Spiritualism’s Shadows

On COVID-19 and false consolation

Alicia Puglionesi

Shannon Taggart’s photographs document contemporary Spiritualism practices in the United States and Europe. Table-tipping workshop with mediums Reverend Jane and Chris Howarth, Erie, Pennsylvania, 2014. Courtesy the artist

What has happened to the more than one million people killed by the coronavirus in the United States since March of 2020? Their names are buried, in the san­itary custom of our country, inside a chart or a county coroner’s report. The first year of the pandemic saw public efforts to name and honor the individuals lost, but this generosity quickly ran out. Mourning has been relegated to the ephemeral no-place of social media, compressed into emoji-plated memorials that flit past in an instant. Now the absent presence of the dead is a problem only for their closest intimates. Democrats, Republicans, and a chorus of “apolitical” public health experts exhort us to get on with business, as though nothing bad is happening. In January of this year, the Centers for Disease Control director, Rochelle Walensky, cheered the public with the “really encouraging news” that most vaccinated people who died from COVID had four or more “comorbidities” and were thus “unwell to begin with.” Through canny arrange­ments of data, the dead are summoned to absolve the living—there’s no need to change course, or even to feel sorry. Disclosures of personal grief are met with demands for personal health infor­mation. Strangers on the internet need to know: were there preex­isting conditions? “Is it God’s way of thinning the herd?” asked a reality TV star, invoking the Malthusian intuition that sacrificing the “weak” is necessary and good.

The refusal of collective mourning reveals whose deaths and what kinds of death we consider worthy of honor. Men who perish on the battlefields of a great war must be mourned by the nation, but the sick, whose suffering has no grand purpose, are a reminder that we can’t always control our bodies—knowledge best pushed into the shadows. None of this is new. In 2020, when Americans groped backward to the 1918 influenza pandemic in search of his­torical solace, they found little more than a cloud of amnesia: a marble bench in Barre, Vermont, is among the few scattered mon­uments to flu victims. Journalists mining medical history pried open the closed box of the 1918 flu and found certain resonances: the closure of schools and churches, a desperate shortage of doc­tors and nurses, a push for fresh air and ventilation. In contrast to COVID-19, at first depicted as a disease of the elderly and then recognized as disproportionately afflicting heavily exposed racial minorities and the poor, influenza hit hardest among healthy young people, the group most “valued” by society. Like today, the public looked frantically to medical science for answers, but local efforts to prevent gatherings, close schools, and require masking often cracked under political pressure. Medical experts vacillated, and businesses demanded relief. People were left alone to protect themselves, and to mourn, as their resources allowed.

Faced with the bewildering devastation of World War I and the flu pandemic, many turned to Spiritualism, a nineteenth-century movement that promoted communication with the spirits of the dead. In early 1920, only a month after the last wave of influenza had passed, a West Coast writer complained about bad actors who were “‘cashing in’ on the epidemic.” By “epidemic,” he was refer­ring not to the disease itself but to “the spiritualistic and psychic craze” that followed on its heels. “A wave of spiritualistic investiga­tion is upon us,” reported a Chicago journal of the occult, pursued “by persons of cultivated intelligence as well as by unlettered and credulous followers.” Historians most often credit World War I for the resurgence of Spiritualism, but the flu’s dark cloud also looms large over the scene. Battlefield slaughter was inexorable; the ran­dom deaths of civilians left their families and friends haunted by survivor guilt. The war ended conclusively in victory parades and speeches, however hollow, but no one knew if the scourge of dis­ease would return. Through communion with the other world, mourners learned that their dearly departed were at peace—and they also sought the occult secrets of health that might protect them in the wake of modern medicine’s failure.

