V Gets Ghosted with Jamie Loftus
If you’re seeing this podcast, the universe has a message for you! Don’t ignore this sign! Do you talk to the dead? Hit up the tarot deck? Keep crystals in your pockets? Does your spirit guide manifest in a cape? Well you might be a Spiritualist, or at least, might be interested in learning more about this uniquely American religion started in the mid 1840’s by two teen girls the night before April Fools Day. Part parlor trick, part grief therapy sesh, part star spangled – if you describe yourself as “not really religious, more spiritual” you’re about HALFWAY to becoming an American Spiritualist. Ghost Church podcast host & comedian Jamie Loftus joins V to talk about how the Spiritualist movement got started, influenced presidents, and promoted women’s rights. We’ll find out what keeps people seeking the truth even after a century of psychic mediums at the center of the religion being “debunked.”
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V Spehar, Jamie Loftus
V Spehar 00:00
Hey friends, it’s Friday, July 29th, 2022. I’m V SPEHAR. Welcome to V INTERESTING. As you know, on our Friday episodes, we dive a bit deeper into something we’re curious about, and today it’s American spiritualism.
V Spehar 00:24
Now I’m in a pretty convenient place to be having this conversation right now, considering that Rochester New York is viewed as the birthplace of spiritualism, and I should probably make clear that being a spiritualist is not the same as saying, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. No, folks, no. Spiritualism is a distinct religious order that is based on the belief that people don’t really die, and that we can communicate with loved ones after they leave their earthly body. Now, talking to the dead isn’t new, but this version of communication for purposes of Spiritualism is said to have been started by two teenage girls known as the fox sisters in the late 1800s. It has since developed into a massive network of mediums and charismatics, who still practice today. Is it real? Well, let’s just say some spiritualist leaders are more gifted than others. And I know I know you might be thinking V has fallen off the wagon into woowoo hocus pocus land, but I haven’t this is a truly fascinating concept. And so here to help me make sense of everything is Emmy nominated writer comedian, and now American spiritualism aficionado Jamie Loftus, Jamie’s new limited run series on the subject is called Ghost Church, which chronicles her visit to a spiritualist camp in Cassadaga, Florida, it is already regarded as one of the best podcasts of the year. And honestly, having just binged at all, I am obsessed. Jamie, thank you so much for joining me today.
Jamie Loftus 02:00
Oh, thank you so much for having me. Thanks for listening to the show.
V Spehar 02:03
Oh, it’s such a good show. And I’m not just saying that because you’re here I seeked you out and was like, I have to have Jamie Loftus, this is the most incredible thing. And we’re gonna get into the nitty gritty of like, what American Spiritualism is, and all that. But first, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the actual like podcast, right? Which investigates a century old tradition of communing with the dead. What made you like want to explore spiritualism?
Jamie Loftus 02:33
I grew up around a lot of spiritualism, adjacent people, which I feel like is a kind of common New England experience where you’re like, you know, half of the tourist industry in Massachusetts is based on kind of myths around witchiness and magic and all this stuff. And I had, I still have an uncle who had a new age shop in Plymouth. Something my mom believed in very strongly, we kind of like, shopped around between a bunch of religions when I was growing up, and I think it’s what stuck with me the most, because it felt the least scary and least harmful of all of the religions that I you know, I was exposed to as a kid, but I you know, as time went on, and when interest in spiritualism kind of like migrated on line, or at least spiritual ideas, I kind of wanted to take a closer look at it and be like, is it the least scary religion I’ve encountered or what’s the situation so that was kind of my impetus, and then also, something I didn’t mention in this show, because I was like, embarrassed by it, but like, you know, what, there was an Bright Eyes album about Cassadaga, the camp I went to, and I was an emo kid. So I knew what Cassadaga was on, on that that ground alone.
