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October 17, 2016

Power in the Pages

Filed under: Our Favorite Things — Lori Williamson @ 2:39 pm

It’s that time of year again! The leaves change color, the air gets colder, and things at the Minnesota History Center get spookier!

The Minnesota Historical Society Library is home to more than a dozen works exploring and explaining the supernatural, many of which were published prior to 1930. Here are a few of my favorites!

Startling Facts in Modern Spiritualism with a graphic account of witches, wizards, and witchcraft; table-tipping, spirit rapping, spirit writing, spirit speaking, spirit telegraphing; and spirit materializations of spirit heads, spirit hands, spirit faces, spirit forms, spirit flowers, and every other spirit phenomenon that has occurred in Europe and America, since the 31st of March, 1848, to the Present Time by N.B. Wolfe, 1883

During the second half of the 19th Century, Spiritualism in America was not only commonplace, it was fashionable. (See my previous post about the Ouija Board) It all started on March 31st, 1848, when Margaret and Kate Fox of Rochester, New York, convinced their older sister, (who convinced everyone else) that a spirit in their home was communicating with them by knocking on the wall. This incident is widely regarded as the first occurrence of Spiritualism in the United States. It launched the Fox sisters’ to fame as mediums, (at least for a while), and it opened the door to the study of the supernatural.

This beautiful book contains the first-hand experiences of Napoleon Bonaparte Wolfe, a physician from Cincinnati who appears to have travelled the country visiting mediums. Wolfe describes the various phenomena he witnessed, such as table-tipping, (when participants sit around a table with their hands on it, and wait for the table to move by means of “spirits”), spirit writing, (when a medium unconsciously produced writing due to spirit influence), and trance speakers, (a person who claimed to allow spirits to take over their body and talk to witnesses directly). While he acknowledges he did meet a few charlatans during his travels, Wolfe is a true believer in Spiritualism and his purpose for writing this book was to, “impress the fact indelibly upon the hearts of men, that when we die there is “a world of marvelous beauty” to which we will immediately go; and that we will there meet our friends, our companions, and those that are congenial to our society and condition of development”. (p. 575)

The Shadow World by Hamlin Garland, 1908

Similar to Startling Facts is Hamlin Garland’s The Shadow World. Garland, a writer from the Midwest, recounts his personal experiences with spiritual phenomena in the form of a novel. Garland spent a good deal of his life investigating and promoting Spiritualism in various forms. He even spent time as the Director of the American Psychical Society.

Witch Stories by Elizabeth Lynn Linton, 1861

Eliza Lynn Linton was the first salaried female journalist in Britain and wrote numerous novels on a wide variety of subjects. One of her earliest works, Witch Stories describes reports of witchcraft in Scotland and England dating back to the thirteenth century. To compile this impressive and devastating history of the women and men who were killed for witchcraft, Linton delved into the records and manuscripts of various public libraries, as well as the British Museum. The author presents each account in a straightforward manner, never discussing the philosophical ideals surrounding the subject matter. Rather, she allows readers to arrive at their own conclusion about the integrity of the cases reported. However, Linton makes her own feelings known at the closing of the book:

“…so long as conviction without examination, and belief without proof, pass as the righteous operations of faith, so long will superstition and credulity reign supreme over the mind, and the functions of critical reason be abandoned and forsworn. And as it seems to me that credulity is even a less desirable frame of mind than skepticism, I have set forth this collection of witch stories as landmarks of the excess to which a blind belief may hurry and impel humanity, and perhaps as some slight aids to that much misused common sense which the holders of impossible theories generally consider “enthusiastic,” and of “a nobler life” to tread under foot, and lofty ignore.” (p. 428)

The Magus or Celestial Intelligencer by Francis Barret, 1801

This is the oldest book on my list and is, in my opinion, the creepiest. Written by Francis Barrett in 1801, The Magus is a compilation of several works on occult philosophy, much of which Barrett translated into English. Barrett, who also practiced chemistry and metaphysics, was a firm believer in the Cabal, (commonly known as Kabbalah), the Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Bible. This manuscript is ultimately a textbook on natural magic, such as alchemy, talismans and the elements. It contains beautifully crafted images of diagrams and spells, as well as hand-painted illustrations, such as the Faces of Wrath pictured here. Barrett also includes an advertisement that he is available to give private lessons or group lectures on the various subjects presented in his text.

While this book certainly pre-dates the Spiritualist movement of the second half of the century, it was used as source material for those interested in the mystic arts.

Witchcraft Illustrated by Henrietta D. Kimball, 1892

Based on the title I was really hoping this was going to be a monthly periodical providing the latest news, tips and spells for witches.

In actuality, Witchcraft Illustrated describes the witch trial events in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Kimball explains that during this time period people believed good and evil forces were constantly influencing daily life, stating, “Witches, ghosts, fairies, gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire were all realities at that time.” (p.4) However, Kimball places the blame of the events surrounding the Salem witch trials solely on power-hungry Reverend Samuel Parris and children who learned they would get attention by throwing tantrums and having fits in public. The author comments, “Now, instead of punishing those girls for this as they ought, their parents and friends looked upon them as under a supernatural power.” (p.6) At the encouragement of the reverend, the children claimed members of the community were causing their afflictions and superstition and mass hysteria took over.

Kimball also examines cases of witchcraft accusations in other places, such as Maine, New Hampshire and Germany, and scrutinizes the persistent punishment of the supposed supernatural, especially among women.

The last section of this book, titled “Old and New Salem”, leaves the subject of witchcraft behind entirely and reads like a travel guide. Kimball explores the extensive history of Salem in detail, being sure to mention all the historic sites that can still be seen. She informs the reader of all the fascinating cultural resources Salem has to offer, mentioning, “Whoever visits Salem must be impressed with the warm hospitality, the superior refinement and culture of its people.”

Perhaps by stating that past atrocities were the result of a select few and pointing out the area’s rich history, Kimball’s purpose for this book was to convince readers to think of Salem as something more than just the home of witches.

This is just a sample of the strange and supernatural books that can be found at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Gale Family Library. Maybe you can find some other gems, just be careful which ones you open!

Stephanie Olson
Collections Assistant

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