Spiritualism was widespread in all walks of life, from seedy stage shows to the halls of Congress. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the eminently rational detective Sherlock Holmes, had been dabbling in this “new American religion” since the 1880s, long before losing both his son and brother to the flu. Doyle, like many others, believed channeling the dead was a scientific practice that proved the immortality of the soul. Spiritualism and detection were twin engines of consolation: they appeared to solve the mys­tery of death, absolving the innocent and condemning the guilty. Both of these practices worked on the individual rather than the societal level, restoring uniqueness and agency to people swept up in events of an inhuman scale. Through the technology of mediumship, the dead were within reach; their words of comfort could make things right. Spiritualists promised a world freed from mourning, but that did not mean a world freed from tragedy. What if easy consolation allows the conditions for tragedy to fester?

in may of 1919, the president of the American Society for Psychical Research, James Hyslop, brought a woman he code-named “Mrs. Drew” to see the renowned medium Minnie Soule, known as “Mrs. Chenoweth.” He also brought a stenographer. Over the course of two months, Hyslop and his assistant recorded the medium’s every word as she muddled through the strange, disjointed signals that pulsed from the other world toward Mrs. Drew, a stolid woman who “does not appear to be of the highly imaginative type.” Despite Mrs. Drew’s opaque demeanor, the spirits laid bare at least one of her private griefs.

During the sitting, the medium scrawled out a message from the spirit of a young woman: “I did not think…I would die did not want to go so soon.”

Hyslop was there to enumerate and fact-check “correspon­dences” between Mrs. Chenoweth’s ramblings and Mrs. Drew’s family history. During the second sitting, the medium scrawled out a message from the spirit of a young woman: “I did not think…I would die did not want to go so soon.” Hyslop immediately recog­nized a correspondence. Mrs. Drew’s daughter had recently “died from influenza,” he commented in his report, “and just when they thought she might improve.” The medium dropped her pencil and cried out in distress. Mrs. Drew stood up and left. Hovering between trance and consciousness, Mrs. Chenoweth muttered, “I just see numbers, numbers. Do you know if anybody among these died with influenza. I just feel it. One of the victims of the scourge, I hear them say.”

Based on “numbers” alone, Mrs. Chenoweth could have been making a likely guess as to recent events in Mrs. Drew’s life. Once Mrs. Drew responded to the suggestion that a daughter was con­tacting her and confirmed that the death was unexpected, the flu was the most logical culprit. In the shock of her first contact, we glimpse something dissonant and coldly impersonal, but in the sit­tings that followed, Mrs. Chenoweth dutifully homed in on the intimate consolation that all her visitors sought. The fundamental tenant of Spiritualism was that humans possess a unique and indi­visible self that persists after death; even in mass tragedies, such as the flu pandemic, the self is recovered in the singular perfection of heaven. Still, Mrs. Chenoweth’s cry of “numbers, numbers” feels eerily epidemiological; coming from some faceless chorus of the dead, it blocks the retreat into individual communion. For all the easy reassurance of the quaint and domestic heaven popularized in Spiritualist writings, the direct output of trances also shows a stranger, more frightening other world.

As her sessions with Mrs. Drew unfolded, Mrs. Chenoweth hit upon further correspondences. Doctors had barraged the public with warnings that fatigue, stress, and fear could worsen the flu. Mrs. Drew’s daughter, married to a naval officer, spent much of the war anxiously knitting for the Red Cross. The family wondered if this frantic work had worn her down. Through Mrs. Chenoweth, the daughter assured them that being “overtired” was not what caused her to succumb. “I am glad I did as much as I did,” she said with patriotic pride. “I was not a slacker was I.” A meaningless and arbitrary death from disease was transformed into a good death though her honorable service to the nation.

Both news reports and literary portrayals of spirit contact usu­ally featured nonbelievers who were converted by the stunning evidence of their senses. In Doyle’s 1926 novel, The Land of Mist, the skeptical hero, Dr. Challenger, finally converts to Spiritualism when two former patients from the charity ward contact him through a medium to reveal that they died from pneumonia, not from the experimental cure he had secretly dosed them with. For years, the doctor has carried the guilt of killing his patients, and the immense relief he feels when they absolve him wins him over to the Spiritualist cause. As a physician himself, Doyle recognized that many caregivers were tormented by failure and helplessness; he addressed his Spiritualist evangelism to them. Relieving sur­vivors’ guilt served an important purpose in the context of sense­less, relentless death. But the formula of individual forgiveness was often called upon to jump scales; its minute accounting of guilt and innocence also served a larger calculus of necessity, providing justi­fication to society as a whole for the suffering it refused to prevent.

