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Life & Death Before Electricity – More Misery than Merriment

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Life & Death Before Electricity – More Misery than Merriment

Posted on 20 December 2021, 10:03

During a recent power outage, the result of stormy weather and high winds, I wondered what it would be like to live permanently without electricity.  I wondered how it was for people a hundred or more years ago, living in darkened homes, even during the day – no artificial lighting, no radios, no televisions, no computers, no phones, no artificial heat or cooling devices, no refrigerators, no bidets, just the very basics. 

My thoughts wandered to Mary Lincoln, (below) the widow of our sixteenth president, who, having lost her husband to an assassin’s bullet and three sons to childhood maladies, resided in a Chicago hotel room around 1870. I pictured a dreary hotel room with basic furnishings and lighted only by whatever sun rays penetrated the window, then only a candle after sundown. I imagined her sitting at the window on a winter day in a very melancholy state, watching a horse and buggy go by every now and then wondering about the purpose of it all, whether there was any end to the monotony. 


With no family to care for and no domestic duties common at the time, Mary Lincoln likely had little with which to occupy herself beyond browsing in nearby shops. Being gregarious, she probably got to know some of the merchants fairly well and felt obligated to occasionally make purchases, even if she had no need for the items.  Based on historical reports, I imagined her going to mediums in the hope of communicating with her deceased loved ones, thereby giving her hope that there is some purpose behind all the adversity she had experienced. Going to the nearest saloon and numbing the pain like the men in similar despair was not an option for a proper woman.

Apparently, Robert Lincoln, her only surviving son, didn’t see her shopping habits or interest in spirit communication as a way of coping with her grief and boredom, as he had her declared insane by a court of law and committed to a lunatic asylum.  Fortunately, one Myra Bradwell, who had a law degree but was not allowed to practice law because of her gender, and her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, both spiritualists, appealed the lower-court decision on her behalf and Mary was released from the asylum after just three months and three weeks of incarceration.

Mary Lincoln’s Chicago residency came at a time when Darwinism was impeaching religion. “Never, perhaps, did man’s spiritual satisfaction bear a smaller proportion to his needs,” Frederic W. H. Myers, one of the pioneers of psychical research, said of that period. “The old-world sustenance, however earnestly administered, [was] too unsubstantial for the modern cravings. And thus through our civilized societies two conflicting currents [ran].  On the one hand, health, intelligence, morality – all such boons as the steady progress of planetary evolution can win for the man – [were] being achieved in increasing measure. On the other hand this very sanity, this very prosperity, [brought out] in stronger relief the underlying Weltschmerz, the decline of any real belief in the dignity, the meaning, the endlessness of life.”

Myers added that there were many who were willing to let earthly activities and pleasures dissipate and obscure the “larger hope,” but some, like himself, were upset and searched for a serious remedy.

As historian Donald J. Mrozek recorded it, the late nineteenth century was an age that emphasized energy and activity and in which “death became a special horror” especially for those who aimed at establishing power over nature. The liveliness and energy of that period, he stated, “necessitated that its ‘search for order’ would be accompanied by a search for meaning.” 

My pondering on the era brought to mind movies showing much gaiety, frivolity and mindless happiness during the late 1800s, extending through the first decade of the 1900s.  I recalled a movie with scores of smiling, carefree, innocent people all leisurely strolling down Main Street after attending church in their Sunday best – the men cheerfully tipping their hats to each other, the women smiling with delight and hope, giving no heed to their marital bondage, the children hopping and skipping while anxiously awaiting an ice cream treat at the corner fountain, all the while the tails of parked horses wagging and keeping beat with a cheery tune and the rhythmic strides of the contented people.

Was that an actual portrayal of the way it was, or was it really a doom and gloom scenario – empty streets, darkened homes, uncontrolled heat and cold, long hours of backbreaking labor, rat infestations, stench from the outhouses, the horse tails swatting swarms of flies, widespread diseases resulting in many premature deaths, teeth extracted with plyers and no anesthetics, poverty, hunger, grief, distress, and, if the new science was to be believed, total extinction, or oblivion, after it was all over? 

Perhaps the true picture is somewhere in between those two extremes, but my best guess is that it was much more misery than merriment. If there is any truth to messages purportedly coming from the spirit world through seemingly credible mediums and discerning researchers, the spirit world also took note of the misery and at least some of them in that world concluded that they should attempt to provide some relief, some light – a different kind of light than that aiding the eyes – to help those in the material world overcome the despair. Robert Hare, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and a renowned inventor, reported that his investigation of mediums during the mid-1850s resulted in communication stating that there had been “a deliberate effort on the part of the inhabitants of the higher spheres to break through the partition which has interfered with the attainment, by mortals, of a correct idea of their destiny after death.” 

