Today we delve into the new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America, by historian and friend-of-the-pod Erik Seeman, where he explores the history of Protestant communication with the dead in the three centuries before the advent of Spiritualism.

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Transcript of “Cult of the Dead: Anglo American Death Practices, Spiritualism, and Speaking with the Dead”

Marissa: We’ve said it many times on this podcast, everything has a history. Things that we assume and take for granted in our everyday lives — things we see as “fact” and static — are in fact cultural constructions. Even death has a history. 

Elizabeth: Today, I want to talk a bit about one of my favorite things, mourning culture in the 19th century – but also delve into the new book, “Speaking with the Dead in Early America,” by historian and friend-of-the-pod Erik Seeman, where he explores the history of Protestant communication with the dead in the three centuries before the advent of Spiritualism. 

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Marissa

And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig. 

Elizabeth: When we talk about Spiritualism, most histories tend to discuss it as a phenomenon that exploded onto the scene in the mid-nineteenth century. In an attempt to answer the question as to why it seems like Spiritualism seemingly came out of nowhere in the 1850s Eric Seeman examines Anglo-American death rituals and Protestant religion in Early America to see if he could explain this phenomenon. But first we should probably do a brief overview of Spiritualism. Now really, this needs a whole episode for itself. In fact, in our podcast’s earlier iteration, the History Buffs, we do have an episode devoted to Spiritualism. I’ll warn you the audio quality isn’t the best but we’ll link that episode in the show notes and I guarantee you that Sarah will do another Spiritualism episode at some point because that’s her jam. 

Marissa: Spiritualism is a religious movement based on the belief that the spirits of the dead exist and communicate with the living through various means. Death and the afterlife is not seen by spiritualists as a static and far off place but one that is in conversation with our own realm.Spiritualism developed and reached its peak growth in membership from the 1840s to the 1920s, especially in English-speaking countries. It was without formal organization, but attained cohesion through means such as pamphlets, books, camp meetings, and most often word of mouth. Spiritualists performed seances, where a medium would act as a channel to help the spirit talk to the living, either through signs, sounds, and symbols, or speaking through the medium. Perhaps the best-known series of séances conducted were those of Mary Todd Lincoln who, grieving the loss of her son, organized Spiritualist séances in the White House to contact her deceased son. Some of these were attended by her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, and other prominent members of society.

Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning dress, 1865 | Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Elizabeth: According to the common narrative, Spiritualism first appeared in the 1840s in the “Burned-over District” of upstate New York, where earlier religious movements such as Millerism, the Shakers, and Mormonism emerged during the Second Great Awakening. It was called the “burned-over district” because the fires of numerous religious revivals had swept through the area of Western New York and down into Ohio with new religions preaching ways people could have direct communications with God. These were not the Protestant teachings of a harsh God where only a handful of the chosen would be admitted to heaven. 

Marissa: Spiritualists often set March 31, 1848, as the beginning of their movement when sisters Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York, near Rochester, made contact with a spirit of a murdered peddler. The spirit communicated through rapping noises, or knocking. Friends of the Fox family, Amy and Isaac Post who were Hicksite Quakers from Rochester, witnessed these rappings and were convinced the spirit communications were real. 

Elizabeth: The Posts introduced the Fox sisters to their Quaker friends and soon word spread of the “Rochester Rappings.” The Foxs’ older sister, Leah Fox Fish, also proved to be a medium. In 1850 Kate and Margaret traveled to New York City with their mother and rented rooms at Barnum’s hotel. They held public séances three times a day. Visitors included historian George Bancroft, who you historians who are listening will recognize from the Bancroft Prize. Other visitors included Horace Greely, the reformer and publisher of the New York Tribune. The Fox sisters conducted private seances for Greeley and his wife who were both convinced they received messages from their deceased five-year-old son. Kate Fox ended up living with the Greeley’s for a few months, as kind of their own personal medium. 

Marissa: Spiritualism in general proved to be very popular. Early converts were abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and Sarah Grimke. Many prominant people attended seances- as we’ve seen – even in the White House.Many prominent spiritualists were women and most spiritualists supported causes such as the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. In fact, Spiritualism and the early women’s rights movements were closely interconnected and many women found political and religious voices and even power through the movement. Ann Braude’s book Radical Spirits, is a great dive into feminism and Spiritualism if your interested in learning more.

