World War One and the Rise of Spiritualism

In earlier lectures at, I have interrogated the concept of the desire for human immortality and its causes.  (Please see two lectures:  The Illusion of Immortality, Part 1 and The Illusion of Immortality, Part 2.)  Many scholars and researchers have reached the consensus that for numbers of people, the Western concept of immortality, with its promise of heaven as a place of reward for desirable behavior on earth, and fear of hell as a place of everlasting torment for the wicked, assures the satisfaction of two very important human desires.  The first need of people is to be assured of a life that never ends. The second is the satisfaction of the wish for recompense.  People want to believe that the wicked on earth will receive their just punishment, an everlasting one, in hell.

This paper will explore how war and societal change in America and in England weakened the grip  of traditional Christian religion.  I shall focus briefly on the United States from the late 1840’s and through the Civil War of 1861-1865.  The paper will then turn to the Great Britain of the early 1900’s and the devastating effects for religion and for society in that nation due to World War I from 1914 to 1918. The rise of Spiritualism was in large part a response to the enormous number of young men who were killed in that war.

Arguably, the First World War was poorly planned by the leaders on both sides, the British and German generals and politicians. The result was a staggering loss of lives, with young men serving as cannon fodder.  Many of those who did survive returned  home with what was then called “shell shock” and now is termed PTSD.

Spiritualism has many tenets but the most important is the belief that individuals live on after death in a form of spirit existence.  Many Spiritualists also hold that the moral condition of one’s human life determines one’s spiritual condition after death.  Spiritualists believe that not only can there be communication between the spirit world and the human world, but that such communication is desirable. Many Spiritualists do not believe in eternal punishment meted out by an angry god for human wrongdoing.

In the early 20th Century, communication between this world and the spirit world was believed to be achieved by mediums who could communicate with those who had died and who could pass on those communications to the living. (The belief in mediums’ skill at communicating with the dead remains strong in present day Spiritualism.)  The recipients of the mediums’ messages from the world of the spirits were most often relatives and friends of the dead.  The comfort and happiness felt by those who believed they had proof of the continued existence of their loved ones, and the hope of being with them at some future time, is most understandable. 

It is very difficult to accept the naturalist, scientific outlook that humans, along with the rest of the animal kingdom, have an expiration date. We shall not only lose our own lives, but frequently be forced to bear the death of those closest to us, those whom we hold dear.  Such loss is almost unbearable.  We cannot protect ourselves, nor those whom we love, from the finality of death.  It is not difficult to understand that people try to assuage such fear and grief with the belief in an afterlife.

Faced with the death and suffering brought about by the American Civil War and then World War I, it is understandable that there was a substantial amount of people who embraced the tenets of Spiritualism. But within those milieus, there were many unscrupulous people who called themselves mediums. They seized the opportunity to exploit the grief of those who had suffered grievous loss by promising to achieve communication with their dead loved ones. 

Traditional Christian faith was being shaken during those eras in other ways as well. Darwin’s “Origin of Species” (1859) contradicted the religious view that an omnipotent god had created all animals, man included.  The science of geology was finding evidence in the earth itself that the world was much older than the Christian Bible claimed. The notion that a great flood had once covered the entire earth was found to be dubious.

The folklorist, Sir James George Frazer, published “The Golden Bough” in 1890. His book was not always accurate, but it was a respectable study that compared religion and mythology.  People discovered that some of the so-called ancient traditions that many believed in were actually legends concocted as late as the 1850’s. As traditional religion began to be weakened by such revelations, new cults began to emerge. New religions, such as the Methodists, the Quakers, the Baptists and the Salvation Army, gained members.

Ironically, while science had begun undermining superstitious and erroneous religious beliefs, the advent of new technologies began to convince many people that they might be able to achieve communication with “the other side.” Radio and telegraphy were starting to link people together in ways unknown before.  There was talk of receiving channels and wave lengths from the spirit world.

It was to the mediums and their séances that people now turned. Séances provided entertainment for after dinner parties attended by the middle and upper classes.  But for many who were suffering grief from the death of loved ones, séances were not frivolous events.  Such people were devastated by loss and hopeful of communicating with dead relations. The usual sequence of such meetings took place in darkened rooms furnished with a table around which the guests sat.  This paper will detail some of the worst practices of the mediums later in the text.  But the popularity of such dubious events was remarkable. 

