Ghost Stories

This blog is back from the dead (really, sorry about the extended absence)!

I thought it would be fitting to come back with a post on ghosts, spiritualism and seances.

We all know the story of the Salem witch trials, and there is a tendency to look on the 17th century as a dark time of superstition and religious fanaticism, beyond which Americans moved in the age of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, Americans have shown a pervasive fascination with the spirit world, even with the technological and scientific advancements of the 19th century.

During the Salem witch trials and other contemporary accounts of possession, spirits invaded sleeping bodies during the night, in the form of incubii and succubii, and made themselves known through the hysterical (or catatonic) behavior of the victim. At mid-century, however, ghosts became “visible” with the advent of photography.

File:Mumler (Lincoln).jpg

(Famed spirit photographer Mumler’s famous ghost portrait of Abraham Lincoln)

Spirit photography quickly gained popular credence. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, was a proponent of spirit photography, even after the well-known spiritualist Hope was exposed as a fraud, using the technique of double exposure to create ghostly images.

New communication technologies, like the telephone, emerged at the end of the 19th century and transformed the way the living supposedly contacted the dead. In early American parlor games, “evidence” of ghosts came through knocks, which eventually translated into Morse code as use of the telegraph became more widely spread. By the early 1900’s, ghosts were speaking through gramophones. The plot of Jack Yeats’ play The Silencer revolves around this popular practice of necromancy through the gramophone. In the first act of the play, the seance is clearly a hoax, but then, a ghost appears of his own accord, actively destroying the technology that supposedly summoned spirits from beyond.

Our concepts of the afterlife are closely related to communication technology, and I suggest that this is a reaction against Enlightenment rationality. The intangible and the spiritual haunt our technology and act as a counterbalance to scientific discourse. Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology” to discuss alternate modes of knowing that were discredited by science and rationality, and typically relegated to the realm of folklore, superstition and spiritualism.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts suggest that scientific knowledge and belief in the spirit world coexisted– and belief was not relegated to a “clandestine existence in modern society,” as folklorist Marilyn Motz claims (Motz, 341). Rather, the belief in ghosts and spirits cohabits quite openly with science. True, these practices did not hold the same intellectual and political authority as scientific knowledge, but they were still a significant component of popular culture, and even elite culture. For instance, wealthy businessman John Jacob Astor was praised as “an enthusiastic devotee of the Goddess of Electricity” (quoted in Marvin, 39). The language surrounding technology and science, even as it actively discredited and devalued tradition and belief, still utilized spiritual metaphors and a vocabulary of belief and faith, alongside a separate scientific language. Professional experts, most notably electricians, often criticized writers of popular science publications (directed towards those without special training) for their lack of “obedient submission to expert authority” (Marvin, 44). These experts were anxious to guard their concentrated power from dispersal among the public, and so they actively excluded non-experts through narratives: “electrical journals delighted in anecdotes about how technical knowledge was misunderstood and misapplied by amateurs, charlatans, and even students” (Marvin, 47). While these narratives reinforced the power structure based on scientific knowledge, they could not avoid being subsumed into a discourse that attributes magical power to the language of technology. Professional experts had to fight so hard to differentiate themselves from popular science fiction because scientific discourse is inevitably haunted by that which it excludes: folklore, superstition, belief, spiritualism, the ghosts of the powerless, the obsolete, the dead.


Works Cited

Marvin, Carolyn. “Inventing the Expert: Technological Literacy as Social Currency.” When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electrical Communication in the Late 19th Century. New York: OUP, 1998.

Motz, Marilyn. “The Practice of Belief.” Journal of American Folklore, 111 (1998): 339 – 355.

Theatrical Adaptions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Two of the most popular forms of 19th century entertainment were reading novels and attending the theater, so it is no surprise that best-selling novels were often adapted to stage plays. In an earlier post on domestic dramas, I mentioned the theater’s bad reputation in the early 19th century, but the stigma attached to the playhouse dissipated over time. Theater attendance gradually became more socially acceptable and even fashionable among the middle class by the 1840s and ’50s, partly due to  theater managers and playwrights’s deliberate efforts to appeal to middle class values and moral standards, and partly due to the Victorian era reverence for Shakespeare, which resulted in higher regard for the theater. By the 1850s, theaters were central to the developing culture of American cities.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the best-selling novels of the century and spawned many stage adaptations. As popular as the novel was, many Americans were first exposed to the story at the playhouse. Copyright laws did not prevent dramatizations of novels and other printed fiction, so the first stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin actually debuted before the final installation of the novel was published. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remembered as an important text in turning northern sentiments more toward abolitionism, and one would expect that the theatrical productions would have served the same purpose, moving audiences to oppose slavery as immoral and inhuman. However, the dramatizations differed significantly from each other and from the original novel, often resulting in completely divergent political messages and tones. Some productions made their own additions to “finish the story”; manager G.C. Howard and actor George Aiken’s 6-act production ended with Uncle Tom’s death and ascension to heaven (Frick). Other adaptations changed the tone of Stowe’s text, undermined Stowe’s overtly abolitionist politics to promote compromise between the North and South, and, worst of all, some of the most popular adaptations reinforced racial stereotypes and the dehumanization of slaves.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is notable as an instigating force in tensions between the North and South over slavery; Abraham Lincoln referred to Stowe as the “little woman who started this war.” Stowe’s story moved some sympathetic viewers and readers to support the abolitionist movement and view slavery as an immoral instution. However, the theatrical productions were deeply problematic with regard to representing race on the stage. It was relatively easy for white readers to sympathize with the Black characters; Stowe heavily emphasized the morality of Eliza and Tom as humans and Christians in spite of their race, and there is the fact of Eliza’s light skin and her ability to “pass” as white. Scholarship on the problems of racial stereotypes and representation in Stowe’s novel is extensive, so I will not analyze that here. On the stage, audiences were confronted with the characters’ physicality in a more direct way, and many productions fell back on the established stereotypes of Black characters. This was especially true of the “Tom Show” adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, short comedic pieces that were loosely based on the novel, but which often resembled blackface minstrels. For example, C.W. Taylor’s production was presented as an afterpiece, so he cut several key episodes, two major characters, and added several musical numbers; the result was a play mocking the South and side-stepping many of the controversial and overtly abolitionist material in Stowe’s novel. Other Tom Shows were sensationalized melodramas that greatly expanded the roles of white characters and eliminated secondary Black characters like Topsy. Tom Shows often reduced the characters to racist caricatures and often turned the text into slapstick comedy.  Unfortunately, the Tom Shows were exceedingly popular throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century (with most references to slavery erased from the text after the Civil War), and perpetuated the racist genre of the minstrel show.

