Mediums: A History of Spiritualism and Speaking with the Dead

As humans, we’re preoccupied with the concept of what will happen after we die. There are hundreds of religious and scientific theories out there, but proving it presents insurmountable challenges. After all, to truly know what happens after we die, we’d need to be dead already.

For some, though, that isn’t a problem at all. Some believe that those who have already passed from this world and into the next can still communicate with us.


Mediums and Spiritualism

Spiritualism is a movement based on the idea that, not only do the spirits of the dearly departed exist, but they continue to evolve to the point of perfection in the beyond. Thus, they are capable of passing on useful and spiritually significant knowledge.

Spiritualism as a concept first appeared sometime in the 1840s in the “Burned-over District” of upstate New York – this area was also the birthplace of reform movements such as Millerism and Mormonism that emerged during the period known as the Second Great Awakening. The region seems to foster the belief that direct communication with God or various angels is possible.


Swedenborg’s Spirit Realm

MediumsIt was in this environment that two concepts evolved – although they were initially separate, many early Spiritualists meshed the two, and they became the foundation for a lot of Spiritualist practices. The first was Emanuel Swedenborg’s description of the spirit world.

He was formerly a well-known inventor and scientist, known for innovations in engineering as well as his studies in anatomy and physiology. In 1741, he began having a series of dreams and other experiences with intense spiritual significance to him – he said that he had been “called by God to reform Christianity and introduce a new church.”

Swedenborg claimed to go into trances and commune with spirits while remaining awake – during these episodes, he said he’d seen the spirit realm. There were two particular features of his descriptions that caught the attention of early Spiritualists: the first was that there isn’t a singular Heaven and a singular Hell.

Instead, he said that there were a series of higher and lower Heavens and Hells – in a tradition similar to Dante’s Inferno. The second was that spirits were intermediate beings between God and humans, so God would occasionally use them as a means to communicate with us. Despite this assertion, Swedenborg warned against seeking contact with those on the spiritual plane.

Unfortunately, his description appears to have driven people to do the exact opposite.



The second concept that would make up the foundation of Spiritualism doesn’t concern the beliefs of the religion – instead, it’s a technique. This technique was known as Mesmerism, though it would later become known by a slightly more common name, hypnotism. The technique was said to induce trances that caused subjects to come into contact with the supernatural, including the spirits of those passed.

Whether or not the technique was genuine, it became very popular with mediumistic lecturers, who added a high degree of showmanship to its execution in order to entertain.


The Fox Sisters

MediumsMany spiritualists mark the true beginning of their movement as March 31, 1848. That was the day that Kate and Margaret Fox, two sisters living in Hydesville, New York, reported that they’d contacted a spirit that they later claimed was that of a peddler who had been murdered and hidden in the house.

It should be noted that records of such an individual existing could not be found, but nevertheless, the Fox sisters became a sensation.

Their spirit was said to communicate through a series of knocks or rapping noises that were audible even to onlookers. This seemingly tangible evidence of the supernatural won over the more practically minded Americans and gained the girls an even bigger following.

Managed by their sister Leah, they held public seances all around New York that attracted famous audience members such as William Cullen Bryant and Sojourner Truth. People began to imitate them – hundreds suddenly developed the ability to speak with the dead.


Investigation and Fraud

Not everyone believed that the girls were legitimate, however. Many believe that their rapping noises were made by the cracking of their toe joints, which was the conclusion reached by multiple physicians who investigated them.

One of them, E.P. Longworthy, noted that the noises only ever came from beneath the sister’s feet, or occurred only when their dresses were touching the table.

In 1851, three investigators named Austin Flint, Charles E. Lee, and C.B. Coventry from the University at Buffalo examined the noises produced by the sisters and concluded that they were cracking joints like their toes, knees, ankles and hips in order to create them. From a control experiment, they discovered that raps never occurred when the sisters were placed on a soft surface, such as a couch, with cushions under their feet.

These conclusions were echoed by numerous other investigations, including patent examiner Charles Grafton Page, a panel of Harvard professors employed by the Boston Courier in 1857 during a challenge in which they offered $500 to any medium who could prove to be genuine, and a report by the Seybert Commission in 1887.

In 1888, the sisters exposed their fraudulent methods. The reasoning for this was different for each sister – Kate was embroiled in debate with their older sister Leah and other spiritualists who thought that she had begun drinking too much to care for her own children.

While this was underway, Margaret was considering returning to Roman Catholicism, and became convinced that her “powers” were demonic in nature.

Considering that the end of their careers would also harm Leah, the girls traveled to New York City to meet with a reporter that offered them $1500 if they would give him an exclusive on their confession. Margaret was the one who made the formal confession at the New York Academy of Music on October 21, 1888, but Kate was also present.

