19th century is usually recalled as a time of science and technology. Referring to my article ‘Spanish Steampunk 2012 AD’:
’19th century gave birth to the professional scientist (the word scientist was first used in 1833 by William Whewell) and it was an era of invention and discovery, with radical developments in the fields of biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, among others. We cannot obviate three intellectual factors that destabilized the European society: Darwinism (the biological description of human nature), the Freudian theory (that pinned human action on primordial drives) and Einstein’s theory of the physical world (that challenged the Newtonian world order)’.
Scientists and inventors like Charles Darwin or Samuel Morse changed the world forever, it is undeniable. Scientists like Nikola Tesla, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s are among the most acknowledged by the Steampunk community. Yet in a century seemingly built on reason arose a profound interest in the supernatural. An in-depth analysis is beyond the purpose of this blog post, but let’s have a look to some concrete fields.
3.1.- Magnétisme Animal: Mesmerism
Franz Anton Mesmer (May 23, 1734 – March 5, 1815) was a German physician with an interest in Astronomy, who theorised that there was a natural energetic transference that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects that he called magnétisme animal (animal magnetism) and other spiritual forces often grouped together as Mesmerism.
This theory became the foundation of treatments based on non verbal elements (gaze, passes, etc.). It was very popular in the 19th century, with a strong cultural impact (according to Adam Crabtree, more than 1500 books were published on animal magnetism and related subjects until 1926). From some of the practices of animal magnetism branched out hypnotism, spiritualism, New Thought, so called ‘magnetic healing’, and parapsychological research.
Considered a form of vitalism, Animal Magnetism and its supposedlly ‘higher’ phenomena were extremely appealing both to the crowds and to many men of science. In fact, it posed a threat to the rational logic attitude and, at a certain point, it became a very popular practice that spread throughout almost all levels. The mesmeric trance came later to be associated with higher vision, insight and inspiration among Romantic thinkers. Dickens was personally drawn into the practice of mesmerism in the 1840s.
Besides hypnotism, another important branch that derived from Mesmerism was Spiritualism. As the idea of magnetism reached a popular audience, some Mesmerist disciples fell into believing that what had been discovered amounted to a new revelation and at a certain point the histories of both mesmerism and spiritualism overlapped and influenced one another. Clairvoyance became a leading feature of spiritistic stances, and mesmerism and spiritism were often confounded and gradually the Spiritualist view prevailed.
3.2.- Talking to the death: Spiritualism
Alfred Russel Wallace, co-creator of the theory of evolution, explained why Victorian scientists needed to accept the possibility of spiritual life in his 1886 work, ‘The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural’:
That intelligent beings may exist around and among us, unperceived during our whole lives… will be inconceivable to some… but… no man acquainted with the latest discoveries and the highest speculations of modern science, will deny its possibility.
Newly discovered invisible forces such as electricity and radio waves were ‘real’, so spectral beings should be too. Therefore with ‘On the Origin of Species’ unlocking the secrets of human creation, it would only be natural that people believed the next scientific breakthrough would be to understand the mechanics of death. No surprise that the biggest new religious/occult movement to arise in the Victorian era was Spiritualism.
3.2.1.- The concept of Spiritualism
This belief system postulated that spirits of the dead, residing in the spirit world and capable of growth and perfection, had both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. It considered itself quite a scientific ‘religion’ or movement, as it did not ask anyone to believe in anything based on blind faith, but on actual witnessed phenomenon and communication with non living entities.
American Spiritualists often set 31st March 1848, as the beginning of their movement. On that date, Kate and Margaret Fox, from Hydesville, New York, reported they had made contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler. Spiritualism developed and reached its peak growth in membership from the 1840s to the 1920s, specially in English-language countries.
Women were particularly attracted to the movement, because it gave them important roles as mediums and trance lecturers.
‘Owen is a feminist scholar, and her focus in The Darkened Room is upon spiritualism as it related to the construction of gendered identity in late Victorian England. This turns out to be something of a paradox. Because they were passive, women were thought to be more receptive to the spirit world, and to make better mediums than men. Likewise, because they operated within the wholesome, domestic sphere, they were consequently thought to be more trustworthy than their enterprising male counterparts when they did manifest gifts. Spiritualism created a space where women could speak with authority and explore new identities by acting within the confines of the very same, traditional gender roles that they were inadvertently subverting. It should be no surprise, then, that Spiritualism’s decline coincided with the advent of new opportunities for women to enter the professions, take on better roles in the theatre, and openly exercise authority without recourse to otherworldly sponsors’.
Source: ‘The Lighter Side of Victorian Spiritualism’ by Walter Luke
3.2.2.- Believers and skeptics
I would like to share with you just some popular cases. For example, Victor Hugo or Mary Todd Lincoln who, grieving the loss of her son, organized séances in the White House which were attended by her husband, President Abraham Lincoln.
Arthur Conan Doyle, who lost his son as a result of the war, was also a member of The Ghost Club. Founded in London in 1862, it was focused on the scientific study of alleged paranormal activities in order to prove (or refute) the existence of paranormal phenomena. Famous members of the club have included Charles Dickens, Sir William Crookes, Sir William Fletcher Barrett and Harry Price. Pioneering American psychologist William James studied spiritualism, publishing supportive conclusions. The séances of Eusapia Palladino were attended by investigators including Pierre and Marie Curie.
Did you know that the faith of Arthur Conan Doyle in Spiritualism costed him his friendship with the famous magician Harry Houdini? Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful Spiritualist medium, and had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums he was debunking.
