Channelling Spiritualism

Reviewed by Thomas Hodd

Given the general dearth of studies on Canadian spiritualism, the advent of two book-length publications about the subject is cause for celebration. Although there exists a small body of scholarly articles within the field, prior to Massicotte’s and Robertson’s, the only major studies to have emerged over the past forty years are parts of Ramsay Cook’s The Regenerators (1985) and Stan McMullin’s more recent Anatomy of a Seance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada (2004). Anchored by a rich assortment of archival materials, including print, photographs, and diagrams, these new publications offer readers textured and engaging scholarship. And scholars cannot buy just one or the other, too, since Science of the Seance functions as a critical corollary to Trance Speakers: whereas Massicotte argues that being mediums during the nineteenth and early twentieth century afforded women a form of female empowerment and inspiration, particularly for those who were authors, Robertson contends that the interwar period marked a shift towards more rigid, scientific methods inside the séance room, and that such a shift constituted a physical and symbolic male attempt to control the female body.

Having said that, neither study is strictly historical in treatment. Instead, grounding their respective works in feminist and gender theory, Massicotte and Robertson approach their subjects from an interdisciplinary perspective that affords them ample opportunity to read the séance room and its spirit communications not just at the level of historical record, but equally at the level of gendered symbol. The authors also attempt to frame their studies as transnational in scope, although this framing at times feels oversold. With the exception of Scottish medium Margaret Marshall and, in the case of Massicotte, a brief discussion of British medium Emma Hardinge Britten, the thrust of both arguments and the bulk of archival evidence are Canadian in scope.

Indeed, the true strength of both books lies in their demonstration that Canada has been more heavily involved in the spiritualist movement than the dominant historical narrative would have readers believe. Massicotte’s study is particularly helpful in its revealing of some of the public press reporting on spiritualist activities in Canada during the nineteenth century, as well as her discussion of the Montreal medium and author Annie Florence Smith. Likewise, Robertson’s meticulous recounting of the adaptation of controls in the séance room in Canada after 1918 as a result of changes to technology is especially illuminating. The authors should also be commended for focusing on an aspect of spiritualism in Canada that has received little attention from scholars—namely, the role and function of women as it pertains to the séance.

One area eluded by these studies, however, is the complicating issue of fraud among mediums. Both authors acknowledge it, but the subject is never fully explored in either book, even though Robertson and Massicotte both engage with issues of power as it pertains to the medium. Of more serious concern is Massicotte’s section on Flora MacDonald Denison, which is predicated on the idea that Denison was a medium. Was she an active psychic researcher and participant in séances? Yes. Did she claim to have communicated with spirits? Absolutely. But there is no historical evidence, to my knowledge, that proves she ever acted as a vessel for said spirit communication. In fact, in the same article from Sunset of Bon Echo that Massicotte quotes from, Denison explicitly declares that “I am neither a professional healer, adviser, nor medium.” Such a potential misreading of Denison thus renders this section of the book problematic for scholars. In Robertson’s book, the one area that might have been better addressed is male mediumship: William Cartheuser is her only real discussion point, and he is largely dismissed for attempting “to present a mediumship that encapsulated more modern ideals of rigorous masculinity.” Surely other prominent Canadian male mediums warranted at least some limited examination, such as Louis Benjamin, who channelled the voices in Albert Durrant Watson’s The Twentieth Plane, or prominent 1930s Kitchener-Waterloo medium Thomas Lacey. Including them would have allowed Robertson to offer a more nuanced reading of male-female tensions as it pertained to mediumship. But this is more of a comment than a criticism.

Shortcomings aside, Trance Speakers and Science of the Seance warrant our attention for their rich archival findings and provocative interdisciplinary approaches. Moreover, given the pace of scholarship in this neglected area of Canadian studies, it is hoped their results can be channelled into additional publications sooner rather than later.

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