Shannon Taggart, Medium Sylvia Howarth Enters a Trance, England, 2013. Courtesy the artist

As historian Christine Ferguson writes, Spiritualism’s con­cept of “free will” often amounted to embracing a utilitarian and biologically determined fate. The spirits of those at the top of the social hierarchy—able-bodied, white, and well-off—could affirm their noble choice to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Those with inborn weakness or disability forgave society’s choice to sacrifice them, as they were in a “better and happier place.” If having the spirits of the “unfit” defend eugenics sounds monstrous, it is no more so than inspecting online photographs of COVID vic­tims to diagnose them with preexisting conditions. White medi­ums often ventriloquized People of Color, using their “voices” to justify the violent racial order that subjected them to exploitation and death. It is no coincidence that this practice, which produced apologetics for slavery and Indigenous genocide, was used again in 2020 to speak for George Floyd after his murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A medium claiming to channel Floyd’s spirit preached “love and forgiveness” and discouraged political action.

In contrast, many founders of the Spiritualist movement had an explicitly political vision of the dead crying out for justice. Spiritualism, which has always attracted antiestablishment radicals of various stripes, was a nexus of abolitionism and women’s rights in the 1850s and 1860s. Speeches by the spirits of abused slaves and repentant accommodationists strengthened the political will of abolition’s supporters. Labor agitators cited prophecies from the other world in their calls for equality and universal brother­hood. While reformers were drawn to the mass mobilizing power of spirit revelations, Spiritualism also appealed to a highly individ­ualized from of justice. The staunchly traditional Doyle was not alone in hoping that the dead might be able to assist the police. In a 1930 book, he assembled a litany of cases where crimes were solved via psychic visions. Indeed, the first messages ever received through the spirit telegraph in 1848 were supposedly from a mur­dered peddler buried in a basement. Such notorious incidents as the “Greenbrier Ghost” in West Virginia often involved women murdered by lovers or husbands, whose only hope for justice was posthumous. Together, Doyle’s popular ghost and detective stories anticipate today’s blockbuster true-crime shows, in which forensic experts are visionary mediums who make the dead speak—only to point to the police and carceral system as sources of redemption.

in addition to offering emotional healing and political direc­tives, spirits from the other world were a prolific source of medi­cal advice. Spiritualism combated bodily weakness with confident prescriptions, rewriting illness as a matter of bad information and insufficient faith. Channeling doctors from beyond lent authority to women’s longstanding healing practices: Mrs. Augusta Messer of Milwaukee, a Prussian immigrant married to a carpenter, was credited with saving “more than eighty people during the influ­enza epidemic” through her mediumship. The spirits of chiroprac­tors, and of premodern physicians, prescribed “natural” remedies that were part of a broad countercultural rejection of mainstream medicine dating back to the early 1800s, when sundry folk healers offered alternatives to the aggressive bloodletting and purgatives of university-trained doctors. Throughout the nineteenth century, a struggle for authority raged between allopathic—mainstream—medicine and its heterodox detractors, who ranged from mesmer­ists to osteopaths to herbalists. Their critique of elite physicians was not without foundation: even after the germ theory of disease led to better prevention in the late nineteenth century, there was no magic bullet to combat germs inside the body, and allopathic doctors still resorted to harsh chemicals like mercury and sedatives like laudanum. Cheaper, gentler alternatives such as chiropractic took on populist appeal.

Like many alternative healers, Riley blamed the pandemic on the unnat­ural tools of conventional medicine.

