Seances and Spirits in the Oil Region

Seance Pub Domain Image
Seance Photo (Public Domain)

Have you ever felt something brush your shoulder and got a chill? Heard a whisper in your ear and been convinced it is the voice of a loved one passed? Wanted to convene with the dead? Well, you certainly would have had a ready-made group of like-minded friends in the Titusville of yesteryear. Step right up to meet the Titusville Spiritualist Society!

Don’t know what Spiritualism is? Let me fill you in. Spiritualism is a religion that has been around for over 150 years. In the United States, it gained popularity in the 1840s when the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, New York claimed to be communicating with the dead.

Fox Sisters Smithsonian
The Fox Sisters: Leah, Kate, and Maggie. (Source: Smithsonian)

In March 1848, fourteen-year-old Maggie and eleven-year-old Kate said they heard rapping noises coming from the walls and floors of their farmhouse. The girls said they would ask the invisible presence questions and it would rap on the walls and floors its answers. The children quickly became famous for their spiritual conversations and went on tour demonstrating their powers. Though Maggie later said that she and her sister faked it all, she almost immediately recanted her confession. Unfortunately, Kate died an alcoholic in 1892 and Maggie died in 1893. Despite the demise of its most famous sisters, Spiritualism had already found a strong foothold in American culture.

The same year Maggie died, the National Spiritualist Association formed. Spiritualism was not anti-Christian — it actually shared elements of Christian thought, but “unlike their Christian contemporaries, Americans who adopted Spiritualism believed they had a hand in their own salvation, and direct communication with those who had passed offered insight into the ultimate fate of their own souls” (Smithsonian).

Fox Home from Smithsonian
The Fox Home in Hydesville, NY. (Source: Smithsonian)

The Victorians were very concerned with death and finding out what might be on the other side, as well as with connecting to their beloved deceased family members. Spiritualism and its elements, such as seances, were an emotional outlet not typically socially acceptable during the period (Gregory).

By 1867, Spiritualism was considered a major religion throughout the United States and dovetailed with the growing movement for women’s rights since women were often leaders in the religion (Newberry).

The first mention of Spiritualism in Titusville was in the late 1870s. The Spiritualist Society hosted parties and dances at the Armory that were well-attended and popular. The Titusville Spiritualist Society even claimed the mayor and his wife as some of its most ardent supporters. William and Fidelia Barnsdall, once Methodists, converted to Spiritualism and supported the religion intensely by holding many meetings at their home on North Washington Street. In 1882, their home became the source of controversy when a medium died there.

Spiritualism Pub Domain
Spiritualism Poster (Public Domain)

In the September 26, 1882 Titusville Herald, it was reported that Ann Head, a “recluse” from England who lived with the Barnsdalls died after starving herself to death. Head “was said to have been possessed of great powers as a medium and endowed with prophetic abilities.” She lived in Titusville for at least seven years and rarely entertained company outside the family. She is buried along with the Barnsdalls in Woodlawn Cemetery.

In 1896, Spiritualism experienced some religious pushback in Titusville due to the unsavory reputations of some of its leaders. Followers immediately sprang to its defense. Local leader J. Frank Baxter explained that Spiritualism is a science and “should therefore not be condemned because of the morals of some of its mediums and adherents anymore than the science of astronomy should be condemned because of the immoral tendencies of men who were famous astronomers.”

The Titusville Spiritualist Society was not an invisible group in the late 1800s. Many nationally-famous speakers graced Titusville with their mediumship, including Elizabeth L. Watson. Watson was originally from the area but had previously moved to San Jose, California where her Spiritualist beliefs took off. She was the regular pastor at the First Spiritual Union of San Francisco and a speaker at the Golden Gate Religious and Philosophical Society. Traveling the East Coast on a speaking tour, Watson spoke in Titusville about how Spiritualism for her existed within and around nature. She was an avid supporter of women’s rights and suffrage, even serving two years as President of the California Equal Suffrage Association (Hussein 224).

 

In addition to Watson, a husband and wife team of mediums came to Titusville in 1897 to give lectures and readings and in 1900, a seance was held in the parlor of the Hotel Brunswick. Unfortunately, the twentieth century brought the end of earthly life for many early Spiritualists. The next year (1901), former mayor Barnsdall died and in 1905, oil producer William L. Gage died after serving as President of the Titusville Spiritualist Society for more than three years. His obituary stated that he was educated at the Normal School in Edinboro, worked as a teacher, and was a “man of independent thought.” Two years later in 1907, Fidelia Barnsdall also passed away. Despite these many blows, the Spiritualist Society persevered.

Another nationally-known speaker Frank T. Ripley, “celebrated lecturer and medium,” visited Titusville in 1914 and gave a speech to the Society. Spiritualist member Nellie Lettington was quoted in the Herald saying how “It is wonderful to see what Spiritualism has done and is doing to awaken within the thinking man or woman the fact that death has lost its sting and the grave its victory.” Many proponents of Spiritualism waxed poetic about their beloved belief.

 

Finally, in 1921, the Titusville Spiritualist Society bought a building specifically for their services. 105 North Washington Street became their new home, instead of meeting in members’ living rooms and parlors. Their “temple” was completed on December 2, 1921 and was the first place in Titusville dedicated to Spiritualism.

For more than fifty years Spiritualism held a devoted coterie of followers in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Members convened with the spirits and each other in their homes and held seances and readings for the public. Though Spiritualism eventually lost its hold in the Oil Region, it still thrives in a place not too far from us — Lily Dale, New York. Lily Dale is the modern headquarters of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches and hosts more than 20,000 visitors every year. While Spiritualists may be fewer in number almost 100 years later, they are still just as spirited as ever.

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