Throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century, the Spiritualist movement saw a leap in popularity in the United States, including a large number of followers in Philadelphia. Spiritualism is the belief that spirits of the dead have the ability to communicate with the living, and that they willingly do so. During this period, Spiritualists regularly held séances, camp meetings, and other gatherings to reach out to the dead. They were primarily interested in what their spirit contacts could reveal about ethical issues, the afterlife, and the existence of God. The movement quickly became known for attracting radical socialists, anti-slavery activists, and women’s rights activists.
Initially unorganized, the movement had begun to coalesce around churches and more formal organizations by the latter half of the 19th century. Always subject to skepticism, formal accusations of fraud were growing, leading to a decrease in popularity. Nonetheless, spiritualism is still practiced today, primarily through organized spiritualist churches.
Several figureheads of the Spiritualist movement have connections to Philadelphia. Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, lived and worked in West Philadelphia beginning in 1875. Heavily influenced by occultism, she viewed contacting spirits as a way to gain specifically esoteric knowledge. She was unique in her approach, though, as most spiritualists were more interested in contacting human spirits, with little interest in her mystical theories.
Nelson and Jennie Holmes — more traditional spiritualists — were two of several hundred mediums working in Philadelphia in the 1870’s. They are best known for their manifestations of the spirits of John and Katie King, who claimed to be the pirate Henry Morgan and his daughter, respectively.
Katie King was noted for being rather attractive, and it was possible to purchase images of her spectre after the séance.
The manifestation of Katie King, however, was proved fraudulent. The accusations against the Holmeses were part of the growing wave of debunking Spiritualist mediums at the time.
A number of documents and ephemera from the period of Spiritualism’s greatest popularity can be found in HSP’s collections. Notably, the constitution of the First Association of Philadelphia Spiritualists (dated 1867) lays out the legal and financial structure of this association, which initially met in 1952. An illustration shows a woman sitting with several articles of spiritualist equipment, showing some of the many, many devices invented to help mediums physically show the results of their contact with the other side. And from 1850, A History of the Recent Developments in Spiritual Manifestations has been digitized. This book, written relatively early in the Spiritualist movement, records the practice of Spiritualism in Philadelphia, and provides a first-hand view into local theories and practices.