Apogee and decline of spiritualism




The golden age of spiritualism

We can naively believe that the historical memory of the most important events of the past (at least of fairly recent times) remains well impressed in the human psyche, but it is not so. It is sufficient to do an accurate historical investigation on what happened in a given period, focusing on the collective and individual psychological reactions resulting from certain events, to realize how much of the information relating to that era has been lost. Moreover, some scholars show a tendency to retrace, as if they were a new territory yet to be explored, the same psychic paths already traveled by researchers of the past. An example of this occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century in relation to the phenomenon of spiritualism, which had a major impact in the culture of the time, spreading from the United States to Europe, the Americas and Russia. Its diffusion, both at the popular level as well as in the bourgeois and aristocratic society, meant that some prominent exponents of culture and science dealt with what we can now call mediumistic phenomena, and took a more or less critical or interpretative position towards them. The peculiar interest in the psychic reactions determined by mediumistic phenomena is given by the fact that they open a breach in the protective wall of what can be interpreted and shared by human reason, thus representing a challenge to our intelligence, as they may also imply the the eventuality of a conscious existence in one or more dimensions distinct and separate from that to which we have become accustomed and more or less adapted in the course of our human life.    

Some texts on the history of mediumistic phenomena

The recent historical events that led to the birth, growth and apogee of that remarkable social phenomenon – still not quiescent – represented by spiritualism, can be enclosed in just over twenty years, from 1847 to about 1870. For a chronological and critical examination of such events you can consult some texts in the Library, for example the synthetic Spiritismo (in Italian) by Armando Pappalardo, or complete and exhaustive Modern Spiritualism (in two volumes) by Frank Podmore. However, the history of spiritualism should be examined in the broader field of investigation relating to all those phenomena that have been labeled, in the history of humanity, in thesphere of the marvelous, supernatural, magical, miraculous, numinous, divine, and so on: a context strictly connected with religion and faith. From this point of view, are definitely worth reading the two volumes of the Storia dello Spiritismo (in Italian) by Cesare Baudi di Vesme, the first edition of which dates back to 1896. It is a text still very enjoyable today, written by a journalist of remarkable intelligence and openness. To the first two volumes, which offer a complete outline of the various forms of beliefs in entities that are normally invisible (spiritic, numinous, divine or similar), that have manifested themselves in the human psyche leaving historically documented traces, should have followed a third one, devoted to the mediumistic phenomena from 1848 to 1900, but it was never published (the German edition of the work, in three volumes, is a bit wider than the Italian, while also remaining incomplete).      

Portents, miracles and psychic conflicts

Di Vesme highlights how there has always been, since the origin of human history, a component of the psyche capable of determining, or making anyway possible, those phenomena that another component of the same psyche considered as extraordinary, including them in the aforementioned categories and attributing them to alien entities, beneficial or evil depending on the point of view. One of the most amusing aspects of the book is given by the wit with which the author underlines the attribution – by the ecclesiastical authorities – of completely identical phenomena, such as miraculous healings, to positive entities (Christ, the Holy Spirit , the saints) or negative (the devil or demons his acolytes), depending on whether the human operator was a believing follower or a heretic. The same attitude, as is known, has been maintained by the Catholic Church towards Spiritism, still considered as a form of (unfair) competition! In any case, in the past prodigies and miracles, even arousing wonder and even disbelief (at least in the most intelligent and educated people, who always felt the need to verify extraordinary events), did not create the psychic conflicts that characterize our scientifically oriented mentality. With all evidence – unless you want to reject (as some do) all the testimonies related to extraordinary facts labeling them as imposture, fraud, legends or superstitions – there is the possibility of activating psychic tunings that allow the occurrence of phenomena deemed impossible on the basis of the psychic tuning that we normally use. Often the activation of these tunings is due to practices and exercises of mental detachment from the normal needs of the body and its interaction with the world (ascesis). However, there are a very few people – mediums – endowed with a particular talent through which certain extraordinary phenomena can take place without them having to submit themselves to a long and hard ascetic training.  

Contrasts within spiritualism

Spiritualism, not being able to integrate such discordant psychic tunings, soon assumed the forms of a dogmatic faith, or rather of a set of religious branches that often disagreed on doctrinal aspects considered as very important: for example, Americans spiritualists, influenced by the works of medium Andrew Jackson Davis (The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations and Voice to Mankind - 1847), did not believe in the reincarnation of spirits, which instead was considered fundamental by European spiritualism, institutionalized by Hippolyte Rivail (Allan Kardec would have been his Druidic name in a previous incarnation) and influenced by Theosophy. As usually happens in religious matters, doctrinal communications of the spirits of the various mediumistic communities were often in disagreement with each other, and consequently the question arose of which spirit was reliable and which was not: there was a need to establish hierarchies of spirits, from the most advanced and close to God to the beginners, poorer and not infrequently false and liars. As is humanly understandable, very soon, among the various communities, misunderstandings and rivalries began to arise, based on the defense of their guardian spirits of reference (mine is more advanced than yours). Thus began the decline of spiritualism, which was showing the features of a religious phenomenon.       

