Some of them see apparitions. Others hear voices from the grave.
They’re proponents of Spiritualism, a loosely organized religion and one time mass movement. Believers assert that consciousness continues after death and reveals itself though mediums and such phenomena as levitation, trances, shamanic healing and automatic writing.
Spiritualism flourished during the Victorian era in America, especially during and after the bloody Civil War. There were reports of séances at the White House attended by President Abraham Lincoln’s grief-stricken wife Mary Todd Lincoln who consulted with mediums after her 11-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862.
Advocates for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights were also drawn to Spiritualism. These included suffragist Victoria Woodhull, a medium, stockbroker, newspaper publisher, former prostitute and fortune teller who became the first woman to run for president in 1872 against Ulysses S. Grant. Her story has been recounted in several well-received books, among them, the 447-page “Other Powers” by social historian Barbara Goldsmith.
Spiritualism can be traced to March 1848 when the controversial Fox sisters — Kate, then 11, and Maggie, 14 — heard loud knocks or “raps” on the walls of their parents’ cottage in Hydesville, New York. Neighbors gathered and soon the knocks were attributed to disembodied messages from a dead peddler who allegedly had been murdered five years earlier and buried in the Fox home. The sisters gave demonstrations and eventually took their show on the road
In 1888, Maggie Fox confessed that she and her sibling had perpetrated a hoax by cracking the joints of their toes. She later recanted. Spiritualists claim she was ill and under pressure at the time. They note that bones were found at the Fox abode, suggesting the raps they invoked should not be discredited. Even so, Spiritualism eventually fell into disrepute over other allegations of fakery and fraud (notably leveled by the magician Harry Houdini in the 1920s).
These days, Spiritualism in varied mutations is back in vogue, attracting self-taught practitioners who advertise online. One in Pasadena is a former celebrity impersonator named Richard Lael Lillard who previously entertained in Hollywood dressed up as the late British vocalist Freddy Mercury. He now calls himself a medium and Gentleman Psychic. Lillard, 39, gives Tarot readings for $95 an hour, decked out in three piece vintage suits on the lower floor of a beautiful Victorian house he rents on Martello Avenue.
“I have Native American ancestors on both sides of my family and that gives me insights others don’t have,” said the Ohio-born artist when I called him from New York. “I was clairvoyant since childhood. I read books and stay knowledgeable.”
Lillard is part of what appears to be a bustling niche industry where the paranormal is normal. “It’s become mainstream,” said Dina Amado, a buyer and co-owner of Alexandria II, a metaphysical shop at 170 S. Lake Ave. in Pasadena that offers New Age titles, crystals, oils, tarot cards and jewelry. “People are becoming more aware of other realms and they want to feel some validation.”
She noted that “trained psychics” come into the store “every day” and give spirit readings — $35 for 15 minutes; $100 for an hour. Two of them, she said, were trained at the Arthur Findlay College for the Advancement of Spiritualism in Essex, England. “We’re very particular who we hire. … Some of them see into the spirit world for people who have a deceased loved one.”
Her store stocks books by famed psychic mediums like James Van Praagh and John Edward. She worries about charlatans who prey on vulnerable people.
Unremarkably, Amado hadn’t heard of the Spiritualist Church of Revelation in nearby Monrovia, where mediums in a small and seemingly secretive congregation provide messages from the other side for less than what her mediums charge.
The church, a nonprofit now housed in a one-story building on West Colorado Boulevard was founded in 1915 and claims to be the oldest Spiritualist congregation in Los Angeles County chartered by the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC). Sunday services begin at 11 a.m. and consist of a “healing portion, an inspirational talk, and finally spirit messages,” according to a statement on the church’s Facebook page.
On Sept. 29 and 30, the church will host a Spirit Fair with four mediums who charge $20 for a 15-minute reading. A “healer” will be there as well. “Food is availible (sic) for a small donation,” states the Facebook notice. “The mediums donate their time for lunch. Come enjoy a day with spirit.”
The congregation’s format for Sunday services is typical for Spiritualist churches belonging to the aforementioned NSAC, which was founded in 1893 during a Spiritualists convention in Chicago and reportedly imposes strict requirements on members to keep fortune-hunting quacks at bay. (There are about 90 NSAC affiliated churches, 10 in California). NSAC headquarters are in Lily Dale, a self-governing Spiritualist community in Western New York once visited by Susan B. Anthony. NSAC leadership requires member mediums and ministers to undergo study by mail-order classes from the Morris Pratt Institute in Milwaukee before they can receive accreditation.
The Monrovia congregation has about 44 members, said a woman named Karen who identified herself as president of its board of directors and said I was welcome to attend services. She later reported that the board voted against providing interviews. The church’s Facebook page still lists medium Raymond F. Pina as church pastor, even though he died in December 2018 at age 71. No successor appears to have been named. A NSAC spokesperson said Pina was accredited as a medium but not as a minister.
The Rev. Pamela Bollinger, an ordained NSAC-accredited minister and pastor of the Summertown Spiritualist Church of the Comforter in Santa Barbara, recalled Pina as a “delightful man” who had been at the (Monrovia) Church a long time. “Hopefully they find somebody else and get some momentum going.”
Her own congregation, which is nearly 130 years old, began in what had once been a Spiritualist tent community in the nearby beach town of Summerland, a Spiritualist name for the afterlife (the Spiritualist symbol is a sunflower). It has about 50 members. ”Spiritualism is not just a religion,” she said. “It’s a philosophy, a way of life, in which you take personal responsibility for your actions and practice the golden rule,” she said. “We have nine principles and believe that infinite intelligence expresses itself in nature.”
Bollinger noted that the church’s mediums don’t use any props. “We don’t do Tarot cards or Ouija boards,” she said.
Over the years, she has seen eerie manifestations emanating from mediums in communication with the spirit world,
“I’ve seen objects move,” she said. “I’ve seen a demonstration of table tipping.”
Prominent religious historian J. Gordon Melton, PhD, founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion at Baylor University and an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, has researched and written extensively on alternative religions. He estimated there are only about “several thousand” Spiritualists nationwide, noting there had been a “massive effort” to challenge the religion’s legitimacy. He said membership declined in the 1970s and ’80s.
While he questions the veracity of mediumship, Melton said he had personally witnessed table turning. It happened at UC Santa Barbara years ago when a graduate student began a demonstration. “There were four of us sitting around with our hands on top of the table and the table began to lift,” he recalled. “There was a lot of comment. It was enough to intrigue you. You’re sitting there and wondering how he was doing it.”
He added: “We have telepathy. We have the ability to exchange information telepathically; there is some kind of somatic power that people can channel. I can’t discount it.”