People began to use the term “tuning in” to describe the medium making contact with the spirit world. The inventor, David Wilson, believed  that “auras” in the ether could be picked up by psychic telegraphs.  He was not alone in such fancies.  The rapid growth of wireless communications reinforced the notion that the spirit world could be communicated with.  Proponents of such ideas never seemed to question whether there actually existed a spirit world to be communicated with. Skepticism was laid aside as wishes were treated as fact.

There was one dishonest practice that needs to be discussed in this portion of the text as it relates to the new technologies. Those technologies were often misunderstood not only by the uneducated but too often by people trained in science.  Photography was one of the technologies which had come on the scene only recently.  It is important to keep in mind that the daguerreotype had been invented in 1839, very close to the period under discussion.

One of the most insidious practices of dishonest photographers was to produce so-called “spirit photography.”  The famous Harry Houdini (1874-1926), a magician and escape artist, was dedicated to exposing dubious mediums and spiritual frauds. Houdini traced the beginnings of spirit photography to a Boston photographer, William Mumler, around 1862.  Mumler convinced people that he had captured a ghost on film.  People crowded his studio hoping to get pictures of dead relatives on “the other side.” It was Mumler’s misfortune to have Houdini investigate his spirit photographs.  Houdini discovered the process by which such photographs were produced.

Massimo Polidoro describes Mumler’s technique in his “Final Seance” of 2001.  A client would have his or her photograph taken, and after it was developed, there appeared to be extra faces on the photo, “ghostly faces.” However, some of the faces turned out not to be the visages of spirit relatives of the clients, but of living people.  Mumler and other frauds used the new technique of double exposure.  They superimposed faces taken from other photographs on the original picture. Before being exposed as a faker, Mumler had actually produced a trick photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the “ghost” of the dead president, Abraham Lincoln, hovering behind her. 

The beginning of the Spiritualist Movement was in the United States. Many historians date its popularity to the events that occurred in Hydesville, New York in 1848.  Two young sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, began to hear mysterious rappings in their small home.  The area of upstate New York where they resided was the famous “Burned-Over” District, where earlier religious movements such as Millerism and Mormonism had emerged.  

Mormonism did not associate itself with Spiritualism, but nevertheless, such new religions had made their appearance during America’s Second Great Awakening. This particular “awakening” was a Protestant Revival Movement which became pervasive from about 1790 to the late 1840’s.  According to historians, It was characterized by religious fervor and belief in the supernatural.  The revival rejected the Enlightenment values of rationalism and deism.

The cultural milieu of the American nation, which was on the brink of a civil war, was ripe for figures like the Fox sisters.  The young women claimed that the mysterious rappings in their home were spirit communications.  With the girls acting as mediums, people began to believe that it was possible that spirits could communicate with the living.  Gradually, as other mediums came upon the scene, thousands of people, and then millions of them, began to have a firm belief in the afterlife. They also began to trust that psychic mediums would enable them to communicate with the spirit world.

The two Fox sisters made many public appearances and displayed their skill as mediums all over the country.  However, in 1888 they admitted that their act had been a fraud.  They confessed that the mysterious rappings had been produced by the snapping of their toes.  Then they recanted and claimed that their confession was false.  But as Polidoro states in his 2001 ” Final Séance,” by then the Spiritualist movement had become so large and popular that their confession did not mean much to its members.  Spiritualism went on as though the Fox sisters had never admitted to being false mediums.

By 1897, Spiritualism was said to have about eight million followers in the United States and Europe, with most of its participants coming from the middle and upper classes.  But the late 1800’s also saw the waning of its influence, even though formal Spiritualist organizations had begun to form. The credibility of the movement began to be questioned as there were many accusations of fraud made against mediums.  (The same types of accusations would contribute significantly to the decline of spiritualism at its height in England. Spiritualism’s most popular years in Great Britain were from the end of World War I (1914-1918) to the beginning of World War II (1939-1945.)

