Friday, February 26, 2010

The 19th Century Twitter


The Fox sisters had a clever little hoax, but it certainly would never have become a nationwide movement and a religion without the endorsement of some key, influential people. During my research, I was astounded to discover that intelligent, educated, and shrewd people such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass fell for what was later confessed to be a fraud. No matter how surprising, however, their actions and opinions are recorded in history, and as I worked on writing my narrative, I searched for an explanation that made sense to me. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that – just like today – people endorse things that benefit them.

Abolition and Women’s Rights were sometimes called the “twin causes” of the mid-nineteenth century, and their membership circles largely intersected. Leaders in these movements wanted to get their message out to the public, and my “take” on their support of spiritualism is simply this: Seances were the 19th century version of Twitter.

Picture it -- People gathering together to receive brief, cryptic messages sent by faceless entities from a far away place. That pretty much describes both a séance and Twitter, doesn’t it? And just like with Twitter, one can never be really certain of the sender’s true identity. Senator John Calhoun was a staunch (even rabid!) advocate of slavery. Yet, after his death, spiritualists attending séances with the Fox sisters received messages from Calhoun which recanted his former position. His spirit (@johncalhoun if you please) claimed that he had been enlightened by the Truth in the afterlife. A feather in the cap of abolitionists – if you believed the message, which many people did.

Stanton, Mott, Douglass, and countless other reformers knew exactly what they were doing when they endorsed the Fox sisters. They had a message they wanted to spread, and the Fox sisters, abolitionists and fledgling feminists themselves, were more than happy to cooperate. As @benjaminfranklin said in one of their séances, “Great changes are on the horizon!”

1 comment:

  1. The whole thing has its amusing aspects, rather like fortune telling from a tent at the fair or making psychic predictions at the beginning of a new year.

    As for Elizabeth Cady Stanton, what with that weird husband of hers, she might have been looking for greener pastures or possibly some hope.

    Malcolm

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