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Life & Death Before Electricity – More Misery than Merriment

Posted on 20 December 2021, 10:03

During a recent power outage, the result of stormy weather and high winds, I wondered what it would be like to live permanently without electricity.  I wondered how it was for people a hundred or more years ago, living in darkened homes, even during the day – no artificial lighting, no radios, no televisions, no computers, no phones, no artificial heat or cooling devices, no refrigerators, no bidets, just the very basics. 

My thoughts wandered to Mary Lincoln, (below) the widow of our sixteenth president, who, having lost her husband to an assassin’s bullet and three sons to childhood maladies, resided in a Chicago hotel room around 1870. I pictured a dreary hotel room with basic furnishings and lighted only by whatever sun rays penetrated the window, then only a candle after sundown. I imagined her sitting at the window on a winter day in a very melancholy state, watching a horse and buggy go by every now and then wondering about the purpose of it all, whether there was any end to the monotony. 


With no family to care for and no domestic duties common at the time, Mary Lincoln likely had little with which to occupy herself beyond browsing in nearby shops. Being gregarious, she probably got to know some of the merchants fairly well and felt obligated to occasionally make purchases, even if she had no need for the items.  Based on historical reports, I imagined her going to mediums in the hope of communicating with her deceased loved ones, thereby giving her hope that there is some purpose behind all the adversity she had experienced. Going to the nearest saloon and numbing the pain like the men in similar despair was not an option for a proper woman.

Apparently, Robert Lincoln, her only surviving son, didn’t see her shopping habits or interest in spirit communication as a way of coping with her grief and boredom, as he had her declared insane by a court of law and committed to a lunatic asylum.  Fortunately, one Myra Bradwell, who had a law degree but was not allowed to practice law because of her gender, and her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, both spiritualists, appealed the lower-court decision on her behalf and Mary was released from the asylum after just three months and three weeks of incarceration.

Mary Lincoln’s Chicago residency came at a time when Darwinism was impeaching religion. “Never, perhaps, did man’s spiritual satisfaction bear a smaller proportion to his needs,” Frederic W. H. Myers, one of the pioneers of psychical research, said of that period. “The old-world sustenance, however earnestly administered, [was] too unsubstantial for the modern cravings. And thus through our civilized societies two conflicting currents [ran].  On the one hand, health, intelligence, morality – all such boons as the steady progress of planetary evolution can win for the man – [were] being achieved in increasing measure. On the other hand this very sanity, this very prosperity, [brought out] in stronger relief the underlying Weltschmerz, the decline of any real belief in the dignity, the meaning, the endlessness of life.”

Myers added that there were many who were willing to let earthly activities and pleasures dissipate and obscure the “larger hope,” but some, like himself, were upset and searched for a serious remedy.

As historian Donald J. Mrozek recorded it, the late nineteenth century was an age that emphasized energy and activity and in which “death became a special horror” especially for those who aimed at establishing power over nature. The liveliness and energy of that period, he stated, “necessitated that its ‘search for order’ would be accompanied by a search for meaning.” 

My pondering on the era brought to mind movies showing much gaiety, frivolity and mindless happiness during the late 1800s, extending through the first decade of the 1900s.  I recalled a movie with scores of smiling, carefree, innocent people all leisurely strolling down Main Street after attending church in their Sunday best – the men cheerfully tipping their hats to each other, the women smiling with delight and hope, giving no heed to their marital bondage, the children hopping and skipping while anxiously awaiting an ice cream treat at the corner fountain, all the while the tails of parked horses wagging and keeping beat with a cheery tune and the rhythmic strides of the contented people.

Was that an actual portrayal of the way it was, or was it really a doom and gloom scenario – empty streets, darkened homes, uncontrolled heat and cold, long hours of backbreaking labor, rat infestations, stench from the outhouses, the horse tails swatting swarms of flies, widespread diseases resulting in many premature deaths, teeth extracted with plyers and no anesthetics, poverty, hunger, grief, distress, and, if the new science was to be believed, total extinction, or oblivion, after it was all over? 

