The antebellum decades were an age of wonders. No visit to New York was complete without a visit to Barnum's American Museum where one could see the world's tallest woman and shortest man, the Feejee Mermaid, and no end of other amazing sights. Some were real, like the elephant. Others were like "a check from the bank of a river." If you could not go to New York, Barnum's Museum and later his circus would come to you. The age of wonders was also the age of hoaxes. Graefenberg Family Remedies provide a fair example:
New-York Daily Tribune, Thursday, February 3, 1859
32.--HEALTH OF AMERICAN WOMEN. 32. [Advertisement]
The columns of THE TRIBUNE since Dec. 1, 1858, have given abundant proof of the value of the GRAEFENBERG FAMILY REMEDIES, and the medical skill exhibited in their preparation and administration. The remedy offered as a radical cure for all the diseases of women--which are met with in every family, and which afflict nine-tenths of all adult women--has proved itself fully equal to perform all that has ever been claimed for it. And why? Because the professional treatment is generally directed to the local derangement only, while that the Graefenberg remedy is directed both to the local and the general symptoms; hence its remarkable curative effect. Judging in this way of the local derangement from general symptoms, which point out the difficulty with unerring certainty, the medical advisers of the Graefenberg Company can detect the nature of the disease, and the adaptation of the remedy without making an examination. The fact that ladies meet with this outrageous and indelicate proposition from every physician, except from those connected with the Graefenberg Company, often induces them to suffer, and who can blame them, when they are asked to submit to a treatment requiring a sacrifice of modesty, the purest and loveliest brilliant [gem] in female character. When we add to this that the Graefenberg Catholicon will cure while other remedies only torture without avail, we think we offer conclusive reasons for an immediate resort to the Graefenberg treatment.
THE GRAEFENBERG MARSHALL'S UTERINE CATHOLICON IS SOLD AT THE OFFICE OF THE GRAEFENBERG COMPANY, No. 32 Park-Row, New-York, and by all Druggists. Price $1.50 per bottle.
On the receipt of six dollars by the Graefenberg Company five bottles will be sent, and express charges paid to the end of the route from New York.
Address orders to Joshua F. Bridge, M.D.,
Sec'y Graefenberg Company, No. 32 Park-row, New-York.
NOTE. The readers of THE TRIBUNE may rely with confidence upon the statements of the Graefenberg Company.
Doctors Hatch and Harrington claimed the same ability to diagnose and cure without ever seeing the patient. Their advertisement in The Spiritual Telegraph of 2 Dec 1854 claimed:
Dr. Hatch has been a Professor of Midwifery and Diseases of Women and Children in a Medical School in Boston, and made much valuable improvement in the treatment of Female Diseases.
Dr. Harrington has long been in a remarkably successful practice, and is unquestionably the most accurate clairvoyant in describing the real nature, caus [sic], and locality of disease, and its proper remedy, of any one in America. He possesses a 'clear-seeing' or intuitive power heretofore unequaled; and combined as it is with a very extensive Medical experience, both in himself and his associate, they have no hesitation in guaranteeing a correct description of all diseases, and a radical cure in all case [sic] where it is in the power of human agency.
Patients who can not visit the city, may be assured that by writing they can have the real cause and nature of their disease fully described, and the most effectual method of treatment clearly pointed out, and with as much accuracy as if they were present in person. Those who write will be required to inclose $10. Office 712 Broadway, New York. Office hours from 10 to 12 A.M., and 2 to 4 P.M.
It is the combination of genuine wonders, the Atlantic Cable, for example, and of baldfaced fakery that gave the age its peculiar favor. All sorts of time-honored truths were falling by the wayside. Almost every week saw a new record for a transatlantic crossing. Every day's newspaper carried stories of new discoveries -- the gorilla excited enormous interest when first located, for example. Commodore Perry's expedition to Japan and the subsequent visit to the United States of a Japanese delegation initiated a fascination with that country that would continue unabated for decades.
New machines were revolutionizing daily life. Anything seemed possible. This credulousness led P. T. Barnum to write The humbugs of the world. An account of humbugs, delusions,impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages (1866). The longest section of his quite long book Barnum devoted to Spiritualism. He was in a good position to know. He had employed the Fox sisters, the original "Rochester rappers," with whom the entire Spiritualism phenomenon began. He had thus done much to promote the idea that spirits were seeking to communicate with the living.
Historians typically do not pay spiritualism much attention. Why look at an age's foibles? To ask the question is to grasp the answer. Spiritualism arose at a specific historical moment, attracted specific sorts of adherents, and addressed specific sorts of concerns and hopes. Those adherents numbered in the hundreds of thousands, the curious and intrigued in the millions. Understanding those concerns and hopes is correspondingly central to understanding the age.
