Elizabeth Siddal – The Exhumed Muse

The 11th February marks the 157th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. While not exactly a household name, she is an icon, a muse, an artist and a beautifully tragic figure of the Victorian art world. Similarly, while the 157thanniversary of anything isn’t cause for great celebration, it is a welcome chance to introduce Lizzie to a new audience.

Like most women with an over-dramatic bent, I have had an affinity for Pre-Raphaelite muses since my teens. Lizzie Siddal with her flame-red hair and tragic life, became an icon of my own. Her life was fraught with turmoil, betrayal and beautiful art; she was celebrated as a model and is immortalised in some of the world’s most famous artworks.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais
Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais

Elizabeth Siddal was ‘discovered’ in her youth by the artist Walter Deverell, who saw her working as a shop girl in a milliner’s. In 1850 Deverell went on to paint her as Viola in Twelfth Night, however she was quickly accosted by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, with whom she sat for several seminal works. Through her association with the group, she is most commonly known because of her depiction of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Famously, while sitting for Ophelia in an iron bath, the candles warming the water extinguished. While Millais was too engrossed in his work to notice, Lizzie was too dedicated to complain, and as a result of her silence, she developed pneumonia and lay close to death for several weeks.

 

Siddal has long been a tragic, romantic figure due to her association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a pre-Raphaelite artist, poet, and philanderer. Their relationship was intense, dramatic and troubled; they were involved on and off for over a decade, before they finally married. Following the trauma and depression following a stillbirth, Lizzie’s addiction to the opiate Laudanum spiralled and she died in 1862, aged just 32.

siddal-photo-vh1

Lizzie was buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Rossetti family plot. She shares her resting place with Dante Rossetti’s parents, sister Christina and several other family members.

 

Dante, wracked with guilt and sadness, buried Lizzie alongside the only manuscript of his poems, tucked into her auburn hair. This was supposedly a last sign of devotion from her straying husband, an apology for what trauma he may have caused and that the finest of his works would lay with her, and her alone, for all eternity.

However, Lizzie’s undisturbed sleep only lasted for several years, before Rossetti’s ego came knocking. His unpublished works troubled him and, under cover of lamp light, Lizzie was exhumed. Rumour spread that when her coffin was opened, it was filled with her endless, flowing red hair that had continued to grow after her death.

While this is a biological impossibility, the image caught hold in the public imagination and only helped to increase her post-mortem longevity in popular culture.

 

Rossetti’s poems and sonnets were all later published. A large chunk of sonnets under the title ‘The House of Life’, which is often argued to be his greatest written work, if a little erotic for Victorian sensibilities.

When Rossetti himself died in 1882, he was buried in Birchington-on-Sea in Kent and Lizzie was free from any further disturbance.

2012 Photograph of Lizzie's Grave
2012 Photograph of Lizzie’s Grave

In 2012 I took a long-overdue trip to Lizzie’s final resting place at Highgate Cemetery where her grave, now off the beaten path, covered with dead leaves, was only accessible by special request of the tour guide. Nonetheless, to see her name in stone and to be able to pay tribute to a life cut short was worth the train fare alone.

 

Elizabeth Siddal’s life is so fascinating and varied that I implore you to read some of the following links to learn more about her. While a tragic figure, primarily defined by the male gaze, she was an artist and a writer in her own right and deserves to be more widely appreciated.

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[Should you wish to visit Elizabeth’s grave – Old Highgate is now too overgrown and brittle for visitors to enter unattended, but tours are frequent and many of Highgate’s highlights are offered. But the urge to run off unsupervised, like a naughty morbid toddler is almost crippling.]

 

LINKS:

 

http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/

 

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/elizabeth-eleanor-siddal-494

 

http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com(Primarily concerning Fanny Cornforth, but is an excellent resource and Kirstie’s books are great reads.)

Helen Peters Nosworthy: The Medium Behind ‘Ouija’

Spirit Boards, Talking Boards, Ghost Boards; Whatever you call them, they’re all synonymous with one name – Ouija. Without thinking, we attribute Ouija’s creation and branding to a huge faceless company, peddling plastic ponies in one hand and sprit communication devices in the other.

But while stocks and patents are sold and traded, Ouija’s roots are far more legitimate than many of us would expect.

In 2018, The Talking Board Historical Society did immense work in documenting the true roots of the Ouija board.

1890-helen-peters
Helen Peters Nosworthy and her husband Earnest

While we see ‘Ouija’ boards as being solely marketed as a parlour game in the US, the more wider world of ‘talking boards’ – i.e boards printed with letters which one uses to communicate with spirits etc – has rather more historic roots.