The ascendancy of technological power

At the end of the nineteenth century scientific mentality was well rooted, especially among the more educated classes. Although the naive expectations and unlimited trust in scientific progress that had characterized positivism were in decline, science and especially the technological applications of scientific knowledge determined a constant social transformation that was considered progressive and irreversible. New technologies showed the emergence of the human power to transform the world and use its resources, a power that had no precedents in history with regard to the certainty and control of the results obtained. While magical or miraculous phenomena, founded on faith, mystery and esoterism, offered no guarantee about the occurrence or not of events, the results obtained and their subordination to human will, the technological devices created by producing organizations were controllable at will and usable on the basis of certainty of results. Today, on turning the engine starting key of a car, we are sure that the engine will start not by an act of faith, but because technology guarantees us this result, and we are surprised only if the starting fails, a sign that something is wrong. The same for turning on the TV with the remote control: the user can also be completely ignorant about the operation of the device and its circuits, but the socio-cultural system in which he/she lives offers sufficient guarantees that the product's performances will correspond almost 100% to his will.    

Statistical unreliability of miracles

So-called miracles, on the other hand, may happen, but the cases in which they do not occur are extremely more numerous: of tens of thousands sick people who go on pilgrimage to Lourdes or other sanctuaries, those who are miraculously healed can be counted on fingers of two hands, and also mediumistic phenomena do not escape the character of randomness that distinguishes paranormal events. This may be the reason why the human psyche – in the search for the agents that determine mediumistic phenomena or other extraordinary events – feels the need to refer to forms of will and intelligence alien to those we are endowed with. After all, beyond the interest for the wonderful, fascinating and magical aspect of mediumistic phenomena, the main reasons why spiritualism soon assumed the dimensions of a mass phenomenon are two: the first was due to the desire to establish contact with the dead, especially with dear ones and other people known and loved in life; the second consisted in receiving confirmations about the continuation of a conscious existence after bodily death and information on the environments and conditions in which this new form of existence would take place. About the first point, compared to a certain number of cases of correct identification (some of which containing elements of information that were not already present in the mind of someone of the sitters), there are several others of attribution of fictitious, arbitrary or uncertain personalities. Regarding the second point, spirits' communications contain practically everything, from the most naive descriptions of anthropomorphic environments, to the different and sometimes contradictory theories on the organization of heavenly spheres and on the spiritual evolution.     

Report of unreliable contents by the researchers

The opponents of spiritualism were not the only ones who emphasized the critical aspects of the vast amount of mediumistic communications that formed within a few decades (especially by writing mediums). Even the same scholars inclined to accept the hypothesis of the spirits' existence noticed it: for example Aksakof, in his Animism and Spiritism, wrote verbatim (page 9 of the Italian edition of 1912): «I believe that every sensible researcher, since he devotes himself to study these phenomena, is struck by two undeniable facts: the evident automatism of spiritual communications, and the impudent and quite evident falsity of their content. The important names with which they are often signed, offer the best proof that these messages are not at all what they claim to be... The topics I had accumulated with reading and practical experience were considerable; but the solution to the problem did not come. On the contrary, as years went by, the weak sides of Spiritualism became more evident; the vulgarity of communications, the poverty of their intellectual content, even when they were not at all trivial, the mystifying and lying character of most manifestations, the inconstancy of physical phenomena when they are subjected to positive experience, credulity, prevention, the unreflective enthusiasm of spiritists and spiritualists;... in short, a crowd of doubts, objections, contradictions and perplexities of all sorts, only aggravated the difficulties of the problem».   

Even Armando Pappalardo, in the preface to the first edition of his Spiritism (1901), wrote: «Spiritualistic experiences, by their very nature, offer the side to mistrust; the special conditions – especially of light – which these phenomena need to occur; the tendencies of mediums to trick; all this set of things, combined with the apparent contempt for spiritualistic practices shown by the common representatives of the official science, and the terrible service rendered to spiritualism by some fervent believers writers, who, with works deprived of any serious and positive disposition, have shown to have lost every mental balance, giving to the crowd works that seemed to actually want to found a new religion; this set of facts, I said, contributed to sowing discredit in the public». As we can see, even if the reality of mediumistic phenomena was acknowledged and ascertained, the critical spirit of the scholars of the late nineteenth century had evolved from the more primitive and fideistic condition of the human psyche, which automatically associated the criterion of truth to the marvelous, extraordinary and miraculous. Perhaps this attitude is due to a childish phase of the psyche, for which a person is automatically led to believe as true what is associated with a miraculous event: if someone or something is capable of performing miracles, then what he/she says, or what he/she believes, must be true. This process is very well highlighted in the history of religions (see Baudi di Vesme's Storia dello Spiritismo - History of Spiritism), and finds its limit and its contradiction when the differences in psychic orientation make the defenders of an exclusive religion attribute certain miraculous phenomena – identical to those believed to be due to divine intervention – to evil supernatural entities (thus linked to falsehood and lie rather than truth), if the author of those phenomena is not a follower of that religious faith.     

