Cultures across time have believed in the ability to communicate with the dead. We see it in Greek myth, the Bible and in Shakespeare. In older literature, this ability seems to be a gift of the dead, who find the strength to communicate with the living when they have something important to say.
Since the 19th century, the ability to speak to the dead has been seen as a gift of some living people, mediums, who seem to have a special connection with the ghostly plain.
The rise of modern Spiritualism
In the United States, Spiritualism, the belief in the ability to communicate with the dead, took off thanks largely to the widely publicized experience of the Fox sisters.
Leah, Maggie and Kate Fox lived in Hydesville, New York, and in 1848, the two younger sisters, Maggie and Kate, convinced Leah that they were communicating with ghosts of the deceased through a method known as rapping (where the spirit produces rapping sounds). Thoroughly convinced, Leah told the world about the miraculous happenings and helped her younger sisters develop careers as mediums.
In 1888 Maggie and Kate confessed their deceit and demonstrated their method publicly. This ended their careers and all three sisters died within 5 years in abject poverty.
Despite revealing their secret, the idea of communicating with the dead had taken hold and an associated religion, Spiritualism, has flourished. Spiritualism had more than 8 million adherents in the United States alone by 1900.
Throughout the 19th century, many people, men and women, claimed to have the gift of mediumship, and would conduct public spectacles and private seances for a price. These mediums relied heavily on impressive auditory and visual displays, such as levitating tables, disembodied voices and automatic writing, to give their readings credibility.
People at the time were impressed by the theatrical spookiness of it all, but many were exposed as fakes, or revealed themselves, much like the Fox sisters.
In 1876, the medium Henry Slade was caught in fraud when attendees at a seance snatched the slate on which a spirit message was supposed to appear only to find that the message was already there. They also discovered that Slade was able to play the accordion one handed under the table, which he claimed the spirits played.
In a series of experiments in London in the house of William Crookes in 1987, medium Anna Eva Fay was able to fool Crookes into believing she had genuine medium abilities, but later confessed her fraud and demonstrated how she achieved her tricks.
20th and 21st Centuries
In the 20th and 21st centuries, mediums have dropped the theatrics. Famous mediums, such as John Edwards and Sylvia Browne, simply ask questions of patrons and clients and then report back information which they claim has come from the spirit world. Skeptics generally attribute these experiences to ‘cold reading’, which is a skill that uses subtle leading questions and monitors the responses of the patron, verbal and physical, to determine when they are right or wrong. Prompts that go nowhere are ignored while ‘hits’ are set upon.
In the 1980s, medium Doris Strokes was accused of planting people in the audience for her readings to build credibility, and to do research on her audience prior to her show. In 1976, the Florida medium M. Lamar Keene confessed to fraud in his book The Psychic Mafia. See a review for the Psychic Mafia on Numerology Sign.
The Science of Mediumship
With so many mediums having been exposed, why is there still a wide spread belief that some people have the ability to speak to the deceased? Are all believers being fooled, or are a few charlatans giving real mediums a bad name?
In 2003, Dr Gary E. Schwarz, Professor of Psychology, Medicine, Neurology, Psychiatry and Surgery at the University of Arizona and Director of its Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health, claimed that he had found strong evidence for the veracity of mediumship.
Schwarz invited a number of well-known mediums to take part in a series of laboratory experiments that aimed to prove, or disprove, the ability to communicate with the departed, and in turn the veracity of life after death. Schwarz stringently controlled against the mediums having pre-knowledge of the patrons that participated in experiments and monitored for cold reading.
Schwarz claims that the results astonished the research team, revealing hidden details about a son’s suicide, what a deceased father wanted to say about his last days in a coma, and a forecast about a beloved spouse’s death. Schwartz claimed that this evidence was indicative of the survival of human personality after death.
Schwarz’s work has been furthered by researchers from the University of Liege in Belgium working with the International Association for Near-Death Studies and the Coma Science Group. In 2017, they published an analysis of the experiences of 154 people who were on the brink of death.
The team compared the reports of those returned to life from the brink of death to look for consistency in their experiences. According to their findings, 80% of people reported feeling peaceful, 69% said that they saw a bright light, and most significantly for mediums, 64% claimed to have encountered spirits of the deceased. These findings are thought to strongly point to the existence of life after death, and potentially communicate with departed spirits under the right circumstances.
While other scientists have criticized these studies, it is unclear whether this is based on problems with the evidence, or a firm belief within the scientific community that mediumship is not possible and therefore an unwillingness to accept these types of findings.
It seems that further experiments will need to be conducted to determine the veracity of mediumship, though whether this is a challenge that the scientific community will choose to take on and take seriously, in the current climate of ultra-rationalism is uncertain.
It seems that, for now, most of us will have to wait for our own demise to know for sure whether there is life after death, and whether we will be able to send important messages to our loved ones.
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