Historically, prior to this, talking boards had been used worldwide for centuries. In China, there is evidence of usage as far back as 1100AD where they were used ritualistically and as a means of spirit communication. That is, until they were banned by the Quing dynasty around 1644.

The American spiritualist movement similarly saw widespread usage of printed alphabet boards as a means of contacting the dead. But the nuances of historic spirit contact, although vast and fascinating, aren’t for discussion today. It was not until Elijah Bond, a seasoned inventor, lawyer and businessman, saw to patent his particular planchette and board combination and launch the Ouija board into new realms.

In 1901, production was taken over by William Fuld, who began to produce the boards under his own name, suggesting that it was him personally who named the board. When asked of the roots of ‘Ouija’, he initially remarked that he learned the name from the board itself, and that it was an old Egyptian term, meaning ‘good luck’. Later, when popularity increased, Fuld went on to say that ‘Ouija’ was simply a combination of the French and German words for ‘yes’ (‘Oui’/’Ja’). Questionable claims aside, Fuld’s boards flooded the market and reached peak popularity in the 20s and 30s. To this day, his name is synonymous with the manufacture and popularisation of the board.

But why are Ouija boards truly called as such? Was Fuld’s claim correct? While this is widely accepted as the true etymological roots of the name, new research begs to differ.

ouijamania

Talking boards existed long before Ouija, and will last long after, but it’s the trademarked name that still holds clout in popular culture.

In a labour of love, Talking Board Historical Society (TBHS) founder Robert Murch found long forgotten references to Nosworthy’s input in the archives of the Baltimore Sun newspaper. In a series of publically-printed letters, Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond, co-creators of the board, aired their dirty laundry in newsprint

In these letters, it was recorded that Elijah Bond (the patent holder) brought his sister-in-law, Miss Peters, to patent meetings to demonstrate the power of the board. Helen was noted as being a ‘strong medium’ who, when testing the board, asked the unnamed device what it would like to be called. The board replied with ‘O-U-I-J-A’, which, when pressed was revealed to mean ‘good luck’.

Obtaining a patent for a device to contact the unknown was problematic, even in the 19thcentury. When Elijah Bond began to file for patents, the local patent office replied that they were unable to grant such a patent to an untested and unproven device. Subsequently, the pair travelled to Washington DC where their device was repeatedly brushed aside by inspectors until the chief patent officer’s interest was piqued by the strange board.

Supposedly, it was then that the officer promised to grant the patent, should the board be able to spell out his name, which was unknown to Bond and Peters.

goodnight2_board
Goodnight Board

A relative of Nosworthy recently recounted the story to Robert Much, stating that –

“The Patent Office told them that they couldn’t get a patent on Ouija unless they came to Washington to show them that it really worked. They headed down and Helen sat at the board. Inspector after inspector passed them on and up the chain. No one wanted to be the one to give them the patent. Finally, the chief of the patent office came in and said “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. If this contraption can spell out my name you’ve got your patent.” When the board finished spelling out his name the chief got up and started to walk out. He turned around white as a ghost and said to them “You’ve got your patent” and he walked out in a hurry.”

The patent was granted and the Ouija board began its life beyond Baltimore.

helen-peters-nosworthy-2-web
Helen Peters Nosworthy

Interestingly, Helen’s relationship with the Ouija board was not as pleasant and as enduring as one would have presumed. A family rift saw Helen’s relationship with the Ouija irreparably severed.

Robert Murch explains –

‘The Peters were a southern family and many served in the Confederacy….(the children were told) that after a battle had been fought in on their property, Helen and her brothers and sisters went out and cut off the buttons of the dead soldier’s uniforms and took them home. They kept this collection of buttons proudly displayed. One day they noticed the buttons were missing. They asked the Ouija board what happened and it answered that one of their own had stolen them. They asked who, and it spelled out which family member it was, and BAM, the Peters Family Feud was born. Half the family believed the board and half didn’t, Helen among the latter. It split the family in two, broke Helen’s heart, and she disavowed the Ouija board right then and there.’

Murch goes on to explain that Nosworthy spent the rest of her life telling her family to avoid the board, professing that it ‘told lies.’ It would seem that her family followed her commands, and the Nosworthy interest in Ouija ended with a theft.

Nosworthy, who was also an early stockholder in the company, later married and moved to Denver, a year after Ouija’s introduction into the world.