Before influenza broke out in 1918, American doctors felt con­fident that they were winning the struggle for authority: the first effective antimicrobial drug had debuted in the 1910s, and state boards had formed to push out unlicensed healers and to shut down “inferior” medical schools—often under-resourced Black and women’s colleges. The pandemic assailed physicians’ new­found confidence; even the legendary “microbe hunters” who had captured tuberculosis and syphilis under the microscope could not identify the flu’s cause. Public health officials urged preven­tatives such as disinfecting hands and surfaces, but the absence of an evident pathogen left room for other explanations. In 1919, Joseph Shelby Riley, a chiropractor and founder of reflexology who preached “spinal adjustments” as a cure for the flu, boasted, “We have never had any trouble whatever in controlling the disease. When they were dying all around us by the thousand, we went to many of the worst cases…and saved all we treated.” Like many alternative healers, Riley blamed the pandemic itself on the unnat­ural tools of conventional medicine, specifically the new vaccine for typhoid fever.

The false binaries of natural versus unnatural and pure versus contaminated held as much sway then as they do now, and sorted the world in equally inconsistent ways. Alternative healers gave credit to modern sanitation and hygiene for reducing the burden of acute disease, but only because they clung to the nineteenth-century miasma theory, which associated sickness with filth. The prolific chiropractor and nostrum-seller George Starr White held that “the germ theory is the product of a diseased mind and super­stition,” railing against vaccines on the grounds that “diseased and filthy matter is injected into the healthy body.” He preferred to treat patients with colored lights and essential oils, which he promised would “gri[p] the Flu out of Influenza.” “Nature’s laws are immutable laws,” declared White, “and…there is only one way of preventing and curing disease—the natural way.”

Alternative medicine, Spiritualism, and occultism all tended to agree that cures were achieved not with antibodies but with ener­gies. They were informed by the mind-cure movement, a diffuse set of mind-over-matter therapeutics which, to varying degrees, rejected conventional medicine in favor of mental healing. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science and a widely known proponent of mind cure, remarked of an 1895 flu outbreak, “Our great influenza epidemic is half mental or volitional, and largely depends upon fear for its victims.” The mind cure combated disease-inducing fear with healing faith, and shares a lineage with the positive-thinking philosophies that proliferated in twentieth-century America, promising wealth, health, and happiness to those who turned inward and harnessed their willpower. The belief that fear could cause disease was cruelly evident during the 1918-1919 pandemic. Even New York City’s health commissioner, a homeo­pathic doctor, delayed closing public venues in order to prevent “the condition of mind that in itself predisposes to physical ills.”

The quiet after the storm of pandemic flu was filled with oblique dread. Teas, gargles, and lozenges peddled during the win­ter “danger months” bore ominous warnings: “Never make the mistake of underestimating the menace of a cold.” These nostrums, along with the proliferating self-help advice of positive thinking, promised to restore vigilant consumers’ control over their bodies. In 1920, the new-thought movement magazine Success criticized the U.S. surgeon general for predicting that influenza would recur and “may stay here for years.” Success did not deny the germ theory of disease but adopted a seed-and-soil philosophy: a sound mind and body would repel infection. “Take care of your health; don’t worry; keep cheerful and hopeful, and…you will resist any disease germs that may be floating around.” A natural-health guide con­curred with Success’s advice that each citizen had to “eliminate all fear of the flu,” underscoring that germs “multiply only in bodies heavily encumbered with and weakened by food, drink, and drug poisons”—which included vaccines. Like today’s wellness culture, this strain of popular thought addressed an audience that at least aspired to have enough time and money to buy “pure” products, live in large houses, and banish their worries. Countless charla­tans claimed to have saved every flu patient who came their way, rewriting the recent past when physicians had watched helplessly as thousands of formerly healthy young people succumbed. The seductive promise of individual control discounted effective med­ical and public health interventions that protected all Americans, including those who could not afford exotic lozenges.

