Almost as long as humans have had coherent thoughts, we’ve had the existential questions of: What makes us human? What connects us to the divine? What happens after we die? There are hundreds of different theories with hundreds of different outcomes. Such is the nature of philosophy—but one idea remains constant regardless of culture or time period.
The concept of spirits working beyond the corporeal body is as old as time itself. These depictions vary slightly to fit the culture in which they originate, but there are some consistencies. Most times, a spirit was required to stay in the afterlife once they passed, however in certain cases (untimely death, such as an unsolved murder, or any other case where a spirit had unfinished business) they were either left wandering the earth, or were given permission to return. (1)
The term spiritualism as we know it today is often accredited to theologist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1722). His experiences with the divine were taken by early adopters of the movement as concrete proof that humans could communicate with the deceased, despite Swedenborg’s own warnings against the practice. (2) While Christian faiths preached of an afterlife, spiritualism made that idea tangible: there was a place “beyond the veil” that could be reached for advice or comfort from departed loved ones.
The high mortality rate of the 19th century made death an ever-present fact of life for everyone, whether it be due infant mortality, disease, or war. Like most things related to the handling of death in the United States, the Civil War had a huge impact on the rise of spiritualism. (3) Soldiers were not receiving the “Good Death” that was so sought after at the time—that is, dying at home, cared for and surrounded by loved ones. Instead, they were dying alone on a battlefield, bodies sometimes unclaimed and unknown, and this lack of closure led families to seek it elsewhere. Spiritualist mediums could potentially help them reach their lost loved one for one last moment.
In late March of 1848, two sisters from Hydesville, New York—14-year-old Maggie and 11-year-old Kate Fox—invited their neighbor over to share in a phenomenon they had been experiencing. They claimed they had been able to communicate with spirits in their home through knocking, or rapping. (4) At first, the girls addressed the spirit as “Mr. Splitfoot,” another term for the devil. They later stated that the spirit was that of a man murdered in their home 5 years previous: a man by the name of Charles B. Rosma.
When author and noted supporter of Spiritualism Sir Arthur Conan Doyle looked into the case, he was unable to find information on anyone named Charles B. Rosma associated with the house, however he viewed it as “very difficult” for spirits to get their names across correctly, so the sisters’ supposed spirit could very well have been named something entirely different.
Regardless of “who” it was they were communicating with, word of the Fox Sisters’ abilities quickly spread through their community, to the combined horror and awe of those who witnessed it. Maggie and Kate—along with their older sister Leah, who would serve as their manager—soon reached such a level of notoriety that they began to tour their abilities around the country.
Even our countries’ leaders got swept up in the appeal of the Spiritualist movement. Just as Queen Victoria held seances in Buckingham Palace to reach to her beloved husband Albert, (5) Mary Todd Lincoln held seances in the White House in 1862 in an attempt to communicate with her two sons, Willie and Eddie, who had passed at 11 and 4 respectively. (6)
The spiritualism craze spread throughout the world, and residents of Morrison County were not immune to its appeal. Tales of spirits and mediums from around the world were regular reported in local newspapers through the course of the late 19th and early 20th century. These reports weren’t all distant tales, though.
A popular aspect of Spiritualism was fortune-telling and mesmerism. In the mid-18th century, German physician Franz Anton Mesmer posited there was an invisible force that surrounded the universe and everything in it. By “laying hands” on the patient, it was thought one could manipulate that magnetic force and heal them from any number of ailments. (7)
While mesmerism was treated as a legitimate science, the more mystic-minded spiritualists found they could benefit from it as well. It was thought that these patients became more vulnerable to communication with the spiritual realm through these practices, so they were often included in a medium’s vast bag of tricks.
The spirits these mediums reached out to possessed otherworldly knowledge that the living could not grasp alone, so using them as a conduit to predict the future was common. If not for deadly serious matters, then simply as a fun way to pass time at parties.
Mediums would travel from town to town advertising their mystical services, including seances and palm readings. There are several times where we see articles in the newspaper reporting on the arrival of a medium in town. On March 5, 1897 the Little Falls Weekly Transcript reported on McEwen entertainment performing at the opera house the previous night. They “gave mind reading and hypnotic tests.” (8)
In March of 1899, Madam Maze stayed at the Buckman Hotel. Her advertisement in the Little Falls Herald assures that “truth may be secured, and your life made happier, better, and your future clearer.” (9)
May of the previous year, however, saw a disappointment in North Prairie as far as mediums were concerned: “Prof. Costello was not as good at hypnotism and mesmerism as he manifested to be.” (10)
In February of 1900, Swan River resident Frank Drellock returned from a visit in Duluth, where he claimed he received “spiritualistic powers.” Townspeople noted seeing him move tables and chairs without touching them, and others were so convinced of his abilities that they would not accompany him to a cemetery to witness him talk to the dead.
