Hélène Smith: The Medium Who Spoke to Martians

The 19thcentury boasted many notable, influential individuals: Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell but to name a few. Yet, for some baffling reason, Hélène Smith has been lost to the annals of time. Scientists and social reformers may be all well and good, but what about a young woman who spoke to aliens?

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‘Hélène Smith’ was born Catherine-Elise Müllerin Martigny, Switzerland in 1861 into a Protestant family. Despite this, she was baptised into the Catholic Church and her family, her mother in particular, remained devout practising Christians. Her mother claimed to experience religious visions for many years, which undoubtedly introduced the idea of spirit contact and mediumship to the young Hélène.

She was a solitary, introverted child, prone to daydreams and reveries. She also reported visions, mainly consisting of colourful, hypnotic landscapes that she later attributed to Martian visitation.

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From the age of 13, Hélène worked in a silk shop until she discovered spiritualism in 1892 (an American admirer would later pay her a salary to work as a full time medium). She quickly joined a “development” circle, whereby attendees attempt to develop their psychic and spiritual powers through group tutoring and activities. According to others in her circle, she quickly began to show mediumistic talents, predominantly ‘moral admonitions, treatment prescriptions for the consultants, messages from deceased relatives and friends, and revelations of past lives of the participants of the séance.’[1]

 

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As her development as a medium progressed, she (supposedly) began communication with Italian adventurer and magician Alessandro Cagliostro and French novelist Victor Hugo. When you begin your career with the great and good, it’s understandable that the only way to go is up. Literally. To Mars.

 

As Hélène’s séances began to bring her fame, she was soon introduced to Théodore Flournoy, a professor of psychology and author on Spiritism and parapsychology. It was Flournoy who proposed the pseudonym ‘Hélène Smith’ after his young daughter. After meeting the child, the young medium was satisfied with her new name and took it forwards into her career.

Flournoy, a contemporary of Freud, conducted long-term investigations into Hélène’s abilities which he published under the title ‘From India To The Planet Mars’ (1899). Throughout this study, Smith entered a trance state and channelled a number of past lives…. Flournoy attributed these supposed experiences to ‘cryptamnesia’, a type of subconscious plagiarism and memory bias. Flournoy later suggested that Smith should be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, and that such mediumistic trances and false memories were the result of the subconscious mind. Not spirits.

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Upon entering a trance, her ‘guide’ of sorts (Leopold, a reincarnation of Cagliostro), would explain Helen’s acts to Flournoy and talk to the investigator, seemingly independent of Helen. She would often awake from these deep trances with no recollection as to the events.

Hélène’s vast array of narratives was termed by Flournoy as ‘Subliminal Romances’, which he used to denote everything from trances involving past lives, through to spirit painting and glossolalia.

Cryptamnesia aside, Hélène’s past lives are staggeringly…wild. Flournoy classed these lives into three cycles; the Hindu cycle, the Royal cycle and the Martian cycle.

 

These past lives, conducted through trance and séance, began with such historical icons as Marie Antoinette. Hélène’s depictions of life at court were detailed, elaborate and mimicked Antoinette’s refined behaviours with high accuracy.

 

Another regular in the Hindu cycle was Princess Simandini, a fifteenth-century Arab princess, married to Sivrouka,a Hindu potentate. In many of her trance sessions, she channelled the Princess’ memories, including her horrific death at her husband’s funeral pyre (committing ‘sati/suttee’). She recounted landscapes, architecture and historical customs of the time. She would also sing “exotic melodies, played with an imaginary monkey”.

As her trances progressed, she named Flournoy as the reincarnation of her husband and together, they recreated scenes from their life together. In these scenes, Smith supposedly spoke Sanskrit and wrote in rudimentary Arabic script. While these narratives were often described as ‘fragmented’ compared to her Martian efforts, her ability to describe romantic scenes and landscapes was astounding.

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But most impressively, Hélène claimed to make regular journeys to Mars. She painted elaborate Martian landscapes and claimed to speak (and write) the language perfectly. Hélène’s Martian cycle included verbal descriptions, writing and paintings, describing landscapes, inhabitants and experiences. She would describe her ‘flight into space’, arriving at a landscape of disembodied, long-dead inhabitants, “carriages gliding by, with no horses or wheels but emitting sparks”; “of houses with fountains on the roof”; and men and women dressed almost similarly.’[2]To accompany these Martian inhabitants were ‘dog-like creatures with heads that looked like cabbages that not only fetched objects for their masters, but also took dictation.’[3]

 

However, it is Hélène’s Martian writing which is most interesting.

This language would come to Hélène in a variety of hallucinations, both auditory and visual, and through visions, showing her how to write the alien symbols.

Her Martian language has long been studied in the field of linguistics as a form of a ‘hereditary tendency to glossolalia.’ While Helen’s native language was French, she was well versed in Hungarian, Spanish, Italian and German, with a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, English and Greek. Her Martian language, while looking truly extra-terrestrial, was dissected by Flournoy and Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussureand described as being a language derived from French idiom. In short, Hélène’s Martian was like a French code, with each symbol relating to a French letter, with similar French grammatical rules.

