Emily Suzanne Clark: I Don’t Believe in No Ghosts: America and Spirits

A Luminous Brotherhood, by Emily Suzanne Clark, cover imageIn the midst of a nineteenth-century boom in spiritual experimentation, the Cercle Harmonique, a remarkable group of African-descended men, practiced Spiritualism in heavily Catholic New Orleans from just before the Civil War to the end of Reconstruction. In A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans, the first comprehensive history of the Cercle, Emily Suzanne Clark illuminates how highly diverse religious practices wind in significant ways through American life, culture, and history. Clark shows that the beliefs and practices of Spiritualism helped Afro-Creoles mediate the political and social changes in New Orleans, as free blacks suffered increasingly restrictive laws and then met with violent resistance to suffrage and racial equality.

In today’s guest post, Clark recounts the history of spiritualism and reminds us that many Americans still believe in ghosts.

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Summer 2016 saw the remake of a classic American film: Ghostbusters. The remake prompted a number of conversations about gender and misogyny but not many about ghosts. Belief in ghosts and the supernatural is not uncommon in the United States. According to a 2013 Harris Poll, 42% of Americans believe in ghosts. The same year, polling data in the UK indicated that a similar percentage of the population believed that interaction with the spirits of the dead is possible. In 2009 the Pew Research Center released data indicating that 29% of the U.S. population “have felt in touch with someone who has already died.” Just last year the Pew Research Center found that 18% of Americans believe that they have seen a ghost. Belief in the supernatural was even more common a few centuries ago. The 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, attest to that, and many historians have written about the enchanted world that surrounded the Puritans. The creative and humid religious atmosphere of the early nineteenth century led historian Jon Butler to term it the “antebellum spiritual hothouse.” Some scientists thought the Enlightenment, scientific revolution, and secularism would lead to the end of supernatural belief, but these recent polling numbers indicate otherwise. Despite what Ray Parker sang back in 1984, many Americans believe in ghosts.

Whether or not you reading this post believe in them, ghosts fascinate Americans. A century and a half before the popularity of ghost-hunter shows on the SyFy Network and NBC’s award-winning show “Medium,” belief in spirit communication was serious and widespread in the United States. Spiritualism swept across the United States in the mid-nineteenth century and remained popular into the twentieth century. Put simply, a Spiritualist is one who believes that communication with the spirits of the dead is not only possible but also desirable. Popularized by the Fox Sisters and their “Rochester rappings,” Spiritualism interested Americans young and old, white and black, male and female, rich and poor. Much of this appeal came from Spiritualism’s ability to bridge the world of the living and the world of the dead.

image of a spiritualist séance

A séance across the Atlantic Ocean in England, where Spiritualism also became popular in the 19th and into early 20th centuries. In season 1 of PBS’s Masterpiece show Mr. Selfridge, the eponymous character hosts a séance at his London store with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a famous Spiritualist, in attendance.

Pulling from the writings of Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, and America’s own “Poughkeepsie Sear” Andrew Jackson Davis, American Spiritualism was a diverse array of beliefs and practices. Spiritualists pulled from Swedenborg’s experiences visiting the three heavens and three hells and the spirits he met there. From Mesmer it adopted mesmeric trances and the ability of those trances to manipulate the invisible world surrounding them. Davis synthesized many of these ideas and described a spirit world organized by a “Harmonial Philosophy,” and he explained how this spirit world desired intervention into our world to make it better. American Spiritualism frequently took the form of an in-home séance, during which a medium would open the lines of communication between the living and the dead and receive messages from the spirit world.

One such group that practiced Spiritualism in this manner was the Cercle Harmonique, a group of Afro-Creole Spiritualists in New Orleans. This group kept records of their séances, which occurred biweekly from 1858 until 1877. They communicated with a spirit world populated with Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, John Brown, Montesquieu, Saint Vincent de Paul, Robert E. Lee, and Toussaint Louverture. Along with their deceased parents and siblings, Confucius, Robespierre, George Washington, Voltaire, Jesus, and more, these spirits offered support and spiritual direction to a politically active community of Afro-Creole men who sought to make the post-Civil War world a more egalitarian place. Claiming to communicate with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln might result in an eye-roll today, but in Reconstruction New Orleans, receiving political guidance from the assassinated president made a lot of sense. And furthermore it did not seem strange. After all, the Crescent City is well known for being haunted.

Emily Suzanne Clark is assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University. Her book A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans is now available. Follow her on Twitter @clark_ems.