Spiritualists and Spiritualism


The Philadelphia area became a center of Spiritualist activity in the mid-nineteenth century, appealing to radical Quakers reformers, who supported progressive ideals of racial and gender equality, individualism, progress, and scientific approaches, and to grieving families anxious to communicate with the spirits of departed loved ones. The First Association of Spiritualists of Philadelphia met in January 1852, making it the first in the country. By the 1870s, national conventions met annually, often in conjunction with women’s rights groups. Three local Spiritualist societies were reported in Philadelphia in 1871 as well as organized groups in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and southern New Jersey. Over time, spiritualism lost its appeal and adopted a more conventional organizational model, including ministers, but continued with local circles into the twenty-first century.

A group of about 33 people pose in nineteenth-century clothes in front of their temple. The crowd includes white men, white women, and two Black women.
The First Association of Spiritualists in Philadelphia gather in front of their Temple at Twelfth and Thompson Streets in 1917 in this photograph by local member John Frank Keith. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Beginning in the 1820s the writing of Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), an eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and mystic, attracted intellectuals seeking alternatives to the constrictive predestination of Calvinism and searching for a more universal religion. Swedenborg’s ideas of an “inner church,” communication with spirits, and harmony with nature directly influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) and the New England Transcendentalists, as well as other American intellectuals, writers, and artists. In self-induced trances through breath control, Swedenborg envisioned and described a complex afterlife that included an interim world of spirits and successive levels of heaven or hell. German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) proposed that in a “mesmerized” hypnotic state magnetic forces could restore health. Animal magnetism gained popularity in the United States by the 1840s and some who awakened from trances reported visions of spirits. Alexander Jackson Davis (1826-1910) combined elements of Swedenborgianism and Mesmerism to promote his own American form of spiritualism based on individual spiritual progress through various levels of knowledge and the existence of a parallel spirit world that he named “Summerland.” After practicing magnetic healing in 1844-45, he published The Principles of Nature: Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847, based on his own self-described clairvoyant powers.  

In 1848 Maggie (1833-93) and Kate (1837-92) Fox, two young sisters living near Rochester, New York, claimed to interpret rapping noises that they attributed to spirits. Davis enthusiastically wrote, “Behold, a living demonstration is born.” The success of the Fox sisters launched a Spiritualism movement that attracted both believers and skeptics to seances and demonstrations led by a growing number of mediums who offered to connect grieving families to deceased loved ones and share the wisdom of spirits through rapping noises, trance writing, spirit paintings, magnetic healing, and eventually physical materializations.

This is a sketch of two sisters posed and half-embracing in nineteenth-century period dress.
Spiritualist sisters Catherine and Margaret Fox are shown in this sketch from a daguerreotype photographed by the Meade Brothers. Their publicized supernatural encounters and national tours are credited with starting the spiritualist movement in America. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Radical Quakers involved in abolition and women’s rights were among the first to adopt and promote the Fox sisters. Isaac (1798-1872) and Amy Post (1802-89) of Rochester, New York, Hicksite Quakers involved in social reform movements, played a key early role in promoting the experience of the Fox sisters and the authenticity of spiritualism. The Posts undoubtedly influenced the adoption of spiritualism among Philadelphia’s radical Quaker community, and especially Dr. Henry Teas Child (1816-90), a prominent physician, abolitionist, and close associate of Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). Radical reformers and feminists in several planned communities in southern New Jersey-Vineland (Cumberland County), Ancora (Camden County), and Hammonton (Atlantic County)–also organized active Spiritualist societies.

Spiritualists in the Philadelphia Area

According to an account published in 1851, Philadelphia had more than fifty circles made up of “Presbyterians, Quakers, Unitarians, Baptists, Methodists, Come-outers, Infidels and Atheists.”  Circles were formed with ten to eighteen individuals, often family or friends of both sexes, equally divided between masculine and feminine natures, corresponding to positive and negative. Meetings held in homes opened with vocal or instrumental music followed by readings on spiritual philosophy from Davis or other authors. Seated around a table, perfect harmony was necessary for the designated medium to establish contact. Spiritualists resisted any central ruling church body or creed; national, state, and even local societies provided only a voluntary association of autonomous individuals and groups. In addition to private and public circles, some societies rented or purchased buildings for lectures and operated educational Lyceums for children. Beginning in 1879 the First Association of Spiritualists held annual camp meetings near Neshaminy Falls in Bucks County. Spirit contacts progressed from simple rapping to written messages, and finally material apparitions. As demonstrations of materializations became more theatrical, seances attracted new audiences as well as critics.

From the beginning, Spiritualists invited skeptics to investigate the authenticity of spirit communications through scientific observations and experiments. In 1874 Philadelphia mediums Nelson and Jennie Holmes began presenting seances that included spirit materializations of Katie King and her father, supposed to be the pirate captain Henry Morgan. Henry Teas Child, his friend the utopian socialist Robert Dale Owen (1801-77), and other prominent Spiritualists at first endorsed the authenticity of the materializations, but they had to admit their deception when the young woman who portrayed Katie King published her confession in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Despite the evidence of fraud among some mediums, Spiritualism continued to maintain loyal followers. Philanthropist Henry Seybert (1801-83) left money to the University of Pennsylvania to scientifically investigate modern spiritualism, hoping to prove its authenticity. The Seybert Commission, consisting of prominent clergymen, doctors and scientists, nevertheless concluded in its 1887 report that there was no scientific evidence for spirit contacts.