The critical nature of human condition and the search for protection by higher beings

Anyway, it is typical of a primitive phase of the human psyche the sense of bewilderment towards the discomforts, difficulties and sufferings caused by the phenomenon of life, and the appeal to higher entities to obtain a form of protection aimed at solving the problems that arise over time. Subjugation to these higher entities entails an uncritical and fideistic recognition of their authority and their power, and an evocative and invocative request for their help in one of the forms that can be included in the general term of prayer. It should be highlighted that the etymology of prayer (from the Latin precaria) is linked to precariousness, that is to the aleatory character of the outcome of prayer itself. We could therefore assume that the scientific mentality, aimed at identifying the reliable laws (and, as such, true) that govern the physical world, independently of the entities that have emanated them, constitutes a step forward in the process of evolution of the human intellect, that escapes the uncritical subordination to the powers attributed to higher beings. However, the denial of the existence of entities and alien intelligences that determine the processes of transformation of the physical universe (and possible other universes), must be considered only as an expedient induced by some psychic tunings to free the human being from the subjection exerted by the complexity of the world we live in. As we have seen in the section dedicated to human psyche, scientific knowledge can not guarantee that there aren't disembodied forms of intelligence higher than ours, and – in a certain sense – paranormal phenomena are there to remind us of it.        

Faith in science and technology

Among the reasons that contributed to the decline of spiritualism, also determining a drastic decrease in the interest in mediumistic experiments, can be included the transfer of psychic tunings related to the magical, the marvelous and the miraculous, from the sphere of faith in higher entities (as still could happen in the second half of the nineteenth century) to that of technological achievements. Levitation phenomena may be rarer today, but all of us can fly by plane, traveling rapidly from one point to another on the planet. And as fascinating as telepathic phenomena may be, even transmission and processing of information through TV, computer or smartphone could certainly be considered miraculous if viewed from the perspective of a person lived in the nineteenth century. It may therefore be that the psychic energies of a substantial part of humanity have been channeled so as to favor the development of the most rational, creative, active and organizational part of our mind at the expense of the fideistic, mystical, contemplative and passive part.    

Acknowledged all this, however, we can not help but highlight the surprising anthology of imaginative elaborations to which even in the recent past some personalities with a good level of intelligence have resorted, in an attempt to bring back under the control of the laws known by science the anomalous aspects of paranormal phenomenology. At the end of the nineteenth century, when the theory of ether was still in vogue, the discoveries concerning the transmission of electromagnetic waves opened new horizons: etheric emanations of every kind were thus hypothesized – controlled by the medium's subconscious psyche – to justify the forces that caused levitation or the moving of objects. It was believed that the telepathic transmission of information (from mind to mind) could occur by radio waves transmitted by one brain and received by another. In the medical field, the young branch of psychology, differentiating itself from psychiatry, believed that it would be possible to discover in reasonable time the psychic premises of mediumistic faculties. Today, after more than a century, we must recognize that none of the hypotheses advanced at that time can stand on the basis of the knowledge acquired in the meantime. Moreover, many of the hopes for the rapid development of knowledge concerning the functioning of the human mind run into the complexity of psyche's dynamics and the ways in which the brain processes the received data and stimuli: like parapsychology, even psychology has made little cognitive progress in all this time, so much so that, although living in the context of a very advanced technological system, it can not be said that humanity as a whole has evolved.

The times of human evolution

In the pages of this section some examples of the most important mediumistic phenomena are given, and the reactions provoked by such phenomena in the psyche of experimenters and researchers are highlighted. It will be possible to notice how difficult it is to avoid the impulse to take a position, whether one wants to admit and defend the existence of spirits, or that decides to reject in full the possibility that these phenomena could have occurred without fraud, and therefore their authenticity. But if we want to examine the problem in a broader perspective, it is better to remember that humanity is still in the early stages of its development, that the evolution of the psyche is moving its first steps and that the duration of our individual life is only a blink of an eye if compared to the billions of years since the appearance of life on Earth.    


Hodgson's research
Medium Etta Wriedt
Victor G. Duncan
Materialized ghosts
Robert G. Bolton
Experiments & spirits
Harry Price's case
Samuel G. Soal
Gordon Davis case
The alien spirit
The end of an era?
A  new interest
A  medium's life story