V Spehar 03:57
Yeah, you are speaking my language. I also grew up in Connecticut, very ghosty place Catholic as you were, and then you know, like, I know in the podcast, you explore like born Catholic baptize, what does that mean? moved over to a more Protestant church where queer people were welcomed, and then got into I loved meeting your uncle Dennis about sort of like more like pagan stuff and psychic stuff and communing with the dead. So what was it about Americans and just to be clear, like saying, it’s very popular now for folks to say, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. That’s not what we’re talking about. Right now. We’re talking about the actual religion from the 1800s American spiritualism, which we’ll get into, you know, like the specifics of it later, but what resonated with you with this 1800s exploration of religion?
Jamie Loftus 04:48
So yeah, I guess to because I needed this clarification when I started because I was very into a lot of spiritual stuff that I didn’t really talk with anyone about because if you talk other people tend to really dump on you. But American spiritualism specifically was like a movement that started in the mid-1800s. Kind of on, depending on how you look at it, this, this prank that went in so far it became a religion. With these young girls, Kate and Maggie Fox, who sort inadvertently developed the modern seance in America, it spread to the UK, it spread through a lot of Europe, it was really, really, really popular throughout the Civil War, and then in World War One, and it would sort of tend to make a comeback every time there was a large loss of life in the country, which is why I thought it was interesting that there was an uptick in spiritual ideas throughout the pandemic, it like kind of does track with that pattern. So I think that in the moment of the pandemic, I was interested in seeing, like, is this going to make a comeback? What was it actually, and who are the people that are practicing it now, because that was something I was a little less clear on. So I went to camp in Florida called Cassadaga, it’s like a half hour outside of Orlando, where a group of older mediums are still kind of they it’s like a tourist attraction meets a serious religious camp. It’s an interesting vibe there. So yeah, I wanted to see like, is there, you know, how does it function? Are there parts of it that I don’t understand? Is it you know, what is its relevance now?
V Spehar 06:45
And I have to tell you to be totally transparent as a Rochester, New York resident, I 100%. believe this stuff like I’m fully in, why not? You know, why not? And there is so little good information out there about this world. And most of the podcasts, books, things that are written about American spiritualism, are overly focused on making fun of it, or Yes, debunking it, or saying, well, this was just a big joke, or these girls were just like, making up stuff. And it was never real. And I mean, like, honestly, isn’t all religion kind of made up and 100% real, it’s as real as you as you make it in your heart, right?
Jamie Loftus 07:25
I totally agree with you, like most religion is made up to a large extent. And there is no like, I don’t know, investigative podcast about like, what’s up with Noah and this ark? Did this really happen? You know, they’re myths. And they’re, you know, you can interpret them in a lot of different ways. They have different meanings to different people. But because this happened, you know, in an age where there are, you know, there’s journalism, there’s photographs, there’s all this stuff going on. And it can be pretty heavily documented. The questions always centered on like, well, was the origin of it real. And no matter how you feel about it, where I kind of feel different day to day, like I and ultimately, I think the thing is, like, I don’t really care. I think the fox sisters are awesome, if it’s real, and they’re kind of even more awesome. If it’s fake. It truly was all a grift kind of a spectacular grift. You know, not to say it was a victimless grift if it was but like, I do think it is kind of cool. And the question of if it’s real, I feel like isn’t yeah, like, like, you’re saying, like, that’s shouldn’t be the central question. It’s like, what is it and how does it affect people? And yeah, that was kind of what I was more interested in exploring, like, how do you come to a movement like this? And how does it change you?
V Spehar 08:47
And despite the numerous, you know, misunderstandings around the origin and in what it is and what it’s not, and who’s a scammer and who’s not, you make very clear, and I appreciated this from your first episode, that this is not a cult. Why is this not a cult?