The same individualist fallacy, with its outsized focus on con­trolling subjective states of mind, shapes both mainstream and heterodox responses to COVID-19. Guidance from the CDC has repeatedly thrown out public health’s precautionary principle for fear of causing “panic.” Public health leaders incentivized desirable precautions, such as vaccines, with false promises of invulnerabil­ity—Biden’s “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Some mental health experts rejected basic anticontagion measures, arguing that it is more important to keep disordered feelings at bay than to control the spread of pathogens. Doctors with no psychology background issued dire and unfounded warnings about the cost of masks to children’s development, while minimizing the dangers of the dis­ease itself. Another tragedy of medical authorities and pundits clos­ing ranks around a mind-over-matter approach to the pandemic is that the growing population of long-COVID sufferers have their symptoms dismissed as psychological—caused by mental weak­ness and hysteria. And promoters of mind cure and “the natural way” are still here to profit from desperation. This is not only the province of liberal-seeming wellness brands like GOOP, with its holistic long-COVID detox products. For right-wing conspir­acy groups, there is nothing contradictory about calling COVID a deep-state hoax while peddling immune-boosting vitamins and snake-oil antivirals. Telling the public that fear is worse than material threats to their lives—that fear is the “real” threat, and the reality of death and disability an illusion—is a terrifying refusal of political responsibility.

spiritualism provided a distinctive new infrastructure for after­life communication. Its arc was not apocalyptic: it did not antici­pate an end of days when all souls would depart for heaven or hell. It rejected original sin and the mortification of the flesh. Instead, Spiritualists believed the veil between worlds had been lifted so that spirits could guide the Earth toward a utopian age of peace and plenty. All utopias, and the means of their arrival, reflect the values of those who conjure them. Some mediums promoted enlightened progress; others advocated political upheaval. There were strident materialists, railing against the exploitation of industrial workers and the “ever encroaching power of wealth.” What they all shared was the metaphysical belief that heaven is a purified version of this world; therefore, death was also progress. Death was often equated with freedom, and some insisted on “spiritual birthdays” instead of funerals. “No tears of sorrow for the dead,” implored the pop­ular medium Cora Richmond, “but all these for the living.” While Richmond meant to shine a light on social problems, this exalted rhetoric misses the point of mourning. When we mourn the dead, we mourn for ourselves, because we are not separate from them. We acknowledge what is at stake in building movements that push on without a utopian horizon.

Now, I feel a shudder of dread when I hear the mantra, so foundational to Spiritualism, that death is not real.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the intractability of worldly problems drove a further retreat into the occult and mag­ical. Initiates declared that “Man is a spirit here and now”—that those who mastered the secret powers of the mind could sculpt reality itself. Interviewed by one of her critics, a medium claimed to see “no reason why a person cannot be under water a long time and yet live”; people die, she insisted, only “because of the igno­rance which you still entertain regarding natural laws.” Her critic sarcastically retorted that if we follow this line of thought, then “a man thoroughly mangled in a railway accident dies because we believe that life has become impossible to him.” The year was 1919, and more than 500,000 Americans were dead from the flu, but wellness gurus suggested that perhaps they had succumbed to an illusion. The impulse to blame the dead was unsurprising in the context of prevailing American attitudes toward sickness, disability, and death, which had long scrutinized individual character rather than social structures.

Knowing that I study the history of Spiritualism and the occult, friends started asking me at the beginning of the pandemic if we would see a revival of these practices in response to mass death, as occurred after the Civil War, World War I and the influenza pandemic, and World War II. The Times (of London) delivered the requisite story on a COVID-driven “21st-century revival of spiritualism.” CNN explored “after death communications” from pandemic victims. The New York Times ran a lifestyle piece about the boom in online psychic services, characteristically blaming stress and anxiety while avoiding any mention of grief.