She died in 1940 and was buried in a family plot in Denver’s Fairmont Cemetery. Sadly, as time rolled on, the Nosworthy family grave fell into obscurity and their grave was unmarked.

helen-peters-ouija-grave-final
The Proposed Headstone

However, following the efforts of TBHS, funds were raised for a fitting memorial to Helen’s place in Ouija history and now a substantial memorial stands on her and her family’s resting place. A fine memorial to an influential and under-appreciated woman.

 

 

frontstone

 

 

 


 

Links/Sources

 

Robert Murch’s research into Helen’s life is truly wonderful and I implore you to visit the links below to learn more about Helen’s life and his vivid journey in uncovering this hidden history.

 

 

https://www.facebook.com/talking.boards/photos/a.567074803327714/584596474908880/?type=1&theater

 

https://www.robertmurch.com/project/helen-peters-nosworthys-gravestone/

 

https://www.facebook.com/talking.boards/

 

Talking Board Historical Society

 

https://tbhs.org/?fbclid=IwAR185BsZnz2oQ6X1HiScTHEeDNS2c2MI2ss7AI5hJ6BSHBmpi9CTSrf-tZg

 

https://tbhs.org/helen-peters-nosworthy/

 

 

Images Courtesy of RobertMurch.com and tbhs.com

No copyright infringement intended.

Cora L. V. Scott – Medium, Spiritualist, Icon.

Hello reader! My aim for this blog is to cover elements of all aspects of burials and ‘beyond’… While I have some rather exciting cemetery posts on the backburner, I’ve certainly slacked on starting my most exciting/obsessive series concerning mediumship, Victorian spiritualism and wonderfully (potentially morally questionable) entrepreneurial women avoiding gender boundaries like ghosts in televised ghost hunts.

CoraHatchSm-2

 

 

 

This week on Burials and Beyond, I’d like to introduce you to Cora L V Scott, one of the most influential mediums in the 19th century spiritualist movement and the most famous Victorian you’ve never heard of.

Probably…

 

 

 

 

Cora Lodencia Veronica Scott was born in 1840 near Cuba, New York. At birth, Cora’s face was covered with a caul; a piece of membrane that many cultures believe to give the wearer a ‘sixth sense’ or special abilities (Should you want to read more about beliefs surrounding the caul, read my previous blog post on the magical membranes HERE).

 

Her parents, who had been dedicated Presbyterians, turned to universalism and joined the Hopedale religious community in 1851. After a time, the Scotts found Hopedale too crowded for their likings and, with the blessings of Hopedale’s founder Adin Ballou, they moved to pastures new. The Scotts founded their own international religious community in Waterloo, Wisconsin in 1852. Sadly, due to the death of Cora’s father in 1853, she left Wisconsin a year later to return to New York. But here is where things get very interesting indeed.

Cora_L_V_Hatch_Engraving

In 1852, when the Waterloo community was in its infancy, Cora began to show the first signs of her (supposed) supernatural/spiritual abilities.  Aged 11, while dozing on her schoolwork in the family garden, Cora awoke to find that her writing slates were covered with unfamiliar handwriting. It is said that, excited and bewildered, Cora showed the slates to her mother who was alarmed by their contents and quickly hid the offending script. The writing Cora had presented was said to have been addressed to ‘My Dear Sister’, referring to a long-deceased sister of Cora’s mother. It is in these pubescent years that Cora’s abilities are said to have developed with sudden and unrelenting speed.

 

Cora’s sudden need for sleep, or ‘trances’ as they became known, began to increase in frequency. As the child fell asleep in the drawing room shortly after the first communicative experience, her hand began to twitch, as though writing. While her mother attempted and failed to rouse her, she soon thought to put slate and pencil into Cora’s hand. Several messages from deceased relations later, each closing with the phrase ‘We Are Not Dead’, this ‘ability’ was clear to make the young girl’s name.

 

Now, with the blessings of her mother (thanks to the reassurances of deceased relatives), Cora’s periods of trance sleep – now occurring multiple times a week – attracted crowds eagerly awaiting her messages. It is said that she delivered meaningful messages from deceased parties to endless gathered strangers. It was in these early years of her development that Cora was frequently ‘taken over’ by the spirit of a German surgeon – which considering young Cora was neither, was quite a feat.

 

Her Germanic guide would take over Cora for some several hours a day, healing those who came to her, and visiting those who were too ill to make the trip. She supposedly caused such a stir within her community that both doctors and ministers alike were perturbed by her presence and her mysterious healing abilities. The blog ‘The Unobstructed Universe’describes the clergy within her community as being ‘sycophants’, disgruntled by their empty pews (due to Cora’s proofof life beyond death) with their parishioners ‘doing their own thinking’. Opinions around Cora’s abilities, particularly her work during this German era (much like Bowie) continue to be delivered with much conviction, even today.

