Victorians were surrounded by death. Consumption, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, scarlet fever-illness and death were a regular part of life in Victorian times. Despite the hardships of death and the tightly-laced nature of a Victorian person’s life, death was fetishized to an interesting degree.
After the death of a loved one, a popular way of keeping them close was to enclose their hair in a locket and wear it. Sometimes jewelry would be made and worn out of a loved one’s hair.
Sometimes parents would have post-mortem photos of their recently deceased children, wearing clothes and surrounded by toys. (I’m not kidding. Look at this weirdness. Warning: some of these children are not alive.)
Although most people were very religious during this time, spiritualism took hold of Victorian England. Reading palms and tea leaves became popular past times. But for the grown ups looking for information beyond their own world, tea leaves weren’t quite enough.
Victorians began holding séances to communicate with the other side. It’s no surprise that the original Ouiji board was created in the late 1800s to help those looking to speak to restless spirits. Hundreds of mediums made their living by assisting in séances during this time.
Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism began in the 1880s and he attended several séances. Mary Todd Lincoln used séances to attempt to communicate with her deceased son and Abraham Lincoln would likely have attended. Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King used séances to get governing advice from his late mother, several deceased dogs, Wilfred Laurier and Leonardo da Vinci.
So, what exactly happens during a séance?
A group of people (usually three or more) sit in a circle, usually in a dark and quiet room at night, and attempt to contact a spirit. Some use a Ouiji board, some use a pendulum of some kind, centered on a table between the participants. An attendee usually starts with a short prayer, followed by yes or no questions.
The first mention of a séance can be found in a book about communicating with spirits, printed in 1760 but the activity didn’t gain popularity until the 1800s.
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If you want more spiritualism and séance goodness, check out my historical fiction novel, The Spirited Mrs. Pringle now available on paperback and at all major ebook retailers. (Audiobook coming soon.)