 

After these French roots were discovered, Hélène then created a second, more complex Martian language, which Flournoy called part of the ‘Ultra-Martian Cycle’, relating to a language from a planet further away than mars. The Society for Psychical Research PSI encyclopaedia explains ‘The Ultra-Martian language was more complex; ultra-Martian inhabitants were more grotesque than those of Mars, which Flournoy interpreted as an unconscious response on the part of Hélène to his scepticism towards her naïve descriptions of the beauty of life on Mars.’

 

In Flournoy’s final work, he attributes Smith’s past lives and supernatural narratives to being ‘products of a subliminal imagination, their content based on her previous memories and experiences, incubated and creatively combined in the subliminal regions of her mind.’ Smith’s lives were very real and legitimate to her, but little more than her mind’s own creation. Nonetheless, her Martian narratives play a fascinating and important role in the wild history of 19thcentury mediumship and spirit contact.

But Hélène and Flournoy’s relationship did not end with the publication of his study. Rather, it negatively escalated. Upon publication, Hélène was incensed by the depictions of her mediumship and the suggestion of their illegitimacy. This led to a strained battle over royalties, which resulted in Flournoy conceding 50% to Hélène. While she stated that the study caused her great embarrassment and had lasting negative effects, she continued her mediumship and alien tales long afterwards, expanding her extra-terrestrial ‘romances’ to Uranus and the Moon.

As Hélène’s career progressed, she left her alien narratives behind, seeking refuge in her paintings and Christian visions. While she renounced her beliefs in her Martian and Hindu cycles, Marie Antoinette remained. Following the death of her mother, her devotion increased tenfold and she spent much of her time painting Christ and the Virgin Mary. While these were never cited to be past lives, they appeared to provide some therapeutic effort in processing her loss.

Over time, Hélène gave fewer séances and continued her religious devotion.  Through the financial support of her American sponsor, she could pursue her spiritual, religious painting and garner a reputation for her skills, particularly within the surrealist movement. Shortly after her death in 1929, a large retrospective of her work was exhibited at the Geneva Art museum, where her strange art was celebrated by art lovers and spiritualists alike. And, despite estrangement from Flournoy, she continued to use the pseudonym he gave her until she died.

 

 

 

 

References:

 

https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/Hélène-smith

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Théodore_Flournoy#cite_note-2

https://scroll.in/magazine/873582/remembering-the-swiss-woman-who-went-from-india-to-the-planet-mars-in-the-19th-century

https://observationdeck.kinja.com/the-languages-and-architecture-of-mars-circa-1899-1648582630

http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/1/i_martian.php

https://www.fnord23.com/the-woman-who-claimed-she-visited-mars-spoke-to-aliens-in-1894/

[1]https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/Hélène-smith#Psi_Phenomena

[2]https://scroll.in/magazine/873582/remembering-the-swiss-woman-who-went-from-india-to-the-planet-mars-in-the-19th-century

[3]http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/1/i_martian.php

Sheffield General Cemetery: The Good, The Bad and the Granite

On the outskirts of Sheffield City Centre, beyond the eternal banks of scaffolding, beside the motorways and specialist supermarkets, lies Sheffield General Cemetery.

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Sheffield General Cemetery, 1830s

 

Opened in 1836, it was the principal burial ground for Victorian Sheffield and, upon closing for burials in the 1970s, contains around 86,000 internments. Much of the original burial ground has since been cleared of headstones and is an open, green space, filled with dog-walkers, families and the occasional early-morning drinker. The cemetery and park land has since been classified as a nature reserve, conservation area, and ‘area of natural history interest’.

 

Sheffield General is one of the earliest working cemeteries in the UK, opening before the Cemeteries Clauses Act of 1847, and well before many of the more famous grounds such as Highgate and Brompton. It was also one of the first privately-run, landscaped cemeteries to open outside London.

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Like most city cemeteries, it was built as a response to overcrowded burial grounds; considering Sheffield’s population boom from an estimated 60,000 in 1801 to 130,000 in 1841. Following a huge cholera outbreak in 1832, many of its victims were buried in mass graves and a solution had to be sought.

In its relatively small grounds, it boasts ten listed buildings and monuments ‘including Grade II listed catacombs, an Anglican chapel, with the gatehouse, non-conformist chapel and the Egyptian Gateway, each listed at Grade II.’ It also holds the largest single grave plot in the country, holding the bodies of 96 poor residents.

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Ongoing conservational works have done wonders for the cemetery in recent years, resulting in the non-conformist chapel becoming a very popular music and arts venue. Built in the classical-revival style, it boasts Egyptian influences and a beautifully carved dove above the doorway. I was fortunate enough to see the chapel in its state of disrepair several years ago, and the transformation from desolation to functional beauty is phenomenal.