Perhaps the true picture is somewhere in between those two extremes, but my best guess is that it was much more misery than merriment. If there is any truth to messages purportedly coming from the spirit world through seemingly credible mediums and discerning researchers, the spirit world also took note of the misery and at least some of them in that world concluded that they should attempt to provide some relief, some light – a different kind of light than that aiding the eyes – to help those in the material world overcome the despair. Robert Hare, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and a renowned inventor, reported that his investigation of mediums during the mid-1850s resulted in communication stating that there had been “a deliberate effort on the part of the inhabitants of the higher spheres to break through the partition which has interfered with the attainment, by mortals, of a correct idea of their destiny after death.” 

Hare was informed by his father, in spirit, that a delegation of advanced spirits has been appointed to carry out the mission and that low spirits were allowed to interfere in the undertaking because they were, in effect, closer in vibration to the earth plane and therefore more competent to make mechanical movements and loud rappings. “Thus, it appears that at the outset, the object was to draw attention, and in the next place to induce communication,” Hare explained, adding that the manifestations quickly changed in character and that superior spirits replaced inferior ones as they experimented on their side and learned to manipulate matter. 

The phenomena went from raps, taps, and table tilting spelling out messages (so many raps, taps, or tilts for each letter of the alphabet) to the levitation of humans, musical instruments playing without human hands touching them, messages written without a human hand holding the pencil. They soon learned how to penetrate the veil in other ways, even to materialize their bodies, to control human hands to write messages from them, to take possession of human bodies to talk with us, to speak directly with us. They were experimenting on their side of the veil and their efforts often failed. When they did succeed, it was too mind-boggling for most people and especially for educated people grounded in science. It was opposed to natural law and so it was ignored or rejected as fraud. They called it humbug.

Judge John Edmonds, who began his investigation of mediums in 1851, said he was told at one sitting that “these manifestations are given to mankind to prove their immortality, and teach them to look forward to the change from one sphere to another with pleasure.”  Edmonds also said that he was “satisfied that something more was intended than the gratification of an idle curiosity; something more than pandering to a diseased appetite for the marvelous; something more than the promulgation of oracular platitudes; something more than upsetting material objects to the admiration of the wonder-lover; something more than telling the age of the living or the dead.” 

Edmonds further stated that he had “good reason to believe that there is in the spirit world much opposition to this intercourse with us, and that a combination has been formed to interrupt and, if possible, to overthrow it, and one mode is by visiting circles and individuals, exciting their suspicions of spirits, and bad thoughts as to their good faith and purity of purpose.” He did not explain the reasons for the opposition, but I can think of two possible reasons: 1) those opposed were unadvanced spirits who still clung to religious indoctrination that such communication is demonic; 2) our free-will decisions are tempered by the certainty of a larger life, thereby retarding our spiritual progress, i.e., the greater the adversity, the greater the lessons and the advancement. 

When Nathaniel Tallmadge, another researcher from the 1850s, asked John C. Calhoun, (below) his good friend in the earth life while also vice-president of the United States, the purpose of the manifestations he had witnessed, Calhoun replied: “My friend, the question is often put to you, ‘What good can come from these manifestations?’ I will answer it. It is to draw mankind together in harmony, and convince skeptics of the immortality of the soul.”


Tallmadge had put the same question to W. E. Channing, with whom he was communicating through another medium at an earlier date. The response was: “To unite mankind, and to convince skeptical minds of the immortality of the soul.” However, as Stainton Moses, an Anglican priest and medium, was told, very low-level spirits, what are sometimes called “earthbound” spirits, were interfering with the communication of higher spirits and the desired results were not being obtained. The advanced spirits overestimated the ability of those in the material world to discern the messages, to separate the positive from the negative, and thus they began to withdraw.

When people today comment that the phenomena observed by Hare, Edmonds, Tallmadge and others were probably all bunk because we don’t have them today, I suggest that it may have been better then, at least more dynamic than now, because people of that time needed it more than we do.  They had rougher and tougher lives and much less in the way of luxuries and escape mechanisms than we do.  Things were especially traumatic for them when science pulled the carpet out from under their religions.  Their church was their only refuge, and there was no other place to turn.

