HPS Seminar - Efram Sera-Shriar (Leeds Trinity)

Tabletop Anthropology: Revisiting E. B. Tylor's Notes on Spiritualism

In the early 1870s, there were numerous reports among spiritualists in London, that the young medium, Florence Cook (1856-1904), was able to produce a full physical manifestation of a spirit known as ‘Katie King.’ It was not long before other mediums were allegedly producing various sorts of physical spirit phenomena at séances. These reports regularly appeared in published spiritualist sources, and formed the foundation of many studies that aimed to prove the existence of ghosts and psychical forces. Amazed by what he had been reading in these published accounts, the ethnologist-turned-anthropologist, Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), decided that he had to see for himself whether there was any truth to these unbelievable claims. As an ardent secularist, who argued that a belief in spirits was a cultural survival of primitive thought, Tylor doubted the validity of these reports. In November 1872, he travelled to London so that he could undertake a period of ethnographic investigation into the modern spiritualist movement. This paper will examine Tylor’s unpublished notes on spiritualism, looking in particular at how he attempted to rationalise and explain the sources of the spirit phenomena that he had witnessed at séances. It will show that when challenging spiritualist claims, figures such as Tylor were often faced with a crisis-of-evidence, which was often difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. The debate over the existence of ghosts and psychical forces, therefore, continued to rage on despite Tylor’s efforts.

Location details 

Baines Wing (G. 36)