How the Inventions of the 19th Century Brought People Closer to Talking with the Dead

In Depth

With the harnessing of electricity and the advent of the telegraph, the 19th century was a great time for advancements in communication. Not just between the living, but also between the living and the dead.

In a new video released by New York’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, Brandon Hodge, a curator of spirit communication devices, explains how the social and technological climate of the 1800s led to an increase in Spiritualism in the United States and Europe. Rituals such as séances and table tipping became more popular and instruments—like planchettes and dial plates—were developed and put into use.

Hodge explains:

“[These devices] came at a time when the telegraph was very new, when electricity was very new as this unknown force…You could charge this wooden planchette—you can’t charge wood with electricity, it’s a nonconductor, but those conceptions were so nascent when these devices were first being created and [there was] this idea that ‘Well, if I can receive a message through a telegram from someone hundreds of miles away within a few minutes, we can sort of—we just raise those poles a little higher and maybe communicate with something beyond.”

By the mid-1800s, communing with the dead was so popular, it was often used as parlor games.

“By 1851, one Philadelphia observer reported that some 50 or 60 séance circles had been formed in the city, and a Cincinnati newspaper editor estimated more than 1,200 mediums operating in his city alone,” Hodge writes on his website.

He continues:

Even those along the western frontier were hooked, and in 1853, another journalist remarked that, “it was not by any means unusual on entering a log cabin to find the good, simple people seated around the rude table upon which the raps were being made.” Table-tipping and spirit rapping soon reached England and spread to the Continent, and on both sides of the Atlantic, inventive new ways to communicate with the “so-called dead” were imagined and made reality.

Spiritualism saw a second spike around the early 1920s when, due to World War I and the Spanish Influenza outbreak, people were experiencing the loss of loved ones en masse. It was around this time that skeptics—including Harry Houdini—set out to expose spiritual mediums as frauds and their tactics as trickery.

But as Hodges points out in the video, the instruments and tactics that had people thinking that they were communicating with the beyond were indeed very convincing. Some—like the Ouija board—are still used today:

“It’s a very powerful feeling, when that planchette starts gliding across that board and spelling out things that you don’t think the spirits know. Even if you attribute it to ideomotor response—and it is unconscious muscular action that’s pulling information out of your subconscious…it’s still amazing that the human brain is capable of autonomously and cooperatively producing these messages. When you’ve experienced that and seen how powerful that is, even as a skeptic, it’s quite easy to see how much more powerful it is for a believer.”

If you’re a ghost and agree with Hodge, knock once.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via the Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

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