With all the comforts and escape mechanisms we now have, the spirit world apparently doesn’t see the need to intervene, and the resistance in the spirit world may be even greater now, as they see how lowly spirits interfered with what the more advanced spirits were trying to accomplish a century and more ago.  Moreover, the world is much more skeptical today than it was a century ago.  Some medium producing genuine phenomena would be labeled a fraud without any real investigation, and if an investigation were to take place the researchers would be looking for a materialistic explanation. A spiritual explanation will lack “proof” as the alternative is always something that science does not yet understand, i.e., super-psi, living-agent psi, the cosmic reservoir, etc.  A spiritual explanation will always elude science.   

My further guess is that, absent all the “noise” we now have in the world from our electrical gadgets, the people of the nineteenth century were more open to spirit communication.  They sat in front of a fire knitting or whittling, or on the front porch looking at the stars,  and their minds were more receptive to such communication.

Electricity has provided much light, but it is in some respects a “darker” world.  Searching for and receiving the right kind of “light” is the challenge.  Here’s wishing everyone more “light” for Christmas and in 2022.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

Next blog, 20, December.

Next blog post: January 3

Read comments or post one of your own
The Missing Witness for Life After Death

Posted on 06 December 2021, 9:43

In the trial summarized in my essay for the Bigelow contest eleven witnesses testified for the plaintiff, The Survival School, in its suit against The School of Materialism, aka The School of Nihilism. They included a judge, a physician, a lawyer, three chemists, a biologist, two physicist, a theologist, and a philosopher, all with impeccable qualifications. All began as non-believers or skeptics to some high degree, but, after extensive investigations, they were convinced that spirits exist, that many of these spirits once occupied earthly bodies, and that some are able to break through the veil separating our material world from the immaterial one and occasionally communicate with us, all of which leads to a compelling belief that consciousness does survive physical death.

A twelfth witness, Professor James Hyslop, (below) perhaps the most experienced of all in the area of psychical research, was scheduled to testify, but due to court-imposed restrictions, (viz. - the 25,000 word limit of the essay) and the fact that his research followed the other witnesses in time, his testimony was not heard in court.  In his deposition, taken several months before the trial, Hyslop spoke extensively about the veridical evidence coming to him from his father, mother, wife, and other deceased members of his family through the mediumship of Leonora Piper.  However, much of his testimony had to do with the modus operandi of mediumship.


Hyslop taught philosophy at Lake Forest University, Smith College, and Bucknell University before joining the faculty of Columbia University, where he served as professor of professor of logic and ethics.  He later founded the American Institute for Scientific Research and succeeded Dr. Richard Hodgson in managing the American Society for Psychical Research.  Hyslop received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and his doctorate in law from the University of Wooster.  He authored three textbooks, Elements of Logic (1892), Elements of Ethics (1895), and Problems of Philosophy (1905). 

Hyslop’s interest in psychical research came as a result of his friendship with Harvard professor William James and a sitting with Piper, the Boston medium discussed by two of the trial witnesses, Dr. Richard Hodgson and Sir Oliver Lodge.  Hyslop’s research began around 1895 and became a full-time endeavor in 1905, continuing until his death in 1920.  This abridged transcript of his deposition focuses on the methods of his research rather than on the evidential.   

Professor Hyslop, please begin with the overall assessment of your research.  What is your conclusion relative to the survival issue?

“Personally, I regard the fact of survival after death as scientifically proved.  I agree that this opinion is not upheld in scientific quarters.  But this is neither our fault nor that of the facts. Evolution was not believed until long after it was proved. The fault lay with those who were too ignorant or too stubborn to accept the facts. History shows that every intelligent man who has gone into the investigation, if he gave it adequate examination at all, has come out believing in spirits; this circumstance places the burden or proof on the shoulders of the skeptic.” (Hyslop, 1919, 480)

But why the continual resistance?