Black and white photograph of a young white woman in a white dress and white veil. Her arms are crossed in front of her as she seems to look past the camera.
A photograph of the “spirit” known as Katie King, portrayed by an unknown human actress, was first summoned by medium Florence Cook and photographed by scientist Sir William Crookes between 1871 and 1874. (Wikimedia Commons)

Spiritualism lost its radical foundations as temperance and women’s rights advocates increasingly turned to mainstream Christianity for support in the twentieth century. The Church of Christ, Scientist, founded by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) in 1879, began to compete with Spiritualism among those seeking a new alternative faith. Some Spiritualists responded by adopting more orthodox practices such as ordained ministers, Sunday services, and camp meetings. Spiritualists continue to worship in various locations within the city and surrounding area, and in 2022 the National Spiritualist Association of Churches listed one affiliated church in Philadelphia and one in Westville, New Jersey.

Barbara Franco is an independent scholar focusing on nineteenth-century social and cultural history. She formerly served as executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and founding director of the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum. She is coauthor of Interpreting Religion at Museums and Historic Sites.

Copyright 2023, Rutgers University.


First Association of Spiritualists of Philadelphia, 1917

Library Company of Philadelphia

The First Association of Spiritualists of Philadelphia, pictured in this 1917 photograph taken by local amateur photographer and member John Frank Keith, met in various halls and buildings from 1852 until they acquired their own building at Twelfth and Thompson Streets. The new building was completed in 1901 and eventually acquired the moniker “Harmony Hall.” The First Association sold this Temple in 1931 and moved to a new location at Master and Carlisle Streets. They disbanded sometime in the twentieth century.

The Fox Sisters, 1853

Library Company of Philadelphia

Kate and Maggie Fox, shown in this image, are commonly credited with starting the spiritualist movement in America in 1848. Children at the time, the Fox sisters became a local phenomenon when they claimed to be able to interpret mysterious rapping and knocking noises in the bedroom of their parent’s farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. After this attention and fearful of spirits, their parents sent them to live with their sister Leah in Rochester. Here, the girls attracted the attention of local Spiritualist leaders such as Isaac and Amy Post. Their supposed gifts as mediums gained a national following, and the girls founded a successful séance business in New York. They toured the United States in the early 1850s, stopping in Philadelphia among other cities.

Perhaps exhausted by the influx of new Spiritualists seeking solace after the devastation of the Civil War, reeling from her husband’s untimely death, or simply tired of being exploited from a young age, Maggie sold her story to the papers in 1888. To publicly denounce Spiritualism in 1888, Kate mounted the stage at the New York Academy of Music. In front of the crowd, she stated: “My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began. At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.” She added that her and her sister would also crack their knuckles and joints to make the rapping noises. Interestingly, Maggie recanted her claims the following year, but for many, regardless of Maggie’s words either way, the spiritualist movement continued strong. Plagued by alcoholism, Kate died in 1892 and Maggie in 1893.

The First Association of Spiritualists of Philadelphia Constitution, 1867

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The First Association of the Spiritualists of Philadelphia first met in January 1852. Fifteen years later, in 1867, the Association gathered and drafted the Constitution pictured here. The document plans the organization’s financial and legal apparatus.

Katie King’s Spirit, c. 1874

Wikimedia Commons

From the beginning, Spiritualists invited skeptics to investigate the authenticity of spirit communications through scientific observations and experiments. Around 1871 in London, young medium Florence Cook (c. 1856-1904) summoned a spirit that supposedly went by the name Katie King. This gained the attention of Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), a British chemist who set out to investigate this incident. Crookes claimed to have taken this photograph of Katie King in addition to measuring and weighing her.

A few years later in Philadelphia, mediums Nelson and Jennie Holmes began presenting seances that included spirit materializations of Katie King and her father, John King who the mediums claimed was also the pirate captain Henry Morgan. Though initially endorsed by prominent Spiritualists, they admitted their deception when the young woman who portrayed Katie King published her confession in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1875.

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Related Reading

Barkun, Michael. Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-Over District of New York in the 1840s. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Benz, Ernst. Emanuel Swedenborg: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason. Translated by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. West Chester, Pa.: Swedenborg Foundation, 2002.

Bixler, Michael. “Fishtown Church Conversion Summons Spiritualist Past.Hidden City, March 16, 2016.

Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1983.

Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Carroll, Bret E. Spiritualism in Antebellum America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Cross, Whitney R. The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. New York: Octagon Books, 1981.

Davis, Andrew Jackson. The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. New York: S.S. Lyon and William Fishbough, 1847.

History of the Recent Developments in Spiritual Manifestations in Philadelphia, 1851. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Hitchens, Amey A. “Finding Aid for Seybert Collection for Investigating Modern Spiritualism    records” (MS Coll 412), University of Pennsylvania Kislak Center for Special Collections, 2002.

Hoover, Stephanie, Philadelphia Spiritualism and the Curious Case of Katie King. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2013.

Jordan, Marie. “Spiritualism in Pennsylvania.” Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 2017.

“Katie King, Her Full History.” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 9 and 11, 1875.

Lause, Mark A. Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Meredith, Charles M. “The Spirit Colony at Parkland.A Collection of Papers Read Before the Bucks County Historical Society 3 (1909): 542-47.

Nartonis, David K. “The Rise of 19th-Century American Spiritualism, 1854-1873.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49, no. 2 (2010): 361–73.

Tuttle, Hudson and James Martin Peebles. The Year-Book of Spiritualism for 1871. Boston: William White and Co., 1871.

Tyson, Joseph Howard. Madame Blavatsky Revisited. Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse Inc., 2007.

Weisberg, Barbara. Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism.   New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

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