The Victorian Post-human: Transmission, Information and the Séance

Authored by: Jill Galvan

The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult

Print publication date:  July  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754669128
eBook ISBN: 9781315613352
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042280


 Download Chapter



Over the last few decades, scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have uncovered a rich interplay between the phantasmal and the technological. As we now know, for many modern spiritualists, psychical researchers, and the writers who depicted their pursuits, mediumistic contacts were of a piece with the communication technology innovations of the day. Kate and Margaret Fox set off the transatlantic séance trend when they heard the ‘rappings’ of a spirit in their New York home, and it has become scholarly lore that these remote, tapping communications were instantly compared to those of the recently invented electric telegraph. 1 1

See, for example, Werner Sollors, ‘Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Celestial Telegraph, or Indian Blessings to Gas-Lit American Drawing Rooms’, American Quarterly, 35 (1983): 459–80; Lawrence Rainey, ‘Taking Dictation: Collage Poetics, Pathology, and Poetics’, Modernism/Modernity, 5.2 (1998): 123–53; Richard J. Noakes, ‘Telegraphy is an Occult Art: Cromwell Fleetwood Varley and the Diffusion of Electricity to the Other World’, British Journal for the History of Science, 32 (1999): 421–59; Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, 2000), pp. 21–58. For a comprehensive look at technology and the occult in the Victorian period and beyond, see Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century (Oxford, 2006).

For believers in spirit photography, the camera could capture images of ghosts that were otherwise invisible to the human eye. 2 2

Tom Gunning, ‘Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny’, in Patrice Petro (ed), Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video (Bloomington, 1995), pp. 42–71; Jennifer Green-Lewis, Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism (Ithaca, 1996), pp. 227–34; Allen W. Grove, ‘Röntgen’s Ghosts: Photography, X-Rays, and the Victorian Imagination’, Literature and Medicine, 16 (1997): 141–73; Clément Chéroux et al. (eds), The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (New Haven, 2005).

Typists paralleled spirit mediums, and indeed some women took ‘dictations’ in both the office and the séance. 3 3

Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford, 1999), pp. 184–218; Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 86–114; Christopher Keep, ‘Blinded by the Type: Gender and Information Technology at the Turn of the Century’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 23 (2001): 149–73; Bette London, ‘Secretary to the Stars: Mediums and the Agency of Authorship’, in Leah Price and Pamela Thurschwell (eds), Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture (Aldershot, 2005), pp. 91–110; Jill Galvan, The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859–1919 (Ithaca, 2010).

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.