Book Review - The Spiritualists

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1999, Volume 16, Number 2, pages 211-213. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 

Ruth Brandon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1983, hardback, 315 pages. ISBN 0-394-52740-2. Book jacket price $16.95. (Reviewer's price from Amazon Books, June, 1998 was $51.00.)

Ruth Brandon researched and wrote this informative book over fifteen years ago, yet it is as relevant today as it would have been a century ago. I dare say, Brandon's study will be just as relevant one hundred years from now—Spiritualism and its current New Age cousins, channeling and Walk-ins, have continued Spiritualism's long history of trickery, self-deceit, and intellectual shallowness. As Brandon observes, over one hundred years of anecdotes and research have produced no compelling proof that psychic power or independent spirits exist. She also relates that no science or fact contrary to the true believer's faith in Spirit contact will easily shake that faith in the least. She concludes that Spiritualism and occult magic remain popular among both the downtrodden and the elite, not because of strong evidence, but because it fulfills an ancient human need to survive death and to control our existence in this mysterious universe. Occultists, as we discover in Brandon's research, find secular science to be too ponderous and limiting. They also find skeptics offensive and mystically impaired.

The book covers the early developments that led to the Spiritualism craze in America after 1848, when the Fox sisters launched their "spirit rapping" performances. Brandon analyses the forces that created a receptive environment for this "new religion." Primary among these forces was the occultist's need to keep pace with a modern science that threatened to explain away long held religious beliefs. Spirit contact and mediumship attempted to mimic science by providing "testable" evidence for the skeptic. Unfortunately, the most popular and acclaimed mediums were either caught in trickery or suspected of it. Brandon discusses many of these mediums including Kate and Maggie Fox, Leah Fish, Eusapia Palladino, Florence Cook, Madame Helena Blavatsky, and Daniel Dunglas Home. Spiritualist apologists often remark that D. D. Home was the most "authentic" of these mediums, as he was never caught in fakery despite the dozens of examinations and observations by skeptics. But Brandon offers clear explanations, especially in her appendix, ("The Machine in the Ghost"), on how Home convinced some observers that he levitated and elongated during his séances.

This book is also a sociological analysis of the times when Spiritualism first flourished, and why, to this day, it continues to attract tens of millions of believers throughout the world. Only the style and presentations have changed. Today we no longer hear of mediums exuding "ectoplasm," levitating "trumpets," or tilting tables in darkened rooms. Brandon provides explicit photos and illustrations of these allegedly psychic events. She discusses some of the more famous debunkers, like the great magicians, Houdini and James Randi, and how they went about their exposes. She also goes into detail about true believers in Spiritualism, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and W.T. Stead, who otherwise were accomplished intellectuals. In fact, it was Stead, the journalist, who encouraged Annie Besant to interview Madame Blavatsky. The good Madame adroitly recruited that feisty young woman, who went on to revive Blavatsky's then failing Theosophical movement. Besant became the Theosophical Society's president until she died in the early 1930s.

The Spiritualists should be on everyone’s short list of resources that adequately expose this persistent phenomenon. Not included in Brandon's book is James Van Pragg, who today has a best selling book, number one on some lists. Van Pragg has been a frequent guest on national television and radio programs, during which he unabashedly does "readings" for call-in guests concerned about dead people. He does it without going into trance, but few mediums or channelers today, outside of traditional Spiritualist Churches, bother with an obvious "trance." The old props like spirit cabinets, floating horns, and gauze-draped phantoms may be gone, but the thirst for afterlife evidence is not. When skepticism is flawed, the believer will ignore the obvious questions in favor of credulity, as Brandon's research eloquently demonstrates.

Joseph Szimhart

Philadelphia, PA