Jamie Loftus 09:04
So I wanted to really make sure it was not a cult. Before moving forward. The last thing you want to do is tacitly endorse a cult. So the reason it’s not called and I found it very helpful to consult the work of writer podcaster Amanda Montel, who wrote cultish which is this really cool kind of breakdown of cult language, cult dynamics, and basically I think for spiritualism, it ties down to they don’t retain members very well. You can leave whenever you want. There’s really not I mean, for its faults, of which there are many pressure to stay or pressure to believe in something you don’t believe is really not an element of this movement and has never been, which is why there’s so many permutations of it like there’s no hard line like, this is what a spiritualist believes really, it’s like, if you believe that contact with the dead could be possible, you qualify. And there can be different cultural elements to what you believe you could mix it in with a religion you are already a part of. And there’s no central leader, which I think is something really cool about it from the very beginning. I think because the Fox sisters were so thoroughly abused in the press and were really taken to task over and over there was an early sort of decision made within the movement that we’re not going to promote this as like a you know, I mean, Mormonism is coming into play at the same time there’s no Joseph Smith for did I get his name right? Oh, god. Okay. Like I just had a panic attack.
V Spehar 10:49
And to a newbie this religion that you just you know, said it doesn’t have a central figure, you can come and go when you want. It’s very kind of like, you know, come a jar and Leave when you feel like it. It is led really by like two types of people. If I could be so bold as to tell everyone what this is what it is. One who can commune with the dead, the mediums and then these charismatic figures who can affirm the things the mediums say, and again, harkening back to my childhood in Connecticut, it very much reminded me of my first favorite medium, Lorraine Warren, who is from my hometown, and Lorraine, I grew up like going to their demonologist talks, like at the high school, you’d pay like $5 and they would play the voice of Satan and you go home and cry for a week. But they were demonologist they weren’t spiritualist. So they kind of like went the dark way. And they didn’t make it independent version of spiritualism. We’re like, one person talks to the dead to get the answers. And then the other person affirms her gifts, lending credibility to everything. I want to know what your thoughts on the warrants are, because you’ve talked about them before too.
Jamie Loftus 11:54
Okay. I have a lot of thoughts on the word I was. I’m so excited to you saw them live. They’re so charismatic, like, it’s not surprising at all that they popped off in the way they did. Like, I did a lot of research on the warrants kind of coincidently before I made ghost church for an episode of you’re wrong about last year. And there’s I mean; the pros are awesome. The cons are miserable. Like, there’s a lot of like Ed Warren as a person. And it gives it pretty thoroughly garbage. And Lorraine was party to things via him that I think like, I mean, there were like, a lot of sexual allegations against Ed Warren that didn’t come out until the last couple of years, like I think until the conjuring movies kind of deified their relationship, that people who had had actual experiences with them personally were like, no, come on, come on. We can’t. So I think that is like one side of them that I’m glad is being talked about, because it’s like, that was just not public information 10 years ago.
V Spehar 13:04
I think […] mess with them. I mean, we got to remember this was like the 90s nobody in my little town was gonna come out and say any they were doing anything bad because maybe they were gonna like sick the ghosts on […], like, we’re very protected by the fact that they essentially controlled the exorcisms, which was oddly extremely popular in my town. Yeah, you couldn’t mess with them. Right. And yeah, they weren’t like outwardly intimidating other than the fact that you knew that they like could kind of speak to the devil. And so that was scary.
Jamie Loftus 13:32
You didn’t want them they had like the devil’s on speed dial they could do anything they wanted and like it was fun to look at not fun too interesting to look at like specific cases they did were some are just like, kind of funny and like interesting. And then others are like, Oh, they’re exploiting this family, this poor family. And sometimes like there’s a child involved and it just gets very messy and ugly very quickly, which Yeah, like that I was I guess that’s the sort of thing we were like I guess I’m not surprised that that’s the case but it was presented as you know, just like modern folk tales in a way that encourages you to kind of distance yourself from the people involved as far as their like methods are, again it’s like some of them are interesting and funny to meet where they it feels like and let me know how you feel because you have like the one on one experience it feels like they like went the demon route to like reaffirm Christian values in this like roundabout way where like, they had to bring in an exorcist and like the power of a Christian God is like what can liberate you from paganish demons or like that felt like how they were presenting it so even though it felt like I don’t know like a fun way to engage with the supernatural but still be like, but obviously I’m a Christian because it ends with an exorcism.
