Sex in Spiritualism has always been a hot button issue. There is no question that some heavy breathing went on in the séance room: Eusapia Palladino, Rudi Schneider, and Mina Crandon (“Margery”) were known to have experienced sexual thrills while “entranced,” although the word “orgasm” was not mentioned by researchers, who used euphemisms like “voluptuous” “sensual” and “spasm,” or “climax,” if they were feeling unusually daring. Eusapia Palladino was known to have inspired a number of psychic researchers with her levitational abilities. It was whispered that the distinguished scientist Sir William Crookes was infatuated with his young medium, Florence Cook, caught flitting around the séance room in her underthings by Sir George Sitwell. Mediums like Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister Tennie advocated free-love and were not above using their charms to fascinate clients like Commodore Vanderbilt. An example of a medium who used her pneumatic personal charms to bolster her claims of full-body materializations may be found as the last anecdote in this post.
The séance room was a fevered place: mediums were often strip-searched and tied to chairs. (The illustrations above and below are not from a 1950s bondage magazine, but show how members of the mediumistic Eddy family were tied up during séances.) Mediums also might strip off to impersonate spirits. The “spirits” fondled hands, patted thighs, and bestowed kisses in the dark. Given the normal segregation of the sexes, séances could be quite a thrilling experience. (Well, perhaps not the gramophone playing hymns…)
The spirits, who were an interfering lot, often advocated “spirit marriages,” almost always between an elderly gentleman and a beautiful young “spirit bride.” [Another post, another day.] And, in some tragic cases, the “spirits” told a husband to discard a wife for a newer model, as in the case of Mary Fenn Davis, wife of Andrew Jackson Davis. In 1885, he told his wife of 30 years that he had “misinterpreted” the spirits’ message that she was his spiritual affinity. His real Affinity, the spirits told him, was a young woman years his junior he’d met in medical school. [Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America, Ann Braude, 2001]
“I have known many Spiritualists who regulated their family affairs by the advice of spirits; many happy wives and husbands have separated for no other reason than the spirits advised the separation.” [Other Powers, Barbara Goldsmith, 2011]
In spite of the association of Spiritualism and Free Love, a great many Spiritualists hewed to the Biblical line that “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” Matthew 22:30.
Such was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s theory: “People live in communities as one would expect if like attracts like, and the male spirit still finds his true mate though there is no sensuality in the grosser sense and no childbirth.” Sir A. Conan Doyle, Chapter III, The New Revelation. This talk of affinities and platonic relationships is extremely commonplace in the Spiritualist literature.
But what do the spirits themselves have to say?
Here, in a frank (for the 19th or early 20th century) interview with a spirit calling herself (what else?) Zaza, we get a peep into the boudoirs of Summerland.
There is in existence an enormous mass of recorded spirit communication concerning life and death. The one outstanding feature concerning these revelations is that they tell us extremely little….The spirits who visit séances retain many of their earthly characteristics. They are still male and female despite the assumption on the part of many writers that sex does not exist upon the spiritual plane. The least possible experience of spirit communication in any form is quite suificient to expose this amazing fallacy. If the differentiation of sex has any purpose at all, it can only have the same purpose in the next world as it has in this. Otherwise sex distinction would be cast off just as is the human body after death. This brings us to the consideration of how and why the myth of the sexlessness of spirits has passed into acceptance as a fact.
The Spiritualist is open to human error and it is only human to build into our theories those things which tend to prove them and to disregard matters which are not in harmony with our ideas. Both in Britain and in America there is a certain amount of false modesty that amounts to pruriency concerning all matters of sex.
As a result, the very limited moral doctrines of sexual relationship as understood by certain Christian sects, have been tacitly held to by those dominating the after-life. Sex, as under stood in conventional terms, has been seen to be such a danger to the construction of a hypothetical but perfectly moral future state, that the whole sex question has been squashed by a statement by Spiritualists that sex does not exist in after-life…
As time goes on, it will become increasingly impossible for the practising Spiritualist to ignore the enormous fact of sex. At present various beliefs are held. These range from the pure sexlessness theory, which is manifestly untenable,to variations like a “perfectly pure and spiritual sex relationship in no way physical,” or some such platitude….
The continuation of sexual activity on the psychic planes may be a staggering conception to some people, but a little thought will show that it is not half such a shattering idea as the perfectly unjustifiable hypothesis that there is none.
The existence of sex in the spirit world leads us to the supposition that there are there some organized forces of law and order, otherwise this conception of the next world would seem to be a field where a highly intellectual, intelligent, and powerful individual soul might enjoy a limitless orgy of psychic rape.
There is no reason to think that such a thing is impossible, for cases of demoniac or spirit possession are in effect cases of psychic rape of a mortal and often present instances of the most amazing sexual aberration owing to the terrible desires of the uninvited tenant of the mind….
