Friday, April 3, 2009

I see dead people, you see dead people, we all see dead people.

19th Century America saw some gruesome trends. An obsession with figures like Jane McCrea, and the subsequent theft and probably sale of many of their bones, was one such trend, reflective of the medieval European obsession with the bones of saints. The obsession with death and the dead was a big part of the spiritual movements that began shortly after the start of the industrial revolution (and amplified after the civil war). I described a bit before the effect this had on middle and upper class health attitudes and practices. Those movements have had a long lasting effect on the way we eat and advertise. And with those movements, came a great deal of fraud in the form of “snake oil” salesmen, and woefully misguided advice from eccentrics like Dr. Kellogg.

Many of the same people engaging in the health and sanitarium movements were also attracted to popular physics and mediums, and new religious groups that supported the use of psychics and mediums, such as the Theosophists and the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge.

The Fox sisters (Leah, the very gifted Kate, and Margaret, young ladies from Hydesville in upstate New York), who were frequented by believers like poor Sojourner Truth (who also received yogurt enemas from Kellogg), most frequently employed “rapping” (a tactic common in séances, particularly after the Fox sisters’ success). The rapping effect, according to Margaret Fox’s public demonstration and confession, was produced at times by tapping and cracking her toe and ankle joints. She and her sisters were able to do this loudly enough that it could be heard throughout a large room. In a house without a great deal of ambient noise (all of our modern conveniences make a lot of it), this rapping would be sufficiently loud to frighten and convince the attendees of a séance. Dim lighting and the willingness of the attendees to be convinced were sufficient to make the sisters extremely popular. But Kate and Margaret were also alcoholics and a bit self sabotaging. Margaret took short term money for her confession, effectively ending long term cash flow for herself and her sister, who was a more talented performer and successful “psychic.”

The Fox sisters, with the help of their Quaker friends, were largely responsible for the birth of the American “Spiritualist” movement.

It’s easy to dismiss Victorian spiritualists as fools, and unfortunately their apparent susceptibility to, in hindsight, obvious fraud, damages the reputation of many figures who were otherwise known to be intelligent and progressive, and who are responsible for the Women’s movement and the abolition of slavery. But sometimes it seems big hearted, “do gooder” types are the most susceptible to this sort of exploitation. While creepy, the desire to communicate with deceased relatives and historical figures is kind of sweet, in a way. I guess. Mostly it’s macabre.

I’m sympathetic, I suppose, in that I imagine these intelligent and religious people in a rapidly changing world, obsessed with the novelty of scientific observation and technology, seeking to blend two worlds together. If one firmly believes in a soul and an afterlife, certainly one would want to use the new and exciting scientific methods to prove those things exist. Visitors to mediums like the Fox sisters often called themselves “investigators”(much as “ghost hunters” do now). It was a pastime of the rich to play scientist in the world of ghosts, and to try to find, with all the proper witnesses and documents, the best possible proof of the existence of ghosts. Combine those beliefs with the grief that follows the sort of young death that was rare enough (compared to even 100 years prior) to be somewhat unexpected and tragic but common enough to create a huge market of young grieving mothers and fathers and widows/widowers. It was very easy for two groups to find an audience with these people; the well intentioned but deluded, and hucksters. Sometimes, between these groups, there were grey areas. Lie long enough, you’ll start to believe it yourself.

Psychics who were simply seers, giving straightforward predictions of the future or messages from the dead were out of vogue. Audiences didn’t just want answers and comfort, they wanted a show. If you were going to be rich and famous post the Fox sisters, you needed to bring something new to the table—something frightening and entertaining.

There are many different kinds of psychic ability, you see. A medium in the Victorian era helped him or herself acheive greater fiancial success if they could develop several of these skills. These types of “psychic ability” became popular and were named at different times. So I’m using the modern names, and will try to highlight those that are particularly popular among Victorian audiences. I gathered these from a few different sources, and the list isn’t complete I’m sure.