But prior to its decline, Spiritualism became entrenched in the United States partly because of the large losses of the lives of young men on the battlefields of the American Civil War (1861-1865.) Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife, suffered terrible grief because of the loss of their soldier son. She sponsored séances in the White House.  Apparently, President Abraham Lincoln attended some of them.  Given the skeptical and rational cast of Lincoln’s mind, however, one may speculate that he attended to help his grieving wife.  He may have been curious as well.  It is certain that the massive casualties of the Civil War contributed greatly to Spiritualism’s popularity.  People desperately wanted to believe that they could communicate with loved ones they feared they had lost forever.

But it is to England and the First World War (1914-1918) that this paper now turns.  England was one of the Allied Powers, along with France and Russia.  Many more European countries became involved with the allies as the war continued.  These nations, called the Entente Allies, fought against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria- Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  Italy remained neutral until 1915 when it joined the Entente Allies. The United States entered the war as a co-belligerent on the side of the Entente in 1917.  The Entente Allies finally prevailed but at the horrible price of loss of human life.  The cost to the principal combatants was extremely high. Spiritualism was a response to the death, disease and waste caused by that disruptive war.

Before turning to the rise of Spiritualism in England, it is necessary to understand the devastation in that nation during and after what ironically was called “The Great War.”  There are different views among historians concerning the accuracy of the many accounts of poor and irresponsible tactics by the generals and politicians on both sides of the conflict.

Suffice it to say, however, that there was definitely poor battle planning and a general lack of solicitude for the common soldiers who fought under terrible conditions in trenches. By the war’s end, the Allies had lost about 16 million soldiers.  The Central Powers had about 4 million men killed.  Some of the figures mentioned in this paper have been contradicted by other sources, but the number of war dead was very high.  That fact is not in dispute.

While many young men died in combat, many others succumbed from diseases such as cholera while fighting in muddy, water-filled trenches. The terrible conditions of those trenches have been described in many histories and memoires of World War I.  Other combatants succumbed to pneumonia, their immune systems weakened by wounds.  There was an initially less deadly strain of the so-called “Spanish Flu,” that killed more soldiers trapped in prison camps.

Perhaps the unmitigated suffering of the war contributed to the superstitious tales that were often reported in the newspapers.  It would seem that people were anxious for some sort of victory and since reality did not provide it, fantasy would. There were many stories of ghosts, victories and so on, but the tale of the Angel of Mons was the most famous.  It illustrates the desperate desire for help from somewhere that the English public began to embrace.

In August, 1914, the British expeditionary forces near Mons, Belgium, were in a fierce fight with the German Army, which was making its planned sweep into France. There are different versions of the tale, some from 1914, and some from the present day, which was briefly taken up with angel worship. In its most current retelling, the British Army was about to be destroyed by the German forces when a brigade of warrior angels appeared and destroyed the Germans, giving victory to the British. But any sort of a British victory was very far from the truth. 

Historical facts give the lie to such tales.  The Battle of Mons was not a military victory for the British, who barely survived. The Brits were outnumbered four to one. While the small expeditionary force fought fiercely, aided by their expert rifle work and air bursting shrapnel, they continued to be pushed back.  In about 48 hours the Germans declared a cease fire and the British withdrew. They had only delayed the German sweep for two days. The British lost 1600 men at Mons, while the Germans lost 5000. Mons is an excellent example of troops being used as cannon fodder during World War I.

The British public was hungry for any sort of victory, and so the British paper, The Evening News, hired the Welsh Gothic Horror author, Arthur Machen, to publish a story titled “The Bowmen.”  The fictional tale had the besieged British forces cry out to St. George to help them. There suddenly appeared phantom long bowmen from the famous Battle of Agincourt which had taken place 500 years before. The ghostly long bowmen defeated the Germans, leaving no visible wounds, and allowed the British to declare victory. Machen’s story was published five weeks after the battle of Mons. It was picked up by other papers and many readers believed it was an actual news story.  Machen reminded the public that he had written a fictional tale.

Brigadier General John Charteris was said to have written a letter to his wife on September 3rd of that year, 1914, which was three weeks before Machen’s story. The letter apparently claimed that an angel of the Lord appeared at Mons, clad in white and holding a flaming sword.  The angel prevented the German army from any further progress.  Charteris was Chief of British Army Intelligence from 1915 to 1918.  One of his jobs was to disseminate propaganda. His letter would seem to have been a piece of propaganda to lift the spirits of the disheartened British.