 

Indeed, in one of many apocryphal stories of her youth, she was deemed ‘satanic’ by clergy after successfully operating on Mr Keyes, a carpenter, whose infected finger was causing him great distress. The German spirit surgeon was soon thriving through these small acts of medical intervention. However, it must be reiterated, the surgeon was just that, and Mr Keyes, although free of infection, still lost part of his finger.

Soon, Cora’s small community became a spiritualist stronghold where traditional practises of faith and medicine were surplus to requirements.

 

Still aged eleven, Cora’s spirit guides commanded it that she be removed from school, as the current teachings of man would do them, and in turn, her mediumistic abilities, no good. Given the idea, I can attest that most eleven year olds would convey the same message, spirit guides or not.

Therefore, after watching the young girl’s abilities, it was decided that Cora would be utilised for public speaking. After reading no specialist textbooks, the young girl showed the ability to speak on a plethora of scientific and esoteric subjects via the intelligence of multiple spirits. As her name and abilities grew, she could speak on any subject given to her by a public audience, all with supernatural accuracy.

After moving to Buffalo, New York aged fourteen, by fifteen, she was commanding large audiences and amazing the masses. Her age, as with many other young successful mediums, certainly played a key part in solidifying the legitimacy of her abilities.

250px-Cora_L_V_Richmond_-_portrait_-_1876

Accounts of mediums early years are, more often than not, fantastical and compelling, but must (understandably) be taken with a pinch of salt. One must remember that however one may believe the authenticity of another’s abilities, personal histories within the 19thcentury were exactly that – written and edited however one wanted, with few means of referencing their paranormal claims.

 

As with all good Victorian mediums, much of their early years are filled with apocryphal tales of unexplainable abilities and communications from heretofore unknown relatives, where later years, tales of success and fraud are far more equal in their frequency. Did pre-teen Cora speak in fluent German and operate on those who were suffering? While many may see it as unlikely, many others beg to disagree to this day.

 

Frank Podmore, writing in 1902, said that ‘naughty little girls have for many generations amused themselves and mystified their elders by rapping on the foot of their wooden bedsteads and throwing the less expensive crockery…’ (202)

 

While rather dismissive in language, Podmore is not untrue in his generalisations. Many successful female mediums required lavish backstories, where mediumistic abilities were developed from a very young age. Some claimed to summon coal from thin air, others talked to deceased relatives while some levitated or solved murders. Dipping your toe into the pool of early mediumship spills forth a veritable flood of mystical childhoods.

 

Cora first married aged sixteen. Her husband, some thirty years her senior, was the professional mesmerist Benjamin Franklin Hatch. He subsequently became Cora’s manager, moving her into performance circles she had previously been unable to permeate as a young, unmarried woman. For better or worse, he equipped Cora with a showmanship lacking in many of her contemporaries.

Her marriage with Hatch was fraught with problems, her divorce proceedings (still recorded in newspaper archives) even more so. With back and forth claims of abuse and affairs on both sides, they were divorced in 1863. Twenty-three year old Cora was not on her own for long, but managed to get three more marriages under her belt before her death in 1923.

 

Despite her troubled personal life, Cora’s large public lectures were a huge source of income and notoriety for much of her professional life. Unlike many mediums who preferred to conduct one to one readings or slate writings in a large arena, acting as background artists to their phenomena, Cora was at its forefront. She delivered lectures on a wide range of topics from spiritual and esoteric matters for mathematics, physics and the abolition of slavery.

There are multiple testimonies of triumphant lectures; stories of moral redemption and scientific astonishment.

 

Her biographer Harrison Delivan Barrett recounts-

“At Lynn, Massachusetts, in December, 1857, a committee composed of scholarly men anticipated that they would confound Cora’s guides by asking, “Will you please define the Pythagorean proposition?” Speaking through Cora, the guides asked, “Which proposition do you mean – the Moral Code or the so-called Scientific Proposition?” When no answer came from the committee, the guides took up the Moral Code. Following that discourse, a committee member, apparently a scientist, asked, “What is the diameter of a bucket filled to the brim with water?’ The response came through Cora, “The diameter of a bucket of water is probably as great as the diameter of a cranial structure, destitute the grey material denominated ‘brain’ by so-called scientists.”