The Little Falls Weekly Transcript would not be so easily swayed, though, stating on February 27th that: “Frank is, no doubt, wise enough to know that he is in a neighborhood where such “pipe” dreams would be given considerable credence, and he is, perhaps, having considerable fun at the expense of some of his too credulous neighbors.” (11)
It was no joke, though ultimately there were no spirits either. Drellock would soon see a decline in his mental health, as the Transcript would report on March 13th. He was brought before the court after he was found wandering the flour mill he partially owned at night, uncooperative and violent. When questioned about his comments regarding spiritualism, he denied them at first, and then admitted to being able to communicate with any spirit in Chicago. He had been attempting to communicate with the spirits once again the night he was found, and that it had “gone wrong.”
He was ruled insane and sent to the Fergus Falls State Hospital.
Since the beginnings of the spiritualist movement, the court of law struggled with what to do with mediums. Due to the widespread nature of the movement, it was impossible to persecute every medium, especially ones who truly believed they were helping others. For the most part, it was a harmless trick. Sometimes, though, the guise of spiritualism was a way for less well-intentioned people to swindle the unsuspecting public, exploiting their vulnerability for profit.
In the case of Lyon v. Home in 1868, a landmark in the persecution of fraudulent mediums, Vice-Chancellor Giffard was stated as saying: “The system, as presented by the evidence, is mischievous nonsense, well calculated, on the one hand, to delude the vain, the weak, the foolish, and the superstitious; and, on the other hand, to assist the projects of the needy and of the adventurer.” (12)
Though the incident didn’t occur in Morrison County proper, on August 20th 1897, The Little Falls Weekly Transcript reported on Spiritualist Rev. Amae Wheeler being convicted in Brainerd for attempted fraud via séance. (13) He and his wife participated in the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp at Gilbert Lake—for a cost, that is. If attendants did not pay the entrance fee of $13, it was claimed that the spirits were less likely to manifest.
Wheeler performed several acts and summoned various spirits for his less than convinced audience, such as “Fritz, the lacemaking spirit” who, like his name suggested, produced cheese cloth that could have been passed off as lace in the dark of the room. After this, a spirit manifested claiming to be the father of Mr. Adair, an audience member. Mr. Adair then lunged at the “spirit,” his friends lighting candles to reveal the farce. It wasn’t a spirit, of course, but Wheeler with his shirt off and cheese cloth wrapped around his face. (14)
For his obvious deception and extortion, Wheeler would be ordered to pay $25 along with associated court fees.
In 1888, the Fox sisters approved the publishing of the memoir, “The Death-Blow to Spiritualism,” in which they revealed everything in their long careers to be false. They renounced the movement they began, stating spiritualism was “the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.” (15)
There had been no spirits, no hauntings, only the two of them cracking the bones of their fingers and toes to imitate the ghostly rapping. It had all been a prank—something to frighten their mother with on the eve of April Fool’s Day—that had quickly gotten out of hand. The two would spend the relatively short rest of their lives speaking out against so-called mediums. Kate would pass away in 1892, and Maggie in 1893.
It had been the perfect storm of sensationalism for a society that was more and more willing to accept the idea that life did not truly end with death. Despite the attempts of people like the Fox sisters and even famed magician Harry Houdini to expose spiritualism as a fraud, the movement carried on uninhibited. This idea would be carried well into the 20th century and beyond. Even now we watch shows like Ghost Adventures and movies like The Conjuring. We tell ghost stories on dark and stormy nights and scare our friends with the Ouija board.
The ghost of spiritualism lingers on, and—much like the supposed spirits these mediums communicated with—it will continue to do so.
By Grace Duxbury
Copyright 2021, Morrison County Historical Society
Mark, Joshua J. “Ghosts in the Ancient World.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Foundation, October 4, 2014. https://www.worldhistory.org/ghost/.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The History of Spiritualism Vol I.” Classic Literature Library. Classic Literature Library. Accessed October 6, 2021. https://classic-literature.co.uk/scottish-authors/arthur-conan-doyle/the-history-of-spiritualism-vol-i.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
- Abbott, Karen. “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian
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Gonzalez-Wippler Migene. What Happens after Death: Scientific & Personal Evidence for Survival. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1997.
Kommel, Alexandra. “Seances in the Red Room.” The White House Historical Association, April 24, 2019. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/seances-in-the-red-room.
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Mesmerism to the Cure of Diseases and the Methods of Producing Mesmeric Phenomena.
London: Bailliere, 1852.
- Little Falls Weekly Transcript. March 5, 1897.
- Little Falls Herald. March 17, 1899.
- Little Falls Herald. May 20, 1898.
- Little Falls Weekly Transcript. March 13, 1900.
- Stewart, Ardemus. “Belief in the Preternatural, and Its Effects Upon Dispositions of Property.” The American Law Register and Review, August 1892.
- Little Falls Weekly Transcript. August 20, 1897.
- Brainerd Dispatch. August 20, 1897.
- Davenport, Reuben Briggs. “The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the True Story of the Fox
Sisters.” Project Gutenberg, August 23, 2010.