In addition to making a case for spiritualism's significance as a historical phenomenon, I will argue for a distinctive methodological approach to studying it. This will entail recovering from oblivion the most famous and influential medium of the 1850s, Cora L. V. Hatch. The approach will not, however, be biographical although I will use what biographical information exists. Hatch, like her celebrated imitator Victoria Woodhull, freely invented her life as she went along. Trying to separate fact from fancy would be no simple task. Nor would it be particularly rewarding even if successful. Instead I will examine Hatch's early public career in a succession of contexts ranging from the heightened sentimentality of the time to its fascination with science and invention.
Spiritualism began with a simple hoax devised by Margaret and Kate Fox, both children at the time. They had discovered how to crack the joints of their toes. The result, the famous "raps," puzzled the skeptical. The most searching examination of the room, the girls' clothing, even their persons, revealed nothing. No accomplice was secreted inside or outside of the room. Neither sister had any sort of concealed instrument. Here was the initial fascination. Were the rappings a kind of code? Did they contain a message?
Spiritualism presented itself as entirely empirical. The rapping sounds were real. Where did they come from? Doubters searched and searched, looking for the trick. They never found it. Meanwhile the raps continued. As Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a convinced Spiritualist, had Sherlock Holmes observe to Watson: First eliminate all the other possibilities. What you are left with, however improbable, is the truth.
Once Barnum took the Fox sisters on, and the money began to flow, other manifestations of contact from the spirit world occured in ever-increasing numbers. Tables tilted, even flew off the floor and whirled about the room. Trumphets sounded. Spirits dictated whole books, some outlining an elaborate "harmonial" philosophy. These were the works of Andrew Jackson Davis. Other productions were in verse. Thomas Lake Harris was perhaps the principal poetic medium. Then spirits began to speak via "trance mediums." All of this was purely and simply empirical, spiritualists claimed. Here were a series of observable events. Anyone could investigate. If they could nonetheless not explain what had happened or how, the fact that the events occured remained.
Observers did sometimes find something. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, second only to Harper's Weekly in circulation, gleefully told of a medium unmasked when a skeptic suddenly turned on several bright lamps which revealed her to be the source of the trumphet blasts hitherto ascribed to spirits. On other occasions wires attached to whirling tables were detected. Even the most convinced spiritualist had to admit that some mediums were confidence artists. However, the fact that some miscreants sought to take advantage did not prove that the entire phenomenon was spurious. Many called themselves "test" mediums precisely to signal their willingness to allow any who wished to investigate their claims.
Several of the most noteworthy converts to spiritualism began as doubters. Perhaps the most famous in the 1850s was John Worth Edmonds. He was a justice of the New York State Supreme Court and a well-regarded legal scholar who edited an annual compendium of New York State law. When the Fox sisters first came to public attention, Edmonds set out to debunk them. After a meticulous examination revealed nothing, Edmonds decided that as a man of honor he had no choice but to acknowledge his failure. The raps were real. Further, they came from spirits. He knew because spirits, particularly that of Sir Francis Bacon, his intellectual hero, began communicating with him. There would be consequences. Edmonds had to resign his seat on the court. He could not, however, deny the evidence of his senses.
Edmonds had been gulled. The Fox sisters had a trick too simple to detect. No amount of searching of the room, their clothing, their persons, would reveal their ability to crack their toe joints and so produce rapping noises. Edmonds' own imagination also had a trick too simple to detect. His wife had recently died. He was lonely. He wanted to believe. He just did not know that about himself.
If this were all there was to it, a series of challenges to the skeptical to figure out the trick, spiritualism would have little historical interest. Confidence artists are always with us. And most of the scams they use are variations on those well known in ancient Sumer.
It is the ways in which Spiritualism was peculiar to the 1850s that make it historically interesting. One is its trading on the fascination with "subtle" physical forces. Electricity was the prototype. Franklin had formulated the basic laws, but Morse had provided the first practical application. The telegraph was a wondrous device. Over it passed communications between people vast distances apart. The great Atlantic Cable would soon connect the continents. Next the entire world would be linked. News would travel at the speed of electric current passing through a wire. The current itself was invisible but immensely powerful. It was already transforming daily life. Not for nothing did Charles Partridge call his spiritualist weekly, The Spiritual Telegraph.
More subtle still was the force involved in Mesmerism. Introduced to the United States in the late 1830s hypnotism held a fascination for antebellum Americans captured in several of Edgar Allen Poe's short stories. Many denied there was any such thing. No one could control another's mind without physically touching that person. Yet there was the event. Come. Look for yourself. Satisfy yourself that the subject is actually in a trance. Convince yourself that the subject is under the control of another whose suggestions are really orders. There is, as we will see, a very direct connection between mesmerism and spiritualism.
