Researching Spiritualist Ancestors
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG
Think only genealogists talk to the dead? Not so. Some ancestors did, too. Perhaps you’ve heard stories that a family member, often a woman, had “the gift” or “second sight.” This person might have been a Spiritualist. Spiritualism thrived from the late 1840s until just after World War II. “By 1854, followers, according to the spiritualists’ own estimates, numbered from 1 to 2 million Americans.” The core of this lesser-known but still active worldwide religion is that life (consciousness) survives physical death and that communication with the spirit realm is possible. Considering this is such a unique religion, let’s take a brief look at its history and philosophy before we explore how to determine whether an ancestor was a Spiritualist and where we might locate records.
Modern Spiritualism was born in March 1848 when teenage sisters Maggie and Kate Fox of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have communicated with the dead through raps they heard on the walls of their parents’ home. The alleged spirit identified himself as a peddler who stated he’d been murdered in the house and buried in the cellar. The sisters worked out an alphabet with the spirit and translated the raps into words. Neighbors witnessing the Fox phenomena spread the word. This testimony by multiple observers is referred to as “physical mediumship.” Fifty-six years later, in 1904, schoolchildren playing in the abandoned Fox house discovered human remains behind a crumbling cellar wall. Controversy erupted over the veracity of the sisters’ claims and the bones’ origins, but that didn’t lessen the impact of the discovery.
At the same time the Fox sisters were unknowingly sparking a religious movement, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Both movements provided women with a public voice, since most mediums were and still are women. Learning to communicate with the dead offered a new profession that could provide single and widowed women financial stability. Working in front of audiences of thousands gave them a public platform to deliver messages from the departed and to speak about women’s issues.
The popularity of Spiritualism grew steadily, especially following major conflicts and epidemics—the Civil War, World War I, the influenza epidemic of 1918, and World War II. Those who had lost loved ones sought the evidence that all religions preached but didn’t demonstrate, that there is life after death. The movement spread in America and abroad through Spiritualist mediums who became itinerant representatives of the religion, touring and giving demonstrations of survival to large crowds. These “message services” offered evidence of deceased loved ones and lectures on Spiritualism. Predictably, fraudulent mediums capitalized on such opportunities. This caused legitimate mediums to establish Spiritualist communities that provided development classes, ordained ministers, and tested and authenticated mediums. The first such community was the Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly in Lily Dale, New York, in 1879.
Spiritualism grew solely through converts and attracted both Christians and non-Christians, especially Universalists and Unitarians. The list of some famous people who were Spiritualists or “friends” of Spiritualism includes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Butler Yeats and Maude Gonne, James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, Horace Greeley, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Daniel Webster, and Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.
Spiritualism has never had a charismatic leader, and while it offers guiding principles, there is no single, inspired religious text. Mediumship is fundamental to this religion, but not all Spiritualists are mediums, and not all mediums are Spiritualists. Spiritualist mediums today mostly practice “mental mediumship,” that is, telepathic communication with a spirit person who provides evidence of consciousness survival, such as distinctive personality, memories, likes/dislikes, health conditions, the cause of passing, and other life facts.
But Spiritualism involves more than talking to dead people. Through the Spiritualist principles, it teaches personal responsibility for thoughts, actions, and deeds; that humans are souls occupying a body; that life is not short, but eternal; that those who have transitioned to the other side are conscious and want to communicate; that a spark of divinity resides within everyone; and that the door to reformation is never closed. Spiritualists take nothing on faith or belief. The religion is based on survival evidence and knowledge of the afterlife. This knowledge comes from direct communication with those who are there.
Though the popularity of this religion declined after World War II, many Spiritualist churches and camps in the United States and abroad continue to flourish today, offering hope and healing through the science and demonstrations of consciousness survival.
Identifying Spiritualist Ancestors
- Oral history is a good starting place. Clues are aunts or grandmothers remembered as having “the gift,” “second sight,” “visitations,” or who were said to be “a little off.
- Look for women active in women’s rights movements, as they might also have been Spiritualists. Their obituaries might list clubs or organizations known for activism.
