed that the tricks were not tricks at all, but the work of spirits.
Like the Fox Sisters, the Davenport Brothers made quite a living with their staple act. They were a significant inspiration to many latter day magicians and escape artists, including the infamous Houdini. They visited every corner of the country and many parts of Europe, bringing the performing art of spiritualism to the next level wherever they went.
Unfortunately, also like the Fox Sisters, the brothers were exposed. Many cynics, including the great John Henry Anderson and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, worked to uncover the fact that Ira and William were not mediums at all, but in fact, savvy, shrewd business men. The mask was lifted during their European tour in Liverpool, England. Labeled "the Davenport Fiasco" by the New York Times, news of the brothers' trickery spread quickly through the United States. The Times also described in detail the process by which the brothers escaped the clutches of the ropes:
"A straight stick is passed under the knees of the two brothers, their bodies are bent forward, and their arms passed around and under the stick, and in this position they are so firmly tied as to admit of no movement whatever...M. DUCHENIER approached one of them, and pushing on the middle of the stick between the knees the stick bent, the cords dropped off, and one of the Davenports was free to commence his exercises. The whole secret of the amazing spirit-world performances of these princes of mediums lies therefore in the concealed hinge in the middle of the straight stick which holds the cords! They could loosen and bind themselves as fast as they pleased, and loose, and...could perform easily every trick for which they have become famous, and with which they have gained in America and England a fortune!" Even in their spiritual nakedness, the Davenport Brothers maintained a strong following of devotees until William died in 1877. Their ideas and tricks lived on, however, especially through Harry Houdini, who accredited the brothers whenever he performed the cabinet trick. Unlike the brothers, however, Houdini never made any claims to spirit-work, admitting that everything he did was merely a trick.

John Henry Anderson
The Wizard of the North

Of the performers that profited from the spiritual movement, there were those that exploited it and those that worked to debunk it. Professor John Henry Anderson belonged in the latter class. In fact, he was one of the main factors in exposing the truth behind the Davenport Brothers. A product of the European Industrial Revolution, Professor Anderson emerged from Aberdeenshire, Scotland as one mindful and masterful of modern machinery. Never did he claim to involve the handiwork of spirits, rather, he made it clear that all of his tricks were merely that: tricks. He did, however, lay claim to the miracle of science; this is partially what drew his crowd.
Anderson began the art of trickery at a very early age. His first trick, according to his obituary in the New York Times, was that of "making pudding in a hat." His first public appearance as a "wizard" was in 1830 with his traveling company in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. His success was almost immediate, and he quickly became known as "The Wizard of the North."
Like most significant things of that day, the Industrial Revolution began in Europe and made its way to America. With it was brought a wave of extraordinary stage wizards; Professor Anderson being one of the greatest. He made his premier in America in the year of 1851, opening at the Broadway Theatre in New York. His intricate yet hidden machinery amassed a crowd of both cynics and proponents of spiritualism, as well as those in search of genuine entertainment. In the process, he also managed to amass "a very considerable fortune."
The curiosity of the crowd was cultivated, oddly, by the Wizard's unique accent. Said the March 26, 1861 edition of the New York Times:
"Of Wizards who speak the English language we have but few, and their abilities, as a general thing, are third-rate. Professor ANDERSON, happily, cannot be accused of making more use of the English language than he can possibly help, and for this reason, perhaps, he is decidedly preferable to the ordinary run of performers. Conjurers have always been famous for having a jargon of their own. Prof. ANDERSON's is a little more pompous than usual, but it has the true ring of the showman."Whatever the primary reason was for his great success in his several tours of America, he would not have made it very far without the aide of the spiritualistic movement. The trend had laid the foundation for intrigue in the performing arts, especially those performances dealing with magic and mystery. The Wizard of the North and many others saw the potential and took full advantage of their skills.

Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin

"A magician is an actor playing the role of a magician." ~Robert-Houdin


Like John Henry Anderson, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin was one who worked to expose false mediums and magicians. But by his definition, Robert-Houdin was as legitimate a magician as they come. In fact, he bore the defining image of a magician, complete with coat tails and magic wand.
Also like Anderson, Robert-Houdin utilized mechanical contraptions in his illusions. Before he turned to the art of trickery, the conjurer had much experience in tampering with mechanical devices and inventing. He was born on December 6, 1805 in Blois, France, to a housewife and a watchmaker. His father taught him how to assemble not only watches, but most things mechanical of that day. According to Robert-Houdin's memoirs, his father's "nature had adapted him for various branches of mechanics and the activity of his mind led him to try them all with equal ardor." Robert-Houdin also had an experience in boarding school to invent trinkets for school productions, such as plays.
His first public performance of slight-of-hand was before a crowded performance hall; one that included the king and his family. Unfortunately, the performance was a disaster, as he was sabotaged and embarrassed by Pinetti, a rival magician. Robert-Houdin did not give up, however, and he rose to prominence rather quickly after recovering from that night. In 1856, Napolean III sent him to Algeria where he "confounded the native magicians who were trying to undermine the authority of the French by beating them at their own tricks" (NY Times, July 4, 1871).
In his many frequent visits to America, he became a legend as much here as he did on the other side of the Atlantic. The New York Times called him "the most celebrated conjurer of his day." He perfected the levitation trick, and his most famous act was summoning oranges from a tree at the command of the crowd.
Although he himself acquired much wealth in America, he devastated the economic intake of the other magicians of his day, especially those that made claims to the spirit world. As ardently as he aspired to succeed in his own business, he sought to tear down those making false claims of spirituality. As people came to see him perform the same tricks that the spiritualists performed, and even outdo them, all the while laying no claims to spirituality. Robert-Houdin would "crash" seances, observe the mediums, and call them out on their tricks. At one particular popular medium's seance that Robert-Houdin attended, his friend author Charles Dickens tagged along. Dickens later penned,
"everything the medium did was promptly outdone by Houdin, who really out-spirited the spiritualist." If it were not for Robert-Houdin's visits to America, the performing arts of conjuring might have taken a different path in the American memory, one probably leaning more towards spiritualism.