Hopefully, in time, the much-neglected Anglican chapel will follow suit, as so many of the monuments and burials within the cemetery are beautiful examples of early Victorian architecture. Much of the maintenance and conservation work has been undertaken by a team of dedicated volunteers, who are invaluable in preserving the future of historic cemeteries and heritage sites. They state on their website that, the cemetery was previously a ‘pretty grim place where none but the brave would enter.’ So thanks be to the volunteers, as my journey into Sheffield’s land of the dead was really rather pleasant!

The first recorded burial is that of Mary Ann Fish, who died of tuberculosis. She now lies in good company, with a host of interesting lives nestled between the plots.

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The cemetery is host to the impressive memorials of several high-profile Victorian businessmen, including George Bassett, the sweet manufacturer, steel manufacturers, missionaries and innumerable bizarre professions, lost to history. (Samuel Dalton, Ivory Merchant springs to mind!)

 

William Parker’s family memorial is one of the more prominent Grade II listed monuments, towering above its counterparts. Parker’s memorial is a large square tomb, topped with a circle of classical columns and god-fearing message. Parker himself was a cutlery merchant, and a popular one at that, with the great and good of Sheffield’s cutlery world taking part in his funeral procession. The website ‘flickeringlamps.com’ recounts the unfortunate tale of Parker’s wife, Katherine.

 

‘William Parker died intestate, meaning that he had no will…Although according to the laws of the time, Parker’s wife was not able to legally own property, it fell upon Katherine to manage her late husband’s affairs and oversee the winding up of his business.  As well as this, Katherine was left to bring up the couple’s five children alone.  Poor Katherine died by suicide in 1844, and the inquest into her death noted that she had had ‘immense anxieties and much to manage.’’

Another striking memorial is that of James Nicholson (industrialist), which features a large statue of a kneeling female figure and table. For a cemetery that sat in disrepair for so many years, many of the more unusual memorials such as these are remarkably intact.

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The Anglican chapel is arguably the last, and largest conservation point within the cemetery. Built in 1850 in the neo-gothic style, it has beautiful ogival windows and an impressively large spire. Interestingly, the spire was purposefully made larger than necessary so that it could be seen from far away.

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The gatehouse, built in a classical style with Egyptian features, has also been sympathetically conserved. It sits over the Porter Brook river giving the entrance of the cemetery a ‘crossing the river Styx’ feel…

 

While the mention of ‘catacombs’ may get many cemetery-lovers hot under the collar, those built into the hillside of the general cemetery were less than popular, with only ten burials recorded in the first ten years of its use.

Alongside merchants, industrialists and prominent names, there are the countless headstones of others; families and individuals whose histories are a mystery to us – yet, so many have beautiful, intricate symbolism carved into their stones, the likes of which are hard to find in most of the UK’s largest cemeteries. Alongside urns, hands and flowers, there are some beautiful examples of intricately carved weeping women, trees and angels. Considering many of these symbols were reserved for larger structures or for jewellery, they stand as proof that each burial ground holds untold secrets and hidden art.

When the cemetery closed to new burials in 1979, the cemetery’s future was in danger. With several large plots sold off to developers, exhuming thousands of bodies was an off-putting task and much of the site fell into disrepair and disuse.

After several hundred headstones were removed to create a green space beside the more ‘landscaped’ part of the cemetery, many more were set into the cemetery’s terrace, fixed in place with a thick concrete.

While this seems an unusual way to repurpose headstones, it offers Sheffield General an entrance way unlike any other I’ve visited. And while Sheffield General may not be cited as one of the greats, it is a wonderful example of a cemetery changing through the years, decaying, growing and rising back.

 

 

Sources:

https://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/religious-sites/30024-sheffield-cemetery-september-2014-a.html#.XNnFty3MyCU

https://flickeringlamps.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheffield_General_Cemetery

Hidden Pre-Raphaelites and Tiny Women at Birmingham Cathedral

In the centre of Birmingham, flanked by pubs and fashionable wine bars, stands a dinky cathedral and a handful of sporadically placed headstones. The grounds are busy, with commuters, teenagers and a large homeless population using its paths as a thoroughfare and its flat-topped tombs as tables. There are bus stops at each corner, benches filled with tired shoppers, and in 2017, hundreds of Brummies gathered to sing a rendition of Toto’s ‘Africa’ and raise money for charity. The space, St Philips Square, is ingrained in day-to-day Birmingham life. The building and headstones, however, seem to be an afterthought.

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The cathedral church of St Phillip was built between 1710-1725 and, despite its tiny stature, is the seat of the Bishop of Birmingham. As the population of Birmingham was booming in the 18thcentury, churches were running out of space to hold parishioners and, after a donation of land to Robert Philips in 1710, planning and building began in earnest.

While Birmingham is one of the UKs largest cities today, it didn’t achieve city status until 1889. Six years later, in 1905, St Philips became Birmingham cathedral, with its first bishop, Charles Gore, now standing front and centre in statue form, outside the doors.