Before a 2000-member audience, she demonstrated how she created the loud rapping noises by cracking various joints, verified by doctors in the crowed. She signed a confession, and it was published in New York World the same day.


The Emergence of Ouija Boards

MediumsAt around the same time as the Fox Sisters were communicating with the dead via their toe joints, a new method was being adopted by the rest of the Spiritualist movement. The problem with most methods at the time was that they either required the presence of a full-fledged medium, or they took forever.

The rapping of the Fox Sisters required counting out the sounds until you reached a letter of the alphabet, so a single word could take anywhere upwards of a half-hour to receive.

The sleek, fast solution was to use a talking board – a board on which the alphabet, numbers 1 through 9, and the words “Yes” “No” “Hello” and “Goodbye” were printed. Users would place their fingers on a heart shaped piece of wood called a planchette, and spirits were meant to control their movements to give responses to questions.

Following the massive spike in spiritualism following the American Civil War, the boards exploded in popularity. The most common permutation of this item, known as a Ouija board, was created in Baltimore in 1890, but the use of all sorts of boards was common by 1886, when news bulletins and spiritualist circulars noted that they were replacing other communication methods in spiritualist camps that had popped up all over Ohio.

The patented “Ouija board” was created by a businessman named Elijah Bond, who received U.S. Patent 446,054 – which, interestingly, is for the planchette; the board is technically an accessory – on February 10, 1891. Eventually, all of the stocks in the boards passed to William Fuld, one of Bond’s employees, and he held the rights to the Ouija name until his death.

The patent is currently held by Hasbro, who recently released another version of the classic Ouija board in shades of pink and purple – it seems, little girls want to contact the dead, too.


Modern Communication: EVP

MediumsWhile mediums and Ouija boards have mostly fallen by the wayside, there are still ways to contact the dead that appeal to the age of technology we live in. The most common, besides face-to-face encounters on ghost hunting TV shows, is known as electronic voice phenomena or EVP.

These are sounds that are found on electronic recordings, such as audio from a video camera, or the contents of a tape recorder. These sounds, which are typically either moans, screams, or actual words, are thought to be the voices of spirits that cannot be perceived by the human ear.

This concept came about like its more archaic fellows, with the spiritualist movement in the 1840s-1920s. Many believed that emerging technologies such as photography would aid in contacting the spirit world – the ideas were so popular that Thomas Edison was asked about it in an interview with Scientific American.

His take on it was that if spirits were only capable of influencing the world of the living in subtle ways, then a sensitive recording device would assist them and increase the chance of humans actually perceiving them. Even as the spiritualist movement declined as the 20th century progressed, attempts to use emerging technologies to contact the dead remained.

An American photographer named Attila von Szalay was among the first pioneers to try audio recordings on top of his attempts to photograph ghosts. He initially began with a 78 rpm record in 1941, but it wasn’t until he switched to a reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1956 that he got any results.

He conducted a number of recording sessions under a number of different circumstances and discovered several noises that couldn’t be heard at the time of the recording, but nevertheless were present when the tapes were played back. The first recordings were such innocuous phrases as “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!”

After a few more decades of varying success with recording ghosts by various conventional means, there were a few machines created specifically for the task. The first was a device known as “The Spiricom”, created by William O’Neil in 1980. He claimed that it was built to specifications that he received psychically from George Mueller, a scientist who died in 1974.

At a press conference in Washington, DC in April 1982, he claimed that he was able to actually hold conversations with spirits through the device and provided the design specifications for it free of charge. However, no one has ever managed to recreate the results that O’Neil claims to have gotten from his original Spiricom. His partner, George Meek, attributed his success and others’ failure to O’Neil’s abilities as a medium forming part of the system that made the device work.

Another device made specifically for EVP is known as the “Ghost Box” or “Frank’s Box”. It was created in 2002 by a ghost-hunting enthusiast named Frank Sumption for the same purpose as the Spiricom – real-time communication with the dead. He also claimed to have received instructions for the design from the spirit world.

It’s described as a combination between a white noise generator and an AM radio receiver that has been modified to sweep back and forth through the AM band of radio waves, selecting random sounds that last fractions of a second. The device’s critics think that its effect is entirely subjective, impossible to replicate, and considering that it relies on existing radio noise, any meaningful responses are either coincidences or the result of seeking patterns where there are none.



After hundreds of years of trying to talk to the dead, it is unclear whether anyone has had any luck. The answers rest entirely on how much you are willing to believe and in what. Do you put your faith in mediums, whose experiences are mysterious to you and all you have is their word? Or do you choose to believe that the movements of the planchette on a Ouija board are the spirit of your loved one, rather than your companion fidgeting or playing a prank?

And until you yourself cross over, you may never be certain what’s really out there.

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