The secret world of séances: 8 historical figures who sought the spirits

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Seances in the Victorian era

Séances, or sessions where people try to communicate with spirits, have fascinated us for centuries.

Historically, séances gained a lot of attention during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when curiosity about the paranormal was high. Many sought to connect with lost loved ones or gain insights from spirits beyond our physical reach.

This era saw a surge in spiritualism — the belief in the possibility of communication with the dead — leading to the widespread practice of holding séances.

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What is a séance?

Séances often take place in quiet rooms where participants sit around a table, sometimes holding hands to create a circle. This setting is thought to help focus the energy needed to connect with the spirit world.

A key figure in these sessions is the medium, a person believed to have the ability to communicate with spirits. The medium often enters a trance-like state to relay messages from the deceased to the living.

The atmosphere in a séance is usually one of anticipation and silence, punctuated by the medium’s voice or unexpected sounds that some interpret as signs from spirits.

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Items on the table, such as a planchette or a ouija board, may move seemingly on their own, guided by unseen forces to spell out messages. Lights might flicker, and the temperature could drop, adding to the sense of otherworldly presence.

Critics argue that these phenomena can be explained by psychological effects or trickery, but for believers, séances offer a direct line to a world beyond our understanding.

People from various backgrounds (including many famous figures) participated in these gatherings with the hope of exploring the age-old question: What happens after we die?

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Famous historical figures who were fascinated with seances

1. Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for creating the character Sherlock Holmes, was deeply interested in spiritualism and séances.

His fascination wasn’t just a passing hobby — it was a significant part of his life, especially later on. Doyle believed that it was possible to communicate with the dead, and he participated in many séances to try to make these connections himself.

His dedication to spiritualism grew stronger after the tragic losses he suffered during World War I, including the death of his son, brother, and two brothers-in-law.

These personal losses led Doyle to seek comfort and answers through séances. He hoped to find evidence of the afterlife and possibly connect with his lost loved ones.

Doyle’s involvement in séances and the spiritualist movement was not without controversy. Despite skepticism and criticism from some of his peers, he remained a committed believer in spiritualism until his death.

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2. Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini, famous for his escape acts and magic tricks, had a complex relationship with spiritualism and séances.

Initially, he was curious about the possibility of communicating with the spirit world. This interest was partly due to the loss of his mother, which left him longing for a way to connect with her beyond the grave.

However, Houdini’s fascination soon turned into skepticism. As he attended more séances, he noticed many mediums used tricks similar to those he employed in his magic shows.

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This realization led him on a new mission: to expose fraudulent mediums who, he believed, preyed on grieving individuals seeking solace.

Houdini became a fierce critic of séances, dedicating himself to debunking mediums he considered impostors. He attended séances in disguise, ready to reveal how mediums manipulated their audiences.

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SEANCE HOUDINI 26:26: The 100 Year Houdini Seance

Despite his skepticism, Houdini made a pact with his wife, Bess. He promised that if it were possible, he would send her a message from the beyond after his death.

For ten years after Houdini’s death, Bess held annual séances on the anniversary of his passing, hoping to receive the promised sign. The message never came, which many see as further evidence of Houdini’s claim that séances could not truly connect the living with the dead.

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3. Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, turned to séances as a way to cope with overwhelming grief.

The loss of her son Willie in 1862 deeply affected her, and she sought comfort in the possibility of connecting with him in the afterlife. This search for solace led her to host several séances in the White House.

The First Lady’s interest in spiritualism was not uncommon for the time, but her position gave her actions more attention.

These White House séances were conducted with the hope of reaching Willie and perhaps finding some peace amid the turmoil of the Civil War and personal tragedy.

Interestingly, President Lincoln is said to have attended a few of these séances. Though his views on the matter were more skeptical, he supported his wife’s efforts to find peace.

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4. Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo, the famous writer behind Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, found himself drawn to the world of séances during a challenging period of his life.

While in exile from France, living on the island of Jersey, Hugo began exploring spiritualism as a way to cope with his separation from his country and the loss of his beloved daughter Léopoldine, who had died years earlier.

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Hugo hoped to find both solace and inspiration through contact with the spirit world. He participated in numerous séances, seeking to communicate with famous historical figures and, most importantly, his daughter.

The séances held by Hugo and his family were detailed and complex, involving various methods to facilitate communication with spirits. Reports from these sessions include encounters with a wide range of spirits, from Shakespeare to Galileo, and even the Lion of Androcles.

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Spirits in Exile: voices from the seances

However, the most poignant communications were those believed to be from his daughter, offering Hugo a sense of connection across the divide of life and death.