Edward Burne-Jones, the famous Birmingham-born artist, features heavily in the cathedral’s interior. While he is mostly known through his association with the latter part of the pre-Raphaelite movement and his intricate, beautiful paintings, he was also a renowned glass designer. Burne-Jones donated several large glass windows to the cathedral, designed by himself and produced by Morris &Co, which continue to be a draw to tourists, worshippers and art-lovers alike.

“The Ascension was installed in 1885 and the Nativity and the Crucifixion two years later. Burne-Jones records “it was in the year 1885 that visiting my native city Birmingham I was so struck with admiration at one of my works in St Philips’s church [that] I undertook in a moment of enthusiasm to fill the windows on either side. He was paid £200 for each of his designs. They are considered characteristic of Burne-Jones’ later style – elongated bodies with small heads in relation to body length and designs which divide in two equal halves, horizontally. This technique separates heaven from earth in each of the windows. The Last Judgement was installed as a memorial window to Bishop Bowlby in 1897.”

– birminghamcathedral.com

 

To cover all architectural points of interest would be a very tiresome task, and I believe some of the most exciting points of interest to be outside the church walls.

But of course, beneath the tasteful baroque architecture and floral displays, lies a mire of other bizarre and exciting stories.

The churchyard surrounding St Philips holds around 60,000 burials, most of which (as with most city cemeteries) were unmarked. Those who could afford headstones have, over time, experienced a similar fate, as only around 100 remain intact today.

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The churchyard was closed to burials in 1858 as it quickly became a danger to public health with the sheer amount of bodies crammed in to such a small area. An 1849 report cites that “the effluvia from the yards and graves is said to be very offensive to the surrounding neighbourhood, especially in the summer months.”

These overcrowded graveyards were not only a public health risk, but were impossible to maintain and burials were poorly recorded. As so many internments were made, the graveyard became a jumble of headstones, with burials frequently disturbed by the boring rods that were inserted to find space below the ground for yet more bodies.

After the creation of Key Hill and Warstone Lane Cemeteries in 1835 and 1848 respectively, some of the pressure was taken off St Philips and its rising ground level.

Aside from traditional headstones and monuments, the churchyard plays host to several family burial vaults, many of which were backfilled and paved over during regeneration projects in the late 1990s. In the 1999 archaeological report, it is recorded that the burial vault of the Baldwin Family (among many, many others) was accidentally discovered following heavy plant work overhead. Works caused a partial collapse in a brick archway, leaving a 0.3 metre square hole in the path. The report continues ‘it was possible to view the interior of the vault from the hole and initial inspection showed the vault to be in good condition and containing several lead coffins.’

The Vault of the Harrison Family was similarly disturbed to ensure the stability of newly installed metal pillars and gates. The remains within this particular vault were intensely researched and studied, to such an extent that biographies and past health conditions are published online. (Samuel Harrison owned and operated the Exhibition Gin Palace in the 1860s, for example.)

While most of the Baldwin and Harrison coffins were identifiable, due to waterlogged conditions and the displacement of name plates, only four Baldwins could be recorded accurately. Similarly, most other burials unearthed during building and conservation work, were unidentifiable and merely recorded as ‘adult inhumation’, ‘disarticulated remains’ or by the integrity of the soft tissue within the less waterlogged sites.

Occasionally, new monuments are added to commemorate significant deaths, such as that to commemorate the 21 victims of the 1974 pub bombings. Also, large monuments are occasionally (unofficially) repurposed as a platform for contemporary displays of grief and loss. The large, squat, cut column beside Temple Row is a popular and prominent choice. The original monument commemorates the deaths of John Heap and William Badger who were killed during the construction of Birmingham Town Hall. On a recent visit, a large display of floral arrangements, cards and laminated newspaper reports were visible beside it, commemorating a young man’s tragic death which had recently come to court. While the churchyard may not be a contemporary burial site per-se, its purpose and visibility as a high-traffic public site is evident through displays and commemorations of deaths such as these.

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The remaining 18thand 19thcentury headstones display a wide range of professions and stories of Birmingham’s past. However, my personal favourite is easily overlooked. Standing alone, a tiny, lichen-covered headstone commemorates the life of ‘Nannetta Stoker.’ While the carving is faint, the following inscription can be deciphered:

 

“In Memory of

Nanetta Stocker

who departed this Life

May 4th1810

Aged 39 Years

The smallest Woman ever in

this Kingdom pofsefsed

with every accomplifhment

only 33 Inches high

a native of Austria.”

 

Nanette (incorrectly recorded as ‘Nanetta’ on her stone) is a forgotten music hall star who died with a huge following. Nanette was a musician, a dancer and a truly fascinating woman. Born in Austria in 1797, her physicality meant that she was forced (or ‘encouraged’, depending on the source) into show business at a young age. As I’m sure we are all aware, the only way for many people such as Nanette to make a living wage in their society was to exhibit themselves. After teaming up with German-born John Hauptman (who stood at 3ft 6inches high), the two extensively toured together, Nanette playing the pianoforte, John, the violin. They would also waltz together, which proved incredibly popular to 19thcentury audiences. In Birmingham alone, Nanette was the headline act at the annual Onion Fair carnival in Aston; a huge event, at which she triumphed.