“In the first place, when we say to the average man that we can communicate with the dead, or that we have obtained through apparitions or mediumistic phenomena facts which prove survival, they see that we are implying communication as well as survival of the discarnate, and with it they assume that the process of communication is as simple as our ordinary social intercourse.  They read the records which we present as if they were merely jotted down conversations with the dead conducted very much as we talk with each other. They make no effort to investigate the complexity of the process, but take the phenomena at their face value and ask no scientific questions.  They read an alleged message as they would a telegram or an essay.  They make no account of the conditions under which the message is transmitted when it claims to come from another world, but recognize exactly what the conditions are in the physical world…If a message, however, claims to come from the dead, they set up objections as if they knew exactly what the conditions are for the receipt and delivery of the communication.  There is, after [so many years] of research by scientific men, absolutely no excuse for such conduct or ignorance…[Unfortunately], it is more convenient to laugh than it is to make an effort to ascertain the truth.”  (Hyslop, 1918, 208)

I gather that you have studied Mrs. Chenoweth more than Mrs. Piper or any other medium. Would you mind explaining the basic protocol in your sittings with her?

“[Not at all.] I do not allow Mrs. Chenoweth to see the sitter at any time.  She goes into the trance before the sitter is admitted into the room.  Then the sitter occupies a chair behind Mrs. Chenoweth, who is in the trance and could not see the sitter even if she were normally conscious and her eyes open.  Usually the sitter says little or nothing, often merely nodding or shaking his or her head.  Before Mrs. Chenoweth comes out of the trance the sitter leaves the room and is therefore not seen by Mrs. Chenoweth in her normal state.  Mrs. Chenoweth always remains upstairs before the sitting, and she never meets the sitter, unless I introduce her after a sitting, which has been done in but two or three cases, and that after the last of the series of sittings for the given sitter.”  (Hyslop, 1925, 1)

The skeptics believe that she and other mediums are digging up information beforehand.  What do you say to them?

“The slightest patient study both of the records as a whole and of the circumstances under which they were made would prove the impossibility of any form of fraud which could pay for itself.  The slight remuneration which Mrs. Chenoweth receives does not even pay for her living, much less would it support in addition a detective bureau even to seeking for information about a single one of her own friends, to say nothing of strangers whom she would have to investigate at the ends of the earth.  The man that clings to such a theory, after looking honestly at the facts, does not need to be taken seriously.  Scientific progress cannot wait on such minds.”  (Hyslop, 1925, 2)

Leonora Piper had a series of controls.  Is that the case with Mrs. Chenoweth?

“[Yes.] There may be a whole group of personalities [involved] with [the] messages.  This was perfectly manifest in the Piper case where the personalities called themselves Imperator, Rector, Doctor, Mentor, and others and had done so before in the case of Stainton Moses.  The same group figures in the work of Mrs. Chenoweth and gave some evidence of themselves in the work of Mrs. Smead, Mrs. Verrall and others. It is only in well-developed mediumship that groups of them will easily manifest. Their product in communication might be a joint one and their several personalities indistinguishable, but in well-developed mediumship, at least after some practice, each individual personality can give evidence of himself.” (Hyslop, 1925, 27)

It is my understanding that a control is a spirit on the “other side” who is like a medium on that side, facilitating or passing on communication from the “communicator” to the “sitter” through the medium.
Do I understand correctly?

“[You do.] We have to reckon with what is always called the control, or the ‘guide,’ as it is sometimes called.  We must remember also that the guide and control may be different personalities.  They are not always, if ever, the same personality.  It depends on circumstances.  If you regard this control as a secondary personality state of the medium, you have all the complications of secondary personality in the case, serving as medium besides the automatic machinery of the living organism in the suspense of the control of the normal consciousness over it.  But if you assume that the control is a spirit, as is more evidently the case for all who have intelligently investigated the problem, you have another mind beside that of the medium with which to deal in the problem.  There is not only the third mind which we have called the medium but the fourth one complicating all its influences with those already complicated enough to make us wonder that we get any message at all from the dead.” (Hyslop, 1918, 213)

It does sound complicated.

