While belief in an afterlife is a cornerstone of many ancient and modern religions and cultures worldwide, the idea that it’s possible to communicate with the dead never reached the same level of acceptance. But, for a period of about a century, beginning in the 1840s, sending messages between the human and spirit worlds was popular not only as a religion, but also as a pastime.
Though a few 18th-century European thinkers toyed with the concept of a potential connection between science and the supernatural, the new religious movement known as modern Spiritualism got its start in upstate New York in 1848. That’s when two sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, became locally and later, internationally famous after claiming they could get in touch with people beyond the grave. For some, the work of mediums like the Fox sisters was purely entertainment. But for others, it became a religion, and is still practiced as one in a few remaining communities today.
Spiritualism’s popularity waxed and waned throughout the remainder of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, predictably surging following massive losses of life, like the Civil War, World War I and the 1918 Flu Pandemic. And although the Spiritualist movement never completely faded out, it didn’t hold the same appeal after World War II. But for close to 100 years, Spiritualism attracted people from every part of society—including celebrities.
Here’s a look at eight famous figures who, at some point in their lives, believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.
1. Thomas Edison
When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, the first record he created was of his own voice reciting the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Then, in 1920, he announced plans to capture a different type of voice: one that belonged to those no longer living. Specifically, a “spirit phone” capable of talking to the dead, says Marc Hartzman, historian and author of Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination with Spirits and the Supernatural.
“Aside from the life-changing feat of breaking through the veil, I believe his interest in Spiritualism was simply to demonstrate that science, not mediums and Ouija boards, was the way to do it,” Hartzman says. In fact, in 1920, Edison told American Magazine that “the methods and apparatus commonly used and discussed are just a lot of unscientific nonsense.”
Some believe Edison’s supposed belief in communicating with the dead was a joke, or a chance to make headlines and capitalize on Spiritualism’s popularity, according to Hartzman, who adds that is certainly possible. But at the same time, Edison did have an unusual hypothesis regarding what happens after humans die.
“The inventor spoke of his belief in the idea of life units,” Hartzman explains. “In a nutshell, a hundred trillion of them make up a human being and keep us functioning. When we die, the life units move onto someone else.”
2. Mae West
After experiencing severe abdominal pains while performing in Chicago in 1929, writer, activist and star of the vaudeville stage and silver screen Mae West, then age 36, believed that her relief finally came at the hands of a Spiritualist healer named Sri Deva Ram Suku. A collection of West’s papers from 1928 through 1984 housed in Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library contains clippings, correspondence and pamphlets related to her involvement with Spiritualism, including Thomas John “Jack” Kelly, a well-known medium who became West’s spiritual advisor and friend.
The archive also features papers documenting West’s multiple trips to Lily Dale, a Spiritualist camp outside Buffalo, New York where she would visit Kelly for readings and healing. This included a stay in the summer of 1955, when West was on hand for the July 3 dedication of a new healing temple in the community.
3. Queen Victoria
Though modern Spiritualism had been around since the 1840s, it gained substantial traction in the United Kingdom once Queen Victoria became interested in the practice. Distraught over the 1861 death of her husband, Prince Albert, Victoria entered her “mourning period,” which lasted until the end of her life in 1901, and involved wearing all-black as well as mourning jewelry, which contained photos of Albert and locks of his hair. It also included attempts to get in touch with Albert in the afterlife.
Not long after Albert’s death, a 13-year-old medium named Robert James Lees claimed that the prince had gotten in touch during one of his séances saying that he had a message for the queen. Upon hearing this, Victoria arranged a séance with Lees, during which he referred to information no one else would know; most notably, a pet name he had for her, according to Hartzman.
“The teen performed numerous séances for the Queen at Buckingham Palace before turning over his mediumistic duties to another medium,” he explains. “Victoria continued holding séances at the palace and was known to seek her dead husband’s advice in political matters.”
4. Arthur Conan Doyle
Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known today as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he was also one of the best-known Spiritualists. “The credulous writer believed firmly in the powers of many mediums and was even convinced in the existence of fairies after a couple of teenage girls faked some photos,” Hartzman says.
It all started when Doyle joined a séance in 1880. Though he was initially a skeptic, he gradually became convinced that it was possible to communicate with the dead. In an 1887 letter to the weekly Spiritualist periodical Light, Doyle wrote that “it was absolutely certain that intelligence could exist apart from the body,” and that “after weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa.”
“His interest grew much stronger after he believed he heard a personal message from his son,” Hartzman explains. Holmes’ son Kingsley died from pneumonia contracted after being seriously wounded in the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Doyle ended up touring Europe and America to preach the wonders of Spiritualism and the afterlife.
Doyle’s fervent beliefs eventually strained his friendship with famed escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini, who saw Spiritualism as a con, and spent years debunking the alleged communication that occurred during séances, and exposing mediums as frauds. According to Hartzman, their relationship took a substantial hit after Lady Doyle claimed to have received a long-winded message from Houdini’s mother, and Houdini refused to believe it.