Nanette is said to have enjoyed sewing and needlework and was ‘engaging and personable’. She was also of remarkably strong character. Her touring partner, Hauptman, proposed to Stocker, but was rejected ‘for reasons known only to herself.’

 

Nanette is but one of thousands of stories held within the cathedral’s grounds, and while most are lost to time, I do recommend taking a trip, should you ever find yourself in the area.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources/Further Reading:

 

https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-502-1/dissemination/pdf/birmingh2-48957_1.pdf

 

https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/your-pictures-birmingham-cathedral-in-the-nineteenth-183479

 

https://ahistoryofbirminghamchurches.jimdo.com/birmingham-st-martin-in-the-bull-ring/st-philip-s-birmingham-cathedral/

 

https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/amazing-story-woman-buried-forgotten-14184354

 

http://lesleyannemcleod.blogspot.com/2013/08/nannette-stocker-and-windsor-fairy.html

 

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ym5x3mq2p7EC&pg=PA22&lpg=PA22&dq=nanette+stocker&source=bl&ots=8-axoYiWP5&sig=ACfU3U0Icec60PRjBVv7PY2afM_WnkTS-w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjy48P2hfbhAhUDQhUIHXJ-CHg4ChDoATAAegQICRAB#v=onepage&q=nanette%20stocker&f=false

 

 

 

All photographs my own unless otherwise stated.

Buried Alive! A short history of premature burial and safety coffins

Taphophobia. The fear of being buried alive. The subject of nightmares since time immemorial. With today’s modern medicine, there’s little chance of these fears becoming reality, however, for many centuries, it was a very real threat.

There have been instances of premature burial for centuries; with apocryphal accounts of the presumed-dead clawing themselves out of their coffins. However, the fear of premature burial really reached its peak in the 18thand 19thcenturies.

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In 1896, social reformer and bearded anti-vaxxer (those have existed for centuries too) William Tebb, co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial with fellow germ-denier Walter Hadwen. The association campaigned for burial reforms to ensure the dead were truly, irrevocably dead. Due to the catatonic side effects of diseases such as cholera and malaria, newspapers were filled with accounts of prematurely buried individuals, subsequently dying in unimaginably traumatic ways.

‘WeirdHistorian.com’ cites an instance from the July 22nd, 1890 edition of ‘The Undertaker’s Journal’ where a woman was buried alive –

The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, 3rd July. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, had torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, had turned completely over in the coffin, and had given birth to a seven-month-old child. Both mother and child were dead when the coffin was opened for the last time.’

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Front Page of Tebb’s ‘Premature Burial’

Together with Edward Perry Vollum, who was nearly buried alive himself, the two men published a book titled ‘Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented’. The work consisted of suggestions of safety measures and several accounts of individuals later being discovered to have been buried alive. The association distributed this work alongside others of a similarity, such as ‘A Plan for Forming Associations for the Prevention of the Burial of Persons Alive, by an Army surgeon, and The Absolute Signs of Death, and the Prevention of Premature Burial, by the eminent British physician, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, F.R.S.’[1]

However, ‘Premature Burial’ is the most gripping of all the Association’s efforts. It remains in print to this day and is as frightening to the contemporary reader as it would have been to the Victorian taphophobe. The Paris Review recorded the lasting horror in these accounts of suffering. ‘There’s the man who sank into such a prolonged lethargy that he was thought dead until he “broke into a profuse sweat” in his coffin; the young woman whose corpse was exhumed for reburial only to be discovered “in the middle of the vault, with dishevelled hair and the linen torn to pieces … gnawed in her agony”[2]

If anything, the work concerns itself with exhumation as much as it does interment, suggested than many Victorian cemeteries were hives of questionable activity throughout their working day!

Considering that death and burial weren’t widely regulated industries, many accounts of premature burial occurred because of misdiagnosis of death by a non-medical individual. Subsequently, the association repeatedly campaigned for parliament to put new regulations in place, requiring a medical professional to confirm death before the body was handled by an undertaker. Previously, death certificates had been widely issued by doctors who had not examined the body, which seems utterly ludicrous to our modern sensibilities. After years of efforts, Tebb was still frequently dismissed by the wider medical community and remained a staunch campaigner for burial reform until his death in 1917. In Tebb’s will, he explicitly stated that his body could only be disposed of following ‘unmistakable evidence of decomposition’. He was cremated a week after his death.

 

Tebb’s death aside, premature burial required very real preventative inventions. In the 19thcentury, this commonly took the form of elaborate coffin mechanisms. The second version of ‘Premature Burial…’ included a handful of elaborate coffin mechanisms to assist the nearly-dead. The first, by Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnick, was presented in 1897 following his supposed experience of witnessing a Belgian girl be buried alive. Tebb and Vollum describe the invention as follows –

“…it consists of a long tube, about three and a half inches’ diameter, and a hermetically-sealed box.  The tube is fixed into an aperture in the coffin as soon as the latter is lowered into the grave.  No gases can escape from the tomb into the outer air, as the metallic box into which the upper end of the tube enters cannot be opened from the outside.