Elizabeth: However, by 1860 the phenomenon of the Fox sisters was waning anyway as other mediums mediums were able to do more than just “knockings.” Some could have their voices manipulated by spirits, others were healing mediums that could see inside of people’s bodies. So in a way, the world kind of moved on from the Fox sisters naturally as Spiritualism’s popularity climbed. It also didn’t help the sister when in 1888 and practically destitute they admitted that their gifts of mediumship were a hoax and that they created the rapping sounds by cracking their toe knuckles, though shortly afterward they recanted that admission.

Marissa: Many scholars contend that Spiritualism happened spontaneously, after the Fox sisters heard the rappings of a murdered peddler. They point to a few phenomenon to explain the boon of Spiritualism. They look at the teachings of Emanueal Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish mystic who spoke with angels. They also point to the Shakers and their form of spirit communication, and to the American incarnation of Mesmerism from the 1830s, and a trance seer known as the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” in the 1840s. But, as Seeman points out, these supposed antecedents were not huge movements – there were only 850 Swenborgians in 1840 and only a few thousand Shakers – basically, these alleged antecedents do not explain the supposed explosion of Spiritualism. 

Elizabeth: But thinking about spiritualism that way- as a phenomenon or “explosion” – makes it seem extreme, exotic, but if we look at Spiritualism as an outcropping of beliefs already swirling around, we see it really wasn’t so odd and exotic at all. 

Marissa: Basically, Protestant Americans had been speaking with the dead in various ways for many years. Protestant engagement with the dead was already existent and present in American culture. Spiritualism just took it a bit further and actively spoke with the dead through mediums or other religious practices. Instead of finding a direct road map to the birth of Spiritualism, Seeman found Anglo-American Protestant death practices from the colonial era through the early republic and into the nineteenth century, rife with instances of “speaking with the dead.”

Elizabeth: This groundwork was laid by “speaking with the dead,” in various forms and can be traced through material culture. So things like New England epitaphs on gravestones coupled with gravestone iconography, mourning relics like embroidery and hairwork, and the prose and poetry of the English Graveyard School and gothic writers, which morphed into the ever-popular sentimental literature of the American nineteenth century- are just a few examples. Protestants were “speaking” with the dead in a variety of ways throughout the 300 years before Spiritualism “exploded” (so called) on to the scene. 

Marissa: Protestantism has been theorized as a religion that does not overly engage with the dead, as opposed to Catholicism with relics and the many saints one may pray to in order to intercede on one’s behalf. In Protestantism there is God and Jesus – or the holy trinity – which make them essentially one in the same. And that’s about it. Seeman pushes us to see Protestant connections with the dead in a more profound way than perhaps we have previously understood. He examines Protestantism as a religion in which the dead are important figures. 

Elizabeth: Without getting into the theology too much, with Protestantism there is no purgatory, only heaven and hell. Purgatory is the the middle place between heaven and hell where most Catholic souls went to to experience purgation or cleansing by fire, before they ascended into heaven. Souls that were, or are, in purgatory can be aided and assisted by actions done by the living. So through prayer, alms, paying for Masses, intercession by saints- all of these things could help a soul through purgatory into heaven. In the early sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation did away with purgatory and the adoration of saints. Protestants could no longer help their loved ones’ souls in the afterlife and they could no longer enlist the help of saints to intervene. There was no praying to saints on behalf of loved ones passed on. Essentially, once a person passed on – that was it. Their soul was in God’s hands and there was no more connection to the living through helping prayers- God had a plan and there was no changing that. 

Marissa: However, this bleakness we have described was not lived reality. The material culture of Protestant death shows how connected Protestants were to the dead from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, despite the written sermons and books by the elite and religious leaders that preached to the contrary . This connection to the deceased by Protestant laypeople cultivated fertile ground that culminated in the “cult of the dead” in the mid 19th century. It’s important to point out that we are talking largely about middle-class white, Protestant Americans within this ideology of the cult of the dead. African Americans, Native Americans, Catholics, Jews all had varying beliefs. 

