This is the first article in my 1920s History Week series.
The decade of the 1920s began immediately after the greatest trauma the Western world had ever known: the First World War. Between 10 and 20 million people were killed in this horrible conflict, and the turmoil swept away the old Victorian way of life. It’s hard for us to imagine the sense of shock and horror that set in after the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, but an understanding of the 1920s must necessarily begin with this fact. Throughout the countries heavily involved in the war–especially Great Britain, Germany, France and Russia, and to a lesser extent the United States–the prevailing commonality of experience was that of grief. In English-speaking countries, one of the ways this grief found expression was through the movement of Spiritualism.
Spiritualism had been around a long time; it was definitely not new in the 1920s. Theosophists such as the famous charlatan Madame Helen Blavatsky emerged out of the 19th century, following even earlier practitioners like Hans Mesmer (whose name give us the word “mesmerize”). But in the early 1920s, spiritualism found a great revival, especially among middle-class women who lost sons, husbands or brothers in the trenches. In a simplistic sense, Spiritualism grew out of a desire to communicate with the dead as a way to gain closure in human relationships. I think the movement ran a little deeper though, tapping not only into the desire to speak with the dead, but also a societal-level reaction to established modes of thought, especially religion.
One of the paradigm examples of someone who followed a Spiritualist path in the 1920s was author Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and author of many other books such as The Lost World, which was the inspiration for the Jurassic Park franchise of the 1980s-1990s. Doyle’s son Kingsley died in October 1918 just weeks before the Armistice ended the war. Active in London’s “Ghost Club,” Doyle sought proof of life after death and at one point wrote a passionate defense of a spiritualist photographer, Elsie Wright, who claimed to be able to photograph fairies. The photos were obviously faked–Wright confessed in the 1980s to creating the hoax–but Doyle was a staunch believer. He died in 1930, still a committed Spiritualist.
Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books, was duped by numerous fake photographs showing ghosts and spirits, including this 1917 photo that was part of the “Cottingley Fairies” hoax.
Another famous Spiritualist was Thomas Lynn Bradford, a noted medium in the Detroit, Michigan area. He was such a firm believer in communication from the afterlife that he made the ultimate sacrifice to try to prove it. After priming his student, Ruth Doran, to listen for messages sent by him from the beyond, Bradford gassed himself in his Detroit apartment on February 6, 1921. Ms. Doran did not receive any messages from him after his death.
Spiritualism had its detractors. Harry Houdini, the famous Hungarian-born stage magician notorious for his daring theatrical escapes, was angered by the rise of what he saw as hoaxters and charlatans in the early 1920s, and began going around actively debunking them, similar to what former magician James Randi would do beginning in the 1980s. Houdini famously exposed the fakery of Boston Spiritualist medium Mina Crandon in 1924. His debunking activities cost him the friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle, who ironically believed Houdini himself was a powerful psychic. Houdini famously died in 1926 after being punched in the stomach supposedly to prove his imperviousness to such blows.
Spiritualism was a means of coping with the death and trauma that the Western world had to come to grips with in the years following World War I, but it by no means died out after the 1920s. A similar movement of reckoning with death and the afterlife arose after the even more destructive shocks of World War II, but those movements tended to take paths that resembled science (or science fiction) more than they did the hokey 19th century occultism that Spiritualism emulated. An example of the post-WWII strain of quasi-Spiritualism would be something like Scientology, which was invented in 1950, or UFO phenomenon, which began in 1947. All of these popular movements, I think, come from a similar place: the unquenchable human desire to understand death and the beyond, especially when it is as prominent a companion to the living as it was in the 1920s.