Mary: The Mysterious 19th Century Medium

The Spiritualist movement sprung from humble origins.  In 1848,  twelve and thirteen year-old Katherine and Margaret Fox heard unexplainable knockings and rappings in their reportedly haunted family home in upstate New York.    The girls, rather than being afraid, were thrilled, and established a simple code to communicate with the spirits.

One early message read:  “Dear friends, you must proclaim the truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era; you must not conceal it any longer.  When you do your duty God will protect you and good spirits will watch over you.”

Spiritualism spread across America.  Four years later, the accomplished American Mrs. Hayden traveled to England and introduced it to the fashionable world.

During the height of the movement, while public spiritualists displayed thrilling shows- private home circles were venerated for instilling proper spiritual values and harmony within families.

Spiritualism was a blessed relief to the countless Victorian families who’d lost children.  Now, they were not only  certain  the soul survived, but they could also communicate with loved ones on the other side.  Death was simply a transition to another realm which could be reached any time.  It also appealed to those who were tired of dogmatism and wished to experience God in a personal way.

The middle-class Theobald family of London became involved in Spiritualism in the 1860s.  Morell Theobald lived with his wife and four children.  His spinster sister, Florence, often stayed with them.  Florence always stated she’d been born “sensitive” and immediately was drawn to this new religion.

Florence began practicing automatic writing in 1863.   After she received many loving messages from deceased relatives, the rest of the Theobald family became involved.   Soon they were having regular family sittings in which Morell Theobald’s other children who’d died in early youth communicated with them.  They spoke of their daily activities in heaven and answered some questions related to theology.

As time passed,  the spirits became more active.  Throughout the house, raps broke out at will.  The spirit children spelled out their love to “mama” through the furniture on her birthday.  The spirits encouraged them to live life fully as well as care for their spiritual needs.

The Theobalds became one of the most respected families in the spiritualist community.

In the early 1880s, a new cook named Mary, entered their household.  She claimed to have had psychic experiences  as a child which resulted in being “whipped as a witch” by her parents.

Mary related to the Theobalds that while working in Brighton she’d been “told” one day she would live with a kind, sympathetic family at Granville Park.  (The Theobalds had moved there in 1873 after spirits warned Morell about the ill health effects of the clay soil in Highgate)

The family sittings were their spiritual sphere and always began with prayer.  The servants attended but stood to the side.

In 1882, Mary announced she saw spirits.  The Theobalds were impressed with her powers, yet she was a servant.  Her place was downstairs.  However, as time passed, and her powers became more and more evident, they welcomed her as a family member.  After the rest of the servants gave notice, it was decided Mary would share the household duties with daughter, Nellie Theobald.  They did not want any negative outside forces to interfere with their harmonious circle.

In the class-obsessed Victorian era, associates were horrified.  While  the Theobalds were obviously legitimate  and astute spiritualists, Mary must be a fake, an unscrupulous villain.  Many friends severed ties with them.

Morell Theobald refused to bow down to this prejudice.  He defended their decision by publicly announcing in a journal: “Spiritualism comes somewhat as a leveler of social distinctions……”

Mary became best friends with Nellie.  They ran the house together and Nellie also began developing mediumistic abilities through writing.

Soon, many bizarre ghostly happening occurred.   The girls reported finding fires already lit in the morning.  The dining table already set for breakfast.  Mysterious letters were discovered in locked boxes. Spontaneous writings appeared on the ceiling.  Mr. Theobald rose early and waited in the kitchen in order to see the spirits start the fires or set the table.  They never came.  During family sittings, the spirits informed him  they could not perform fragile operations while being watched.

In 1884, the family acquired a cabinet and were thrilled when Mary produced materializations of spirit hands and feet.   After Mr. Theobald detailed some of their experiences in the spiritualist journal, Light, he was met with more scorn.

The Society of Psychic Research insisted on drilling Mary through a set of tests.  The Theobalds refused to force her through these brutal experiments.  During this tension-filled time, Mary grew quite ill and took to bed.  Morell claimed  the Society was trying to disprove spiritualist ideas rather than observe and record its merits and distanced himself from them.

Through the years, the Theobald family and Mary remained closely knit.

Was Mary a fraud?

On one hand, it was convenient that no one else saw the fires being lit or tables being set.  Some claim Nellie was in cahoots, seeking special attention.

On the other hand, the class prejudice can not be ignored.  It had been perfectly fine when Mary participated in the sittings as a servant. It was only when the Theobalds regarded her as part of their family, that accusations of fraud circulated.

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “After the rest of the servants gave notice…”

    Um, yeah. Can you imagine living in such a house with things rapping and writings appearing? I would have been out the door too. It is interesting that so much of the controversy centered on the servant girl. I’m sure they would have treated her differently if she had been gently born.

  2. LOL!

    Now, see- I’d love it. But I’m weird that way. Then again, it would also depend on “what” was being written on the ceiling.

    Merry greetings? Nice! Tips and encouragement for my WIP? Cool!

    On the other hand, the first time some hidden voice told me, “to get out…or else!”- well, they wouldn’t have to tell me twice.

  3. If writing starts appearing on my ceiling, I’m going to run for the hills.

  4. Wait…what I meant to say was if writing appears on my ceiling, I’m running for the hills, UNLESS that writing says “free chocolate cake in the kitchen,” in which case, I will be heading to the kitchen.

  5. I suppose it would be okay if the writing said “Have a lovely day.” Or the free cake thing.

    Yanno, long as it wasn’t written in blood or anything.

  6. You two crack me up. 🙂

    Count me in for the cake, too.

  7. Have you read Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood? It’s set in Victorian Canada and deals with Spiritualism/Mesmerism in really interesting ways. 🙂

  8. Hey Ink,

    No, I haven’t. My sister is an Atwood fan. I should ask if she has the book. Thanks for mentioning it. 🙂


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