What is spiritualism? It's the belief that the living can communicate with the dead, and its golden age was likely the 19th century. Many of the modern trappings of spiritualism come from this era, from Tarot cards to Ouija boards to psychic shops. But Victorian spiritualism encompassed plenty of odd practices that fell out of popularity, including seances and spirit photography. Hosting parties to commune with spirits was quite fashionable in some circles.
Throughout the Victorian Age, there was a marked movement away from standardized religions and a greater respect for death. Death photography, formalized mourning, and even particular forms of cemetery symbolism all flourished. It is no wonder that belief in the occult in the Victorian Era skyrocketed, and that the spiritualist movement became forever associated with this time in the past.
The classic seance consists of a spiritualist or psychic, several of her cohorts, a wooden table, perhaps a tablecloth and crystal ball, and the loved ones who were trying to contact the Great Beyond. The spirits showed themselves by rapping on the table, knocking it over, and of course, by speaking through the psychic.
This seance model was created during the Victorian Era, thanks to a pair of sisters named Margaret and Kate Fox. In 1848, they claimed that they could speak with the ghost of a man who was murdered in their Hydesville, NY home. He would knock on a table in order to communicate. Their story hit the newspapers and quickly spread around the country. Similar "spiritualists" took note and started holding seances. Of course, in most cases, the knocking and table movements were simple trickery on the parts of the spiritualist and his or her helpers, not the work of ghosts.
Astral projection was a "practice" used by spiritualists to remove their consciousness from their bodies and move about the astral plane. Basically, it was an out-of-body experience. They convinced themselves and others that they could have these experiences on purpose at any time.
Annie Horniman, a British actress and leading spiritualist, was a practitioner of astral projection. She claimed that she could astrally project herself wherever she wanted and whenever she wanted, including to other planets. Horniman said that she visited Saturn and spoke with the people living there on a regular basis.
Not one, but two, First Ladies of the United States invited spiritualists into the White House in order to contact the dead. Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was well-known for her spiritualist beliefs, and held many seances at the White House, particularly after the death of her son Willie. The President himself was present during at least one of these seances, which were conducted by famous mediums like Cranston Laurie.
However, Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce, was the first First Lady to bring in spiritualists. The couple's son, Bennie, died in train accident shortly before his father took office in 1853. In order to reach him and deal with her grief, she asked the Fox sisters, Margaret and Kate, to come to the White House and hold a seance.
William H. Mumler is one of the 19th century photographers credited with starting the trend of spirit photography. He accidentally produced a double exposure photo that showed what looked like a transparent ghost lurking behind a living person. Soon, he began doctoring photos for grief-stricken families mourning those they had lost in the U.S. Civil War.
With the death photography trend in full swing (which consisted of actual pictures of dead loved ones), it seemed inevitable that people would want pictures of deceased loved ones' ghosts as well. Spirit photography used double exposures, odd mists of light, and anything deemed "otherworldly" to show that ghosts were present and surrounding their still living friends and family members.