3 Women Who Helped Drive the Spiritualist Movement

With last March being Women’s History Month, I thought it might be fun to touch on (and revisit) a few of the notable women we’ve learned about in previous installments of Frightful Photo Friday, particularly those who were heavily involved in the Spiritualist movement.

The three (technically five, if we’re splitting hairs) women I’m going to focus on today were all Spiritual households names of their time, reigning in popularity and scandal all at once. And, despite the eventual downfalls, their initial successes are certainly something to applaud — particularly when considering how women were viewed in the 19th-20th centuries, in terms of position in society (heck, even in 2017 there’s a discrepancy in the wage gap, but I won’t get into that).

The Fox Sisters

I mentioned the Fox Sisters a few times in my previous article; these women are the three pioneers who brought about the initial rise of Spiritualism.

When analyzing the history of these sisters, there is so much to unpack, but the basic gist is this:

When Maggie and Kate were young, they began to report hearing loud thumps in their home, right before bedtime, time and time again. Eventually, their mother became involved– and then, so did a neighbor. Upon being asked direct questions, the spirit would respond correctly to each. The questions consisted of those like, “how many people are in the room?” “how old is [the neighbor]?” to which the knocking would sound off in response.

It was later “discovered” that the producer of the noises was a purported trapped spirit, of whose skeleton was supposedly found in the walls of the home years later, after the sisters had long since fled.

So frightened by this mysterious entity, Maggie and Kate were sent to live with their older sister, Leah. However, the spirit didn’t leave them be– instead, it followed them to their new home. Leah found all of the activity to possibly constitute a lucrative business, and eventually made plans to advertise her sisters as some who could make contact with spirits.

Unfortunately, as their fame grew, so did their skeptics. Even Maggie’s first love, Elisha Kane, was embarrassed at the thought of his lover being so involved in such “sideshow quackery.” He promised to marry her, but only if she gave up the act. After holding a temporary ring-exchanging ceremony in place of a legitimate wedding, though, the day never came. Following the return from one of his Arctic Explorations, Kane fell gravely ill, and eventually passed away.

The loss of her love set her down a dark path, and she soon tumbled into alcoholism. After a number of years, this eventually led to her confessing to the lies, stating:

“My sister Katie was the first to observe that by swishing her fingers she could produce certain noises with her knuckles and joints, and that the same effect could be made with the toes. Finding that we could make raps with our feet – first with one foot and then with both – we practiced until we could do this easily when the room was dark.

“Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years. … This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps.”

Mina “Margery” Crandon

Dubbed one of Harry Houdini’s “arch nemeses,” Margery was the wife of a wealthy Boston Surgeon, and for a long period of time was lauded as the greatest psychic-medium of all time.

After being told by another medium that she was carrying a spirit attachment in the form of a small boy, Margery eventually realized that the medium must have been referring to her late brother– who was killed in a railway accident as a child. Following this realization, she began to advertise her abilities to communicate with the dead, using her deceased brother as a spirit guide and connection into the afterlife.

Margery was known for her “unusual” séance styles that sometimes included performing in the nude (which later contributed to rumors that she had affairs with patrons in order to keep the truth of her psychic abilities a secret).She would also supposedly ooze “ectoplasm,” which we touched on in my last FPF installment on 20th Century Séances.

During Houdini’s constant efforts to prove her a fraud, he claimed to have witnessed Margery’s falsification of spirit contact, but this evidence never actually reached the public. In continuing efforts, he went so far as to place her in a wooden box which rendered her motionless, except for her hands — of which her little brother’s spirit was none too happy. So upset with the treatment of his sister, the boy’s spirit was said to have even ripped the front of the box away with unimaginable force.

Though Houdini was never able to prove her a fraud, she did eventually fall out of the public eye as Spiritualism’s skeptics grew more numerous. However, even today, some para-researchers believe there had to be some aspect of truth behind Margery’s work, as not all of her supposed powers can be adequately debunked.

Read more about her adventures with Houdini here: The Strange Case of “Margery”


Eusapia Palladino

Another woman mentioned (through photos at least) in my last article, Eusapia Palladino was a well-known physical medium, most known for levitating tables and communicating through her spirit guide, John King (similar to the spirit Margery claimed to communicate with, a spirit guide working as a connection between the veil).

Eusapia was met with attempts to discredit her psychic abilities, just as Margery was. Some methods to debunk the medium included tying her hands and feet together during séances, to avoid false tapping noises (à  la The Fox Sisters). Other methods included holding her hands down on a table, in an attempt to prove she was not actually causing the table to levitate.

In the Cambridge sittings the results proved disastrous for her mediumship. During the séances Palladino was caught cheating in order to free herself from the physical controls of the experiments. Palladino was found liberating her hands by placing the hand of the controller on her left on top of the hand of the controller on her right. Instead of maintaining any contact with her, the observers on either side were found to be holding each other’s hands and this made it possible for her to perform tricks.

Naturally, this discovery was hurtful to her reputation as a valid medium. Why would she have to remove her hands from the control of others if she was genuinely able to produce the feats she claimed?

Traveling from England, to France, to Italy, and eventually to the United States, Eusapia’s reputation followed her, that being: no one knew what the heck to believe, whether she was a real physical medium, or a fraud. Newspapers constantly printed differing opinions, followed by claims that the reporters were being paid off, or fired, or punished in some other way.

On top of her ability to levitate tables, she could also purportedly produce facial features and other images in soft putty, or clay, using only the energy of the spirits she was contacting. Eventually, however, it was discussed that the faces appearing in the putty almost always resembled her own, thus discrediting her further.

But, in the end, whether she was a fraud or the real thing, she immortalized her legacy through her work. The same goes for the Fox Sisters, Margery, as well as other notable women during this time, such as Cora Hatch or Eva Carrière/Marthe Beraud. Though most of them ended their careers as perceived “failures,” considering all of the hell they went through in attempt to keep their reputations booming, they’ve certainly earned all of my respect.

If you know anything about any of these memorable women, or perhaps one not mentioned here, leave a post in the comments! I’m always looking for more spooky people to research. And more, if you have any requests for future bonus installments about people or things mentioned in previous Frightful Photo Friday posts, don’t hesitate to share!

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