Part of our Time Traveler Series
Spiritualism, at its simplest, is the belief that spirits of the dead exist and desire to communicate with the living. Spiritualism and its adherents abounded throughout Ohio and the nation during the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th. In fact, to this day, there are at least 100 Spiritualist churches in the US, some rather famous including Lily Dale in New York and Cassadaga in Florida.
While one cannot say for sure that some of the practices were not in existence prior to 1848, modern spiritualism began March 31, 1848 in Hydesville, NY when two sisters, Margaretta (Maggie) and Catherine Fox convinced family and neighbors that the strange knockings in their home were from the spirit world beyond. Hydesville was in the center of what was known as the “burnt over region” which had seen multiple bouts of religious fervor from various traditions (from revivals of mainstream protestant traditions to Mormonism just to name a few). The two sisters went on to hold what became known as seances and supposedly communicated with the dead through knockings and rapping. The craze for communication from beyond the grave went wild!
Spiritualism began to grow throughout the country with both believers and skeptics attending seances. The growth continued through the Civil War. The post-Civil War years saw a huge growth in the interest in Spiritualism. With so many losing family and friends in the war, the desire to communicate with those beyond the earthly realm exploded. By this point seances had evolved from simple knockings to other forms of spirit communication such as automatic writing, early forms of the Ouija board, and other modes of communicating through letters.
Ohio was quite a hot spot for this spiritualist activity with two conventions happening in neighboring communities. In fact, several famous “spirit houses” existed for several years around Athens, Ohio, and interest in the larger cities, such as Cleveland, grew very quickly. The Cleveland Spiritualist Convention was held in February 1852 and later the Convention of the Ohio State Association of Spiritualist, held in November 1867, was held in Clyde, Ohio. It wasn’t just a fluke that these conventions happened nearby, as two important figures in the movement, Hudson and Emma Tuttle lived in Berlin Heights and also did work in Milan, Ohio. Born in Berlin Heights in 1836, Hudson was a farmer and later a publisher as well. He became interested in spiritualism fairly early, attending a séance when he was young and entering a trance. He became known for his ability at automatic writing. Hudson became quickly involved in the movement, and after marrying Emma Rood (a writer, composer, and spiritualist as well) they began publishing their own materials out of Berlin Heights. They wrote on many topics. Hudson was even quoted by Charles Darwin (although some of Tuttle’s theories are considered racist to our modern sensibilities). Both researched and wrote on spiritualist, free thought, and other important topics of the day. They even began a Lyceum (an association for providing public lectures and discussions) and published the Lyceum Guide (for use by societies, Lyceums, and Sunday schools) to promote free thinking and spiritualist thinking as well.
The Tuttles published many books on spiritualist and other topics, and Emma was known throughout the region for her writings, speeches, and musical compositions. But the Tuttle’s biggest claim-to-fame was the creation of a new type of “planchette.” The planchette is the common name for the small devices used for Ouija boards or other forms of automatic writing. The Tuttle’s version, called the Psychograph, was made with a small wooden circle with a moveable “arm” underneath. The arm could swing to letters and numbers on the card below to spell out answers to the questions of the mediums.
While the popularity of seances began to wain around the 1920s, the movement has not died out (as mentioned earlier). In fact, many of the ideas of the early spiritualists have become more main stream with modern psychics, readers, and mediums offering their services in cities and towns throughout the country.