Houdini began to debunk psychics and mediums in the 1920s. His training as magician let him expose frauds that had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He even became a member of a committee of the popular magazine Scientific American; this magazine offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities, but none were able to do so and the prize was never collected. As his fame as a ‘ghostbuster’ grew, Houdini attended séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer.
In the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening show, which he billed as ‘3 Shows in One: Magic-Illusions-Escapes: Fraud Mediums Exposed’. In 1926, Harry Houdini hired H. P. Lovecraft and his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr. to write an entire book about debunking superstition, which was to be called ‘The Cancer of Superstition’.
Have you watched ‘The Illusionist’ (2006)? In this movie directed by
Christopher Nolan Neil Burger, Edward Norton plays the role of Eduard Abramovich (alias Eisenheim), a magician that seems to use necromantic abilities in his shows.
3.3.- ‘Freezing reality’: Photography
Photography and all state-of-the-art technologies of the moment were used by Spiritualists in an effort to demonstrate contact with a spirit world. Even Thomas Alba Edison was asked in an interview with Scientific American to comment on the possibility of using his inventions to reach this goal, but there is no real evidence that Edison ever designed or constructed a device for such purpose.
Invented in the first decades of the 19th century (the first permanent photoetching was an image produced in 1822 by the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce), chemical photography was a brand new technology. Though it was extremely costly in the beginning, it became widely used during 19th century. This technology was used with different purposes, such as scientific (astronomy, biology, etc.), forensic and, obviously, recreational (for example the popular cartes de visite, replaced by the larger cabinet cards in the early 1860s).
In a time when death was always present, post-mortem photography served as memento. Most families could not afford a painted portrait, hence the invention of daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace. Having a photo of the deceased, especially of children, was particularly important when no other photos already existed, although these photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased.
Post-mortem photography is still practiced in some areas of the world, such as Eastern Europe. Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.
Coupled with the public’s interest in ghosts, spirit photography reflected the popularity of Spiritualism and the widespread fascination with the quasi-scientific exploration of the existence of life after death.
After discovering the double exposure technique by accident, spirit photography was first used by William H. Mumler in the 1860s. Seeing there was a market for it, Mumler started working as a medium, taking people’s pictures and doctoring the negatives to add lost loved ones into them. Even though Mumler was revealed as a fraud, other spirit photographers continued to sell photographs and this discipline remained popular through the 1880s into the early 20th century, with notable proponents such as Arthur Conan Doyle and William Crookes.
3.4.- Invisible fields: Electromagnetism
Nikola Tesla is known for his high-voltage, high-frequency power experiments, for his X-ray experiments and for his attempt at intercontinental wireless transmission in his unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower project. In 1891, notable additions to our knowledge of the phenomena of electromagnetic frequency and high potential current were contributed by this scientist.
Given that Tesla is well known in the Steampunk scene, we can pay attention to the scientist who discovered electromagnetic induction in 1831: Michael Faraday. The phenomenon of magnetism was observed early in the history of magnetism, but was not explained in contemporary understanding until this was developed. For example, some scientists proposed that table tipping worked because of a mysterious magnetic or electrical force. The chemist and physicist Michael Faraday disagreed and instead theorized that the force at work in table tilting was an involuntary and unconscious muscle contraction experienced by séance sitters.
To demonstrate, he fashioned a table with two tops that were divided by a layer of ball bearings and sturdy rubber bands. When sitters worked with his device, the upper table top moved first, showing that the fingers were moving the table and not the other way around. Once sitters realized the nature of the experiment, movement of the table ceased. Apparently, once the conscious mind realized the force behind the movement, the mystery was gone.
For Faraday and others, the proof was indisputable and the experiments caused a decline in the popularity of the past time. Many believers scoffed at Faraday’s findings though, claiming that tables not only tipped but also lifted into the air and galloped about — behavior completely separate from active fingers and wishful thinking! Needless to say, the mystery remained for most and scientists and Spiritualists once again disagreed on the methods, and perhaps the madness, of the movement.
Curious fact: the term ‘telekinesis’ was coined in 1890 by the Russian psychical researcher Alexander N. Aksakof, included nowadays under the umbrella term of ‘psychokinesis’.
Bonus: Have you watched ‘The Prestige’ (2006)?
3.5.- Exploring the planet: natural sciences
The miracles of Mother Nature have always caused fascination in mankind and the knowledge about these mysteries grew exponentially during the Victorian era. We can highlight physicians like Ivan Pavlov, biologists like Santiago Ramón y Cajal or chemists like Dmitri Mendeleev, but if I had to choose only one scientific work in this field it would be, without hesitation, ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) by Charles Darwin: the foundation of Evolutionary Biology.
Several areas of our planet were unknown to Europeans in the early 19th century, an era of exploration and discovery. As is to be expected, geographical exploration drove to botanical and zoological discoveries. Despite the coining of the word ‘Cryptozoology’ is often attributed to Belgian-French zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, the scholar origins of Cryptozoology can be traced to Anthonie Cornelis Oudemans and his study ‘The Great Sea Serpent’ (1892). The quest for animals whose existence has not been proven seems to be consubstantial to the human nature and it is reflected in the Victorian literature, both fiction and nonfiction.
Cryptozoology may be connected to the Victorian fascination for the grotesque and the investigation of the paranormal… but this issue is going to be discussed later.
Bonus.- Have you ever heard of the astonishing and disturbing Merrylin Cryptid Collection, curated and custodied by the enigmatic Alex CF?