Hare was informed by his father, in spirit, that a delegation of advanced spirits has been appointed to carry out the mission and that low spirits were allowed to interfere in the undertaking because they were, in effect, closer in vibration to the earth plane and therefore more competent to make mechanical movements and loud rappings. “Thus, it appears that at the outset, the object was to draw attention, and in the next place to induce communication,” Hare explained, adding that the manifestations quickly changed in character and that superior spirits replaced inferior ones as they experimented on their side and learned to manipulate matter. 

The phenomena went from raps, taps, and table tilting spelling out messages (so many raps, taps, or tilts for each letter of the alphabet) to the levitation of humans, musical instruments playing without human hands touching them, messages written without a human hand holding the pencil. They soon learned how to penetrate the veil in other ways, even to materialize their bodies, to control human hands to write messages from them, to take possession of human bodies to talk with us, to speak directly with us. They were experimenting on their side of the veil and their efforts often failed. When they did succeed, it was too mind-boggling for most people and especially for educated people grounded in science. It was opposed to natural law and so it was ignored or rejected as fraud. They called it humbug.

Judge John Edmonds, who began his investigation of mediums in 1851, said he was told at one sitting that “these manifestations are given to mankind to prove their immortality, and teach them to look forward to the change from one sphere to another with pleasure.”  Edmonds also said that he was “satisfied that something more was intended than the gratification of an idle curiosity; something more than pandering to a diseased appetite for the marvelous; something more than the promulgation of oracular platitudes; something more than upsetting material objects to the admiration of the wonder-lover; something more than telling the age of the living or the dead.” 

Edmonds further stated that he had “good reason to believe that there is in the spirit world much opposition to this intercourse with us, and that a combination has been formed to interrupt and, if possible, to overthrow it, and one mode is by visiting circles and individuals, exciting their suspicions of spirits, and bad thoughts as to their good faith and purity of purpose.” He did not explain the reasons for the opposition, but I can think of two possible reasons: 1) those opposed were unadvanced spirits who still clung to religious indoctrination that such communication is demonic; 2) our free-will decisions are tempered by the certainty of a larger life, thereby retarding our spiritual progress, i.e., the greater the adversity, the greater the lessons and the advancement. 

When Nathaniel Tallmadge, another researcher from the 1850s, asked John C. Calhoun, (below) his good friend in the earth life while also vice-president of the United States, the purpose of the manifestations he had witnessed, Calhoun replied: “My friend, the question is often put to you, ‘What good can come from these manifestations?’ I will answer it. It is to draw mankind together in harmony, and convince skeptics of the immortality of the soul.”

John Cjohnc.jpg.05075e77912668278cdb6d38f9e9b4fb.jpg

Tallmadge had put the same question to W. E. Channing, with whom he was communicating through another medium at an earlier date. The response was: “To unite mankind, and to convince skeptical minds of the immortality of the soul.” However, as Stainton Moses, an Anglican priest and medium, was told, very low-level spirits, what are sometimes called “earthbound” spirits, were interfering with the communication of higher spirits and the desired results were not being obtained. The advanced spirits overestimated the ability of those in the material world to discern the messages, to separate the positive from the negative, and thus they began to withdraw.

When people today comment that the phenomena observed by Hare, Edmonds, Tallmadge and others were probably all bunk because we don’t have them today, I suggest that it may have been better then, at least more dynamic than now, because people of that time needed it more than we do.  They had rougher and tougher lives and much less in the way of luxuries and escape mechanisms than we do.  Things were especially traumatic for them when science pulled the carpet out from under their religions.  Their church was their only refuge, and there was no other place to turn.

With all the comforts and escape mechanisms we now have, the spirit world apparently doesn’t see the need to intervene, and the resistance in the spirit world may be even greater now, as they see how lowly spirits interfered with what the more advanced spirits were trying to accomplish a century and more ago.  Moreover, the world is much more skeptical today than it was a century ago.  Some medium producing genuine phenomena would be labeled a fraud without any real investigation, and if an investigation were to take place the researchers would be looking for a materialistic explanation. A spiritual explanation will lack “proof” as the alternative is always something that science does not yet understand, i.e., super-psi, living-agent psi, the cosmic reservoir, etc.  A spiritual explanation will always elude science.   

My further guess is that, absent all the “noise” we now have in the world from our electrical gadgets, the people of the nineteenth century were more open to spirit communication.  They sat in front of a fire knitting or whittling, or on the front porch looking at the stars,  and their minds were more receptive to such communication.

Electricity has provided much light, but it is in some respects a “darker” world.  Searching for and receiving the right kind of “light” is the challenge.  Here’s wishing everyone more “light” for Christmas and in 2022.

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

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