How the 1918 Pandemic Spurred a Spiritualism Craze of Talking to the Dead


When the flu pandemic hit the United States between 1918 and 1920, the Americans wanted answers. Their questions were not limited to what caused the pandemic or could prevent the next one. They fought against more eternal concerns, like what happens to us after we die and whether it is possible to communicate with deceased loved ones.

The flu pandemic was not the only one to stimulate this search for meaning. The First World War, which ended in November 1918, had made an estimated 20 million deaths and civilians worldwide. And if that weren’t enough, the flu had killed at least 50 million people. In both cases, most of the victims were young – between the ages of 20 and 40, in the case of the flu – and left behind by parents, spouses, lovers and children.

Unsurprisingly, spiritualism, which promised a window into the afterlife, experienced a sudden resurgence in the United States, Britain, France and elsewhere. A title from February 1920 in New York Sun said it all: “The following life conundrum catches the world’s attention.”

WATCH: Spanish flu was more deadly than World War II

Famous names have given credit to spiritism

The two most prominent supporters of spiritualism were British: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge. Doyle was, of course, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Lodge was a respected physicist known for his work on radio waves.

The two men had long been interested in the supernatural and both had lost sons in the war. Lodge’s son Raymond was hit by shrapnel during battles in Belgium in 1915. Doyle’s son Kingsley was injured in France in 1916 and died of pneumonia in 1918, probably caused by the flu pandemic. Doyle also lost his younger brother to the flu in 1919, while his wife’s brother was killed in Belgium in 1914.

After the war, the two men gave numerous lectures in the United States and also wrote books describing their psychic experiences.

Lodge Book of 1916, Raymond, or life and death, describes numerous alleged contacts with her late son. Lodge and his wife encountered various mediums who practiced techniques such as automatic writing and tilting the table to communicate with the dead.

In automatic writing, the spirit would have guided the medium’s hand to write messages. By tilting the table, participants were usually seated around a sitting table while the medium recited the alphabet. When the medium arrived at the letter that the mind had in mind, the table tilted, turned, levitated or made another inexplicable movement. Other mediums still went into a trance and allowed the dead to speak directly through them.

In his messages, Raymond offered a comforting version of the great beyond, with flowers, trees, dogs, cats and birds. He repeatedly assured his parents that he was happy. He told them that he had reconnected with his late grandfather, as well as a brother and sister who died in infancy and made many new friends. He said soldiers who lost an arm in combat found it as if by magic, although those who were “torn to pieces” took a little longer to become whole.

During a visit to New York in 1920, Lodge told a reporter that he was still in contact with Raymond, as well as other fallen soldiers. “I have spoken to a good number of boys killed during the war,” he said. “They haven’t disappeared. They tell me it’s pretty much over there like on this side. ”

READ MORE: Why the second wave of the Spanish flu in 1918 was so deadly

Conan Doyle’s deceased son: “so happy” on the other side

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1923.

Bettmann Archives / Getty Images

Arthur Conan Doyle had an equally soothing message. He claimed to have heard of his son at a session in 1919, calling him “the supreme moment of my spiritual experience”.

As Doyle remembered, “A big strong hand then landed on my head, it leaned forward gently, and I felt and heard a kiss just above my forehead. “Tell me, my dear, are you happy?” There was silence and I feared he was gone. Then, on a note of sigh, came the words: “Yes, I’m so happy.” ”

On a lecture tour in 1922, Doyle told a reporter, “I have talked to my son often” and he remains happy. “You see, a so-called dead man goes on a happier plane,” said Doyle. “There is no crime, no sordidity, and it is many, many times happier.”

Doyle also did not claim that he was unique in his communication with his son. In 1918 he said he knew 13 mothers who were in contact with their deceased sons. The following year, that number would have increased to 24.

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Houdini went on stage to exhibit phony mediums

Harry Houdini and Senator Capper, of the Senate District Committee, February 26, 1926 during hearings on the fortune telling bill.

While Lodge and Doyle seem to have been sincere in their beliefs, they unintentionally gave a helping hand to scammers who saw money earning grieving families and the curious.

“Since the war”, New York Sun wrote in 1920, “the so-called mediums, exposed for a long time, have revived their ugly trade and are again in this city and in all the big cities fattening the offerings of people in distress”.

It turned out to be too much for Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, who had managed to escape both the service of the First World War and the flu pandemic. Although a friend of Doyle’s, Houdini, with his in-depth knowledge of magic tricks, was a natural skeptic of spiritualism, whom he had studied for years.

While Doyle went around the world to promote spiritism, Houdini spent his time denouncing fraudulent mediums and reconstructing the functioning of their deception. In 1919 alone, he claimed to have attended more than 100 sessions, none of which was authentic.

“After 25 years of research and ardent effort,” he wrote in his 1924 book, A magician among the spirits“I declare that nothing has been revealed to convince me that intercommunication has been established between the spirits of the deceased and those who are still in the flesh.”

In 1926 Houdini was called to testify before a congressional committee that was considering a bill banning psychics, fortune-tellers, and fortune-tellers in Washington, DC. Members of these latter groups wowed the public, and the hearing quickly became a scream match between them and Houdini … and had to be adjourned for a while.

“There are millions of dollars stolen by clairvoyants and mediums every year, and I can prove it,” Houdini told the committee when he was able to speak. “Conan Doyle is the biggest dupe outside of Sir Oliver Lodge.” Houdini also took the opportunity to demystify palmistry and astrology.

READ MORE: 10 things you may not know about Harry Houdini

America has gone crazy about Ouija boards

People playing with a Ouija board.

Wallace Kirkland / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

For Americans without money or the desire to consult a professional media, there was the Ouija board. A kind of DIY session kit in which the “guided” users went out to spell messages, the Ouija boards had existed since 1890, according to the Talking Board Historical Society. But they saw a huge revival of interest in the years 1917 to 1922.

While many people viewed the Ouija board as a harmless toy, others saw something more threatening. Newspapers across the United States have reported that obsessive users were hired in mental hospitals. (Not showing much empathy, the Philadelphia Evening Ledger titled article “Ouija Board is blamed for increasing” nut growing “.”) The medical director of the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane warned of potential overcrowding, adding that “it would be difficult to imagine more favorable conditions for the development of psychosis than those provided by the Ouija board and other mediums. ”

Houdini, too, took the floor, calling the Ouija board “the first step towards madness”.

However, many Ouija board users have claimed to have succeeded in reaching their deceased loved ones. the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported a local woman who said she used a Ouija board to communicate with her late son, a Navy sailor whose ship had fallen. “He told me that there was no pain where he was, that he was extremely happy and that his father was happy too,” she said. Her son also wanted to correct the historical record, she added; Contrary to reports that his ship was sunk by a torpedo from a submarine, he told him, it was in fact bombed by a zeppelin.

The craze continued until the intervention of a new war

The increased interest in spiritualism in the United States continued throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, but declined with the onset of the Second World War in 1941.

In 1919, a New York Tribune The writer tried to sum up what the spiritualists claimed the dead had to say about the world to come. “They tell us that dying is not a painful process,” he began, adding that it sometimes takes a while for recently deceased people to realize that they are no longer among the living.

“Finally,” he concluded, “they all say that in no case will they come back.”


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