V Spehar 15:00
Correct, well, we’re gonna take a quick break and then when we come back Jamie is going to talk to us a little bit about how American spiritualism kind of like what the war instead took in pieces of Christianity, pieces of indigenous principles to build this new religion that some folks would say took the best in the nicest parts of all the religions and said okay, we’re gonna do this one. We’ll talk about that right when we get back. Okay, we are back with Jamie Loftus, and we’re gonna get a little bit into the origins of American spiritualism and where they may have begged, borrowed and steal from other religions. Remembering that Jesus was a Jew, and then came Christianity which borrows heavily from the Jewish faith. spiritualist also blended religions and borrowed from other cultures, Eastern principles like chakras, pagan rituals, indigenous beliefs, like consulting the ancestors. So the concept of spirit guides the Islamic tenant of not forcefully recruiting for the faith. And of course, Jesus, a man spiritualist believed Jesus was more of like a medium because he could speak to the angels and God and he even came back to Earth after death for like all the easter stuff which we love. For centuries, people have been spiritual and believed in the concept of universe, necromancy, etc. But in this American spiritualism, we’re going to talk about those teenage girls from Rochester, New York who said that they could communicate with intelligent spirits, and that those spirits would respond with knocking. Is that right?
Jamie Loftus 16:36
Yeah, the spirit knocks are the wraps. That God I mean, it would it would be great to know what they sounded like in the moment, because it’s been alleged that they were so many different things that you just don’t know. But yes, knocks wraps soft noises that would communicate kind of in like a Morse code system.
V Spehar 16:56
And it was like, so they would ask a question. And this was the important part, right? This was what made them so special, because so many people could say I talked to a ghost, but their power if we’re just for sake of this, we’ll call it their power was the ability to get an intelligent response back from the go. So they would say how old am I? And then it would knock like, 12 times or something?
Jamie Loftus 17:14
Yes. Yeah. And it’s it sounds very tedious. Those early conversations. If someone’s like, 40. It’s going to take a while. But yeah, they in the early days, which was just in Hyattsville, it, basically Rochester doesn’t even exist anymore. But in upstate New York, they had been they were living in temporary housing. And they developed a system to talk with a spirit that it became clear was like a specific spirit, which I feel like is a lot of where American spiritualism led. But at the time, they were, I think, 12 and 14, they’re 11 and 13. They were they’re very young. And it sort of became this like, local interest story. There were kind of a lot of local interest stories like that. But the difference from what I learned was that their older sister, who was like a single mom in her early 30s.
V Spehar 18:17
The original boss babe you called her, maybe a little exploiter.
Jamie Loftus 18:21
She was gaslighting and gatekeeping a little bit, in my opinion.
V Spehar 18:24
Yeah. Sounds terrible.
Jamie Loftus 18:27
But in spiritualism, that she’s kind of like, still regarded as like the best of the three, which I think is very telling. But yeah, so she kind of gets girl boss involved and sees, you know, kind of wants to capitalize on the local myth that surrounding her sisters that honestly I think probably would have dissipated if they hadn’t, you know, taken it on the road. But that’s what the older sister, Leah Fox, sort of encouraged them to do is, you know, the story as it’s, there’s a million different versions of it. What I’ve seen most consistently is that Leah sort of convinced Maggie and Kate, that this is something real, this is a real gift you have and you need to share it with the world. We’ve got to take this show on the road. And so they did that for years. And it was like a gigantic. It’s kind of hard for me to conceptualize how popular it was because it was like there were seances in the White House. And during the Lincoln administration, like this was like, gigantic. And it was like kind of this middle class phenomenon.