Victorian hair art mourning jewelry | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: The cult of the dead isn’t an actual cult. It’s an expression coined by Seeman that I think aptly describes the complex set of religious and cultural ideas that emerged regarding relationships between the living and the dead in the nineteenth century. And so this is where I kind of geek out, because I am just fascinated by Victorian mourning culture. The black crepe, the jet and onyx jewelry, the hairwork mementos, etc. etc. etc. We delve into this a bit more in our mortuary photography episode which we’ll link in the show notes. But essentially, the nineteenth century had this rich, deep, and I think cathartic way to mourn. People- or at least the middle class white people that we’re discussing today- literally wore it on their sleeve by being draped in black, with designated time periods of how long you should mourn depending on how close you were to the deceased. 

Marissa: This makes me think about Sarah’s episode on the Huron Wendat death rituals. After a funeral ritual, the closest family members (usually just widows and widowers) would go into deep mourning. They did not leave the longhouse, and lay face down on a mat covered with fur blankets, and without talking to anyone. They could only say “good day” to someone who came in, and that was it. When they were coming out of this period of mourning, they would have their head sort of partially shaved – a highly visible mark of their loss. 

Elizabeth: YES! Like there is this designated mourning time and all of these rituals, and it is physically marked on you – whether it be with a partially shaved head like in the case of the Huron Wendat or draped in black crepe clothing for a designated period of time. Basically it speaks to the world, I am sad, I am in mourning, leave me the ‘eff alone. To me at least, it just encapsulates a beautiful way to capture raw human emotion in this prescribed manner. 

Marissa: Participants in the cult of the dead imagined they were able to continue a connection with their loved ones after death. Despite three hundred years of Protestant teaching to the contrary, participants held to five beliefs: 

Elizabeth: One, bodily remains deserved adoration. 

Marissa: Two, that the souls of the dead became angels in heaven. 

Elizabeth: Three, those souls could return to earth as guardian angels and protect the living. 

Marissa: Four, cemeteries were placed well-suited to communicating with the dead. 

Elizabeth: And five, that it was legitimate to pray to the dead. 

Urn and willow grave iconography | City of Boston Parks and Recreation (fair use)

Marissa: Both female and male Protestants participated in the cult of the dead in the 19th century though material culture, literature, and “lived religion that focused on maintaining postmortem relationships.” Participants in the cult of the dead engaged with Protestant tenets that included an afterlife populated by the souls of the dead but that built on the fertile literature and material culture of previous centuries. One material object that generated thoughts about continuing relationships with the dead appeared in New England’s graveyards. After 1750 many New England gravestone epitaphs represented the dead as speaking or being spoken to. The popularity of these so called talking gravestones peaked around 1800 and represent a shift in Protestant ideas about heaven, and an eighteenth and nineteenth century focus on reunions in heaven as opposed to a sixteenth and seventeenth view of heaven as beatific, or achieving perfect salvation of holy bliss. 

Elizabeth: There is a change over time from one of this beatific vision, to one more focused on reuniting with departed loved ones. So again, this idea that everything has a history, even what people think heaven is changes over time. So New Englanders began to express this vision of heaven on gravestones. Many sixteenth and seventeenth ministers urged followers to visit graveyards often to be reminded of their mortality. By the eighteenth century ministers encouraged their followers to converse with the dead, meaning, have mental dialog with them or just be present with them.

Marissa: A look at early modern Anglo funeral practices, so those roughly 1500 to 1800 show remarkable Protestant engagement with the dead. Talking gravestones represented the dead speaking and being spoken to. Scholars have spent a great deal of time studying the iconography on gravestones, moving from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century from deaths heads, to cherubs, to urns and willows. However, most overlook the epitaphs written in conjunction with the iconography which deepen and alter the religious meanings of the stones.The same desires that led New England’s mourners to read and write funeral poetry also led them to local burial grounds, where stone markers continued conversations with the dead. 

Elizabeth: These talking gravestones can be broken into three categories.The most common type of talking gravestone is one in which the deceased speaks to the passerby. One of the classic types starts with “Stranger, stop and cast an eye,/ As you are now, so once was I.” So, reminding one of their own mortality.

Marissa: Another category are those where the deceased speaks to someone other than the passerby. This could be a surviving loved one, to Christ, or to Death itself. An example of this kind would be this one from a woman to her husband, “Farewell my loving friend, farewell!” This is the least common type of stone.

Elizabeth: And the third category are epitaphs where the stone speaks to the deceased, usually in the voice of mourners. So here’s an example from an 1808 child’s gravestone, “Sleep on dear babe and take thy rest/ No mortal cares can seize thy breast.”

