ALH Anna Lee Huber

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Seances and the Great War
February 6, 2019

The tremendous number of casualties that occurred during the Great War (more commonly known today as World War I) was both shocking and devastating. Never before had so many lives been lost in so short a time. There were few people in the main combatant countries who were not directly affected by the death of a friend or loved one, and many suffered staggering losses. Families lost multiple sons. Entire villages were deprived of nearly all their young men.

To make matters worse, most people were also denied the chance for any closure—their loved ones being killed on a foreign battlefield and buried in a war cemetery faraway. There was no funeral, no gravestone to visit in the churchyard. Sometimes there wasn’t even a grave to speak of—the deceased’s body being lost or destroyed. So there were no goodbyes, no finality—only a void where their loved one should have been. People struggled to come to terms with the loss of so many lives, and in the process, a large number of them turned to Spiritualism, desperate to contact their loved ones.

Spiritualism was not new. It had steadily gained popularity throughout the second half of the 19th century, attracting interest mainly from members of the wealthy middle to upper class. It was based on the belief that the spirits of the dead wished to and were capable of communicating with the living, usually through the assistance of a medium. By the end of the Great War it had attracted many famous devotees and advocates, including members of the British royal family, prominent physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, and the author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

By the end of the war, the practice had become wildly popular. Throughout London, on any given evening there were almost as many séances—both professional as well as amateur efforts at “table-turning”—as dances. The most popular (and clever) mediums were so in demand they booked seats for their shows as far in advance as popular revues. At a time when psychology was still in its relative infancy and few people had access to counseling for their grief, many latched on to the hope and comfort that Spiritualism seemed to provide to reassure them that their loved ones had survived the death of their physical bodies and were now somewhere safe and happy.

However, Spiritualism also had its share of skeptics and detractors, most notably the writer Rudyard Kipling and the illusionist Harry Houdini, who soon made it his quest to expose the fraudulent methods employed by many mediums. There may have been mediums who possessed genuine gifts, but the vast majority of them were proved to be charlatans, preying on the grief and gullibility of others. Various tricks were employed to convince clients of the medium’s purported supernatural abilities. Concealed assistants rapped tables or wafted incense through the room, strategically placed vents were opened to send drafts of cool air across participants’ backs, strings were used to ring bells or dangle objects over the table, making them appear to float in midair.

At large stage shows, assistants were planted among the crowd to listen to people’s conversations and report back to the spiritualist, or to be drawn up on stage themselves. Some mediums even employed women in society to promote their services and help bolster attendance. These society women also shared information about the physical attributes and characteristics of other’s deceased loved ones so that the medium could better deceive their clients. In this way, sometimes one’s own friends were profiting in a medium’s efforts to defraud you.

For better or for worse, séances in war-time and post-war Britain and other countries were all the rage. They both exploited the grief of those who were most vulnerable, and undoubtedly helped some to cope with their sorrow and carry on.


This article first appeared at Between the Chapters.

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