Ghosts today are a popular subject for conversation, but nowhere near as popular as in the 1800s during the spiritualist age. More often than not the Fox Sisters with their incredible ghost who could communicate on command are given credit for what would become a near obsession for the western world. But when we look at the other factors already at work, it’s clear there may have been more to paranormal phenomena at the time than just mediums and spiritualists. The most compelling factor of all may have actually come from the field of microbiology and a French biologist by the name of Louis Pasteur.
Pasteur is most known today for his efforts in the field of microbiology and his discovery of the process known as Pasteurization where microbes are strained out from dairy milk through high pressure and heat. The process not only revolutionized the way the world thought about food and drink, but it also opened a door for the average well read citizen of the 19th century to a world of microscopic creatures living not only in the bodies of those afflicted by ailments, but all the world.
People were shown in plain easy to digest terms that there was an invisible world that required only the right instrument to be able to see which existed beneath our own. In addition to these, the full power of electricity was only beginning to be harnessed, but added to the conjecture that mankind’s scope of understanding of the world was limited – yet growing. This hopeful scientific exploration coupled with an understanding of science’s immediate limitations was a fertile soil in which questions about the paranormal could be asked freely and explored diligently.
In the book arranged and introduced by his wife in 1921, nine years after his death aboard the RMS Titanic, William T. Stead outlined in terms contemporary to the time the average person’s understanding of the paranormal and the contemporary forces that helped to shape them. In Part 1, “The Ghost That Dwells In Each of Us,” Stead outlined how strange the idea must have first been to society that the body was made of millions of inarticulate and unconscious parts. It seems a very small jump from that point to then suggest the soul too may be a part of the whole with a will entirely its own.
Add to this the chronicling of many phenomena for the first time as more than mere folklore such as the Aurora borealis, ball lightning, hypnosis (then known as mesmerism) and the overall strange nature of the world we live in, and it’s immediately apparent why so many became so interested in the paranormal right away. Thankfully, the famous Fox Sisters came along to provide the first of what would become dozens and then hundreds of unusual cases and the spiritualist movement was born, and borne by the now commonplace printing of newspapers thanks to the Industrial Revolution. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the earliest accounts of the paranormal shared many elements with the other emerging technologies at the time.