Image: Robert Stephenson by Maull & Polybank, 1856
The 19th century is often regarded as a time of secularisation, engineering progress and scientific discovery.
Many of the figures who stand out were great scientists and engineers, like Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. However, this was also a period of moral challenges and intense spiritual experience; the mid-1800s was an era as engaged with spiritualism as it was with steam trains and evolution.
Many séances were fraudulent, and the ‘medium’ could use various tricks to create an illusion that he or she was communicating with spirits. These included balloons, hidden accomplices and ‘phantom music.’ Robert Stephenson described his experience of a ‘spirit rapping’ in a letter to his close friend Brunel:
My Spirit rapping visit was unsatisfactory indeed I regarded it as a perfect failure altho I was induced from the apparent sincerity of the parties to promise that I would make another visit to another house, as they held out the prospect of my seeing two or three Ladies lift a table by their fingers end. They were very respectable people and doubtless believed all they said, but I stand amazed at their credulity, in short their credulity in my mind beats the spirits hollow. I could sooner believe in spirits than I could conceive such frustration of mind. The chief ‘medium’ as they call it was a tolerably good looking girl who talked sensibly enough…During the evening she was thrown into hysterics because I ventured to say that I thought one of the knocks came from part of the table where she was sitting.
The whole company implicitly believed her when she informed them that she constantly conversed with spirits, some of them very recently removed from this state of existence. She frequently sees spirits hovering in the air and also sees halos or luminous atmospheres around the bodies of friends…This will give you some notion of the kind of evening I had, and I must add one more anecdote. When we were about to leave the table, the master of the house proposed to us to have another bottle of wine. The most of the company declined, but the master said he would consult the spirits and did so in our presence in the most solemn manner – by looking earnestly down upon the table and by proposing himself in these terms – My dear spirit must we have any more wine? Whereupon three distinct knocks were heard under the table, which is always construed to mean yes. Whereupon we had another bottle of wine and I ventured to say I thought the party was getting more spirituous than spiritual.
You must treat this as a private communication as I must meet the parties once or twice again.