Repeating the old formula that people turn to Spiritualism to cope with tragedy fails to engage with the politics of life and death that have always been part of constructing the afterlife. Spiritualism and adjacent mind-cure philosophies often promoted individual survival and empowerment alongside a discourse of consolation and necessity. As an unchecked pandemic slashes through a society already wracked by climate change, exploitation, and hallucinatory self-help regimens, consolation for what’s been lost doubles as preemptive consolation for a stolen future. “Life on earth isn’t our ultimate end,” tweeted National Review columnist Alexandra DeSanctis in the spring of 2020, suggesting that there was no moral sense in trying to control COVID-19’s spread. The editor of a Christian magazine chided those who “value earthly above eternal life.” “There are more important things than living,” the lieutenant governor of Texas told reporters. In his estimation, the main thing more important than living was the sanctified “American way of life,” defined as economic productivity. As a his­torian, I had always withheld judgment about the promises made by Spiritualist practitioners. Now, I feel a shudder of dread when I hear descriptions of heaven as a happier continuation of this life, or the mantra, so foundational to Spiritualism, that death is not real.

In the year 2022, the leaders of the United States have openly declared that the disabled are better off dead, that the working class prefers to be sacrificed to sustain the national economy, and that fear is worse than the morbidity and mortality caused by the novel coronavirus. Anthropologist Martha Lincoln calls this stance necrosecurity: the principle that “mass death among less grievable subjects plays an essential role in maintaining social welfare and public order.” For the right wing, the less grievable are the eugeni­cally “unfit” and the racialized, while for Democrats they are people who brought it on themselves by failing to get vaccinated. Each party maintained that only the unworthy would be sacrificed. In May 2020, The New York Times called a hundred thousand deaths “An Incalculable Loss”; two years later that newspaper marked nine hundred thousand deaths with the notorious headline “Many Americans Move On.” Buffered by their demographic isolation from those who have not “moved on,” a group of elites insists not merely that this pandemic defies human agency but also that it is no longer a problem at all. The thing their cohort most grieved was “normalcy,” which they seem to have willed back to life. This zombie normalcy can produce only more disposable people, as repeated COVID-19 infections create preexisting conditions that justify premature death.

Of course, the living need some consolation. There are many ways to confront indelible loss, but the American approach has a strange violence to it: we have to accept what happened as inev­itable and push away our heightened awareness of death to keep our own heads above the perilous waters. When the flu struck in 1918, there was no virology and no bureaucratic state apparatus of disaster planning. Today we have ways of preserving life never previously imagined. We pray at the altar of lifesaving technolo­gies, but their dramatic power obscures the accounting methods that drive us to that altar in desperation. Careful wagers have been placed on how much damage people can absorb in the course of producing value. A great optimizing engine winnows down good subjects for the state and capital. We live under a dogma of indi­vidual responsibility; the heretics are easily spotted because they are poor, nonwhite, sick, or disabled. These souls can be pitied, but not mourned.

As much as I believe that the dead should be allowed to speak, I don’t think they can tell us anything about ourselves that we don’t already know. There are no secrets or mysteries at this moment. We don’t even need the spirits to reveal the killer. Powerful tech­nology and tremendous resources were at America’s disposal, and instead of using them effectively, leaders preferred to let “nature’s laws” operate. The problem is that nature’s laws are also human creations, mystified and unleashed in bad faith. With their vaster purview, the dead can see this, and we can’t ask them for con­solation in advance as we continue to stack up bodies in service to a necrotic ideology. Communion between worlds takes many forms: the practice of Spiritualist mediumship often lends itself to private resolutions, but something larger and more terrible—Mrs. Chenoweth’s “numbers, numbers”—has been let loose and will never be resolved. Spiritualists envisioned a world freed from mourning, and we can see that desire darkly manifested in our present world where no magnitude of disaster can stop the busi­ness of the day. More tragedy becomes inevitable when an entire society refuses to imagine that things could have been otherwise. If there is a higher nature, it consists in recognizing that the lives of others are equal to our own, worth fighting for to the bitter end and beyond it.

Alicia Puglionesi is a writer and historian living in Baltimore. She is the author of Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science and In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire, which exposes the spiritual and scientific narratives woven around colonial resource extraction.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022


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