5 Creepy Victorian Fads
Victorians were obsessed with the past. They looked nostalgically back to the Middle Ages in their books, (Gothic novels, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), architecture (the Gothic revival that began in the Georgian period but went on well into the Victorian era) and paintings (famed artists like the Pre-Raphaelites). Along with this renewed interest in the medieval past, Victorians became enamoured with the occult, mediums, magic, séances and ghosts to name but a few. Here are 5 creepy things that were popular during the Victorian period.
Spiritualism: If only the dead could talk…
Spiritualism, a religion that was born and grew popular during the Victorian period, was based on the belief that the dead could communicate with the living. Spiritualists believed that spirits were more advanced than humans and as a result, could give advice because of their special knowledge beyond the living world. The movement started in Hydesville, New York on March 31, 1848 with the Fox Sisters, Katherine, Leah and Margaret, but quickly grew in popularity in many English speaking countries. It reached England’s shores via medium Maria B. Hayden in October, 1852. Spiritualism peaked in the 1880s but took a hit after some prominent mediums were exposed as frauds. The movement survived and remained relatively popular in spite of its controversies, until petering out in the 1920s. The Spiritualist Church still exists today with branches in Canada, the US and England, although in much smaller numbers than during the Victorian period, when Spiritualism claimed to have close to 8 million adherents.
Mediums: If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call?…
Mediums, people who could communicate with the dead on behalf of the living, were often women because it was believed that women were more passive, and therefore more receptive to the spirit world. Many female mediums were also active in the Temperance, Suffragette and anti-slavery movements of the time. It was a role where women could bypass the typical gender constraints of the period thus spawning a proliferation of mediums in the late 19th century, famous names like the Fox sisters, Florence Cook, Cora Scott, Emma Hardinge Britten and the Bang sisters. Being a medium was a lucrative business with well-to-do patrons shelling out hundreds and thousands to be able to speak to their deceased loved ones. Meanwhile they were being swindled, and often times, robbed during séances by wily mediums and their assistants. The practice lost its momentum after many of the most prominent mediums were exposed as frauds in the 1880s. Mediums still practice to this day but with nowhere near the popularity of their Victorian predecessors.
Séances: I have a message from your Uncle Bob….
Attempts to communicate to the dead were in vogue during the Victorian period, as demonstrated by the explosion of Spiritualism and mediums. Séances were a popular form of entertainment in Victorian parlours. The practice was so popular that even Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife had spiritualist friends and held a séance at the White House in an attempt to contact her son, William Wallace Lincoln, after he died at the age of 11 from Typhoid fever. Not even royals were immune from the séance craze, Queen Victoria was purported to have a medium at Buckingham Palace and attended séances in the hopes of speaking with her husband, Prince Albert, who also died of Typhoid fever in 1861. During séances, mediums received messages from departed loved ones, fell into trance-like states and were taken over by entities, used props like Ouija boards or Planchettes (for automatic writing), and even had spirits turn tables. Eventually, most séances were debunked as the tricks used by mediums at these events were proven to be scams.
Momento Mori: Smile for the camera…wait…you can’t…
While completely creepy and morbid to the modern mind, momento mori were anything but to Victorians. Post-mortem photographs were commissioned by grieving family members to capture what was often the only photo they would have of their loved ones.The tradition actually predated modern photography; post-mortem paintings were popular in earlier centuries but unfortunately, they were extremely expensive. When the daguerreotype (the earliest form of photography) was invented in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, it allowed families to retain an affordable memory of their loved ones. In a creepy twist, the dead made great photography subjects. The the long exposure times required people to remain absolutely still so the dead often appeared the clearest in these photos.
Magic, Esotericism and the Occult: Want to Join My Secret Society?
Along with talking to the dead, Victorians counted amongst their odd past times, many strange clubs and organisations. There was the Ghost Club of London, founded in 1862, which was devoted to paranormal investigation. The more popular Order of the Golden Dawn, which studied ceremonial magic, the occult, astrology, alchemy, the Hermetic Qabalah and tarot. The famous Theosophical Society, an esoteric philosophical group founded by Madam Helena Blavatsky and numerous other groups springing up to sate the Victorian need to know about the unknown and connect to the Other Side. Magicians, fortune tellers, tarot readings and magic parlour games were also extremely popular during the period. If it was spooky, or a form of pseudo-science, you can bet the Victorians were into it. A nostalgia for all things Victorian has prompted the revival of some of these groups and activities but in a much more limited fashion.