There were other versions of this tale, like the one with a troop of angels saving the British soldiers. Some of the stories had three angels, the one in the middle being St. Michael,  providing safety from the Germans.  Subsequent research has provided no mention of the Angel or angels of Mons, and no mention of the ghostly long bowmen from Agincourt.  Tales such as these do serve to illustrate the intense credulity of the British public with regard to encounters with the supernatural. The stage was set for the belief in being able to communicate with the “other side,” which would become so pervasive with the popularity of Spiritualism.

It is impossible to calculate the sickness and death caused to the civilian population of England during World War I.  The battlefield deaths were recorded, but there were no such records for the civilians other than obituaries.  The disruptions in trade caused food shortages, which resulted in disease and malnutrition in the general population.  There were more food shortages brought about by the mobilization of millions of men who had worked on farms prior to the war.  Without those workers, there was a large slowdown of food production.  People were more likely to fall ill of various diseases when they were not properly fed or cared for.

In May 1918, the pernicious “Spanish Flu” appeared in Glasgow’s civilian population, and by June had spread to the citizens of London.  The most vulnerable victims of that sickness were 20 to 30 year olds.  It was less deadly for the old and for children, who are generally the ones likely to succumb to most types of influenza. By the time the sickness had waned around 1919, about 230,000 British citizens had died from the flu or its complications.  Worldwide, the “Spanish Flu” killed somewhere between 40 million to a 100 million people.

Britain was devastated by the Great War and its aftermath.  Death after death seemed to come in an unending succession.  But death was not the only toll on the former soldiers and their families.  Many soldiers who had survived the war came home alive, but often with scarring and missing limbs.  Others had come down with “shell shock” or what we now call “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”  Nervous symptoms often rendered the victims unable to work, which made them incapable of supporting themselves and their families.

The terrible war years and their aftermath saw increasing resentment against the Church of England. At the outset of the war, the Church had pressed for aggressive military action.  Many additionally resented the Church for its role in recruiting soldiers.  Traditional religion was held in less respect than it had ever been.  But while the power of the traditional religions began to wane, people still wanted to be given hope for an afterlife.  They did not want to accept that they would never see their lost loved ones again.  Niche religions began to seem attractive and many people drifted over to them.

Sophie Jackson’s 2014, Dear Raymond: The Story of Spirituality and the First World War, points out that for the first time in English history, the Church did not try to attack dissenters.  Apparently the Church was heavily engaged in trying to save face and save its reputation, and took no steps to persecute dissenters or the new religions.  As Jackson points out, it had also become impossible to attack all the dissenters or all the new sects and religions that had sprung up.  There were the Theosophists, the Spiritualists, The Southcottians,  physic investigators and even some devil-worshippers. The flood gates had opened.

Two well-known and widely respected men contributed to the popularity and belief in Spiritualism during the period of the Great War and after.  One of them was Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), a physician and the author of the popular Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle had been raised a Catholic, but had lost his faith in that religion as a young man.  Family difficulties and the influence of an uncle with whom he was very close, began to turn him in the direction of Spiritualism. His initial stance was one of hopeful skepticism, but he soon became an ardent believer and promoter of both the Spiritualists and the psychic researchers.

Doyle’s naive faith in fraudulent mediums, “fairy” photographs and other follies have been well documented and well recorded in other works. This paper’s concern is to discuss Doyle’s tragic encounter with World War I and his family tragedies as a result of that encounter. His son, Kingsley, died of pneumonia while wounded at the Somme in 1918.  His brother, Innes, succumbed to the flu and pneumonia in 1919. His nephew had enlisted in the war in 1914 and had been killed in action shortly after.  His family’s deaths reinforced Doyle’s growing faith in Spiritualism. His grief and belief in encountering his loved ones again on “the other side” helped in his decision to risk his reputation in order to bring hope of an afterlife to the people.

