Belief in the paranormal is not limited to modern times. It began long ago with our ancestors telling spooky stories for entertainment. The Victorians, especially, were practically obsessed with ghosts and things that go bump in the night.
Spiritualism – the belief that the dead can interact with the living through a medium – was especially popular after the American Civil War. Mary Todd Lincoln was a big believer in spiritualism, hosting séances in the White House. Queen Victoria also was a practitioner, and supposedly also communicated with the living after her own death.
Séances started off as modest affairs. A group would sit in a circle, holding hands in near darkness waiting to hear ghostly knocking or scratching sounds. Eventually, séances became more elaborate with spirits that “appeared” out of cabinets to interact with the attendees.
In the latter part of the 19th century, many mediums were exposed as frauds. However, their impact remained.
Investigating the Paranormal
In the early 1880s, skeptics began to try and disprove the ghosts conjured at séances as well as other paranormal activity.
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 in London. It researched haunted houses, telepathy and other phenomena, and invented its own terminology to describe paranormal events. The society is still in existence today.
The society was “the first learned society of its kind, with the purpose of investigating mesmeric, psychical and ‘spiritualist’ phenomena in a purely scientific spirit. Its leaders quickly created a methodological and administrative framework, including a scholarly journal in which psychical research could be reported and debated worldwide,” its website says.
In the United States, the Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism formed out of a group of faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania. It operated between 1884 and 1887 and failed to prove scientifically any of the claims. The commission released a report of its findings before it disbanded.
Harry Houdini and other magicians and illusionists also worked to debunk mediums and séances.
Ghosts were not the only unexplained entities during the late 19th century. The era saw the documentation of several flying airships before the invention of the airplane, most described as cigar shaped. Other reports describe strange lights in the night sky.
The cigar ships were seen with great frequency in 1896 and 1897.
“Last night about 10:30 we were awakened by a noise among the cattle,” witness Alexander Hamilton, of LeRoy Kansas, said. “I arose, thinking that perhaps my bulldog was performing his pranks, but upon going to the door saw to my utter astonishment that an airship was slowly descending upon my cow lot, about 40 rods [.125 miles] from the house”
Hamilton described the cigar shaped craft as measuring approximately 300 feet long and constructed out of a transparent material. Underneath was a brightly lit carriage containing six strange beings.
One report in 1896 includes a near abduction. Colonel H.G. Shaw told the Stockton (California) Daily Mail that while he was driving his buggy in a rural area he saw a craft measuring 150 feet in length and 25 feet in diameter. Three beings descended from the ship who were about 7 feet tall and spoke by making warbling noises. They tried to pick up Shaw, he said, and when they could not, returned to their craft, and the craft lifted off and left.
Shaw believed the creatures were Martians.
The most fantastical story of all, however, comes from the Dallas Morning News in 1897. It published the story of a craft that crashed into a windmill in the small town of Aurora, Texas. The townsfolk recovered the pilot’s body and held a funeral for it.
“Papers found on his person – evidently the records of his travels – are written in some unknown hieroglyphics and can not be deciphered,” the newspaper said.
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Updated: 27 October 2020
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