There is good reason to suppose that in the past many revelations concerning sex-life in the spirit plane have been suppressed or destroyed. The well-meaning Spiritualist with mediumistic gifts or the capacity for automatic writing does not always get the precise kind of spirit teaching expected. On the other hand, there is a wide difference between the meaningless obscenities that are sometimes sent and various coherent statements that can be classed as definite revelations. The private operator, knowing little of the matters with which he or she is dealing, is frequently ashamed to let these strange, frank manuscripts or records be seen by others. Often they are shown to a wrong person, classed as evil spirit writings, and the great question that animates the spirit world: “Should mortals be told?” again goes on.
At a séance held in Paris some interesting statements concerning the psychic world were vouchsafed by a spirit calling itself Zaza Guilbert. There were five of us at the table and two of the party were practised automatists.
First came some personal particulars of the spirit. She was born near Grenoble, in Dauphine, in 1826, but was in Paris when Napoleon the Third was proclaimed Emperor (1852) and was employed with theatrical dressmaking. She married and left two girl children.
It was the question: “Is life in the spirit world as gay and gallant as it was in those days in this sphere?” that set the ball rolling. [‘The word “gallant” carries rather different implications in French than are covered by the literal English rendering of “gallant.”]
A. That depends on how you look at things. We are men and women over here in so far as that goes.
Q. Is life on the spirit plane sexless?
A. Certainly not! (Emphasis conveyed by violent knocking of the table.)
Q. (By one of the ladies of the party.) Is there childbirth in the spirit world?
A. Not in the same way as on earth. (No answer was returned to some further inquiries on this subject.)
Q. Is there separation of the sexes?
A. No; it would be intolerable.
Q. Is morality of earth binding on the spirit plane?
A. No; that would be still more intolerable.
Q. Have you a husband there?
A. No; several affinities.
Q. Intellectual affinities only?
A. By no means.
Q. Can you compare the relationship to any earthly parallel?
A. Yes. Living une vie de demi-mondaine sans reproche. [the demi-mondaine were the sparkling and expensive ladies seen on the arms of the aristocracy in sporting circles.]
Q. Do all spirits enjoy life in this manner?
A. It is not obligatory.
Q. (By one of the ladies.) Are there scandals in the spirit world? ‘
Q. Are they due to moral censure of higher spirits?
A. No; jealousy, because higher spirits mix themselves up in it.
Q. Can you describe one of these scandals?
A. Not through the table. Write.
Q. You will give it as automatic writing?
One of the automatists left the circle to fetch pencil and paper. Then we resumed. The power appeared to be instantly forthcoming, and the writing stated that:
“Benedetta Chiesole was the mistress of Théodule Affra and several other spirits on our plane.
“This intimacy became obnoxious to a spirit called du Paits Herbault, who was a monk of Montpellier in the sixteenth century. He was not on our plane but higher up, but was permitted to come down to us for certain purposes. Being on a higher plane, there was no way of keeping him out when he was not wanted, for he had the power of passing through all psychomaterial substances that serve us as material substances serve you.
“His persecution of Benedetta was remarkable, for he was astonishingly enamoured of her. At length matters got to such a pitch that the others protested through the guides. But they got cold comfort. They were told not to interfere with the higher spirits or it would be the worse for them, and Benedetta was told that it was natural for her to have to expiate her earthly shortcomings in this manner.”
[back, now to Bland’s commentary.]
The results of other sittings at which other spirits have made communications are in some cases quite as detailed and a great deal more startling than the above. In addition, a great mass of what may be definitely termed abnormal sex literature has come from the pens of people practising automatic writing—and it is an indubitable fact that some of these writings have been written under control by people of irreproachable life and character.
The common-sense explanation is that these writings and communications have nothing whatever to do with spirits and that these are, so to speak, a seething up of illegal desires and ideas which have been repressed by the conscious mind into the censorship of the subliminal self. This theory is only tenable if the whole basic doctrine that these things are communicated by spirits is given up.
If, on the other hand, we hold that there is anything at all in Spiritualism we are faced with the inevitable conclusion that, however much we may desire to get rid of it, sex is as troublesome in the next world as in this.**
**The notes and papers concerning the physiological side of sex in the next world that have been collected are not suitable for general reading. Experienced Spiritualists will have no difficulty in surmising the general character of these records. [wink wink]
The Adventures of a Modern Occultist, Oliver Bland, 1920 [Bland is a suspect, but entertaining source.]
Further Reading: The Psychic Mafia, by M. LaMar Keene is remarkably frank about the sexual ambiguity and/or rapacity of some mediums.
The novel Affinity by Sarah Waters effectively delves into the sexual exploitation of clients by mediums, focusing on lesbian relationships.
Surprisingly little has been written about this specific subject except in short excerpts in larger works on Spiritualism. One article, which I’ve not read, since it is behind a paywall that entails a drive to the local university library, sounds promising. It is “Spirited Sexuality: Sex, Marriage, and Victorian Spiritualism,” Marlene Tromp, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 31, No. 1, Victorian Religion (2003), pp. 67-81. If you have access to JSTOR through your library, you may be able to access it.
Any other seance sex stories? Veil in muslin and send to the easily embarrassed Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.