Astral Projection – The ability to leave the body in spirit form and travel somewhere else. This is handy if you are finally settled into bed, but suddenly realize that you may have forgotten to lock the front door. You can go check in spirit form, so you don’t have to waste your time getting out of bed right after you’ve settled into a comfortable position. If you’re really good at it, you could in theory lock the door.
Aura Reading – Reading Auras.
Automatic Writing – This I’ve actually done to freak out my friends, entirely fraudulently. This was done sometimes by Victorian psychics. Typically, the non-dominant hand is used, and, while in a trance or trance-like state, the psychic allows his or her arm to be used by spirits to right messages for the living. I plan to write dirty limericks, when I am dead.
Channeling – This is the ability “mediums” use to allow the dead to vocalize through them. There are two types of channeling: direct voice, which employs psychic ability to give the spirits the power to speak somehow, and trance speaker. Trance Speaking is the most well known form of channeling, as the medium allowed the spirit to use the mind and body of the medium to speak. Some psychics took this as far as claiming temporary possession by a spirit. This was very popular among Victorian audiences, and of course very easily faked.
Clairaudience – This is tricky. It is the ability to hear the immediately inaudible. For instance, the psychic can hear a conversation taking place miles away. Psychic eavesdropping.
Clairvoyance – The ability to see things obstructed from view. Clairvoyance is not the ability to tell the future. Clairvoyants can see things in the physical world that are at a distance, behind a wall, under the bed, etc etc. This was a common ability claimed by Victorian psychics.
Clairsentience – The ability to sense thoughts/feelings/memories in another. If you forget where you put your keys, a Clairsentient could recover the memory, or sense how sad you were about losing your keys.
Divination - Fortune telling and other attempts to predict our AMAZING FUTURE. The reading of taro cars, etc, falls into this category. This has been popular for thousands of years, ‘cause everyone wants to know about the future!
Dowsing – Using a divining rod, other sticks, pendulums, magic objects to find water or lost objects.
Empathy – Like Troy on Star Trek TNG. You can sense the feelings of others.
Intuition – Women have it, I’ve heard.
Levitation – Look at you! Way up high! In the air! In the sky! You are the luckiest boy in the world. This was much appreciated by victorian audiences.
Mind Over Body – I’m keeping this on the list because of the influence Buddhism had on Theosophy and other branches of Spiritualism. It’s basically the ability to suppress one’s own thirst, hunger, exhaustion. Some people consider this a psychic ability.
Precognition – Seeing the future! But on your own, not through divination, and usually only a little bit.
Psychometry/Materialism – The ability to touch an object and sense events, people, feelings, locations, etc the object was associated with.
Pyrokinesis - You can start fires WITH YOUR MIND! I doubt this would have been popular in any firetrap victorian house.
Telekinesis/psychokinesis - Moving objects using your mind. Very popular with the victorians, a neat "parlor trick."
Telepathy - The ability to communicate with another person with your mind, but without your mouth.

One of the best and most convincing of these performers was Daniel Dunglas Home (March 20, 1833-June 21, 1886), a Scottish emigrant descended from a line of “seers,” for whom psychic ability may have taken a back seat to more impressive feats. He thought happy thoughts (probably…I think that’s how it works) and flew.

Home was a clairvoyant, he channelled spirits, he dabbled in telekinesis, and he levitated like nobody's business. Because we don't have photographs or videos of these levitations, it's difficult to say how he did it exactly. He certainly had assistants, and typically performed in dimly lit environments (despite his own declaration that all seances should be performed in the light.

Home was the author of a handful of books, including an autobiography which you can get online on google books titled "Incidents in my life." Home was one of a number of psychics who saught to debunk the work of others in his profession he believed to be frauds. Home did not believe, according to his book "Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism," that spirits could be called forth and manifest in a solid form. Florence Cook, for instance, a young British medium who became famous in the early 20th century, claimed to be able, once conveniently hiding in a closet, to be able to call forth Katie King, a "spirit" who looked a lot like Cook and was so strongly manifested that she was able to touch seance attendees. The "ghost" of Katie King is pictured, in her spooky ghost costume.

Home also believed that seances held in darkness left too much opportunity for trickery. Yet, of course, Home too kept the lights low.

I'll be reading Daniel Dunglas Home's books, and passing the savings on to you. I'll also ramble a little about what psychics and magicians intersect.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

White Women in History: The Death of Jane McCrea

White folks love their white women in distress, the more virginal and helpless the better. Perhaps the most famous example of this love in American history is the adoration and use of Jane McCrea.

I had some difficulty researching this subject, as most writing on Jane McCrea still buys at least partially into the myths surrounding her death, and a lot of the books and websites that mention her were created by white supremacists. I had to quickly close a lot of links once swastikas started showing up on my webpage.

The legend of Jane McCrea is as follows:

Jane McCrea, a tall, pretty young woman engaged to a Loyalist who had joined the British Army in the Adirondacks, had left her brother’s home in Saratoga to join her fiancé in the north. She was staying temporarily in Fort Edward, not far from Fort Ticonderoga.

On July 27, 1777, McCrea was killed just outside of Fort Edward. Indians allied with the British (specifically General Burgoyne) raided the village outside of the Fort, captured McCrea and scalped her. Her scalp was recognized by her hostess in Fort Edward and fellow companion, Sarah McNeill, in the hands of a brave.

The story of McCrea’s murder quickly spread and bolstered the rebel cause, leading to General John Burgoyne’s defeat in the battle for Saratoga.

This story inspired John Vanderlyn’s famous painting, “The Death of Jane McCrea.”

I have seen this painting in person many times, as it hangs at the Wadsworth Atheneum. It’s a beautiful painting, if propagandistic.

