Waking the Witch: The Feminist History of Spiritualism

This piece is an excerpt from WAKING THE WITCH: Reflections on Women, Magic and Power by Pam Grossman. Copyright © 2019 by Pam Grossman. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

In 1848, the adolescent sisters Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York, made quite a commotion when they told people of the strange rapping sounds they heard throughout their house. In the ensuing months, they began to communicate with “Mr. Splitfoot,” the devilish name they gave to the spirit that they said was the source of the knocking.

According to the girls, this entity later identified himself as the ghost of one Mr. Charles B. Rosna, and he told them that he had been murdered and buried in their cellar five years prior. Alarmed neighbors came to dig beneath the house. When they found some pieces of bone, an investigation commenced and a local man was arrested for the alleged murder. Word spread of the shocking incident, and soon the Fox farm was overrun by people who wanted to meet the girls who talked to the dead. Amid the hubbub, 11-year-old Kate and fourteen-year-old Margaret were collected by their 33-year-old sister, Leah, to come live with her in Rochester. But they could not escape the rumors of their revenant-canoodling.

The girls confessed to Leah that the whole thing had been a hoax (though they would later recant). Rather than blow their cover, Leah smelled opportunity. She began having them hold paid séances and appointed herself the “interpreter” of the rappings. Their reputations quickly grew, and they attracted both the interest of curious paying visitors and the scorn of local clergy, who called them heretics and witches. Demand for their services began coming from far and wide, and soon they were traveling to places like New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to demonstrate their miraculous mediumship.

Wellcome Library, London. (Wellcome Images)

Large crowds of believers and skeptics alike came to see the supernatural sisters. But their impact was to be much larger than they ever imagined. The craze for having heart-to-hearts with the disembodied began to take hold.

The time was ripe for it. Certainly people had long attempted to speak to the dead. But mid-nineteenth-century America was a hotbed of alternative spirituality, especially throughout what came to be called the Burned-Over District of upstate New York. Some groups sought to reject the Calvinist idea that all souls were damned from the start, and that only the most pious people could be saved. A faction of radical Quakers was particularly invested in the idea that all human beings were equal regardless of race or gender—a sentiment that was beginning to catch on in more open-minded circles.

Communication with the other side seemed to confirm that bodies were mere shells and that the spirit was what truly mattered. People throughout the U.S. and Europe began holding séances in their parlors and using methods such as trance, automatic writing and, eventually, spirit photography to try to make contact with their dearly departed. (These Spiritualist practices would then spread to Latin countries under the name Spiritism or espiritismo, largely due to the books of a Frenchman who wrote under the name Allan Kardec, though it’s important to note that his ideas were incorporated into already existing practices of ancestor worship in these regions.)

Spiritualism was a social phenomenon. Because it was informally organized with no single governing body, estimates of the number of Spiritualists during its peak in the 1850s and 1860s vary widely, from 45,000 to 11 million in the U.S. alone. But what is clear is that it was driven in large part by women.

During this period, high death rates of young children and Civil War soldiers alike cast many mothers and wives into a state of perpetual bereavement. Grief became more public, thanks in part to Queen Victoria, who famously wore black during the 40 years after her husband, Albert, passed away in 1861. When Willie, the favorite son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, died of typhoid fever in 1862, Mary began holding séances in the White House to contact him. Spiritualism offered comfort to the living, and consolation that their beloved family members were still with them and able to be reached, heard from and seen in ghostly photographs.

Not only were many women followers of this faith—they were the leaders of it. The majority of mediums were female, and largely due to this fact, Spiritualism was a profoundly unique and socially progressive movement. As Ann Braude states in her landmark book Radical Spirits: “In mediumship, women’s religious leadership became normative for the first time in American history.”

Spirit mediumship became one of a very small set of professions available to women. It gave them the ability to make money and have public influence, no matter their economic background. Unlike in the Church, one did not have to be ordained to be a medium, one merely had to have “the gift.”

On its surface, Spiritualism also didn’t present a huge threat to the patriarchy, because the very features possessed by the so-called weaker sex—nervousness, heightened sensitivity and a delicate constitution—were what supposedly made them the best candidates for mediumship in the first place. Furthermore, as passive channels, mediums were not responsible for the words that flowed through them. It was often remarked that their spiritual transmissions came in the form of unhalting, eloquent speeches. The vocabulary and delivery that were used in trance were considered far too sophisticated to possibly have come directly from the medium herself.

Regardless of who authored the utterances, these ghost-hosting women found themselves in the rarefied position of getting to transmit meaningful messages to large groups of people. Because of this, Spiritualism was deeply interlaced with various social justice movements, from abolitionism to children’s rights to feminism. Braude writes, “Spiritualism became a major—if not the major—vehicle for the spread of women’s rights ideas in mid-nineteenth-century America. . . . While not all feminisists were Spiritualists, all Spiritualists advocated woman’s rights.”