Robert-Houdin performing his levitation illusion.

Explanation of the levitation illusion.


Popular Other Answers
Do you believe in any sort of living force acting upon and influencing human beings besides what is physically seen or scientifically accepted?

Have you heard of Robert-Houdin?
You mean Houdini?: 10%
Do you believe any mediums or magicians hold any credibility in their claims in dealing with the spirit world?
Do Harry Potter or Dumbledore count?: 5%
Have you ever seen a stage magician perform?

Have you ever payed somebody claiming to be spiritually involved to tell you your fortune?

*Questions asked of 22 students via online survey.

The NY Times account of the Rochester Rappings
right, a modern illustration of the uses of mechanics in 19th century illusionry, the image of a magician as embedded into the brain of America by the magicians of the 19th century, and the use of sabbotage between rival magicians.


Spiritualism in the early and mid-19th century provided Americans with a distraction from their depressing state of apathy. It came and went without leaving an obvious imprint on American culture. It did, however, significantly impact the performing arts, bringing new ideas and charisma to the stage. When the falseness of many of the mediums and magicians was uncovered, however, many Americans lost their faith in not only spiritualism, but religion altogether. Even still, those claiming to be mediums still make their profession all over America, especially in the South.
The pioneers of magic and mediumship remain the biggest influence on modern day practices of such arts. The magicians of that time also remain the mental image that comes to most people's minds when they think of a magician. Coattails, top hats, and magic wands were all trademarks of John Henry Anderson and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. It is even attributed to Anderson the invention of the cliche of pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. The Fox Sisters, the Davenport Brothers, the Wizard of the North, and Robert-Houdin are always listed as inspirations for famous magicians of today, including David Copperfield, David Blaine, and Penn and Teller. The famed escape artist Harry Houdini even borrowed his last name from Robert-Houdin.
Fox Sisters established mediumship and fortune telling as a "feminine" practice in America. They also reinforced the ever-enduring theme of sexual appeal to the stage. Anthony Aveni, author of Behind the Crystal Ball, described Maggie as "vivacious if not a raving beauty" and Kate as "rather attractive and intellectual looking." They used their empowerment and sexual appeal, also, for the empowerment of women nationwide, turning their business into a cause. It could be argued that the Fox Sisters initiated the growing acceptance of women in the theatre.
In a way, the exploitation of spiritualism eventually turned the notion of spiritualism into a joke. The world "magic" became synonymous with "trickery," and while it did its job in reducing church attendance, most people eventually lost faith in anything relating to the supernatural. Following suit with every other fad that has ever existed, spiritualism faded into oblivion. The performing art aspect of it, however, still continues strong today. In fact, opportunities technology, television, and innovation have transformed it into even more of a commercially successful business. As seen in the poll above, it is also included in quite a substantial amount of literature, including Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Traces of spiritualism in the business industry will probably always be around.

Works Cited

"A NUT FOR SPIRITUALISTS." The New York Times 23 Dec. 1873: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 28 Mar. 2010.
"Amusements.." The New York Times 26 Mar. 1861: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.
"Amusements.." The New York Times 26 Apr. 1864: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 2 Apr. 2010.
Aveni, Anthony F.. Behind the Crystal Ball: Magic, Science, and the Occult from Antiquity Through the New Age. Revised ed. Boulder, Colorado: University Press Of Colorado, 1996. Print.
Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1983. Print.
Britten, Emma Hardinge. Modern American Spiritualism. A twenty years record of the communion between earth and the world of spirits. Elibron Classics ed. Felixstowe: The Author, 1870. Print.
Carroll, Brett. Spiritualism in Antebellum America (Religion in North America). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Print.
Houdin, R.. MEMOIRS of Robert - Houdin. 1st American Edition ed. London, England: George G. Evans, 1859. Print.
Merriam-Webster. Webster's New American Dictionary. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1995. Print.
"OBITUARY.; Jean Eugene Robert Houdin." The New York Times 4 July 1871: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 1 Apr. 2010.
"ONE OF THE FOX SISTERS DEAD.; SHE WAS FAMOUS YEARS AGO IN SPIRITUALISTS' CIRCLES." The New York Times 3 July 1892: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 1 Apr. 2010.
"Obituary: Prof. Anderson, "The Wizard"." The New York Times 5 Feb. 1874: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 28 Mar. 2010.
"One of the Fox Sisters Arrested." The New York Times 8 May 1888: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 1 Apr. 2010.
Podmore, Frank. Mediums of the 19th Century Vol. 1. New Hyde Park: University Books, 1963. Print.
"Robert-Houdin's Automata." The New York Times 27 Feb. 1876: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 1 Apr. 2010.
Robert-Houdin, Jean Eugene. MEMOIRS of Robert - Houdin. 1st American Edition ed. London, England: George G. Evans, 1859. Print.
"Spiritualism Unveiled.; THE DAVENPORTS TRICKS ILLUSTRATED BY MR. H. M. FAY.." The New York Times 17 Dec. 1865: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.
"THE ROCHESTER RAPPINGS.; THE FOX SISTERS AND THE BEGINNING OF SPIRITUALISM." The New York Times 18 Apr. 1886: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 1 Apr. 2010.
"The Black Art." The New York Times 26 Oct. 1857: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 28 Mar. 2010.
"The Davenport Fiasco Curious Denouement at a Public Seance How Their Tricks Were Discovered and Exposed." The New York Times 1 Oct. 1865: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 30 Mar. 2010.