Still another subtle force was magnetism. Like hypnotism and electricity, it was a favorite of doctors who differed from the orthodox and whose name was legion in the 1840s and 1850s. This was the era of homeopathic therapy, the use of microscopic quantities of drugs which produced the same symptoms as the disease. It was the age of the water cure, of the Graham cracker and other special diets. Orthodox physicians practiced what is sometimes called "heroic" medicine. This entailed the use of powerful purgatives and emetics as well as bleeding. The notion was to somehow rid the body of the harmful elements making the patient ill. These drugs rarely helped and frequently harmed the sick person. Homeopathy was no more helpful but it was not positively harmful either. At least the patient's immune system could operate without interference. So too with the "water cure." The patient went off to a spa, underwent frequent dousings, including being wrapped in wet cloths, began an exercise and diet program, got plenty of rest and fresh air. None of this was likely to do any harm and much of it was potentially beneficial. Most spas were "eclectic" and combined the water cure with magnets and with mild electric shock. At the heart of these alternative forms of treatment was the contrast between the "gross" practices of orthodox doctors and the subtle remedies of their challengers.
Mesmerism was another alternate therapy. This could be, as in the case of the Doctors Hatch and Harrington, who claimed the ability to diagnose and treat without even seeing the patient, extremely hazardous. More commonly, the physician -- and anyone who wished to could simply claim the title of doctor -- hypnotized the patient. Then he might use suggestion to counter symptoms. Or he might undertake to manipulate the patient's muscles or even internal organs while the patient lay entranced. Catherine Beecher, in her Letters to the American People on Health and Happiness, warned American women against doctors who would take sexual advantage of them while they were literally under his spell. Spiritualism, like several other religious develoments of the nineteenth century, particularly New Thought and Christian Science, had strong roots in contemporary medical practice.
That there could be a force, unidentified until the present, more subtle than electricity, magnetism, or even that involved in hypnotism, was entirely plausible. Astronomers held that the planets moved through the ether, a mysterious medium with no discernible characteristics. Otherwise space would be empty. It is not surprising, as a consequence, that serious-minded people took spiritualism seriously in the 1850s. Moreover, spiritualism spoke to a number of contemporary concerns and developments. One, as we have already seen, was health, particularly that of women. A second was an intense sentimentality about death. Stephen Foster, to cite the most notable example, wrote of "Jeanie with the light brown hair," pictured at left. By the second verse:
I sigh for Jeanie, but her light form strayed,
Far from the fond hearts round her native glade;
Her smiles have vanished and her sweet songs have flown,
Flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and gone.
Poe's poetry, so often about ghostly maidens, was wildly popular. And innumerable lesser poets made the loss of a beautiful young woman their theme as well. There is a double link with spiritualism here. One is with the sense of the reality of the departed, the "lost Lenore," which exceeds anything in the realm of the living, and the intense desire to make contact, a desire greater than any other. The second link is the notion that certain young people, particularly maidens, are so innocent, so beautiful, so good that they are already halfway into the afterlife. Who would better serve the spirits as a medium than such a maiden?
Women played leading roles in spiritualism. The Fox sisters began the whole phenomenon. Many of the most celebrated mediums were women, including the most important and influential, Cora L. V. Hatch. It is a comment on the historiography of Spiritualism that she is virtually missing from the literature. Instead scholars seek to make sense of the writings of Andrew Jackson Davis or, less promising still, try to tease out words of truth from Emma Hardinge's History of American Spiritualism. Mrs. Hatch was Hardinge's model as a trance speaker and Victoria Woodhull's as well. And, despite her age -- she was sixteen when she first achieved fame -- and gender, her ideas were debated at least as heatedly as those of Davis and other spiritualists. Walt Whitman, for example, wrote to Sarah Tyndale, Brooklyn, June 20, 1857 P. 24:
I got into quite a talk with Mr. Arnold about Mrs. [Cora L. V.] Hatch. He says the pervading thought of her speeches is that first exists the spirituality of any thing, and that gives existence to things, the earth, plants, animals, men, women. But that Andrew Jackson Davis puts matter as the subject of his homilies, and the primary source of all results -- I suppose the soul among the rest. Both are quite determined in their theories. Perhaps when they know much more, both of them will be much less determined.
Hatch, pictured at right, was the first great American female celebrity, one part seeress, one part priestess, one part seductress. A close look at her life tells much about spiritualism's appeal and progress and much about the ongoing debate about woman's nature and "sphere." It will also tell us much about popular religion.
Cora L.V. Hatch, A Wonder of the Age