An Interview with Emily Midorikawa
Six spiritualist women emerge from the shadows of the past
Emily Midorikawa’s newest book, Out of the Shadows, tells the stories of six 19th-century women who shaped and were shaped by the wildly popular spiritualist movement. The book introduces readers to a world of séances, mediums, trances, and ghosts, populated by the three Fox sisters, who became famous for interpreting mysterious messages from the dead; Emma Hardinge Britten, who credited the influence of spirits for her ability to mesmerize crowds with stirring speeches; Victoria Woodhull, a medium who became the first woman to run for president of the United States; and Georgina Weldon, who fought back against a husband who tried to use her spiritualist beliefs as a weapon in his crusade to have her committed to an asylum.
Kiley Bense: Reading this book, a paradox emerges: on the one hand, spiritualism gave these women a public platform and a chance to speak out, but on the other hand, it also endangered them; they encountered hostile crowds and ridicule. I'm wondering if you could talk about what it was, in your mind, that drew them to spiritualism, despite the risks it carried.
Emily Midorikawa: If you discount the youngest two Fox sisters, who sometimes seem to be pulled along by events rather than being in full control of them, the other women all seem to have certain characteristics in common. Often, a desire to make themselves heard in a public space. Often, a desire to perform. Several of them have backgrounds in the theater, or in performance.
They were living at a time when there were not a great number of opportunities for women, and particularly for women who weren't from particularly affluent backgrounds. There were not a great many ways that women could make themselves heard. I think all of these women would have probably found something interesting to do with their lives, but spiritualism was this unusual arena in which women from working-class backgrounds, women without a great deal of education, without a great deal of privilege, could find a way to (sometimes) become quite wealthy and famous and influential.
KB: What it was about this moment in time that allowed spiritualism to really take off? People have always believed in ghosts, and there have always been stories of hauntings. What was it about that specific era that was ripe for the movement to take off in the way that it did?
EM: There were a few factors that converged at the same time. As you say, some people have always believed in ghosts and spirits and the ability of the living to communicate with the dead. What was slightly different in this case were a few things. There was the growth of the mass media, which meant that stories that might have stayed local in the past quickly absorbed into a national and sometimes international narrative. The speed at which news traveled also played a part, how quickly communications between different parts of the world or different parts of a country could move, because of the invention of the telegraph machine.
If you think more generally about new inventions and new scientific discoveries of the era, there were things that just a few years before would have seemed completely impossible and totally fantastical, such as the telegraph machine and early photography. If you could take an image of somebody and preserve it for years into the future, if you could suddenly send messages from one part of the country to another in a short period of time, was it really such a huge leap to think that people might be able to send messages between the living and the dead?
These days it’s quite easy to look back on people who were enthusiastic about spiritualism, and think, “well, perhaps they were a bit unduly gullible,” but if you look at this in the context of the time it makes a lot more sense.
KB: When we talk about the Victorian age in high school history classes, we don't necessarily talk about these women or about spiritualism. I remember learning about Victoria Woodhull in school, but only as a footnote about her presidential run, and I don’t remember ever being taught about spiritualism. Why do you think the stories of these women have been lost from mainstream collective memory?
EM: What these women achieved in their lives was quite remarkable. They obviously achieved huge levels of influence; they were major celebrities of their day. But their stories don't really fit into a neat narrative of female empowerment.
Perhaps a lot of people find it hard to really admire these women because there were things that they did that were certainly questionable. Many people obviously think that the claims that they made about their abilities were just fake stories, basically. Because of that, there's almost an embarrassment when people think about these women, a desire to tone down their achievements. But I think it's important that we're not only willing to look at the lives or celebrate the lives of straightforward individuals. People are complex, aren't they? We have to be able to look at figures of the past and look at all the different facets of their personalities. It’s possible to look at someone's achievements and look at other aspects of their character, which perhaps are less admirable, and still find them interesting and worth studying.
KB: Could you talk about how the present moment influenced or shaped your research and your writing of the book?
EM: I started this book before we were in the situation of a global pandemic, but the later part of the writing and the editing took place in that particular time. This has been an extraordinary period to live through for a lot of people, and it's a time when a lot of people have found themselves feeling more isolated, having the time to question the way that things are, the way that societies are set up.
Thinking about the pandemic, we’re living through a period in which, for many people, the idea of death has suddenly become much more immediate, and I find that an interesting parallel as well. When people feel that death is close to them, they’re perhaps more willing to think about links between the world that we're living in and the world of the departed.
We’re also in an era when there’s been huge advances with technology over the past few years, which in some ways mirrors the period that I'm writing about in the book. With the internet, you can send messages around the world extremely quickly. In many ways, the era that we're living in now is a million miles away from the mid to late 19th century, but I think there are similarities, both in terms of people questioning the way that things are, but also the world that we find ourselves in.
KB: I think there’s definitely a parallel with 2021, about a moment when technology seems like a miracle because it's so specialized that the average person can't understand it. And maybe that is part of why we see so many people now who are very susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories or other improbable stories. As technology advances, it doesn't necessarily mean that those kinds of beliefs go away; advances might actually make people more likely to seek them out.
EM: The more technology advances, the more unfathomable it is to many people. With many new inventions, they’re not the sort of thing that if people sit down and think about it for half an hour they can work out how they work. Even if you know that these things are founded in science and rationality, because you can never really wrap your own head around it, that sense of magic doesn't really disappear.
KB: What has the reception to the book and to these women’s stories been like?
EM: I've had lots of messages from people who have said they didn't know about any of these characters in the book, or that they knew about some of them but only in a small amount of detail. So that's been quite gratifying because that's what I hope people feel when they read the book. When you're trying to pitch a book in the abstract, before it's actually been written, part of what you're doing is trying to convince publishers that this would be something that would interest people. Because the book is about figures who are not particularly well known, there’s always the fear that people won't take to the book because they just didn't know who any of these characters were before.
From the beginning of the project, what had always been my hope, was that even though most of these characters are not well known today, there’s something about their stories that would still resonate with people in the modern era, and not because they necessarily believed in spirits or what these women were doing themselves, but because they would see them as human stories—stories about women doing extraordinary things.■