Click here to read reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott's take on The Haunting of America.
The Haunting of America is not about ghosts and poltergeists. Rather, it chronicles the history of the spiritual movement in this country and the key players who nurse it along still. Authors Birnes and Martin have compiled a surprisingly thorough overview and present enough background to keep this convoluted subject coherent.
Beginning with the humorless and paranoid Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts, Birnes and Martin explain why the witch hysteria in this small village outstripped the occasional flare-ups in other parts of New England: “Unlike larger towns such as Boston, which had grown more sophisticated, Salem Village did not have a cosmopolitan or well-educated citizenry….”
Lack of sophistication might explain the foolish and fatal behavior for Salemites, but what lies behind the participation of the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle in the world of the paranormal? A graduate of Edinburgh University and medical doctor, Doyle is best known as the creator of logic-driven super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes. What could have tipped the scales in favor of woo-woo activities for this sophisticated and cosmopolitan man? “When I regarded Spiritualism as a vulgar delusion of the uneducated, “Doyle wrote, “I could afford to look down upon it; but when it was endorsed by [the scientist Sir William] Crookes… I could not afford to dismiss it.” With what he perceived to be the support of the scientific world, Doyle fell prey to the Cottingley Fairies, a photographic hoax perpetrated by two young girls with a camera.
Readers will likely be familiar with the story of illusionist Harry Houdini’s obsessive attempts to contact his dead mother and his friendship with Doyle. Birnes and Martin include an energetic description of the event that drove a wedge between the two men.
“Doyle had persuaded Houdini to sit with Lady Doyle, who’d fancied herself a medium… Lady Doyle claimed she’d received messages from Cecilia Weiss, Houdini’s mother.” Lady Doyle’s skills as a channel for the spirits failed to impress, and Houdini – already disillusioned with the spiritualism movement and soon to switch his obsession to debunking it - flew into a rage at what he perceived to be out-and-out fraud. “Houdini’s explosion caught the Doyles off guard… An incensed Doyle struck back with his own verbal barrage… The clash ended the friendship forever.”
One of the most surprising chapters in the spiritualist movement is its connection to the women’s rights movement of the 19th century. The authors quote Ann Braude: “Spiritualism became a major – if not the major—vehicle for the spread of women’s rights ideas in mid-century America.” Supporters of the suffragists tended to be liberals who rejected the established order of things, including the traditional religious practices. Spiritualism was just the ticket for those Victorian era anarchists, who were delighted to point to spiritualism as a field in which women equaled or exceeded the prowess of men. The outcome of this pairing was an explosion of female spiritualists like the rapping Fox sisters, Mary Todd Lincoln’s advisor Nettie Colburn, and the notorious Helene Petrovna Blavatsky.
The Haunting of America is a well-researched volume that looks beyond the truth or fiction of spirit communication. The authors focus instead on personalities and social forces that combined to create a national (and international) craze. Spiritualism, in turn, became a force in itself that drove society in directions no one could have predicted, with repercussions that still affect our personal and collective psyches. Consider the untold numbers of self-proclaimed psychics who daily claim contact with ethereal beings and misty dimensions from which they derive information about forthcoming disasters.
The story behind the spirits turns out to be more intriguing and entangled than a channeled lecture from J.Z. Knight, and the authors of this volume do a fine job of sorting it out and connecting the dots. The load of footnotes and bibliography at the end of this book demonstrates that Birnes and Martin have done their homework. If we’re lucky, The Haunting of America is only the first in a series of such revealing and riveting books.