V Spehar 19:34
There was very few options for women to essentially like have their own money or control their own destiny. There wasn’t really like celebrities, the way that the fox sisters really became on tour celebrities. The original, like true crime investigators because they were talking to people who had been murdered and all these terrible things had happened to them. And people were curious about that, even in the 1860s. But something that’s so interesting is these young girls who are able to commune with the dead were influencing some other figures in the Rochester area became spiritualist It’s not often that like full grown adults follow the lead of 11 and 12 year results not since like maybe the crucible. It seems like the last night there’s not it’s worked out a little bit better this time but same, same vibe different font. But like Frederick Douglass was involved in spiritualism Sir Arthur Doyle, Charles Dickens, across the pond, he loved to write about ghosts, Mary Todd Lincoln, Horace Greeley.
Jamie Loftus 20:36
I think that it had a lot of like, appeal of like, I had a lot of appeal to a lot of different groups, and most of them would be left leaning groups at the time, because like, already in Rochester, there was a ton of progressive ideas, there was a lot of abolitionist movements, there was a lot of feminist movements, like getting started up at like, literally this exact same time. And so and I think, you know, the Fox’s were kind of apolitical in their words, but we’re always hanging out with left leaning leaders and became, they became involved really early on with white couple in Rochester, who were really influential leftist Quakers that were big allies in the abolition movement. So that couple introduced them, Isaac and Amy posed to a lot of leaders in Rochester at the time, which would have included Frederick Douglass, and a lot of and some feminist leaders as well. That kind of led to them and their ideas, leering very well with progressive ideas at the time.
V Spehar 21:49
Yeah, and Frederick Douglass, I know kept his printing press in the posts home and that’s why he had to like kind of be down with the spiritualism a little bit because it was like, okay, well, these are the folks who are kind of controlling everything around here helping everyone this is where my printing press is, I’m going to sit in on some of this business and see what I think.
Jamie Loftus 22:08
Right and he was never like a you know, card carrying spiritualist by any means.
V Spehar 22:15
And then Mary Todd Lincoln, you know, she was a spiritualist or at least really into communing with the dead, she cut a lot of shit for that though, because people were like, she’s crazy.
Jamie Loftus 22:25
Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, and I feel like most, you know, men who would endorse this movement, they would still be called crazy, but they would there would be more like, but let’s hear what he has to say first, kind of a vibe to it, which I think is kind of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story went a little more where some people were like, yeah, I don’t think so. But I guess I’ll read his book about fairies and see how I feel. Mary Todd Lincoln, it was very misogyny. Like, she has gone off the deep end, blah, blah, blah. But I do I mean, I think it’s kind of interesting that like, she stuck with it. I mean, she originally, if I’m remembering correctly, got interested in the movement when she lost a child and wanted to commune with her son. And then, you know, obviously, after her husband was assassinated, remained interested. And she was, I think, the most famous moment that she had outside of like, literally, say, houses in the White House was that spirit photograph that was like, alleged that Abraham Lincoln’s like, behind her and he’s got his hand on her shoulders and the myths surrounding that is I get it, I get why people were like, hell yeah, you know, it’s very heartwarming.
V Spehar 23:45
It is I have the scoop for you on why spiritualist photography was such a thing. I mean, I know the potty were like this is a thing like not really exactly sure where it came from. Ghost photography plays a big role in spiritualism, because George Eastman, who is also a Rochester native, who invented the camera in the Kodak Company, was very popular around here also involved in spiritualism heavily and wildly popular for Victorian era folks to photograph their dead. And that evolved into like, how to manipulate this new thing called the camera and like do double exposure is in building fog and smoke and apparitions.
Jamie Loftus 24:27
I think that that’s something that a lot of people miss the point on of like, when this movement is treated as so absurd, where it’s like, it was happening as so many things were happening that like, the I don’t know, where there were so many huge societal changes taking place and like science was this new idea. Like, it makes total sense that talking to the dead didn’t feel off the table in any way. Like of course. Of course it would be.