“[Exactly!] All should remember the parlor game in which a few words are whispered into the ear of the one near you and from him to a third and a fourth person and so on, to find at the end that there is no resemblance to what was started.  The same is likely to take place in spirit messages. The control must put the message through and it will take the color of his or her mind.  Then it is doubly colored by the subconscious, sometimes by the normal consciousness of the medium as well. The fact that the incidents prove the personal identity of a deceased person and are not known by the medium suffices to justify the spiritistic hypothesis, though this origin does not prove the purity of the message, or that it came from the communicator directly.  It may have been subjected to all sorts of modifications, phonetic, visual, or interpretative. Any man who does not make allowance for this is not fit to talk about the problem.” (Hyslop, 1918, 214)

Other researchers feel that there is more subconscious influence than you do.
“… I insist on drawing a very important distinction in allowing any influence at all to the subconscious.  This is the distinction between the subconscious as function and the subconscious as content in the messages.  By this I mean that the functions of the mind may act, whether consciously or subconsciously, in receiving and delivering messages, yet not supply any of the contents of them. If this view could be established it would deprive the skeptic of half his munitions of war.  But I have not proposed any such view arbitrarily or for the purpose of getting an advantage in the discussion, but because the facts showed that the doctrine had to be maintained.  It has distinct analogies in normal experience.  One may tell a friend’s story in the language of that friend and in that way eliminate the action of his own mind upon it in all but the mere process of transmitting it.  But if he allows his own interpretation of the story to be presented then the contents of his own experience enters into the material of his version of the story.  When a man suppresses his own theories and interpretations to state any mere body of facts he eliminates the contents of his knowledge and confines himself to the bald narration of the facts.  There is no reason, then, why the same process might not be effected with the subconscious of the psychic…At any rate, the possibility of distinguishing between the functions and the contents of the subconscious must be conceded in order to understand the non-evidential matter as a whole, and this without regard to the question whether it be spiritistic or not.” (Hyslop, 1925, 7-8)

The records suggest that a lot of “fishing” for information was going on by the medium or, if one accepts the spirit hypothesis, the control.  Is that the case?

“Fishing and guessing do take place, and yet the phenomena are still genuine.  The fishing and guessing are on the other side.  That is, the psychic is not fishing and guessing to try the sitter’s response, but to try that of the communicator who labors under difficulties analogous to our communication over a telephone or whenever there are obstacles to communication with each other in normal life.  Either the psychic or the control does not receive the messages or impressions clearly and has to guess at what they mean until the communicator assents to the right name or impression.” (Hyslop, 1925, 39)

How important is the trance state for good mediumship?

“The emphasis which has been placed upon the trance state in the discussions of the Piper case has often left the impression that a trance is a necessary condition for access to transcendental messages.  But this is not true.  It is only a condition that either removes ordinary objections and proves that we are dealing with unusual mental phenomena, as compared with normal consciousness, or that tends to improve the character of the messages.  It is not a condition necessary to transmission, but only to its purity and to its more ready impressiveness on minds that have been accustomed to assume fraud and ordinary explanations.  It has no other importance.  In the case of Mrs. Chenoweth the normal [non-trance] communications are very meager, and indeed are very rare.  All her phenomena have been accompanied by some sort of trance, light or deep.” (Hyslop, 1925, 3)

In what ways does the light trance differ from the deep?

“The prevailing condition at the time that I began my work with her was the Starlight trance.  This was the one that was used for private sittings.  It is a light and perhaps hypnoidal state in which there is apparently no anaesthesia, but complete amnesia.  It is probable that there is anaesthesia, that is, normal anaesthesia, but subliminal hyperaesthesia. This would account for the amnesia which characterizes this trance.  The process of getting communication in this trance is the pictographic or ‘mental picture’ method, at least for certain specific incidents and names.  General communications in this state seem not be pictographic.  But that is a subject for further study.  The main thing is that the apperceptive or interpreting functions of the mind seem active in this hypnoidal trance, and they are bound to affect the nature of the messages, especially in the interpretation of the mental pictures.” (Hyslop, 1925, 3)

Please explain the pictographic process.