Marissa: Protestant interpretations of heaven shifted during the eighteenth century. An older vision focused on the beatific vision- the reunion with Christ. Eighteenth century visions of heavens shifted towards a focus on reunions with loved ones. As this happened, ministers and laypeople became more interested in imagining the afterlife. In conjunction, Protestant Anglo Americans wrote and read literature and poems, and read news accounts that imagined or claimed to describe aspects of the afterlife.Seeman argues, “The image of heaven that emerges from these sources focuses on departed loved ones; it is a mourning vision rather than a beatific vision. In this context, talking gravestones helped represent a connection with an afterlife that seemed more approachable and imaginable than before.”

Elizabeth: For example, this 1817 tombstones where a husband speaks to his wife and his child who died a month before his wife, both buried in the same plot. It says, “Thy spotless soul has flown to Realms on high, ‘ To reembrace Love’s pledge, thy cherub boy; / When God Shall bid thy husband’s spirit fly, / May thy fond souls unite in endless joy.” So the husband is saying, you have gone up and joined with our son (the cherub). I know you and our son are up there in heaven and when I die, I will come and join you and we will all be happy and together again. In previous centuries, when the beatific vision was heaven’s central activity, souls were seen as glorifying God. With the advent of the cult of the dead, familial bonds were recreated in heaven. 

Mother and twins grave marker | Thomas, Flickr CC-BY

Marissa: Talking gravestones reserved some of their most emotional epitaphs for babies and young children as a shift from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century focused more and more reverence towards children in American culture and Protestant theology. The Calvinist ideas of predestination and the thought that children might burn in hell, was almost entirely forgotten by this point and children were seen as pure innocence and guaranteed entry to heaven should they die. 

Elizabeth: Ghost stories and sightings are another way that some Americans interacted with the dead, whether unironically or an entertainment – or both. There was a decreasing belief in ghosts from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, but also the widespread curiosity about the afterlife resulted in persistent reporting of ghost stories and ghost sightings throughout the eighteenth century. As the more educated wrote off ghost sightings as just the beliefs of gullible people, there persisted a steady reporting of unironic ghost sightings reported in a variety of eighteenth century papers. 

Marissa: One ghost story that caused a dramatic shift in the way people thought about ghosts is one that I covered extensively in one of our older episodes- the Cock Lane Ghost – or colloquially known as good old Scratching Fanny in 1762. Elizabeth Parsons, a young girl at 25 Cock Lane in London, was said to be possessed by the restless spirit of Frances, or Fanny, Lynes who had apparently been murdered. The girl suffered from fits and several witnesses had seen an apparition in the building. But the Cock Lane ghost’s biggest claim to fame was its alleged knocking and scratching at all hours of the night and day. Many witnesses, including men of high esteem, witnessed the sounds and devised a code to communicate with Fanny’s ghost. London newspapers wrote daily updates about the séances, investigations and hearings that sought to uncover the truth behind Scratching Fanny.The Cock Lane ghost played on a desire for Protestant spiritual excitement and a media frenzy ensued and crowds flocked to Cock-lane hoping to witness the knocks of Scratching Fanny. An informal commission was formed to inquire into Fanny’s death and the strange noises. After numerous seances, the whole thing was determined to be a hoax. 

Elizabeth: American papers followed the Cock Lane ghost story as well, first reporting on the story in a somewhat straightforward manner and noting that ministers of great esteem were involved in “unravel[ing] this tremendous story.” Once Scratching Fanny was deemed a hoax, “Cock Lane” became slang for supernatural gullibility in American papers. Yet, ghost stories still made appearances in American papers, with a mix of belief and scepticism. A 1785 Philadelphia newspaper article recounted how sailors found the skeletal remains of someone on a docked ship. They buried the remains in a potter’s field but apparently the dead man’s ghost was upset by such a poor burial. The ghost began haunting the sailors who buried him. The ghost also named George Feinour, a ship’s mate who arrived in Philadelphia nine days later, as his murderer. When Feinour arrived in Philly, he found that public opinion against him was so bad that he actually had to write a formal letter of appeal in conjunction with three affidavits sworn before a magistrate and a certificate from a physician stating that the deceased had died from fever and flux- not murder – and have all of this published in the newspaper! Even as Feinour chastised those that would believe such ghost stories, he still had to use the services of elite professionals like a magistrate and physician in order to prove his innocence in the realm of public opinion, to help him counter the word of a ghost.