On the chest of the supposed dead body is placed a glass ball, several inches in diameter, attached to a spring which communicates through the tube with an iron box above ground.

On the slightest movement of the chest’s wall, as in the act of marked breathing, or movement of the body, the glass ball releases a spring which causes the lid of the iron box to fly open immediately, thus admitting both air and light to the coffin.  At the same time a flag rises perpendicularly about four feet above the ground, and a bell is set ringing which continues for about half an hour.  In front of the box, an electric lamp burns which gives light after sunset to the coffin below.  The tube acts as a speaking tube, and the voice of the inmate of the coffin, however feeble is intensified.”[3]

In short, Karnice-Karnicks invention is an elaborate jack-in-a-box system. However bizarre the mechanisms sound, the coffin system was tested and proven to be a great success when tested on the living. Yet while the dead do not breathe, they decompose. While the glass ball was supposed to be activated by breathing, it was equally as efficient at detecting the bloating and rotting of the dead. To avoid a run of unnecessary exhumations and cemetery flag-flying, the invention was not a success.

C. H. Eseinbrandt coffin

Before complicated coffin systems, earlier methods of prevention consisted of a simple cord attached to a bell, or similar method used to attract outside attention. Flags, ladders and minor explosions were all popularised, but most had foregone the inclusion of a breathing tube, making them all rather redundant.

In the 1820s, so-called ‘portable death chambers’ were popularised in Germany. These chambers were constructed over open graves and were furnished with a bell and viewing window. If the bell was rung, the body could be immediately exhumed, meanwhile ‘watchmen’ could peer into the chamber to search for signs of decomposition.

In 1829, fellow German Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger invented a system of strings and bells attached to the body’s extremities. Yet, as with Karnice-Karnick’s later invention, natural decomposition and shifting of the body could frequently cause false positive results, rendering the bells, once again, inconsequential.

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Several other inventions, including one in 1995 that required an intercom system, were patented, but ultimately proved pointless. There appear to be no official records of anyone being saved from a safety coffin and the western popularisation of embalming rendered any chance of post- ‘death’ survival ultimately impossible.

However, the fear remains. Despite modern medicine and developments in burial reform, the terror of waking up in a coffin is perpetually repeated in popular culture. Most recently, the horror film ‘The Nun’ featured coffin bells as a questionable plot point, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself had to fight her way out of a coffin in the 2000s. As long as we fear the grave, our dead will never truly stay buried.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2013/02/item-of-the-month-february-2012-premature-burial/

https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/02/the-grave-with-window.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_coffin

Footnotes:

[1]http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

[2]https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

[3]Premature Burial, 1905, pp321-322)

 

In Praise of Death Stationery

In western cultures, after a death, we are often informed by social media or through a text or phone call. For the common man, there’s no need for printed invites and those attending the service often know of time and place from similar means. As far as printed ephemera goes, most organised funerals present attendees with an order of service; hymns, poems, prayers and the like, alongside the name and photograph of the deceased. If you’re particularly unlucky, they might include a questionable poem written by a family member in dodgy rhyming couplets. But how many of us have retained these pamphlets throughout our grief?

Printed invites are for weddings and birthdays. They’re obtained in bulk from private printing companies that print twee family canvas pictures and promotional booklets alongside your booklet of grief. We use images and choose words carefully; most are desperately personal. And they end up left behind or in the bin.

But for our ancestors, funeral invitations and memorial cards were a keepsake in themselves. They were retained after the funeral, kept in books, boxes and between the pages of family bibles. However, to the contemporary death-historian or morbidly-minded hoarder, they’re a staple piece of a collection that snowballs.

The funeral itself is historically the most important part of western death rituals, and invitations and memorial keepsakes have been an extension of this.  While memorial or so-called ‘funeral cards’ are most associated with the 19thand early 20thcentury, there are beautifully elaborate examples dating back to the 17thand 18thcenturies. These cards were most commonly used as funeral invitations and are among the rarer and most attractive of death-associated collectables.

Many early examples were engraved in wood with a surround incorporating traditional reminders of mortality; skeletons, crossed bones, hour-glasses etc. Families with even greater wealth could choose to commission far larger invitations from copper.

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19th Century Memorial Card [Personal Collection]
By the Victorian age, fashions had changed from direct invitations to a funeral to small memorial cards which provided basic details as to the name of the deceased and the date of forthcoming funeral.

From the 1840s to approximately the 1870s, cards became hugely elaborate works of art in pierced paper and (still!) sometimes wood. In the world of Victorian death ephemera, it is through these that the Victorian obsession with funerary symbolism is easiest to recognise.

Memorial cards were often one of the first indicators of grief and one of the last reminders, subsequently, there were innumerable design options on offer. In early, costly cards, some might feature a plethora of symbols; broken columns, urns, weeping angels, and broken flowers – all of which carry their own symbolic meaning relating to death, grief and the afterlife.

