Witches, Wizards, and the American Civil War
September 18, 2008 8:38 AM   Subscribe

What was going on with the occult and belief in the supernatural in Civil War-era America?

I'm aware of Spiritualism, but in researching the background for a story idea I have, I seem to be drawing a blank for anything outside of the talking to the dead movement.

What's a good source for the folk beliefs of the 1860s?
Did "Louisiana Voodoo" exist in a recognizable form then?
Were there myths and legends that were well known then that have since fallen out of favor?

Any sources, anecdotes, or ideas you have pertaining to the mysterious and the occult of the 1860s is welcome. Lots of the stuff I've seen that covers that vague period veers into steampunk territory which I'd rather avoid.
posted by robocop is bleeding to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

A Jstor search turned up some stuff on African-American folk religion:

Jeffrey E. Anderson. Conjure in African American Society. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 2005.

Chireau, Yvonne P. Black Magic: Religion and The African American Conjuring Tradition. University of California Press. 2003.
posted by craichead at 9:15 AM on September 18, 2008

Deadlands is full of fictional Civil War era superstition and supernatural stuff.. It may not be what you're looking for, but it might help you explore ideas, like the Native American angle..
posted by jozxyqk at 9:28 AM on September 18, 2008

Just a thought: American society in the 1860s was very multicultural. So you should think about the influence of African and Native American religious traditions and also about the folk beliefs that recent immigrants would have brought from European countries. The two biggest immigrant groups in the U.S. in the 1860s were Irish people and Germans, so you might want to look into Irish and German beliefs in the supernatural in the mid-19th century.
posted by craichead at 9:39 AM on September 18, 2008

Pow-Wows by John George Hohman aka Long Lost Friend. First printed in 1820.
posted by Ariadne at 9:42 AM on September 18, 2008

An interesting tangent to Spiritualism was the brief craze for the spirit photography of William H. Mumler.
posted by basil at 9:44 AM on September 18, 2008

Nineteenth-century spiritualism has suddenly become a very fashionable academic subject. Until quite recently most of the literature was by cranks and eccentrics, but there are now some excellent scholarly histories which I thoroughly recommend, e.g.:

Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain
Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England 1850-1914
Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England

Winter shows how the rise of spiritualism was preceded by a craze for mesmerism and hypnotism. Oppenheim looks at the origins of spiritualism and asks why it emerged when it did, in mid-nineteenth-century America. Owen shows the importance of women in early spiritualism. I realise that spiritualism is not your main concern here, but I think the history of nineteenth-century spiritualism is a good way into the history of nineteenth-century supernaturalism and the occult more generally.

The Wikipedia article on Spiritualism, which you link to, is very misleading. Nineteenth-century spiritualism wasn't a fully-fledged 'religion', it wasn't a movement with a coherent set of beliefs, and it wasn't just about communicating with the spirits of the dead. However, the Wikipedia article on the Fox sisters is more helpful, and gives some useful suggestions for further reading.
posted by verstegan at 9:46 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

southern-spirits.com has a small collection of texts on hoodoo and African American spirituality printed between 1825 and 1899.
posted by Ariadne at 9:54 AM on September 18, 2008

Response by poster: Awesome, that mention of "Stiff-leg" from ormondsacker's link is exactly the sort of stuff I'm looking for.

In period, is it hoodoo or voodoo or juju or what?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:46 AM on September 18, 2008

I did a google books search for the years 1850-1880, and it looks like both hoodoo and voodoo were in use. That doesn't tell you a thing about what practitioners themselves called their practices, of course. I'd be careful about how you use these sources, for what it's worth. For the most part, we're not talking about things written by people who shared these beliefs or by people who had a deep and abiding respect for those who did.

Here's another google book find, "Witchcraft among the Negroes" from Appleton's Journal of Literature, Science and Art, Dec. 1872. Awesomely, it's on page 666.
posted by craichead at 12:29 PM on September 18, 2008

I've often thought that the US Civil War and WW I in Europe had very similar aspects in this respect. In both cases the two sides were thrown into a very bloody and technologically advanced war without any real thought. WW I invented automatic weaponry, trench warfare and armored warfare. Military tactics and rifles were new during the Civil War, so much so that European armies sent observers to see the results. But before the war noone really understood or could predict the magnitude of the carnage. The results were a huge number of very gruesome deaths, both on the battlefield and afterward, due to wounds and disease.

The survivors needed to try to find a way to cope. After WW I there was a great deal of interest in contacting the dead. Arthur Conan Doyle conducted many seances, for example, and even Kipling was involved at one time, though he mostly got control of his emotions in typically Kiplingesque fasion. After the Civil War there was apparently a cult of widowhood, and a lot of very sentimental songs, whose choruses were "I'll never see you again, dear mother" or variations on that theme.

There is a relatively new book by Drew Gilpin Faust, the current president of Harvard
University, which is concerned with this. The title is "The Republic of Suffering" and it's about widowhood and grief during the post-bellum period. I've not read it, but
the reviews I read were fascinating.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 12:44 PM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think there's a technological aspect to the rise and fall and rise of interest in spiritualism.

The late 19th century was the heyday of stage magic of the sort pioneered by Robert-Houdin. The table-rapping and spirit trumpet-playing of the Fox Sisters is the same kind of mechanical effect, but played "for real" to an eager and willing audience.

Spirit photography becomes popular around this same time. Cameras were new and somewhat magical devices. Apply this new technology to an age-old problem, and in the early 20th century, people who should know better are photographing fairies.

A passing comment by Edison about using delicate microphones to record the sounds of ghosts evolves into the study of electronic voice phenomenon.

Interest in psychology and hypnosis in the mid-50's leads, inevitably, to past life regression and the search for Bridey Murphy.

From era to era, there are folk who want to believe, desperately, that there is a life beyond this one, and, not content with Faith, want Science to provide the Proof. And there will always be someone in a lab coat carrying a box of wires who will be ready to help and to collect the Ferryman's fee.
posted by SPrintF at 12:51 PM on September 18, 2008

Robocop - Hoodoo, voodoo, or voudou, depending. "Juju" is a different set of beliefs - if you check period references to juju, they're all confined to the African continent.
posted by ormondsacker at 12:57 PM on September 18, 2008

Madame Blavatsky's Baboon by Peter Washington is a good source of information about this topic.
posted by Mrs. Buck Turgidson at 1:04 PM on September 18, 2008

Don't forget the vast numbers of people involved in the Masons/Eastern Star/etc - that set of rituals are heavily influenced by mystical signs and symbols.
posted by beezy at 5:54 PM on September 18, 2008

There was also the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840s) and the Third Great Awakening (late 1850s to the 1900s). "In the South, on the other hand, the Civil War stimulated revivals, especially in General Robert E. Lee's army."
posted by kirkaracha at 7:34 PM on September 18, 2008

Joscelyn Godwin's Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994) [Amazon] might also be worth looking at. It's a kind of intellectual history of the Occult movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—undeniably eccentric, but a fun, informative, and absorbing read nonetheless.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:13 AM on September 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the help, everybody. Clearly in addition to pissing off Marie Laveau, my heroine needs to be set upon by Stiff Leg, chastised by the Theosophists, and run afoul of various mediums and magicians.

I wonder, were there any murderous Amish near Gettysburg?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:31 PM on September 20, 2008

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