French Museum shines light on history of spiritualism
The late-afternoon sun forced a squint as it lowered itself behind the trees. It was a tranquil evening, the dropping fall temperature not quite requiring a jacket, but it’s getting there.
Inside the John Jay French Museum, the outside brightness was eschewed for talk of the spirits that walk among us.
Karli Stansbury gave a talk titled “Spirits and Spiritualism,” with the subtitle “A (Mostly) Serious Discussion on the Afterlife,” Oct. 1, before packed room of more than 60 people. Clearly, it is not just the spirits looking to make a connection.
Stanbury, Beaumont Heritage Society assistant director, set the tone straight away. She confessed to being obsessed Halloween and all things spooky, and her enthusiasm for the subject was evident.
Spiritualism is both a religion and a philosophy, she said, and traces back to Emmanuel Swederborg in the 1840s. Basically, spiritualists believe heaven is a place on earth and the spirits that reside there have moral and ethical advice for us and want to communicate.
The immutability of the soul is a concept shared with regular Christianity, but instead of the souls passing on to a distant heaven, the souls occupy a spirit world on Earth.
Stansbury said that early spiritualism had an element of feminism. Early exponents Kate and Maggie Fox claimed their parents’ house was home to the soul of a murdered cobbler. They were able to communicate through a tapping, knocking and rapping to answer simple questions. They quickly became celebrities, traveling the country.
Suspicions were raised and when it was revealed that not only had there never been a murder in the house, there was no record of a cobbler, and the Foxes were discredited. Of course, as Stansbury pointe out, record keeping was not exactly thorough back then. So, who knows? Regardless, the rise of the religion continued.
Spiritualism was an acceptable way for women to speak in public, men thought, because they were receiving messages from spirits — incidentally, women were thought to be better at receiving messages than men.
As the spirits were thought to give sage advice, women could speak on issues of female suffrage and abolition. As radical thinkers became uncomfortable with their churches, they found spiritualism fit their ideas better.
One vocal woman, Victoria Woodhull, earned the sobriquet “Mrs. Satan,” which showed that not everyone was quite ready for radical ideas.
Stansbury laughed as she said death was popular in the 1800s, which drew a chuckle from the audience. The populace was faced with smallpox, dysentery, cholera and all manner of disease. Then came the Civil War which denied many people a “good death.” Soldiers would die on the battlefield or far from their homes, meaning the family would not get a chance to bury them or say their goodbyes. They might be thrown into a pit.
Spiritualism was a way from people to connect, to say their goodbyes, to give their loved ones the “good death.” It became widespread, both as a religion and as a business. Mediums sprung up everywhere. The really ghoulish thing, if one wants to tap into the spirit of the season, is that where people are weak and desperate, other people will seek to cash in. Stansbury showed a 1902 flier, “Gambols for the Ghosts,” which advertised a do-it-yourself medium kit with all the gadgets and instructions to conduct a séance. It also included the ominous instruction; Don’t Fail!
Spiritualism also embraced science. Morse code was similar to the concept of knocking out call-and-response messages, so that was adopted as a way to make contact. Photography was making inroads and ghost images were popping up everywhere (Stansbury showed the last photo taken of Mary Todd Lincoln by William Mumler, with the faint image of Honest Abe behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders (Imagine if photoshop was around then. Oh, the money that could be made).
Franz Mesmer believed spirits were made up of magnetic energy, so he would use his “animal magnetism” to draw out the spirits from his patients who were “mesmerized.”
Stansbury added in tidbits about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who made quite a bit of money running seances, and Harry Houdini, who, following the death of his beloved mother, made it his life’s work to expose hucksterism.
Stansbury linked ghost hunting through Ouija boards, automatic writing, radio and telegraph, all the way to video, EMPs and EVP technologies such as seen in YouTube and Netflix videos today.
Stansbury raised a good laugh when she said she will not use a Ouija board, because the ceremony has strict rules for opening and closing the spirit portal, and with her ADHD she would probably forget to shut it.
But why is the John Jay French Museum talking about Spiritualism?
Well, it turns out old man French himself was a Spiritualist. While spiritualism was more prevalent in the North than in the South, Texas, with its philosophy of individuality, was quite receptive to it, with seances giving way to mass revivals, which Stansbury said, featured a lot of snakes and speaking in tongues.
Stansbury said that Methodism and spiritualism had some overlap, and French’s wife was a Methodist. John Jay French believed in the spirits and the house museums ceilings are painted blue to keep spirits from the house (it mimics water and, apparently, spirits cannot pass through water, which raises questions about King Arthur’s Lady of the Lake, but I digress). The color is “haint blue,” for haunt.
Following the tour, we were invited to a flashlight tour of the house where we saw the clock he built and other objects, each with a deliberate “flaw,” because only God is perfect. No spoilers for the clock’s imperfection, you will have to visit and see for yourself.
French was fond of saying, “The spirits are restless tonight.” But Stansbury said, with a hint of sad resignation in her voice, that she does not believe the house is haunted, although she said it would be cool if it was as she spends all day there (I did mention she is obsessed, right).
Now, where’s that blue paint?
The Beaumont Heritage Society, which operates the French Museum, will host more events as the month continues, with a celebration of Florence Chambers birthday, Oct. 8, at the Chambers House, and its annual Pumpkin Walk, Oct. 22, the society’s biggest fundraiser. Admission for the walk is $5.
The John Jay French Museum is located at 3025 French Road in Beaumont. For more information, visit beaumontheritage.org.
This story originally ran in the Oct. 7 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.