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Doctrines such
as Spiritism and Spiritualism support the belief in spirits and the
communication with the death.  Those
beliefs are portrayed in their practices; in the séances, both leader-assisted
or not, participants wanted to connect with the spirit world and that happened
through the medium’s instrumental, the most common ones were the planchette, a
dial plate, table turning or the Ouija board. On the other hand, since the
origin of the doctrines, there were sceptic people who questioned mediums’
practices, calling them out as frauds or trying to give an explanation of the
phenomena from a scientific point of view. In this essay, the author will make
an overview about how both believers and non-believers attempt to explain the
phenomena and what led people to become so interest in the contact with the

long before the Victorian era, there was a theory proposed by Franz Mesmer, a
German physician, which could have inspired the spiritual development of people
between 1770 and 1780. The theory was called ‘Animal Magnetism’ and explained
that there is a fluid inside all human being and the variation of it could be
the source of many illnesses, so restoring the fluid to its balance could be
the cure for any disease. The sessions could be individual or in small groups,
but he was so popular among his contemporaneous and so many people insisted on
going to them, that he had to create passes for a larger attendance; they were
called “baquet”. At the beginning, he used beverages that included
iron or bottles with magnetized water and a magnet, but later on, he would only
use his hands. This practice appeared in the United Kingdom and the United
States of America after his students continued his work and it evolved into
what nowadays it is known as therapeutic hypnosis.

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though Mesmer’s theory appears to be a scientific demonstration of the healing
power of magnets, it never had medical success. Louis XVI, King of France,
created a commission with some important names such as Benjamin Franklin and
Joseph-Ignace Guillotine to study the Animal Magnetism1
and although they proved Mesmer’s work as false, the theory had a big impact in
Victorian England and Spiritualism, as people adopted the ‘Mesmerism’ as a
spiritual movement rather than a scientific development.

1874, William Crookes, a British scientist, published Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism where he describes his
experiences and investigations about the doctrine and mediumship. Crookes tries
to give an explanation but eventually, he suggests a spiritual theory instead
of a scientific one:

“I cannot, at present, hazard even the most vague hypothesis as to the
cause of the phenomena. Hitherto I have seen nothing to convince me of the
truth of the ‘spiritual’ theory.” (Crookes, 1874: 4)

the publishing of his researches, Crookes collaborated with the famous medium
Florence Cook, believing in her powers and giving proof of the authenticity of
Cook’s séances. In a letter written on February 3rd, 1874; Crookes talked about
the materialization of a spirit named Katie, and how he tried to protect Miss
Cook from unfortunate accusations. Later on in the text, he related the
experiences during the different séances and how both the spirit and the medium
developed; he describes how the interaction with Katie and between the medium
and the spirit was.

King was the first materialized spirit showed in good light. They started
adding phosphorus lamps and then, Crookes attempted to wake up Florence during
the trance and keep both, medium and spirit, together in the same room. The
most famous experiment that William Crookes did, always assisted by Florence
Cook, was the photography of Katie. The photography could be taken by exposing
the spirit to electric light, which also helped Crookes to point out their
physical differences2.

experiments created a big scandal in England’s Victorian society, but William
Crookes was protected by The Ghost Club, an association made for those who were
keen on the study and investigation of the phenomena. Among their most famous
members, we can find Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

contrast to those who believed in the spiritualist phenomena, there were people
interested in giving a different point of view. Between those sceptics, Harry
Houdini was actively trying to call out those who practiced the mediumship
activity and declared themselves gifted with the ability of contact with the

Benjamin Carpenter, an English physiologist and naturalist, worked on the
unconscious, the mesmerism movement and the phenomena. I his book Mesmerism, Spiritualism, &c3.:
Historically and scientifically considered (1877) he supports a sceptic
point of view and explains the doctrine’s practice as the variation in the
Nervous System:

“A study of Mesmerism, Odylism, and Spiritualism extending over more
than forty years, may be thought to justify me in contending that a knowledge
of the physiology and pathology of the Human Organism –corporeal and mental– of
the strange phenomena which are due to the Physical excitability of the Nervous
System, of the yet stranger results, the possession of the Mind by dominant
emotions or ideas, of its extraordinary tendency to self-deception in regard to
matters in which the feelings are interested, of its liability to place undue
confidence in persons having an interest in deceiving.” (Carpenter, 1877: 6)

the investigation of séances, Carpenter commented the reticent attitude from
the mediums to allow scientists during sessions. Scientists should not be close
to the activity or participate in it, and if nothing happened, the medium would
blame the investigator for taking, as Carpenter said, “an ‘atmosphere of
incredulity’ with them, which prevents the manifestation.” (Carpenter, 1877: 8)

in an explanation for the practices of mesmerism as hypnosis, Carpenter
advocates for the power that a mind has upon a body, as the body can be
possessed when the mind is convinced of something. Another issue he explained
through the cerebral activity is the prediction of the future; most of the
time, when someone guesses the future is just taking a past event and applying it to the present.4

Faraday, an English scientist, carried out an investigation about table turning
and levitation to prove mediums
as frauds. Faraday established
that it was needed a muscular movement in order to move the furniture.
Carpenter, in his book, compared this unconscious pressure of the table with
the -as well
unconscious- movement needed
for the use of the planchette.

are just a few of all the experimentation produced since the beginning of the
phenomena from both sides of the fence, those who believed and those who did
not. Even trying to demonstrate whether the paranormal is real or not, people
will follow their own beliefs and eventually, both opinions will be true. The
question over the authenticity of those events will never be answered with
total precision as it is a matter of perception, attitude, and faith. However,
the author considers that both points of view are right, as the phenomena can
be produced by our minds and by an external stimulus at the same time and as
William B. Carpenter states, the genuine has to be reduced to its true shape.

or not in the phenomena, people from the Victorian era up to nowadays, always
have had the necessity to believe and the offer that spiritualism movement gave
to contact with the spirit’s world was a great opportunity, as Aaron Mahnke
says in his podcast Lore, “for those who lost loved ones or had a deep
curiosity about the afterlife, séances offered chance to say goodbye to say
hello or just to learn.” (Mahnke, 2016: Episode 37)

1 In 1784, París:
L’imprimerie Royale published a sixty-six-page work where the author of the
commission collected the conclusion reached after the study of mesmerism.

2 During Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism,
Crookes makes reference to the similarities between the medium and Katie, the
spirit. In the Chapter “The Last of Katie King” he realizes and clearly defines
the physical differences, when he compared the portraits.

3 . meaning
etc. The author of this essay considered the opportunity to keep the original
title of the book published in 1877.

Carpenter explains the use of the past and dreams for divination. He affirmed
that “the Cerebral traces of past occurrences often supplying materials for the
automatic evolution of a result (as they unquestionably do in dreams), when the
occurrences themselves have been forgotten.” (Carpenter, 1877: 53)

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