V Spehar 24:57
You know what, let’s take a quick pause here, but we’re gonna have more V INTERESTING right after this. The wealthy people were kind of the ones that made this religion a thing, right, because they put their money into spiritualism as a way to oftentimes grieve the death of their children. Similarly, Victorian era where we were dealing with a lot of dead kids. And that became a big driver of how the Fox sisters and future mediums would essentially make a living or continue to fund this work is through wealthy people wanting to connect with their dead children or with you know, getting answers. Can you just talk to me a little bit about that?
Jamie Loftus 25:53
Yeah, the class issues are really fascinating and relevant to like, what keeps this movement going. And I think a lot of the reasons that it loses momentum and different moments is like, when there’s not as much money around, there’s not really as many effective ways to keep the movement propped up, because the fox sisters themselves were from a, you know, fairly low income family, they were like, lower middle class. This wasn’t the kind of family that was going to be able to send their kids to a university, anything like that. Kind of a paycheck to paycheck family. And so throughout their lives, Maggie and Kate specifically depended on wealthy patrons to keep them alive. And when the movement was in por favor, they were starving, and they were, you know, ridiculed. And then when the movement was in good favor, they could travel the world, they could do all this stuff. And another effect of that is that the religion and the movement to this day remains where most money is concentrated. So it is a pretty, it’s to this day, like a pretty firmly middle to upper to rich, White movement. There’s exceptions to that. And there are branches of spiritualism, particularly in Puerto Rico and Cuba that like there are different areas. And it’s also been embraced by the lower classes, especially in the digital age where you can where there’s just like, there’s a lot of ways to access to access, literature and ideas and in a new way, so it’s shifted slightly but edits origin. You know, the fox sisters kind of established the precedent that you need to pay to attend a seance. And if you want to talk to someone super specific, you’re gonna have to pay a little more.
V Spehar 27:53
And they were accused of everything they did was a parlor trick, which we in modern sense, think of as like, oh, a parlor trick magic. But in fact, spiritualism didn’t have a central figure or a church or a temple that people could go to. It was a parlor trick, because they were going to rich people’s parlors for which to do the seances and the tipping, it wasn’t, it was a parlor trick in that that was the only place they could worship, I guess we could call it?
Jamie Loftus 28:19
They couldn’t afford to do stuff many other places. So like they had, you know, a house in New York City and in Rochester at different times where people would go, but it was like they couldn’t afford a second location was the main issue. And that still remains true. I mean, to this day, if you go to Cassadaga or Lilydale, you’re going to usually the mediums home to have sessions like this. And that’s something that I mean, I think it’s kind of lovely, and like establishes a connection between you and the person pretty immediately.
V Spehar 28:53
Yeah, yeah. You know, wealthy people. One thing that they love to do is buy their way into spaces that may or may not exist. They decide what is and is not cool and trendy, but they also hate to be embarrassed, and they hate to be left out. Right. And so, my kind of feeling listening to the podcast and exploring what I have with spiritualism prior to this, is that part of why they kept some of the Catholic Christian Church vibes? There’s a lot of Christianity in spiritualism, which kind of feels protective, like, oh, no, no, no, we’re still Jesus is still on our team. Oh, no. Like we still believe mostly Christian tenants. What do you think about that?