Doyle was an ardent and activist Spiritualist, never wavering in the face of false mediums, absurd séances and other proofs that his belief was being taken advantage of.  When Doyle visited America in 1922, he was accused of influencing and being responsible for a series of suicides in the United States.  These accusations were obviously slanders, but the atmosphere surrounding some of the practices and beliefs of Spiritualism and other groups had become to appear darker.

By the early 1920’s, there grew a rising fear of evil and demons.  In the free-for-all atmosphere that came with the waning of old traditions and superstitions, new ones had sprung up that were not as benign as Spiritualism.  Aleister Crowley, an English occultist, magician and writer, had begun calling himself a devil.  The novelist, Dennis Wheatley, was writing popular books that explored witchcraft and satanic rituals.

Sophie Jackson states that when Doyle died in 1930, there were reported appearances of his spirit at séances. Jackson writes that at his memorial service in Albert Hall, the medium, Estelle Roberts, claimed she saw Doyle walk onstage in full evening dress, and take a seat on the stage among his family members.  He was soon seen making spirit appearances worldwide.  Doyle died a promoter and defender of Spiritualism.  He is remembered not only for his Sherlock Holmes stories, but also as the man who significantly helped with the spread of Spiritualism.

Another prominent figure in England was Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) who had been a professor of physics at University College.  Lodge also was at the forefront of radio wave research and the spark plug.  He was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle and a strong proponent of Spiritualism.

Lodge was the father of twelve living children, but he felt the most affinity with his son, Raymond.  When this beloved son was killed in the Great War in 1915, Lodge was distraught.  He turned to a popular medium, Gladys Leonard, who convinced him she was very skilled in speaking with the dead.

Leonard was also quite adept at eliciting information from people attending her séances prior to the dimming of the lights.  Most successful mediums have this ability. Furthermore it would not have been very difficult to learn facts, even some private ones, about the Doyle and Lodge families.  They were prominent public citizens and information about them would have been available from multiple sources.

With the aid of Leonard, Lodge had what he believed were a number of conversations with his dead son. Raymond told his father about heaven, which he claimed was quite similar to the world of the living.  Lodge was delighted.  However, some traditional believers were outraged that the heavenly world seemed too much like the one on earth.

Raymond told Lodge that anything good could be made in heaven, and that it was possible to get a whisky there.  Because of the anger of many Christians, Lodge tried to explain that such habits as whiskey drinking would be dropped as people became accustomed to their spiritual life in heaven.  There was also controversy over Raymond’s description of his heavenly form as fully formed, rather than a spirit.

Lodge decided to publish his conversations with his dead son, Raymond, and the 1916 book was titled: “Raymond or Life and Death.”  The volume went through four printings in its first year. According to Sophie Jackson, the book also contained Lodge’s views on the afterlife, communications with the dead, and aspects of spirituality.  He was quite aware that his book would be very controversial.  The most apparently heretical idea that Lodge cherished and articulated was his firm belief that even the worst souls who had been killed or who had died at the World War I front were now in heaven.

Lodge saw that the casualties on the front seemed to go on and on in an endless carnage.  Most English families had been negatively affected by the terrible war and needed some hope of being joined with their loved ones in the future. Despite his enthusiastic embrace of Spiritualism, Lodge remained an Anglican Church member all his life. He did not want to create a new religion, according to Jackson.  He merely wanted to comfort the citizens of his country.  He wanted them to believe that the young men cut down by the war were in a heavenly place and finally safe and at peace.

Lodge lived a long life, and sadly he was able to see the beginning storm of World War II.  He died in 1940, having lived long enough to see his wireless technology used in the service of war.  But he died secure that he would be passing into a better place, and that he would meet his beloved son, Raymond, there.

This paper has made an attempt to provide a sympathetic view of intelligent people such as Doyle’s and Lodge’s embrace of spiritualism.  Their personal tragedies and desire to help others deal with the loss of loved ones make their uncritical publicity for the Spiritualist Movement understandable. However, it would be reprehensible to ignore the dark side of some of the Spiritualists’ practices.

The operations of the vast majority of mediums who were exposed as frauds by physic investigators demonstrated a callous greed that took advantage of grieving people. It gives the lie to the excuse that they were bringers of peace and happiness to the bereaved. Spiritualism had become associated in certain quarters with women’s emancipation, and that was one reason for its popularity.  But while the majority of mediums were women, many of them were very far from being independent. Most of them had husbands, or male handlers, or publicists who exercised an undue amount of control over them. So they were essentially “tricked out” and put on display by men. 