- On headstones, watch for wording such as “Entered Summerland” (a term some Spiritualists use for heaven), epitaphs such as “There is no death,” or a “transition” date rather than a death date.
Because Spiritualism has lacked uniformity, records and recordkeeping vary, but Spiritualist churches typically perform admissions to fellowship, naming services, marriages, and funerals.
- Check city directories for Spiritualist churches and camps in the areas where ancestors resided. Also, look for ancestors advertising services as mediums or clairvoyants.
- Newspapers may report on visiting mediums, gatherings, and conventions, giving names of local churches and sponsors.
1. Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits:Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. 2nd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
2. Carroll, Bret E. Spiritualism in Antebellum America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
3. [Lewis, E. E.]. A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox. 1848. Digital reprint. Psypioneer: An Electronic Newsletter from London 1 (April 2005). http://www.woodlandway.org/PDF/Leslie_Price_PP12.pdf.
4. Radford, Dwight A. “From Séances to Ouija Boards: Tracing Your Spiritualist Ancestor.” National Genealogical Society. NewsMagazine (June/July 2004): 24–31.
5. Weisberg, Barbara. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism. New York: HarperOne, 2005.
 The bulk of this article is distilled from numerous sources. The links at “Spiritualism,” The Spiritualists’ National Union (http://www.snu.org.uk/spiritualism/spiritualism.html) provide an overview of the history, principles, philosophy, religion, science, and pioneers of Spiritualism as practiced by Spiritualists in the United Kingdom. For American Spiritualist history, see the links under Spiritualism at the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (https://www.nsac.org/default.html). See also Stuart, “The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders.” For an in-depth history of Spiritualism, see Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism (New York: HarperOne, 2005), and Todd Jay Leonard, PhD, Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship; A Study of the Religion, Science, Philosophy, and Mediums That Encompass This American-Made Religion (Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, 2005). The definitive classic works on the history and philosophy of Spiritualism are Emma Hardinge Britten, Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years’ Record of the Communion between Earth and the World of Spirits (New York: the author, 1870), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 2 vols. (London, Cassell and Co., 1926). Britten and Doyle, vol. 1, are available at Internet Archive, Britten at https://archive.org/details/modernamericans01britgoog and Doyle, vol. 1, at https://archive.org/details/historyofspiritu015638mbp. A transcription of Doyle, vol. 2, is at Project Gutenberg Australia (http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301061.txt).
 For the history of the “Hydesville Rappings,” see not only the sources cited in note 2, but also [E. E. Lewis], A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox (1848); digital reprint, Psypioneer: An Electronic Newsletter from London 1 (April 2005): following 133 (http://www.woodlandway.org/PDF/Leslie_Price_PP12.pdf).
 For the connection between Spiritualism and the women’s rights movement, see Anne Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), and Barbara Goldsmith, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998).
 For a history of the Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly, see Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).
 “Spiritualism and Science.”
 For additional information on the principles and philosophy of Spiritualism, see H. Gordon Burroughs, Becoming A Spiritualist (Baltimore: Port City Press, 1962), and Carole Austin and David Hopkins, The Philosophy of Spiritualism (Stansted, Eng.: Spiritualists’ National Union, 2007).
 For more on the numerous, on-going scientific studies of consciousness surivival, see Gary E. Schwartz, PhD, The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death (New York: Atria Books, 2003); Amit Goswami, PhD, Physics of the Soul: The Quantum Book of Living, Dying, Reincarnation, and Immortality, 2nd ed. (Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 2013); David Fontana, Is There an Afterlife? A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence (Ropley, Hants, UK: O-Books, 2005); and the peer-reviewed papers at Windbridge Institute for Applied Resarch in Human Potential (http://www.windbridge.org/publications/#papers).
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG, specializes in editing and writing family histories. Along with You Can Write Your Family History and Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contacts, she is the author of two forthcoming books: Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief and Inheriting the Gordon Hips, a collection of humorous essays. Sharon is on the adjunct faculty of Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy Research and Writing program. She is also a member of the Spiritualists’ National Union, International branch. Sharon can be reached through her websites, www.NonfictionHelp.com or www.SharonCarmack.com.
The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.