 

By 1858, Cora had given some 600 lectures and assurances of her wondrous insight andCoraT1875 legitimacy were strewn throughout periodicals and newsletters. Commenting on a lecture Cora delivered aged 18, Dr A. B Childs commented that ‘The lady can address an audience of five thousand people with great ease, and the guides through her give an elaborate discourse upon any subject the audience may choose. There cannot well be a greater test of Spirit power than this.” (Jul 24th1858)

 

Not only was Cora able to lecture extensively on any subject given to her, but she delivered these talks through the abilities of co-working spirits, some of whom were particularly well known. On 24thFebruary, 1883, Cora delivered a lecture in one of her trances via the spirit of President James A Garfield, who had been assassinated two years prior.

 

Many transcripts of Cora’s ‘high level trances’ have been preserved for students and believers of Spiritualism, and are held up by many as still possessing unrivalled insight into the spirit world. Those behind Interfarfacing.org and the extensive Cora L V Richmond Archives remark that ‘For future generations they will bring more knowledge and wisdom to students better able to perceive larger portions of the gestalt; universal spiritual quantum physics.’

 

The lectures Cora so expertly delivered are often recorded as being as successful and thought-provoking as her early spiritualistic work in her small community. However, due to the developments in newspaper and periodical culture, unimpressed attendees’ voices were afforded as much column space as those celebrating the medium’s abilities. Taking newspaper reports and cultural context into account… when lecturing, it seems Cora may have spouted a lot of drivel.

 

As reported in the Boston Courier on November 21st1857, Cora Scott’s (then, Hatch) appearance and lecture was not received so positively by all attendees.

 

‘The first evening [Monday], Mrs. Hatch, though professing to be too ill to speak at all, did, nevertheless, talk one hour and a half “against time,” in order that the committee might not have an opportunity to test her claims to scientific attainments…Seven-eights of her time, at least, was consumed in rhapsodies upon points that had notthe most distant connection with the subject given her; and when at last she concluded, she said, that “in consequence of illness and exhaustion of the medium, we shall answer no questions tonight.” This was a downright imposition upon those who had been invited there to test her superhuman powers, and an effort was made to induce her to answer. Her reply was: “The spirts have declined to answer, and that is sufficient.”’

 

Despite such comments littering newspapers throughout Cora’s professional career, many people continue to praise her as one of life’s great inspirational speakers. A skim through psychic and spiritualist archives will unearth a plethora of contemporary journals who still explore the academic merits of her lectures. Considering Cora was actively speaking, presenting and lecturing at conferences until her death in 1923, there’s a LOT of material to sift through.. and as much as I adore the legacies of female Victorian mediums, I wanted to make this post part of a series, not a thesis!

 

A medium’s success and the hysteria surrounding so many performances and supposed demonstrations of other-worldly abilities are understandably easy to mock through modern eyes. There are understandably endless technological, cultural and social aspects to consider, but also developments in spiritualism itself; trance mediumship and performance mediumship/mesmerism on such a scale was new to many North American audiences. A growing willingness to speculate on the nature of eternity and a keenness to explore the new field of spirit study and experience the zeitgeist as it toured your doorstep. To put it bluntly, the 19thCentury wasn’t drowning in Psychic Sallys and Derek Acorahs.

 

After a series of spirit-guided lectures in the UK (to moderate success at most), Cora returned to North America in 1875, becoming a pastor in a Chicago spiritualist church (a position she held until her death), where she finally seemed to lay roots.

 

While doubts were cast upon her legitimacy as a medium in her lifetime, admirers of, and believers in, her work remain as passionate today as in Cora’s mortal lifetime.

Personally, I admire Cora’s gumption. She was a critic of evolution, four-times married at a time when one divorce would often ruin a woman’s reputation and publically danced about scientific topics through rambling spirit raptures on the nature of existence. She was a businesswoman, a celebrity and a woman with more confidence than anyone should strictly possess.

To me, whether or not she held mediumistic powers is immaterial; she was an international artist and icon, the likes of which we’ll never see again.

 

 

 

Further Reading/Sources:

 

https://interfarfacing.com

 

https://interfarfacing.com/statements.htm

 

http://psychictruth.info/Medium_Cora_Lodencia_Veronica_Scott.htm

 

http://theunobstructeduniverse.com/TUU_Blog/cora-l-v-richmond-the-most-amazing-medium-youve-never-heard-of/

 

http://www1.assumption.edu/WHW/Hatch/LifeWork.html

 

https://hatch.kookscience.com/wiki/Cora_L.V._Scott