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5. Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, known for the light bulb and phonograph, had a curious interest in the possibility of an afterlife.

It’s said that Edison even ventured into creating a device intended to communicate with spirits. This shows us a less-known side of Edison — his fascination with the mysteries beyond our physical existence.

The idea of such a device came from Edison’s belief in the existence of life after death. He thought that if spirits were a form of energy, then there should be a way to contact them using technology.

Despite the widespread interest in this invention, there’s no concrete evidence that Edison ever completed or tested such a device.

The rumors stem from interviews and articles where he mentioned his interest in creating a “spirit phone” but later, he seemed to downplay these claims.

Some speculate that Edison’s talk of communicating with the dead was more about provoking thought and discussion rather than an actual project he intended to finish.

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6. William Crookes

William Crookes was a respected scientist known for his discovery of the element thallium and his work in chemistry and physics. However, his research extended into an area quite controversial for a man of science: spiritualism.

Crookes took a keen interest in investigating spiritualist phenomena, particularly the claims of mediums who said they could communicate with the dead.

In the late 19th century, Crookes began a series of experiments to test the authenticity of mediums and their abilities. His work was groundbreaking because it approached spiritualism from a scientific standpoint.

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He used his knowledge and scientific methods to try to understand if there was any truth to the claims made by mediums.

One of Crookes’s most famous investigations involved the medium Florence Cook, who claimed to materialize a spirit named Katie King. Crookes reported witnessing the materialization and provided detailed accounts of his observations.

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Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism

These claims were met with skepticism and controversy in the scientific community, as many of his peers struggled to reconcile Crookes’s esteemed reputation with his reports on spiritualist sessions.

Despite the criticism, Crookes remained a supporter of the idea that science could explain the phenomena associated with séances and mediumship.

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7. Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley, often a figure of controversy, is famous for being deeply involved in the occult and had a keen interest in exploring the spirit world through séances.

Crowley, known for his complex and sometimes shocking practices, saw séances not just as a means to communicate with spirits but as part of a larger quest for hidden knowledge and spiritual power.

Crowley’s approach to séances was connected with his broader practices in magick (a term he used to distinguish his work from stage magic), where he sought to harness unseen forces and achieve higher states of consciousness.

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The Aleister Crowley Collection: 5-Book Paperback Boxed Set (Arcturus Classic Collections)

Crowley’s participation in séances and other spiritualist activities was part of his lifelong pursuit of what he called the “Great Work” — a journey toward personal spiritual enlightenment and a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the universe.

He documented his experiences and theories in numerous writings, contributing to the body of occult literature and influencing future generations of spiritual seekers.

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8. Helena Blavatsky

Helena Blavatsky was a pivotal figure in the spiritual movements of the 19th century, best known for founding the Theosophical Society. Her work and teachings aimed to explore the deeper spiritual knowledge that she believed was common to all religions.

Central to her beliefs was the idea that it was possible to make contact with spiritual masters or “Mahatmas,” beings of higher wisdom, who could guide humanity toward enlightenment.

Blavatsky’s approach to séances was unique. She claimed to communicate with these masters not just for personal guidance but to bring their wisdom to the wider world.

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The Essential Works of Helena Blavatsky: Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, The Key to Theosophy, The Voice of the Silence, Studies in Occultism, Nightmare Tales (Illustrated)

Through her writings and the séances she conducted, she presented herself as a mediator between the physical world and these higher spiritual entities.

Her claims sparked interest and controversy, drawing followers eager to learn about these hidden truths and skeptics who doubted her abilities.

The Theosophical Society, with its emphasis on the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy, provided a platform for Blavatsky to share her teachings and the knowledge she claimed to receive from the spiritual masters.

Her work laid the groundwork for modern spiritualist movements, influencing a wide range of beliefs and practices related to séances and communication with the spirit world.

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Are you open-minded or completely skeptical about seances?

As we’ve seen, séances have played a significant role in the lives of many historical figures, each turning to them for different reasons.

Some sought comfort in their grief, hoping to reconnect with lost loved ones. Others, driven by curiosity and a quest for knowledge, aimed to uncover the mysteries of the afterlife.

Then there were the skeptics, determined to expose what they believed to be frauds, yet still drawn to the séance table to seek the truth.

As we continue on our own paths, let’s keep in mind the lessons from those who’ve sought answers in the spirit world. Their stories encourage us to keep questioning, keep seeking, and, most importantly, keep an open mind about the mysteries that surround us. 👻

Don’t miss: Are mediums real? Wild stories vs. cold hard facts – who wins?

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