Halloween Edition: Seances and Suffrage

In honor of Halloween, this week’s post takes a look at Spiritualism, a mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth century movement that aimed to establish communication between the living and the dead through spirit mediums.

Don’t forget to join us at the Free Library tonight to learn more about In Her Own Right and the suffrage movement!

Post by In Her Own Right project team members (credits below)

As historian Ann Braude argued in her 1989 book Radical Spirits, Spiritualism played an unlikely but crucial role in the early women’s rights movement. Challenging traditional religious and social norms, it gave female mediums a voice in a moment when women had few pathways to speak in public. Victoria Woodhull, who became the first woman to run for president in 1872, had gotten her start as a prominent spirit medium and clairvoyant.

Richard Bergh, Hypnotic séance (oil on canvas, 1887). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hypnotisk_seans_av_Richard_Bergh_1887.jpg

Spiritualism intersected with other radical political movements including abolitionism and women’s suffrage, and found strong support among certain Quakers. Quaker abolitionists Amy and Isaac Post were high-profile spiritualists, and many Quakers attended at least one seance. While Quaker women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott remained doubtful about so-called “spirit rappings,” her husband James proclaimed himself “much interested” in such phenomena in an 1852 letter. Recounting his experiences at a Spiritualist seance “circle” the previous winter, Mott insisted that “[t]is folly to call it all humbug”: “the testimony is too strong & the evidence, too numerous, that there is an influence of some kind, as yet imperfectly understood, which perhaps time & a large accumulation of facts will explain.” Read the letter in full via the link below.

A letter written by James Mott describing his experiences at a seance and his interest in spiritualism. Mott Manuscripts, SFHL-MSS-035, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.  http://tricontentdm.brynmawr.edu/cdm/ref/collection/InHOR/id/29229



Thanks to In Her Own Right co-PI and Friends Historical Library Archivist Celia Caust-Ellenbogen, who shared expertise and materials for this post. A 2016 Halloween “seance” staged at the Friends Historical Library showcased Quaker materials related to Spiritualism, some of which have been digitized for the In Her Own Right project. Temple SCRC Graduate Assistant Jessica Markey Locklear also contributed research and content for this post. 


For Further Reading

Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001). 

Gladstone, Brooke, and Ann Braude. “How Dead Spirits Helped Women Find Their Voices.” On the Media Podcast, WNYC Studios, 21 December 2018.


Jordan, Marie. “Spiritualism in Pennsylvania.” Fondly, Pennsylvania Blog, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 16 August 2017.