By the turn of the century, and the advent of the industrial revolution (and subsequent development in printing methods), the public began to favour a smaller folding card that was lithographed with a singular simple image, such as lilies, crosses or a short bible verse, often with glimpses of silver and grey.

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19th Century Memorial Card with Undertaker’s Details [via The Cowkeeper’s Wish]
These more basic cards were easily obtained from several sources. Set designs could be ordered from a book, much like an Avon catalogue of misery. They could also be bought from the funeral directors themselves. In obtaining them from this source, they could be supplied for cut price or free, if the funeral director was able to advertise his services at the bottom of the card.

Funeral invitations for prominent and wealthy individuals often operated as tickets, as though the funeral was some exclusive concert. These often stated the requirement to ‘bring the ticket’ to the funeral to avoid overcrowding.

Public funerals of royalty or statesmen were obviously different affairs; funeral cards were specifically designed as keepsakes and backed for framing, but were also produced in several class tiers. For example, the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 had twelve levels of admission; officials, important statesmen and family had engraved tickets sealed in black wax, whereas, at the other end of the scale, the public – at least those who were able to afford a ticket to the event – found their card to be a plain printed affair.

Funeral ephemera relating to such big deaths was also mass produced as public souvenirs. Alongside official invitations to the event, handkerchiefs, pins and facsimile postcards were widely circulated as accessible keepsakes.

While decoration began to simplify towards the end of the century, the common thread in mourning stationery continued to be the feature of a black border framing a white background. This black border was carried throughout all mourning stationery, and is frequently used today.

While mourning cards and stationery may not appear to be the most exciting of mourning practises, it shows how much of an enormous business grieving was.

 

In sending a death notice through the post, the black edging would be prominent, meaning the nature of the letter that landed on your mat was very clear. Similarly, when writing any letters within the period of mourning, your situation was immediately visible through your usage of such a simplistic border. These borders, much like wider Victorian mourning regulations, changed in size and density depending on the immediacy of the death. In a letter to the Royal Academy from the son of pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, a thick border is visible, showing that the death affecting him has been recent. Over time, these correspondences would sport a smaller border, until eventually, the family could return to their previous letterheads.

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As the 20thcentury thundered into the 21st, these smaller cards retained a sense of simplicity, but grew somewhat, leaving us with the pamphlets we’re so used to in contemporary grief. It could be tempting to assume that pamphlets will soon go the way of the mourning card, being replaced by some technological alternative. However, considering we live in an increasingly ‘emotionally open’ society, perhaps the draw of a delicate keepsake will return us to a world of pierced paper urns and black borders. Besides, who doesn’t love a bit of new stationery?

 

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.

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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.

_______________

 

[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.)

Introducing Immortelles

When considering grave decorations, we in western cultures generally think of framed photographs, plastic flowers and weather-worn teddy bears. Our ideas of remembrance and sentimentality are generally personalised and frequently mimic the gifts we’d leave the individual in life.

Passing through any contemporary burial site will bring you to piles of ribbons, laminated poems and unsmoked cigarettes. Alongside these personal effects nestle ornaments of cherubs, resin angels and plastic flowers. These mass-produced indicators of loss and grief are only a small step away from our forebears mourning efforts – while rising costs and health and safety may forbid the erection of a four-foot angel statue, a high street florist can sell you a small cherub and still leave you with change from £10.

While stone cherubs and angels last indefinitely, flowers are the most common decoration in mourning, retaining their place by the graveside for centuries. Flowers may well be a traditional necessity of sorts, but they have a limited lifespan. Plastic flowers may last longer, but discolour and weather over time and similarly must be replaced. However, Victorian ‘Immortelles’ (from the French word for ‘everlasting’) offered a more lasting floral graveside option.

The term ‘Immortelles’ generally refers to the huge beaded wreaths left at gravesides predominantly in western Europe, particularly France. These wire-wrapped, beaded creations could reach up to four feet in diameter and were generally displayed above a mausoleum or tomb. While not directly personalised for the interred person, these wreaths incorporated flower motifs, words, crosses and even preserved flowers in domes.

Over time, the fine wire securing the beads would weather and disintegrate, leaving the immortelle as a pile of black beads, ready to be reused for another project or simply lost and scattered to time.

‘Immortelle’ is also applied to ceramic and glass-domed wreaths that were particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down.

Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery has a beautiful Immortelle on display beneath their Spielman centre which was uncovered several years ago while clearing a grave site. Arnos employee and academic Janine Marriott reported that ‘The plaster wreath got covered in dirt and leaf debris during the years Arnos Vale was neglected which actually protected this delicate item from animals, vandalism and weather.  Once it was lifted from the grave, it was then cleaned and repaired before being returned to the archives in the cemetery.’

The wreath now sits pride of place in their cemetery where it may be enjoyed for generations to come. Similarly, Market Lavington museum in Devizes has two beautiful immortelles in their possession which were in situ until the 1930s. These differ from the Arnos wreath as they were protected from the elements by both glass domes and external cages.

