Gender, Occult & Afterlife in North America


A Review of In the Laboratory of the Spirits: Gender, Embodiment and the Scientific Quest for Life Beyond the Grave, 1918-1939, by Beth A. Robertson.

This dissertation takes as it subject the intersections of aspects of modernity viewed through the lens of spiritualist séances in the interwar period in Canada and the United States. As Owen has noted, the occult movement not only addressed key issues of the era but “ was itself constitutive or symptomatic of key elements of modern culture” (Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 8). Beth Robertson is particularly concerned with ways in which concepts of masculinity came into play in the field of psychical research and the complex forms of resistance to these agendas.

In this work, Robertson demonstrates the ways in which séances became microcosms that reflected social change in the interwar period. The author argues that these developments were an expression of specific forms of anxiety around issues of gender. While the form of spiritualism remained largely unchanged from the Victorian era, the mindset and concerns of investigators had shifted markedly. The psychical researchers of the 20th century, while still investigating the central question of whether or not life continued after death, brought to bear new methodologies and modes of thought. But most centrally for this study, they attempted to utilize scientific theories and methods on the working of the spirits – what the author calls the “science of ghosts” (pp. 40, 44).

Robertson’s work is situated within the growing field of the history of occult and esoteric movements in Canada, Britain, and the United States. Her antecedents are general works such as Stan McMullin’s Anatomy of a Séance (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), and more particularly Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room: Women Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (New York: Random House, 1989) and Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989). Robertson also situates herself in the larger of field of gender studies. The author draws on a wide range of sources, including archival documents, periodicals, newspapers and proceedings, and monographs. Robertson also positions the dissertation within the discussions of theorists such as Judith Butler and works such as Ruth Watts’ Women in Science: A Social and Cultural History (New York: Routledge, 2007).

Robertson does not focus on the link between radical politics and spiritualism, as Owen and Braude do. Instead she is more interested in the gender dynamics being played out within the practice of spiritualism itself. As she puts it, her dissertation “aims to reveal the dynamic of séances themselves” (p.36).

The first chapter, “Groping in the Dark: An Introduction,” establishes the broader parameters and methodologies of the study. Robertson indicates that her primary concern is American and Canadian spiritualist movements with a focus on groups in Winnipeg and Boston in the interwar period. In this chapter, Robertson discusses the central issues examined in the dissertation: masculinity and science, gender, race and class in spiritualism, the role of emerging scientific, medical and psychological concepts, and their impact on psychical research.

The second and third chapters focus on gender, disruptions of gender, and on issues of class and race. In this chapter, Robertson demonstrates that the dynamics of class and race were constantly playing out in the séance room. Fascinatingly both the gender and race of the medium and the ghosts could be problematic for those attempting to “scientifically” study the spirits. Spirits such as the working class Walter often refused to cooperate with scientists, and “Indian” ghosts pointed to a whole other set of concerns that existed outside the parlour room. As Robertson notes in the cleverly titled “Haunted Historiography,” the participants in séances were constantly overshadowed by issues playing out in the larger world even if these did not explicitly enter the séance room

Chapters 4 and 5 create an interesting counterpoint to one another. The séance typical of the 19th century, with its homelike atmosphere and scents, touch, and sounds, was invaded in the 20th century by technology with an emphasis on “objectifying the paranormal” (p. 177). Along with the supposedly unbiased eye of the camera, psychical researchers attempted to create a sterile laboratory-style setting for the séance. The desire to impose surveillance and to control the medium in the name of preventing fraud is ripe for analysis.

Illustrating this graphically is the photograph of a female medium (plate 6). This photo – in which she is enclosed within a wooden box, her hands held by men on either side – is both terrifying and absurd. Reminiscent of the dunking chair and other modes of gender control, this photo alone raises a series of question. Comparisons to the witch trials of Euro-American history spring to mind. However, the men pictured here no doubt would have disdained these prior events as the result of superstition. Robertson seems to suggest that the zeal for data collection, quantification and physical containment were varying modes of masculine control.

The final chapters of the dissertation examine the increasing cultural influence of psychology. This expanding discipline was often deployed to explain psychic phenomenon in the early 20th century. Robertson points out that the while the medium was often understood to be a passive receptacle in the Victorian period, the diagnoses became increasingly psychological as the 20th century progressed. The psychic, however, remained what Robertson refers to as a “pathological subject” (p. 219).

The ambitious scope of the dissertation is demonstrated by Robertson’s interdisciplinary approach, which includes history as well occult, gender, and cultural studies. In this work the séance room becomes a way to track the ascension of science and technology in western society and the growing importance of the field of psychology. And as Robertson demonstrates, the tensions around the spiritualist medium also reflected the gender trouble of the period, as well as the ways these disciplines were marshaled to control women.

Robertson offers an intriguing snapshot of a culture in which science and technology were moving towards the pinnacle of their power and prestige. During this period one could still talk about objective and disembodied truth. As Robertson demonstrates convincingly, the mediums and spirits they channeled were not going down without a fight. Unruly, embodied and obstinate, they were precursors of the powerful cultural change that was to follow, it could be argued, with later feminist, gay rights, and queer movements.

This dissertations will make intriguing reading for those working on occult, gender, medical history, and cultural studies. For those of us who labour in the humanities, the struggles described in this dissertation against the imperial nature of the quantitative sciences is far from over. Many of us will experience fellow feeling with these mediums, subjected to the cold and clinical eye of the “virs modestus.” And many may well be happy to let Margery the beleaguered medium have the last word when she said, “ All you psychic investigators can go to hell” (p.302).

Gillian McCann
Department of Religions and Cultures
Nipissing University

Dissertation Information

Carleton University, Ottawa. 2013. 361 pp. Primary Advisor: James Opp.

Primary Sources

Hamilton Family Fonds, University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, Winnipeg
Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research
Margery Fonds, American Society for Psychical Research Library and Archives, New York, New York
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research

Image: University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, Hamilton Family Fonds, PC 12 (A79-41) Box 9 Envelope “Group V, #16” Item 4.

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