The descriptions of the séances and the way many mediums conducted them reveals practices ridden with lies, deception and greed.  At the outset of the séance’s popularity, there was a general credulity on the part of the attendees.  The lack of skepticism with regard to the events that were purported to happen during séances was surely enhanced by the endorsement of men such as Conan Doyle and Oliver Lodge. 

A brief description of what often took place in the séances of that time will be illustrative of the blatant dishonesty of many mediums.  Guests would gather around a table at the head of which was an eccentrically dressed woman with a mystical air. The only light was from candles and sometimes the candles were snuffed out. The attendees would be instructed to take seats around the table, and sometimes were told to hold each others’ hands.  The medium generally went into a trance very soon after everyone was in place.

Still in her supposed trance, the medium would then ask questions that the “spirit” who had entered the room would answer. Sometimes the “spirit” would take over the proceedings and the medium would be merely a conduit for the newly liberated ghost. At other times the spirits would communicate who they were. Once in a while they were uncooperative and would refuse to answer questions. Occasionally, a spirit would pat all the people at the table on their backs with a newly embodied hand.

There were other events which created wonder and belief in the people attending the séance.  The table might tilt, or it might whirl. One can appreciate how such happenings could create confusion in the guests, further enhancing their credulity and diminishing their powers of skepticism and critical inquiry. They did not realize that the mediums had installed elaborate mechanisms out of sight to make the table levitate. Spirits or ghosts might be seen to fly around the room. Such entities were later found to be children’s dolls covered in cloth.

There was often a cabinet which was near the medium or able to be reached in the darkened room without observation.  The medium would pull out various disguises or materials that would be used to imitate spirits or to pretend to be spirit paraphernalia. One well known male medium had a previously “blank slate” appear from under the séance table with writing on it.  He claimed that it was spirit writing.  But the gentleman had the bad luck to be investigated by Harry Houdini (1874 – 1926), the famous escape artist, magician and relentless detector of frauds. Houdini found the slate had a message written on it before the séance.

A common trick that would astonish séance audiences would be the “evidence” left under the table or on it. The so-called evidence was called “ectoplasm,” material which ostensibly came from the spirit or spirit world. Pieces of “ectoplasm” that were sometimes found under the séance tables were merely some sort of goop produced by humans, not spirits. (Children make a type of goop in the present day. They use glue, hot water and Borax as the principal ingredients.)

Sometimes mediums would regurgitate the “ectoplasm” from their mouths.  Such a trick was quite difficult to manage successfully. It usually involved swallowing cheesecloth or another thin material and then drawing it back up or appearing to vomit it up. Sometimes it would be hidden under clothing and slowly drawn out to imitate a spirit substance.

There were musical instruments such as trumpets and guitars which would appear in the air at the séances and seem to play a ghostly music. Before one sitting, Houdini lamp blacked a trumpet without the medium being aware of it.  As usual, the trumpet that played music in the air by itself astonished the guests. But the medium was exposed as a fraud, because the lamp black had rubbed off on his hands, proving that it was he who had played the “ghostly” trumpet.

Many mediums who perpetrated frauds were brought to court, found guilty and fined.  But some people continued to believe in the con artists, despite their unmasking as unscrupulous hoaxers who were engaged in fraud for gain.  Such willed credulity highlights the difference between practitioners of religion and practitioners  of science.  Science changes when the evidence for or against a belief or a theory emerges.  In religion, belief often continues despite significant evidence brought forward to disprove it.

Despite their good intentions, Doyle and Lodge forsook the ethical standards imposed on them as men of science. Their behavior was very egregious when they defended mediums who had been exposed as frauds. Both men were not in good faith when they continued to insist that there was proof of the spirit world.

During the height of the Spiritualist Movement, there appeared two important pieces of writing which helped to discredit the dishonest practices of many Spiritualist mediums. William Marriot (circa 1910) was a famous magician.  He was also a highly successful debunker of frauds. He became even more well known when he obtained a 1901 pamphlet written by a medium, Ralph E. Silvestre.

