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.

Advertisements

The Near Assassination of Jesse James by the Fantastic Electric Stage

The infamous outlaw Jesse James was killed on April 3, 1882, and he has since become a piece of American folklore. Jesse James’ name and characteristics were used in western novels during his life as his infamy grew. Shortly after his feath, he was the subject of dime store novels (which often portrayed him as a rebel against industry and Reconstruction). His death was reenacted onstage, oddly enough starring his actual assassin, Robert Ford. In the early 20th century, he became a Robin Hood-like hero to the Populist movement and Progressives. He has been the subject of many films throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was lauded for its historical accuracy, portrays Jesse James as a self-aware showman.
 
After visting James’ hometown in Missouri, Oscar Wilde observed that “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal class.” During the 1880s and 1890s, dime store western novels often romanticized Jesse James as a folk hero, a charming and charismatic rebel standing up to the big banks.
 
Jesse James' Long Chance (Book Cover)
(Cover of a 1901 dime novel)
 
Jack Wright and His Electric Stage is sympathetic to its “notorious bandit king” anti-hero. James is portrayed as dangerous, but charismatic, daring, clever and restless. The anonymous author does not offer any moral justification for James’ robberies. Rather, the plot is almost purely action (there are no real paragraphs, only single-line sentences interspersed with dialogue) and the thematic emphasis falls on Jesse James’ daring and adventurous nature. After escaping from Sheriff Timberlake, Jesse immediately suggests another robbery. He observes that “we all lost every dollar we had, playing faro in the city. How are we going to ride back to Missouri without a cent? It’s my opinion that we’ll have to do some work about Wrightstown to get ahead.” His works consists of forging a check, withdrawing $5000 from a wealthy inventor’s bank account, and disarming, bounding and gagging Sheriff Timberlake. The novel does not depict any of the brutal murders that contributed to James’ infamy. He is amoral and motivated by self-interest and adventure, but he isn’t exactly evil–he’s a sympathetic and charismatic ruffian, an outlaw, yes, but a daring and intriguing one. 
  
As the title suggests, this novel also addresses modern technology. Jesse James and his gang just happen to leap off of their train in the hometown of “an inventor of electric machines for flying through the air, navigating under water, and running over the land,” the titular Jack Wright. They promptly swindle the genius, using low-tech means; Jesse asks him humbly for $10 so he can pay his train fare, and Jack Wright makes out a check without hesitation. Jesse then takes the check to his hostel, makes out a blank check for $5000 in the inventor’s handwriting, and then, because he cannot forge Wright’s peculiar signature, he places the $5000 unsigned check under the original for $10 and tore them both in half to separate the dollar amount and the signature. He matched the signature to the $5000 check, and went to the bank, explaining that he had accidentally torn the check. Because the halves matched, the teller believed his story and handed him $5000. Jesse James, an uneducated man who still travels by horseback, outwits a genius.
 
I wrote earlier of the anxieties surrounding the new technology at the end of the 19th century. Even the bicycle was controversial in the 1890s, so Jack Wright’s “electric overland engine” was, at the time, fantastic and somewhat frightening. In fact, the vehicle is called the Terror; it runs on electricity, “can run at the rate of fifty miles an hour over rough ground,” and is bulletproof. Jesse James pushes against the advancements. Sheriff Timberlake credits James’ success to his wits and his horse “named Siroc which is unequaled in speed and intelligence by any horse in the world that I know of, and he can easily outfoot the fleetest animal that ever chased him.” In contrast, Jack Wright’s power lies entirely in his ability to harness and control electricity. He brings the sheriff to his workshop, and dazzles the lawman with “scores of incandescent electric lamps,” which “illuminat[ed] the room as if by day.” In 1893, electricity was a modern marvel and the focus of hopes for American greatness. A few years after Jack Wright and His Electric Stage was published, Buffalo, NY hosted the Pan-American Exposition, which boasted the Electric Tower as the greatest attraction and remarkable technological achievement of the time.
 
The novel is apprehensive and ambivalent over scientific knowledge and power, however. The story downplays new technology’s inaccessibility to the masses and its association with the educated elite. Even though Jack Wright’s invention is more advanced than any existing vehicle, he emphasizes its simplicity:

“It don’t require a skilled electrician to see how the Terror operates.” said Jack, as he showed the sheriff the interior, “for I have based her construction upon the simplest known principles.”

Jack Wright’s sudden departure from proper grammar at the beginning of this sentence signals a change in the novel’s sympathies. Jack Wright may be a genius, but he operates under the principle of simplicity and approachability, synonymous with democratic ideals.  He claims that he invented the stage “just for fun” because he has “plenty of money and leisure,” but now he can put it to a purpose–revenge on Jesse James, not to recover his money (he has plenty, after all) but to defend his pride and avenge a crime. Jack Wright has principles, unlike Jesse James. However, he only becomes the hero of the novel when he also steps outside the law; he insists on vigilante justice when Sheriff Timberlake tries to persuade him to “league [himself] with the State government against the outlaws.” Jack, too, is an adventurer; he tells Sheriff Timberlake,  “I rather like the wild, exciting adventures in view if I run after those outlaws” (ibid). This appeal to adventure and excitement cause Sheriff Timberlake to abandon the regulated channels of the State and join in the chase of Jesse James and his gang. Jack proves to be more in-line with the rugged masculine ideal of the time than a typical scientist; in fact, after the initial explanation of the engine, Jack’s scientific knowledge is not mentioned and has nothing to do with his success against the James Boys. Instead, he relies on his “iron grip” and steely will, and the Terror is only a fantastic tool and convenient plot device. The heroes have to become more like the charismatic outlaw to appeal to the reader’s sympathies, which still partially lie with Jesse James. The novel continues to aggrandize him, even as it describes him as evil and detestable, and emphasizes the virtues of Jack Wright. 

The Terror ultimately defeats Jesse James. The James Boys push an enormous bolder onto the Terror’s roof, crushing its body, though somehow leaving the engine undamaged. The chase continues, with Jack eventually intercepting Jesse, desperately driving his horse to his limit. Jack shoots Jesse James in the head, and though it’s “only a scalp wound,” the blow is enough to allow for his arrest. The horse, Siroc, escapes, to Jack’s chagrin, and after Jack leaves town, Jesse and Frank escape as well; the victory was short-lived. The wild power of the horse and Jesse James are beyond the reach of technology, requiring Jack to get started on a new “mavelous invention.”    

Works Cited

Noname. Jack Wright and His Electric Stage, or Leagued Against the James Boys. New York: The Boys Star Library, 1893.