Musings: The Darkened Room

I LOVE ghost stories. I especially love Victorian ghost stories. I also love a good feminist manifesto. No surprise to anyone, then, that I was drawn to Alex Owen’s in “The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England”.  Its premise is that during a time of great oppression, women were able to find a sense of self and belonging in a masculine dominated society. Women of England were able to create jobs in support of themselves through Spiritualism, though women can be bound “into a paradigm of weakness, instability, inferiority, and social powerlessness” (p. 242).

First, a bit of history: In 1848 New York’s Fox sisters began communicating with the dead through various knocking sounds. The sisters – Kate and Margaret – were just 12 and 15 when they began “rapping” with spirits. After the American Civil War, people sought ways to cope with the deaths of their loved ones who never returned, and being able to communicate with them – though dead – gave families a great sense of relief. The sisters became successful in their mediumship, and the concept of women communicating with spirits spread around the country and across the ocean to England.

At the time, women lived their lives were as caretakers of the home. They managed the household and were expected to live extremely restricted lives revolving around their husbands and children. They were not expected to have much of a voice of their own, never mind the voice of a spirit. Once Spiritualism took hold, this all changed.

As Owen explains it, Spiritualism was a feminist movement allowing women an opportunity to channel (channel? get it! what? i’m funny!) their own energies to release themselves from the mold of a quiet, docile, housewife, to being famous. They traveled! People listened when they spoke! They made their own money!

Spiritualism spread. Women from all over the US and England became mediums; people from all over attended their seances. It was quite a time for ghost relations!

To learn more about Spiritualism in America, friends and I recently participated on a walking tour with Melissa at NowAge. Melissa brought us to a number of sights around Salem that were involved with Spiritualism: from a stop at the former home of Spiritualist disbeliever – Nathaniel Hawthorne, to a Spiritualist Church that still welcomes worshipers, and a Swedenborian Church, we learned a ton and visited some amazing places.

Going on this tour with Melissa was more than simply picking up some tidbits for Salem history nerdom, though. We met Melissa through a Tarot Tour she hosts (which is AMAZING) and love the energy she brings to our historic city. She’s a kick-ass history nerd and is part of the amazing New Age community here in Salem – modern witches who, among other things, read tarot, carry crystals, burn candles of various colors and shapes, and help others through Reiki. Melissa is part of a group of women who are all about embracing womanhood and using it to help make the world a better place. I can’t think of any better to wander around Salem with as we learn and consider the stories of women who were doing the same during the 1800s.

As I consider Owen’s take on Spiritualism – that women played a central role as mediums, healers, and believers in the late Victorian Era allowing them independence and to question gender roles of the time – I can’t help but think about the women in Salem who are working to bring back the spells of old – natural healing, teas and herbs, crystals and sage – and making them modern. Even though times have changed, women are still working to find “a sense of self and belonging in a masculine dominated society”. And I love it. 

I had a chance to sit down with Melissa at the Creative Salem office to chat about Spiritualism and why the history is still relevant today.  LINK COMING SOON!


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