Born of the so-called Victorian 'pseudo science' of mesmerism (aptly described by Ambrose Bierce as 'Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage, and asked incredulity to Dinner'), the seance enjoyed a late 19th century golden age that ministered to the Victorian obsession with science, religious doubt, and entertainment. The seance assumed myriad forms - from entranced maids lecturing on theology to clairvoyants giving notice of stolen property, rapped out messages from the spirit world and ghostly shapes appearing from dark cabinets. Mediums, psychics and somnambulists were investigated by amateur sleuths and by scientists like Faraday and Darwin; their performances imitated and exposed by magicians, denounced by clerics and satirised in the press. Yet the popularity of the seance endured - and does so to this day. Among the broad gallery of Victorians who found spiritual succour in the mysteries and wonders of the seance are the quacks, bluffers and rogues, but also respected physicians such as Dr. John Elliotson, an early champion of mesmerism, aristocrats and writers as real and rational as Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Servants of the Supernatural tells their fascinating story.
Antonio Melechi is a Visiting Fellow at the University of York and the author of Fugitive Minds.