Marissa: In 1796 a short fiction story called, “The Dead Infant; or, The Agonizing Mother,” was published as a three paragraph vignette in the New York Weekly Magazine. It described a grief stricken mother who sneaks off to the graveyard in the middle of the night and rips her dead child from its coffin right before burial. She keeps the corpse with her at home. Since her child can no longer eat, she too refuses food and wastes away through starvation and grief. “She once more pressed him with redoubled force to her breast, again kissed his putrid cheek — and slept her final sleep.”

This is an example of Gothic literature, a genre of fiction that became popular in Britain in the 1760s and became popular in America about thirty years later. Gothic literature explored themes of romance and death and the otherworldly. 

Elizabeth: “The Dead Infant” begins with the lines “Speak, Meander.” It is the mother’s cry trying to get her son to speak, to hear his voice. The continuity with representations of speaking with the dead carry over from gravestone epitaphs, or the voice of the deceased coming through ghostly manifestations. Which brings us back to this idea of the nineteenth century cult of the dead and when we think about mourning culture in nineteenth century it shows us that Protestant Americans were already speaking to the dead, through various means. People imagined that they were able to maintain postmortem relationships with their deceased loved ones. 

Marissa: Many epitaphs in this period, particularly those for babies and children, referred to death as sleep. The mother in “The Dead Infant,” slips into the “sleep” of death…. The romanticized elements of death easily coincide with this nineteenth-century idea of the good death. You’ve heard us talk about this concept of the “good death” on the podcast before. Essentially this idea of a death that is akin to falling asleep. Mid-eighteenth century English poetry in the Graveyard School of poetry and prose likened death to sleep and by the nineteenth century this language dominated American death culture and influenced American sentimental literature.

Elizabeth: Sentimental fiction or literature concentrates on feeling and emotion over rationality and tended to be associated with women writers. Sentimental fiction adhered to a “separate spheres” ideology, which privileged a white, middle-class ideal of acceptable gender roles where women, at least “moral and virtuous” women, were associated with home and domesticity. Men were identified with work in the capitalist market of the public sphere.However, the emotion used in these novels wasn’t simply meant to pull at the heartstrings for emotion’s sake alone. Many sentimental authors used emotion to campaign for social or political reform. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), used sentimentality to address the evils of slavery. In fact, President Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1863 as “the little lady who made this big war,” highlighting the profound impact her sentimental novel made on the general public.

Marissa: Nineteenth century sentimental literature also allowed female authors and readers to create a cultural space for the ernest expression of grief. Scholar Shirley Samuels goes as far as to say that “sentimentality is literally at the heart of nineteenth-century American culture.”

Nineteenth century sentimental literature depicted the good death, and dead children speaking to their parents from beyond. This rested quiet comfortably with the cult of the dead where cemeteries became places where the living could make contact with departed spirits and portraits and photographs of the dead invited conversations with loved ones in heaven. 

Elizabeth: These forms of literature and material culture responded to and aroused interest in the relationship between the living and dead. People’s age-old questions of what happens to us after we die, do our loved ones actually leave us, do they watch us, do the return to us? The cult of the dead addressed these questions. Yet Seeman aptly points out that, because the cult of the dead was Protestantism performed by women, it has largely been understudied. Death happened in the private sphere. People most often died at home, where mostly women were in charge of caring for they dying, washing the corpse, and performing the emotional labor of visibly grieving and mourning. Women are the ones who created hairwork, made from the cut hair of deceased loved ones, and then wore it or hung it on their living room wall. Women were the ones who memorialized loved ones by making intricate embroidery. Women were even the ones to raise funds for public memorials. Think of Eliza Hamilton and Dolly Madison leading fundraising efforts for the Washington Monument, that would not have been completed without them.

Marissa: Ultimately the goal of all this – this cult of the dead- was to continue a kind of relationship with the deceased. This desire to maintain relationships with the dead created the environment where seance Spiritualism was possible. 

Elizabeth: So thanks to Erik Seeman for sharing an advanced copy of his book with us. It’s out now and you can buy it from the University of Pennsylvania Press, or Amazon, or from your library. Also, any mischaracterizations of his book are completely my own.


Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Second Edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. 

Shirley Samuels, ed., The Culture of Sentiment : Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Erik R. Seeman, Speaking with the Dead in Early America, :Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Erik R. Seeman, The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.


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