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While wreaths are most common, much like contemporary mourners, many Victorian and Edwardian mourners chose to decorate graves with plaster motifs such as clasped hands, bibles, singular flowers and birds. These are far more commonplace in historical cemeteries as they generally lay lower and flatter to the grave, meaning that if vegetation takes hold, they are protected from the elements far better than a glass dome or brittle petal. It is these simplistic monuments that most mimic our modern cherubs and sentimental carved stones.

Are there any immortelles in cemeteries or museums near you?

 

 

https://kaionegal.typepad.com/the_art_of_nothing/2012/08/french-generals-chateau-getaway-day-1st-antonins-cemetery.html

 

https://arnosvale.org.uk/life-death-and-the-rest-logo/

 

https://marketlavingtonmuseum.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/an-immortelle/

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/545865954/memento-mori-grave-funeral-victorian

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/658389548/rare-victorian-cemetary-grave-immortelle?ref=landingpage_similar_listing_top-1

 

https://time4us2retire.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/our-treasures-immortelle/

The World of Victorian Grave Dolls

After experiencing the death of a loved one, especially those who pass away in the midst of infancy or youth, our mourning practises may include collecting mementos, old photographs, writing diaries. And of course, you might make a full-sized effigy of the deceased to place in their room.

 

In the 19thcentury, death played far a greater role in everyday life. Children and adults were frequently and openly exposed to death and deceased loved ones. As we know through examples of hair jewellery, post-mortem photography and death masks, methods of remembrance and memorialisation could be far more direct and graphic. Hair bracelets and wax heads aside, Victorian mourning dolls are one of the more overlooked element of the Victorian grief process.

1860s Wax Mourning Doll
1860s Wax Mourning Doll

By the tail end of the 19thcentury, it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite. Of course, leaving toys at the grave of a child remains familiar sight, but ‘mourning dolls’ were no shop-bought playthings.

 

The life of the Mourning Doll began at the funeral/wake of the infant, where a wax likeness was made and presented in the child’s own clothes. Often, the doll’s realism was enhanced by wearing cuttings of the child’s own hair. Frequently pictured lying with the deceased on their deathbed, they were also displayed in miniature coffins as an idealised image of peaceful death. Considering that many infant mortalities were caused by disfiguring and draining illnesses such as smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria, the doll offered an idealised reality of their loss. While their child may have departed gaunt and bloody, the wax effigy would look as though it had simply closed its eyes and gone to sleep.

 

Subsequently, these peaceful dolls were often sculpted with flat backs and heads to ease placement in frames, coffins and at the graveside. As the years passed, tastes changes and weather and vandalism played their part, many of these dolls were left and scattered with the years.

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Grave decoration, aside from the obvious towering monuments, was commonplace in the Victorian era. Ceramic hands, books, flowers and wreaths were often placed on graves from the 19thcentury and beyond. These, like most Victorian methods of memorialisation, were rich with symbolism. Many French cemeteries popularised beaded ‘Immortelles’, which were beautifully beaded wreaths which slowly disintegrated into piles of glistening beads over time.

 

However, those that survive today had very different treatments; they were not left open to the elements, but were often kept at home, displayed in the bed of the deceased and cared for and re-dressed as though they were the deceased. To mimic the feel of a real child, these dolls were weighted with sand and heavy cloth. In some ways, these wax infants seem not unlike the popular ‘re-born’ dolls of today, where hyper-realistic silicon babies are collected by doll enthusiasts and grieving parents alike.

 

Those that remain today were preserved in large glass boxes and, typically, depict a child between 0-3 years. Older children tend to have been depicted merely from the shoulders up – Which is understandable from a cost and size perspective! A wax baby might be comforting; a six foot wax teenager is the stuff of nightmares.

little-girls-would-practice-mourning-with-funeral-dolls-photo-u1

Wax likenesses weren’t the only death-related dolls associated with Victorian children. In life, many little girls were presented with so-called ‘Death Kits’, which included a doll and miniature coffin. In play, the child would then ‘practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, placing it in the coffin, and facilitating a funeral. She might also be expected to practise attending to the grief of the doll’s mourners.’ So says The Order of the Good Death’s Louise Hung.

 

These dolls were ideal primers for young women who, should they survive to adulthood, would almost certainly be called upon to care for their own dead.

 

As mortality rates decreased, tastes changed and wartime reduced the popularity of excessive or overly-materialistic mourning, wax dolls lost their popularity. Today, many of us find realistic likenesses unnerving or macabre, but feel compelled to decorate graves with cherubs and photographic likenesses. The days of the wax child may be over, but I’d keep an eye on the ceramic toddler…

 

 

 

Sources

https://victoriantraditions.blogspot.com/2016/04/wax-dolls-montanari-and-pierotti-dolls.html

 

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cabinet-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls

 

http://www.inherited-values.com/2016/10/the-lovely-disturbing-the-history-of-wax-dolls/

 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4814519.kirsty_stonell_walker/blog?page=13

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_mourning_dolls

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