In the painting we have, of course, two hulking, merciless savages, and one extremely pale, nicely dressed, shapely young victim. And her boob is about to pop out, just to give the image a little sexual oomph.

It’s impossible to know anything about McCrea personally. She was engaged to a loyalist, but her siblings joined the rebel army. It’s impossible to know if she had a firm opinion on which rich white men would control the land she called home. She was a human being and likely had an opinion, but her “loyalist” stance was mostly confirmed by the man she fell in love with. I’ve loved a republican…love can override political differences. But in choosing to follow her husband to Canada she had effectively chosen her side in life. In death, she would be recruited by the other.

McCrea was born in either 1751 or 1752, according to most sources, and was therefore about 25 when she died.

A far more probable account of Jane McCrea’s death was given in Plymouth Magazine by David R. Starbuck. ( Fort Edward was not being raided, as most of it’s inhabitants would have fled to Albany in anticipation of the coming battle. Only Jane McCrea and Sarah McNeill remained behind. McCrea, I imagine, stayed because her husband was stationed nearby and she imagined that he would send for her. Burgoyne sent some American Indian “contractors” (I guess you could call them) to retrieve the two women. McCrea and McNeill saw the American Indian’s coming and, like any god fearing white woman would, hid in the basement.

The men entered the house where they knew the women would be, and found them in the basement, where they were probably having all kinds of womanly hysterics. The men reportedly dragged McCrea and McNeill out of the basement by their hair. Now, it is likely that these men spoke limited English, and these women had of course no reason to learn anything of the native languages of the people whose land they were presently living on. So we have two freaked out women who think they are being captured, and some Native Americans just trying to earn the paycheck promised to them if the two women were retrieved. So, after much confusing back and forth, the men grabbed the ladies by an unbruisable part and hauled them out of the house.

No one is exactly sure what happened next. Starbuck leans toward the theory that some other Indians showed up, having heard about the reward and hoping to turn the women over to Burgoyne themselves, and in the kerfuffle that followed Jane was killed. The Indians claimed (but who would trust them? Am I right? Sure they were there, but being tan can skew one’s perception of reality) that McCrea was killed when Americans opened fire on the Indians in transit with McCrea. This is certainly possible, as there may have been rebels remaining in the Fort Edward area who recognized the Indians as British allies, and therefore a target. They also may have been attempting, ill advisably given the accuracy of musket fire, to defend the two women who appeared to be being held hostage. Other historians claim it could just have been a stray bullet. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, McCrea’s body was found with several bullets in it. With a dead woman on their hands, and the potential loss of any reward at all, the men posthumously scalp McCrea and pass her scalp off as one taken in a raid the British would have approved of.

Or maybe in the confusion, signals got crossed and McCrea was scalped because someone thought that was why they were going to get her. McCrea’s scalp turned up in the British camp among others, where it was recognized by David Jones (McCrea apparently had some memorable blonde hair). Jones somehow recovered her body (somewhere near the memorial below) and had it buried south of Fort Edward.
Another very different account ( claims that McNeill and McCrea were indeed captured when they were discovered at McNeill’s house near Fort Edward. The British allied Indians were patrolling the area capturing white stragglers and were unaware that McCrea and McNeill (who foolishly stayed in Fort Edward alone believing their connection to the troops would keep them safe) were loyalists and therefore on the “same team.” The Huron “Le Loup” hopes to ransom the young woman, but this plan is thwarted when Indians sent by McCrea’s fiancé show up to claim her. An argument ensues, and Le Loup spitefully kills McCrea and scalps her.

Indians were questioned but no one was punished in connection with the death, possibly to avoid losing the allegiance of the Huron. Angered colonists blamed Burgoyne (and, by extension, the cruelty of the British Empire and its use of such savage natives) for McCrea’s death, and many may have joined the rebel militias because of this outrage. The use of Indians by the British was also discouraged from this point forward by the government back home, where Edmund Burke ( denounced their use.

A loyalist woman is killed most likely due to some accident or misunderstanding, and she becomes a martyr to the Revolutionary cause. Go figure. McCrea’s death becomes a popular inspiration for art and fiction (such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans). As a result, McCrea would never rest in piece. Many of her bones, including her skull, have been stolen. She has been moved from grave to grave (at one point sharing coffin space with Sarah McNeill, who died of natural causes in 1799). Starbuck’s article gives an interesting account of one of McCrea’s multiple exhumations.

Another thing I found interesting was that in many stories, McCrea is described as tall (for example: , when in fact she was only between 5’ and 5’4”, according to the last examination of her remains (which were genetically tested and confirmed as related by mitochondrial DNA to the oldest living McCrea descendant). It’s hard to say if she was beautiful, but if her husband recognized her scalp she likely had some awesome hair. Roy Lichtenstein didn't paint her as blonde, though.