Silvestre’s pamphlet had not been intended for the general public, but was aimed at teaching aspiring fraudulent mediums the “tricks of the trade.” Silvestre listed techniques and apparatuses used by those whom he claimed were most the prominent mediums of the day. His pamphlet demonstrated how to bring off the deceptions. It was amusingly titled “Gambols with the Ghosts.” A copy of this work is on display at the University of London’s Harry Price Library of Magical Literature.

In 1922, Harry Price, the famous psychic investigator, and the well known psychic researcher, Eric Dingwall, republished a work written by an anonymous former medium that was titled Revelations of a Spirit Medium. The work exposed the many tricks that mediums use, such as producing visible “spirit hands.” (Spirit hands have been reproduced many times by investigators. They use a rubber glove, paraffin and a jar of cold water.)

The work revealed many other cons carried out by fraudulent mediums. It was said that all copies of the original volume had been purchased by Spiritualists and deliberately destroyed.  Some copies obviously escaped and one of them helped to discredit the Spiritualist Movement.

Most atheists and skeptics find such practices by dishonest mediums unconscionable. The excuse sometimes made for those charlatans was that they brought comfort to the living who were mourning their dead loved ones. But does it seem likely that such people were really interested in helping and comforting the bereaved?

Rather the mediums took advantage of people’s vulnerable state to pretend they could communicate with their dead relatives. Heartbroken people paid well for the deception. It was money that was the true motivation of the perpetrators of those hoaxes. Those of us who cherish truth for its own sake and who accept the scientific method will not be sanguine about the methods of the mediums of that era.

American society saw the waning of Spiritualism in the years after the Civil War. Much of the decline was due to the exposure of dishonest mediums.  Exposure of mediums was a significant factor in England as well in the years following the Great War.  By the beginning  of World War II in 1939, Spiritualism had declined so substantially that it was no longer a real force in society.

The Great War opened the door for a British society in which the Anglican Church was not able to stop people’s criticism of and departure from it.  The old bonds between religion and government were weakened, as was the Church itself. New faiths partially supplanted the traditional ones, and then they were supplanted in their turn.  Suzie Grogan states that: “…when so much had been lost (in World War I) many could see nothing but ghosts.” The English people could not let those ghosts go. For many years, no one could stop the mourners’ search for meaning in life, for contact with the dead, and for immortality after death.

In the present day, there are dedicated people who expose physic and religious frauds.  But there are still ghost hunters, vacation spots that promise resident ghosts and so on. There are still physics who pretend to put people in communication with their dead loved ones on television. “Woo” of all sorts continues to proliferate in our society.

The atheist community needs to help mount the resistance to not only traditional religion, but to the claims of the vapid and still influential New Age “woo.”It remains too easy to be taken in by false promises of eternal life, or by the belief that one can alter one’s destiny by using “energy” to attract what is desired, whether it might be success, health, or wealth. Rationality can be ignored only so long before unpleasant consequences erupt and disillusion sets in.

Let us pledge to help and support the people engaged in the struggle to expose false promises and beliefs. We have an obligation to create a rational, just and compassionate  world for everyone.  Let us provide a happy and realistic  future for our children, not in some imaginary world, but in this one, the only one we have.


My lecture is gratefully indebted to the following authors and their books, not only for facts, but also for the insights they brought to the topic of the Great War and the rise of Spiritualism:  Sophie Jackson’s Dear Raymond: The Story of Spirituality and the First World War; Suzie Grogan’s Shell Shocked Britain; and Massimo Polidoro’s Final Seance.  Please see information about these volumes in the bibliography below.

“Smoke and Mirrors: Spiritualism in World War I.” BBC Radio 4.

Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Ltd., 1983.

Clarke, D. The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., 2004.

Davies, Owen. A Supernatural War.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Dunning, Brian. The Angel of Mons. Skeptoid Podcast #137. Jan.20, 2009.

Falcon, Kyle. Ghosts of the First World War: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in Britain.  Laurier Center for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.  Wilfred Laurier University. Oct. 30, 2015.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. (new edition.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Grogan, Susie. Shell Shocked Britain. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword History.  An Imprint of Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2014.

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