“Despite Houdini’s efforts to expose frauds, Doyle’s beliefs never wavered,” Hartzman says. “In fact, he even claimed a spirit named Pheneas—who was thousands of years old—was in regular contact with him and his wife and advised them on such things as travel and real estate.”
5. Mary Todd Lincoln
Though Mary Todd Lincoln famously attempted to get in touch with her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, following his 1865 assassination, her involvement with Spiritualism began three years earlier, when their son Willie died from typhoid fever at the age of 11. Mary Todd initially attended seances as a way to cope with her grief but found them to be so comforting that she started hosting her own.
According to the White House Historical Association, there is evidence that Mary Todd held as many as eight seances in the White House (specifically, the Red Room) following Willie’s death, and that the president attended a few of them.
But what may seem odd today was quite common at the time, says Lucile Scott, journalist and author of An American Covenant: A Story of Women, Mysticism and the Making of Modern America. “Mary Todd Lincoln joined the vast wave of Americans turning to Spiritualism during the Civil War, as the ghosts of fallen soldiers and both literal and spiritual ruin proliferated across the country,” she says.“In the late 1850s, approximately 10 percent of the American free adult populace allied itself with Spiritualism in some form or fashion, a trend that continued into the 1860s.”
However, the movement’s popularity and widespread acceptance wouldn’t last, and soon faced backlash, including from the medical establishment. “Doctors coined the term ‘mediomania,’ linking insanity to Spiritualism, and then redefined insanity’s symptoms as the most common side effects of entrancement—rigidity, seizure, ecstasy,” Scott explains.
But Mary Todd, by this time mourning both her son and husband, continued to attempt to communicate with the deceased members of her family. This, along with what was deemed “improper” and “unladylike” displays of grief after the president’s assassination, made Mary Todd the object of public ridicule.
“In 1872, both the Boston Herald and the New York Times mocked Mary for attending a séance to contact her late husband’s spirit,” Scott says. “Then, in 1875, Mary’s son Robert had her briefly committed to a sanitarium for her Spiritualist practices.”
6. Victoria Woodhull
Perhaps best known for her 1872 run for the presidency of the United States as the first woman to do so, Victoria Woodhull spent her lifetime blazing trails across multiple disciplines. From an early age, it’s thought she believed that she received special guidance and protection from the spirits of the deceased, which empowered her to take actions unusual for a woman at the time.
In addition to her candidacy for president, Woodhull was also the first woman to own a Wall Street investment firm, found her own newspaper, and speak before Congress demanding that women be granted the right to vote. And while her run for political office didn’t end with her moving into the White House, Woodhull was elected president of the American Association of Spiritualists in 1871, calling it “the chief honor” of her life.
7. Dan Akyroyd
In addition to being a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live when the show premiered in 1975, Dan Akyroyd is closely associated with his starring role in the Ghostbusters movie franchise. In fact, not only did he co-write the script, but the idea for the 1984 film was his own. And Akroyd didn’t have to look far for inspiration: His great-grandfather, Sam Aykroyd, was part of a Spiritualist community in Canada, where he regularly hosted seances in the family’s farmhouse throughout the 1920 and 1930s.
In 2009, Peter Aykroyd (Dan’s father and Sam’s grandson) published a book called A History of Ghosts, which documents the general history of Spiritualism, as well as the Akykroyd family’s role in the community. Discussing Spiritualism in a May 2020 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Dan Aykroyd noted: “We believe—and I guess it's my religion—that you can speak from the other side, [and] that the consciousness survives.”
8. Hilma af Klint
Although early-20th-century artists like Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian are largely credited with sparking the phenomenon of abstract Western art, a Swedish painter named Hilma af Klimt began creating similar bold, colorful and geometric pieces even earlier. Other than art, af Klimt had another major interest in her life: Spiritualism. According to Scott, it is thought that she first showed Spiritualist inclinations in 1879, at the age of 17, which was shortly before embarking on a career as an artist.
“In 1896, Hilma began to hold regular seances with four other women who called themselves The Five,” Scott explains. “As part of their communications with the other side, the women began to produce automatic drawings channeled from the spirits.” While Hilma more formally aligned herself with other Spiritualist movements, she continued to paint her spiritually derived subjects until her death in 1944.
Some of af Klimt’s best-known works are part of a series called The Paintings for the Temple, that Scott says “sought to represent the transcendent pulsing realms we cannot observe with our senses.” She began painting the series in 1906, after spirits got in touch with her and the rest of The Five urging her to take on the project and completed it in 1915.
“The spirits told her that the paintings would one day be housed in a temple, which Hilma envisioned as consisting of multiple levels connected by a spiral path,” Scott notes. “Just over 100 years after she finished the series, her work was featured in New York’s Guggenheim Museum, a temple to the arts with just such a design.”