Large Spiritualist gatherings became one of the primary ways that these radical ideas got disseminated, both through the mediums who would deliver messages from the spirit world about the importance of the liberation of all people, and via the conversation among mingling spectators. Likewise, Spiritualists would sometimes speak at women’s rights gatherings. Though it’s often left out of the history books, the significant overlap in the Venn diagram of Spiritualists, abolitionists and suffragists was a critical component of such revolutionary American milestones as the outlawing of slavery and the legalization of women’s right to vote.

Some of the biggest names in equal rights reform brushed up against Spiritualism, if they weren’t adherents themselves. The parlor table where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott drafted their Declaration of Sentiments for the Seneca Falls Convention had also reportedly received raps from the spirits. (It belonged to two radical Quakers and Spiritualists-to-be, Thomas and Mary Ann McClintock.)

Susan B. Anthony was agnostic about Spiritualism, but she did write the following to Stanton in 1855: “Oh, dear, dear! If the spirits would only just make me a trance medium and put the right thing into my mouth. . . . You can’t think how earnestly I have prayed to be made a speaking medium for a whole week. If they would only come to me thus, I’d give them a hearty welcome.” Despite her reputation for being a strong orator, Anthony was nervous about public speaking, and she envied the mediums’ ability to let words pour out of them extemporaneously. She would later go on to speak at the Spiritualist community of Lily Dale in the summers of the 1890s during their annual Woman’s Suffrage Day, as did many other women’s rights luminaries, including birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.

When abolitionist and social justice activist Sojourner Truth first encountered Spiritualism, she was skeptical. In 1851, when she attended her first séance in Rochester, New York, she reportedly brought her signature irreverence to the experience, calling out, “Come spirit, hop up here on the table, and see if you can’t make a louder noise.” But she came to embrace Spiritualism, eventually moving herself and her family to a Michigan Quaker-Spiritualist community called Harmonia in 1857. She was attracted to this group for their values of open-mindedness, pacifism and inclusivity, if not their proclivities for interaction with the afterlife.

However, Nell Irvin Painter writes that with time she did “. . . grow less suspicious of spirits, even coming to see her father’s spirit as a protector.” When Harmonia began to falter a few years later, she chose to stay in the area, moving to nearby Battle Creek, where she lived the last sixteen years of her life.

Victoria Woodhull was a medium and carnival show clairvoyant, and she contended that spirits protected and guided her throughout her life. Perhaps it was their support that allowed her to achieve so many firsts: she started the first woman-owned Wall Street brokerage house with her sister, founded the first woman-owned newspaper in the U.S. and was the first woman to address a Congressional committee when she petitioned them to give women the right to vote. But she is perhaps best known as America’s first woman to run for president, which she did under the Cosmo-Political Party in 1872. She chose Frederick Douglass as her running mate, though this was more of a symbolic act than anything else, as by all accounts he didn’t know about it until after it was announced. Her championing of free love, her beliefs that marriage was institutionalized slavery and that sex should always be consensual, her insistence that women wear less restrictive clothing and her support of paid sex work were just a few of the “far-out” views that earned her the sobriquet Mrs. Satan. (Her track record of various dubious practices in both the spiritual and political arenas probably helped too.)

Suffragettes and socialists alike would come to renounce Woodhull, considering her too controversial and attention-hungry, but the American Association of Spiritualists continued to  support her until its demise in 1875. She was a complicated, even contradictory individual: she was anti-abortion, and when she got older she would rail against promiscuity and expose certain Spiritualists as frauds. But the fact remains that she was a pioneer in so many areas of women’s liberation and light-years ahead of her time. Throughout much of her life, she insisted that her convictions and actions were directed by her guides in the spirit world. As her biographer Barbara Goldsmith writes, “Victoria’s belief in spirit guidance empowered her and her followers to challenge the law, the church and the entrenched male establishment.”

Contact with the spiritual world was not just a hopeful pastime of the bereaved, then. Spiritualism may have been a soothing source of consolation when it began, but it morphed into an ethereal engine of confidence for many of the women who practiced it. The messages of self-worth and female independence missing in their mundane lives were found in the voices of the discarnate.


Pam Grossman is the creator and host of The Witch Wave podcast. She is co-founder of the Occult Humanities Conference at NYU, and her art exhibitions and magical projects have been featured in The New York TimesArtforum and the New Yorker. Her writing has appeared in such outlets as Sabat Magazine and HuffPost. For her work as the Director of Visual Trends at Getty Images, she was chosen as one of Adweek’s Creative 100 and Marie Claire’s “20 Women Changing The Ratio.” She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two feline familiars. You can find her at PamGrossman.com, on her Phantasmaphile blog, and as @Phantasmaphile on Twitter and Instagram.