“We do not know in detail all that goes on, but we can conceive that a mental picture in the mind of a communicator is transmitted, perhaps telepathically, to the psychic (medium) or to the control; even though we do not know how this occurs, we can understand why the message takes the form that it does in the mind of the psychic and why the whole process assumes the form of a description of visual, or a report of auditory images.  The whole mass of facts is thus systematized as a single process, whose specific form of transmission is determined by the sense through which it is expressed.  It is apparent that the pictographic process introduces into the communication various sources of mistake and confusion, and thus explains much that the ordinary man with his view of the messages cannot understand.  Mental pictures have to be interpreted, either by the control or by the subconscious of the psychic, probably by both.” (Hyslop. 1919, 117)

Why is it so difficult to get names through? Is it because many names do not lend themselves to the pictographic method?

“The difficulty of transmitting proper names has been one of great perplexity to students of this subject. At first the believer in fraud had no trouble in urging his explanation, but soon it became clear that the very uniformity of this difficulty was an evidence of some sort of genuineness in the phenomena.  Though several efforts have been made, both by Dr. Hodgson and myself, to form some tentative theory that would partly account for the difficulty, it has never been wholly explained….In the first place [the records indicate] that Mrs. Chenoweth at once gets the initials of the correct names so often that we cannot attribute the fact to chance…[and] often when the initial of a correct name has been given the medium goes on to give the complete name, and often does it very promptly.  But as often or more often the effort to give it shows a play about it which has all the characteristics of fishing and guessing…[but again] the fishing and guessing are on the other side.  Either the psychic or control does not receive the messages or impressions clearly and has to guess at what they mean until the communicator assents to the right name or impression.”  (Hyslop, 1925, 39-40)

The records indicate that some spirits are able to communicate through a medium without the assistance of a control. I believe you have referred to this as the “direct method.”  Is the pictographic process still in play here?

“It is possible, perhaps probable, that the direct method as distinguished from the pictographic process may involve wholly different functions, and indeed the fact that it finds its expressions in the motor organism while the pictographic process is primarily sensory, rather makes [this view of less subconscious content] clear and decisive, even though there may be connecting links between the two methods.  It may be that pictographic agencies prevail in all expression of thought, but they are not so apparent in the product of the direct method…Something also will depend on the nature of the medium and her development.”  (Hyslop, 1925, 24) 

I recall reading that the communicating spirit and/or the control must enter an altered state of consciousness on his or her side.  Can you comment on that?

“Quite an important piece of evidence in this direction comes from this George Pellew [control].  In explaining the conditions for ‘communicating’ he once said after having satisfied Dr. Hodgson of his identity: ‘Remember, we share and always shall have our friends in the dream life, i.e., your life, so to speak, which will attract us forever and ever, and so long as we have our friends sleeping in the material world; you to us are more like as we understand sleep, you look shut up as one in prison, and in order for us to get into communication with you, we have to enter into your sphere, as one like yourself asleep.  This is just why we make mistakes as you call them, or get confused and muddled, so to put it, Hodgson…you see I am more awake than asleep, yet I cannot come just as I am in reality, independently of the medium’s light.’” (Hyslop, 1919, 112)

Thank you, Professor Hyslop.  Any concluding thoughts?

“[Yes,] the belief in immortality is the keystone to the arch of history, or the pivotal point about which move the intellectual, the ethical, and the political forces of all time. If science cannot protect our ethical ideals it will have to succumb to the same corrosion that has worn away the church. Something must put an end to the doubt. There are many situations in life that call for heroic measures, and skepticism on the outcome of life offers no inducement to the heroic virtues.” (Hyslop, 1919, 486) 


Hyslop, James H., Science and a Future Life, Herbert B. Turner & Co., Boston, 1905

Hyslop, James, H., Life After Death, E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1918

Hyslop, James H., Contact with the Other World, The Century Co., New York, 1919

Hyslop, James H., Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, ASPR, New York, 1925

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

Next blog, 20, December.

Read comments or post one of your own
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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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