Jamie Loftus 29:35
I totally agree. Spiritualism has only become more inclusive of religions outside of Christianity in like the last 50-ish years. That’s pretty new outside of, you know, they were always appropriating indigenous culture. But outside of that in terms of bringing in ideas from the east and bringing in karma and chakras, like a lot of Indian ideas like, that is more recent, at the time they present it. As you know, this is a practice that does not believe in heaven or hell. But we still believe that Jesus was the ultimate spiritual healer, we still they list to this day, their official text is the Bible. Which is kind of funny to me, because it’s like, there are certain stories, you would imagine, if you asked a spiritualist, they’d be like, um, I don’t know, you know, it’s, it’s not a text that really applies to all of their beliefs. But some stories, you know, particularly surrounding Jesus’s life are, you know, fit in super well with spiritualism, and, you know, under their definition of what a medium is, the myth surrounding Jesus like, fits in pretty perfectly, and so do a lot of other religious figures. So I think at the time, Christianity being involved, and was super important to the religion success, and then as time goes on, being more inclusive and layering, pretty cleanly with a lot of religions, because of just the kind of, and I don’t mean this as a negative, but the kind of vagueness that spiritualism has, is why it’s kind of able to endure, there’s not a lot of hard rules outside of talking to the dead is real,.
Jamie Loftus 30:06
Right. People don’t die. Which I kind of like you know, that there’s something like safe feeling about that there’s something and we’ll get into like the grief aspect that spiritualism feels for a lot of folks. But the next thing I kind of wanted to touch on staying in the 1800s for a moment is, like we said, this was a time of great scientific discovery, how did the faith incorporate science and even pseudoscience.
Jamie Loftus 31:53
So that is, again, like it’s very controversial with spiritualist to this day, but that is one of the 9 core tenets of spiritualism as it exists that not only is talking to the dead a real thing, but it is verified by science. So there was a lot of study around this anyways, because of this huge scientific revolution. I think Edison at one point was like, I’m gonna invent the spirit phone and later was sort of like, nevermind. But there were there were a lot of studies done on mediums specifically. And the few mediums who were able to pass a lot of these studies, that as far as the religion is concerned, is proof positive, that talking to the dead is real, because the fox sisters, gifts were not able to be disproved by a lot of studies in their lifetime. That means that it’s real. The same goes for a few. There’s a couple of famous English spiritualists, who you hear similar stories about, there’s always a lot of dispute around like, was there a payoff involved, was there this was there that and then in the second wave of spiritualism in the 1920s, Harry Houdini, like dropped the last couple of years of his life to, you know, test mediums, really, really intensely and for the most part, you know, based on what, again, what he’s presenting, he was successful in debunking a lot of mediums but there were a few people who he wasn’t quite able to debunk the abilities of so I think that spiritualist take that intense, I think, kind of manic focus that a lot of journalists and scientists had on needing to disprove mediums when they were not able to do that. That is proof and that’s sort of the way it’s presented within the religion now.
V Spehar 33:55
Yeah. And we’re going to take one more quick break, then we’re going to come back and we’re going to talk more about these efforts to debunk what Spiritualism is like now and is it the most patriotic religion come back after the break and find out. Okay, and we are back and we’re gonna get into talking a little bit about some of the efforts to debunk spiritualism and was it anti-feminist? Was it gross a little bit? You talked before we went to break about Harry Houdini is efforts to debunk mediums. Harry Houdini, notoriously a mama’s boy when his mother died, did everything he possibly could to try and communicate with her again, very frustrated when that didn’t happen for him immediately kind of went on the defensive being like, you’re all liars, and I hate you all and my mother’s dead and I’m terrible now. What was driving his effort to debunk because a lot of folks will be like, Well, Harry Houdini proved it wasn’t true, but he didn’t.
Jamie Loftus 34:59
He did not, I think I mean, he did debunk a lot of individuals. But even that there are a lot of, there are some disputes around like, he was presenting his best guess at how they were doing what they were doing. It wasn’t like every single time he flipped the lights on and was like, there you go. Like sometimes he’s like, well, based on my experience as a magician, here’s how that effect could have been achieved with the methods that I know already. And sometimes that would be accepted as proof of well, they must be doing that. But yeah, I mean, you totally nailed it. It was his relationship with his mother and desire to communicate with his mother, again, that originally motivated him. And he also in his early career, had done some kind of classic fraudulent tricks that fake mediums will do. And I think he was like, well, I already know how to do this. So and it’s not working for me if so it must all be faked. But he I mean, Houdini really double down and singled out specific mediums that were successful, most of whom were women not all and really wanted to take them down, partially because I think he genuinely wanted to know, and still had that inkling of like, well, if it is real, that’s great for everybody. And partially because he was like, famously an incredible self-promoter and knew that you can get a ton of mileage out of extending, you know, and today, you know, there was, there’s a million newspaper articles of like, today, I’m gonna go to this lady’s house, and fuck her shit up so bad, I’m gonna lock her in a box, and it’s gonna be a mess for her. And that was like a very people who were really into that at the time.