Even among the dramatizations that stayed close to the original novel’s text, racial representation on stage was still a problem. Nineteenth century productions typically had all-white casts, so there is the significant issue of the erasure of Black characters by virtue of their representation by white actors. As mentioned earlier, Eliza’s race is ambiguous, and Stowe emphasizes the lightness of her skin, the fact that she didn’t “look like a slave,” so one may expect a white actress to fill this role. However, Tom and his family are clearly described with dark skin, a fact that no production could avoid. Although the theater often attracted individuals from more marginalized sectors of society, including immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and individuals with Gypsy and Jewish heritage, the vast majority of actors in major theaters were white. Resultantly, actors used make-up to play characters of different races. Acting manuals from the era include detailed instructions for playing characters of different races, especially Native Americans and African Americans, because these were popular stock characters in American plays. These instructions are rife with racial stereotypes that were typical in dehumanizing minstrel shows, and likely informed the way actors played the minor characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even in the more faithful adaptations of Stowe’s text. The audience expected particular portrayals of minority characters and theater managers and star actors were all too willing to cater to those expectations.

Works Cited

Frick, John. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Antebellum Stage.”

Domestic Dramas

Theater became a popular and socially acceptable middle class pastime around the 1840s, but before then, playhouses had quite the reputation. It was often portrayed as a symbol of the temptations and dangers of urban life as American cities grew in population and young people moved away from small, family-based rural communities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Theater has historically been associated with the bodily passions; early 19th century sermons warned against the intoxicating effects of viewing the passions played out on stage. The most condemning argument against theater-going as a respectable pastime were the prostitutes known to work the third tiers (the cheap seats). Theaters’ location in urban centers, the melodramatic and often suggestive content of the plays, the presence of prostitutes, and the cultural imperative for feminine domesticity and privacy influenced perceptions of the theater as improper and morally questionable.

Performances were very common forms of domestic entertainment, however, particularly music and dance; fiddles, whistles and other musical instruments were available for even poor families, and the piano grew in popularity among wealthier families. Dramatic readings and play-acting were also popular parlor games and evening pastimes. For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women includes several references to domestic dramas; the four March sisters act out the Pilgrim’s Progress, and Marmee uses their play-acting as an educational opportunity. Alcott was an amateur actress, and though she had a very unconventional childhood influenced by her father’s Transcendentalist philosophy, the use of dramatic sketches in education was well-established. The Revolutionary-era author, actress, and educator Susanna Rowson composed textbooks for her Academy for Young Ladies in Boston. Her 1811 textbook, A Present for Young Ladies, included several short dramatic sketches for her young female students to perform for their classes and at semi-public assemblies. Rowson’s school book dramas were always overtly didactic; they presented the students with an ethical dilemma that the characters solved through the virtues she intended to instill in her students: compromise, wisdom, generosity, moderation.

These school assembly performances also prepared Rowson’s students for the type of speech they would likely encounter in social gatherings at the time. Early American culture was quite theatrical, even if it condemned the theater as an institution; the preachers of the Great Awakening were overtly dramatic, students of both sexes were taught rhetoric and oratory in the decades immediately following the Revolution, and exhibitions of oratory and debates were often part of social gatherings. So it is unsurpising that domestic dramas and plays, put on in family parlors, were a popular form of entertainment in early American social life. Situating theater firmly within the domestic sphere bypassed many of the objections to the stage, especially the growing objections to female public speech. Rhetoric and argumentation were highly valued aspects of post-Revolutionary society, especially in the upper and middle classes, and a proper young lady would be expected to exhibit good diction, witty replies, and above all, excellent reasoning. This mode of socialization fell away as the 19th century progressed, however, and notions of femininity shifted to value silence, tranquility, and angelic “niceness,” which would forbid any argumentation.

For further reading on early American theatricality, see:

Carolyn Eastman, “The Female Cicero: Young Women’s Oratory and Gendered Public Participation in the Early American Republic.” Gender & History 19.2 (2007)

Jeffrey H. Richards, “Susanna and the Stage: or, Rowson Family Theater.” Studies in American Fiction 38.1 & 2 (Spring and Fall 2011)