Echoes from Another World

June 20, 2017
Natalie Hulla
In April 1869, when William H. Mumler entered a New York City courtroom charged with two counts of felony fraud for asserting that he could provide his clients with images of their ghostly loved ones — a story that takes center stage in Arlitia Jones’ world premiere play Summerland — it wasn’t just his controversial spirit photography business at stake. Also on trial were ideas at the heart of Spiritualism, a religious and social movement that rose to prominence in the mid-19th century with its belief that the living could communicate with the dead.

Mortality was top of mind for Americans in the 1850s and 1860s. As cities grew, so did the risk of death by numerous health epidemics, from cholera to influenza. At the same time, just a little more than a decade separated the casualties of the Mexican-American War from the unprecedented losses seen during the Civil War. In this environment, it’s not surprising that the idea of the soul as immortal, unbound by the limits of our physical world, brought great comfort to those who were suffering.

Modern American Spiritualism traces its origins to a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, where, in March 1848, sisters Margaret and Kate Fox claimed to be haunted by the spirit of a man who was murdered in their home years before. The girls, 14 and 11, said they heard a series of knocks or raps on their bedroom walls each night as they attempted to drift into sleep. The sequences of knocks were eventually linked to letters of the alphabet and translated into a code that allowed the two to converse with the ghost. Neighbors were brought in to corroborate their incredible story.

News of the otherworldly forces surrounding the Fox sisters soon spread beyond their small town. First hundreds came to witness their powers in local meetinghouses. Then the sisters embarked on a national tour of public séances. Their travels brought them to Ohio in July 1851, when the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, “Spiritual manifestations may now be looked for of a much higher order than those witnessed heretofore.”

Nearly 40 years later, Margaret remembered that visit. “We went to New York from Rochester and then all over the United States,” she wrote. “We drew immense crowds. I remember particularly Cincinnati. We stopped at the Burnett House. The rooms were jammed from morning till night, and we were called upon by those old wretches to show our rappings when we should have been out at play in the fresh air.”

The country was ripe for the promise the Fox sisters provided. Far from conflicting with the technical advancements of the day, Spiritualism adopted scientific methods of investigation and examination to provide support for its belief in an afterlife. The Fox sisters were seen as spiritual telegraphs, the human equivalent of Samuel Morse’s new invention. Spirit photography took the argument to a new level: When the first accounts of Mumler’s developments were published in Spiritualist leader Andrew Jackson Davis’ The Herald of Progress in 1862, they offered visual “proof” of the connection between this world and the next by using the relatively new medium of photography to illuminate what the naked eye could not.

Many prominent Americans were linked to Spiritualism, including Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Both former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Henry Wilson, vice president to Ulysses S. Grant, posed for Mumler’s camera. Across the pond, Spiritualism also appealed to the Victorian fascination with the occult. Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were proponents. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert participated in Spiritualist séances.

At its peak, Spiritualism attracted nearly eight million practitioners in the U.S. and Europe. But, by the end of the century, its popularity was waning. In an October 1888 confession published in New York World, Margaret Fox admitted that the sisters’ claim was a hoax, a prank intended to frighten their superstitious mother. They created the supernatural sounds that made them famous first with an apple tied to a string and knocked against the floor and later through the popping of their own finger and toe knuckles, a trick they could disguise even in front of audiences.

“I am willing to state that Spiritualism is a fraud of the worst description,” Margaret Fox wrote. “I have had a life of sorrow, I have been poor and ill, but I consider it my duty, a sacred thing, a holy mission to expose it. I want to see the day when it is entirely done away with. After my sister Katie and I expose it, I hope Spiritualism will be given a deathblow.”

The Fox sisters, sadly, met a tragic end: Both struggled with alcoholism in later years, and Margaret died penniless. But the deathblow to Spiritualism that she predicted never actually materialized.

The echoes of Spiritualism linger well into the present. One need look no farther than the popularity of contemporary television shows including Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Witness to see that many still harbor a very real desire to connect with those who’ve passed from this life into the imagined paradise of the “Summer-land.”

To learn more about the Playhouse's world premiere production of Summerland, visit the production detail page.
Michael Rothhaar (William H. Mumler) with Whitney Maris Brown (Mrs. Mumler) in the world premiere production of Summerland by Arlitia Jones. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.