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spiritism (spiritualism )

Spiritism or spiritualism is the belief that the human personality survives death and can communicate with the living through a sensitive medium. The spiritualist movement began in 1848 in upstate New York with the Fox sisters who claimed that spirits communicated with them by rapping on tables. (The "raps" were actually made by cracking their toe joints.) By the time the sisters admitted their fraud some thirty years later, there were tens of thousands of mediums holding séances where spirits entertained with numerous magical tricks such as making sounds, materializing objects, making lights glow, levitating tables and moving objects across the room. The mediums demonstrated every variety of psychic power from clairvoyance and clairaudience to telekinesis and telepathy. Repeated charges of fraud did little to stop the spiritualist movement until the 1920's when magicians such as Houdini exposed the techniques and methods of deceit used by mediums to fool even the wisest and holiest of men and women.

The Hollywood version of séances is fairly accurate: people sitting around a table, holding hands in a darkened room, a faked trance by the medium who passes on to the group any information given by the spirit, often accompanied by tricks such as the levitating table, mysterious sounds, materializing objects, etc. For many, spiritualism was "scientific proof" of life after death, which didn't involve any of the superstitious non-sense of religion.

Spiritism was and is a worldwide phenomenon. In Italy, Eusapia Palladino was a star medium. In France, Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail was the main promoter of spiritualism. He wrote under the pseudonym of Allan Kardec and introduced the word 'spiritism'. In Germany, Anna Abend gained notoriety for swindling people in many nations. In Brazil, Chico Xavier amassed a large following, while claiming to get messages from the dead. James van Praagh, George Anderson, Sylvia Browne, Allison DuBois, and John Edward may think they have cornered the market on the dead, but these folks are tyros compared to Chico Xavier who died in in 2002 at the age of 92. Xavier published over 500 books of messages from the dead. Xavier sold 20 million copies of a book of poems he claimed were dictated to him by spirits. That was in 1932. When he died, his city and state declared three days of official mourning. According to Ronaldo Cordeiro (the Brazilian translator of the SD into Portuguese), letters from dead people allegedly channeled by Xavier were accepted by Brazilian courts as valid evidence in at least 2 murder trials.

Progress can be seen in the history of spiritism. In the beginning, such things as raps and taps had to be deciphered. Slates and talking boards with messages from the dead came next. As detection was inevitable with any of these cumbersome methods, it soon behooved the mediums to dispense with all such gadgetry and claim to get messages directly from the spirits. The messages would either be spoken, as in channeling, or written, as in automatic writing.

See also apport, Arthur Ford hoax, automatic writing, Camp Chesterfield, channeling, ectoplasm, ghost, Lily Dale, medium, Ouija board, séance, and A Short History of Psi Research by Robert Todd Carroll.

further reading

reader comments

books and articles

Brandon, Ruth. (1983). The Spiritualists. Knopf.

Jastrow, Joseph. 1935. Wish and Wisdom: Episodes in the Vagaries of Belief. (Published in 1962 by Dover Books as Error and Eccentricity in Human Belief).

Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits (New York: Harper, 1924).

Houdini, Harry. Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: a Complete Exposé (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981). * Free online!

Keene, M. Lamar. The Psychic Mafia (Prometheus, 1997).

Nickell, Joe. 2000. Spirit Painting Part I: The Campbell Brothers.

Nickell, Joe. 2002. Undercover among the spirits. Skeptical Inquirer. 26:2 (March/April), 22–25.

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

Rawcliffe, Donovan Hilton. Occult and Supernatural Phenomena(New York: Dover Publications, 1988).

Stein, Gordon. "Spiritualism," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Stollznow, Karen. 2009. "New Age Spiritualism: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For."

Tanner, Amy. Studies in Spiritism (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994).


Skeptiseum: Spiritualism

Spiritualism and Channeling - Rory Coker

Last updated December 23, 2013

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