Staff Finds: from the Spirit World to Beach Street

By , March 16, 2011

Letter from Eleanor Trothingham to her daughter, Boxing Day 1859. From the first volume of A Record of Spiritualistic Seances.

During work on a Boston Medical Library-sponsored preservation project, staff discovered a manuscript entitled A Record of Spiritualistic Seances, transcribed by Mrs. Rachel G. Little of Boston, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century.

Spiritualism was a healthy, energetic community during the nineteenth century, given particular strength in the late 1840s with the popularity of the Fox sisters from Hydesville, New York, who became known for their ability to communicate with spirits via “spirit rapping.” In later life, one of the sisters admitted their spirit communication was a fraud. But their popularity sparked a larger movement and the admission of trickery was not enough to stem the tide. In later years, prominent figures such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini would become involved in investigating and, in Conan Doyle’s case, public championing of spiritualism and mediums as a method of communicating with the “other world.”1

The first volume of the Record opens with an index of “Personal Communications” from spirits to guests at the séances. Mrs. Rachel G. Little was the medium, providing space for these sessions at 39 Beach Street in Boston. The group met weekly “for instruction” at Beach Street. The first pages of the book provide a list of “spirit friends,” including several Reverends as well as ordinary men and women who spoke through Mrs. Little to those present at the séances. Numerous sessions are listed here, dating from 1856 through 1860. Transcriptions of spirit messages make up the bulk of the volume. Each is addressed to a particular individual and the spirits are identified by name and title, making each entry something like a letter. Messages come in from fathers, mothers, Joan d’Arc, and a Native American chieftain – Sagawatha, Chief of the Seneca, like Joan, an actual historical figure.

Sometimes the transcriber appended a note about the spirit, describing who he or she had been or done when alive or how the spirit had been connected with the living person. The messages from the spirits are fascinating to read. Many of them are strongly Christian in tone – note the presence of the Reverends among the departed! – and entreat those still alive to deepen their investment in the spiritual world while they await the “arrival” of the spirits. Most are generally positive, advocating deeper involvement in the spiritualist movement, congratulating the recipient on having an open mind to new experiences, and saying what delights await the living in the hereafter. While spiritualists were parodied, mocked, and debunked repeatedly by those who did not believe, the spiritualist movement endured beyond World War I and the existence of volumes like the Record show the strength and fascination of the possibilities the movement offered.

1Brandon, Ruth.  Spiritualists: Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York: Knopf, 1983.

2 Responses to “Staff Finds: from the Spirit World to Beach Street”

  1. Robert Keeping says:

    Could you tell me what the fate of this book will be. Is it available for viewing in your library and is it possible that this book could be e-published?
    Thank you for your time and consideration,

    Rob Keeping

  2. Hanna Clutterbuck says:

    Good morning, Robert!

    The book — there are two volumes, actually — is available for viewing in our reading room. If you contact Public Services (617.432.2170 or, they can give you more information. I do not know if there are immediate plans to digitize the volume. That would be another good question for Public Services! Thanks for your interest!

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