V Spehar 36:43
Most people seem to come to this, like Harry Houdini did in many ways, out of great personal tragedy, they feel like God has turned on them. Why would God do this to me, I feel lost. I need validation. I need comfort that the deceased person I care about is okay. And I need some kind of like, promise that it’s not over, that I can fix this thing that has happened, most often happening. When people lose a child and psychics promise that they can do that, that they can talk to your deceased child or your deceased wife. While you were down in Florida, you got to experience some of the modern day spiritualist rituals, I guess we’ll call them. You did the one with the tipping tables where you were able to speak to a deceased sibling. And what was that kind of like? Did you believe it?
Jamie Loftus 37:43
I don’t know, I still look back at that. Because I am I think we’re kind of similar where I’m generally inclined to want to believe things overnight. That specific experience didn’t really hit for me. But there were other experiences. I had an Cassadaga that did. I felt like the spirit message services were really cool and felt less I think part of with the table topic was like, I just felt extremely on the spot. In a way that like, was a little stressful. And I think it worked for some people because they knew exactly who they wanted to talk to. For me, I was kind of like, I was lucky that at that time, it wasn’t until, you know, I didn’t have anyone extremely close to me that I had lost that I was desperate to speak with. And so I kind of tried to go with an open mind of like, we’ll see who it is. And it felt like it just feels a little bit of pressure of like, figure out, figure out who it is. I’m like, oh, I don’t know.
V Spehar 38:41
Tables like floating in the air in front of you. And allegedly like talking to you. Yeah, you need to know exactly who.
Jamie Loftus 38:45
Yeah, and there’s six people next to you who are like, when does it my turn? You know, so I just like had an anxiety response to the experience.
V Spehar 38:53
Theraphy is not great.
Jamie Loftus 38:55
Doesn’t work for me. But I don’t know. I mean, I don’t I’m not saying that. I think the whole thing is bunk. I think that just for me, it was like not an amazing experience part of it because of how it’s set up. But I think to speak to like what you were just saying I think that spiritualist I spoke with who had lived there for a long time and you know, the podcast goes into a lot of like, it is very worth examining that like these are mostly White boomers, whose politics are maybe not as left as they were at the beginning of spiritualism which is wild to me. But as far as what they believe in terms of talking to the dead. I found a general like and these are spiritualist who have trained for years to be mediums at this camp specifically. And I was not able to find anyone who promised that I would be able to get in touch with someone specific and I think that that is the difference. For me anyways of distinguishing a true spiritualist medium and someone who might just want your money is any medium that can guarantee that they will get you in touch with someone specific. I think that that is like a big ethical issue and leads down the road of exploitation really easily and that I didn’t spend as much time on it as I could have or would have liked to. But that I feel like is how you have a lot of, you know, celebrity mediums who are, I think can be extremely exploitative and mediums that like collude or like work with police stations to give information that is often racist or made up or you know, giving a narrative to give someone closure. But the mediums who I spoke with who were trained spiritualist mediums at in Cassadaga, were like I can’t get, you know, I can’t tell you who’s gonna come through. I don’t know, that’s not how this works. Hopefully, if you came here to speak with someone specific they’ll come through, if they don’t, you know, and they’ll tell you that at the beginning of a session, you don’t know who’s gonna come through, great if it’s the person you’re hoping to speak with, if not, you know, you can ask for your money back if you want. But I think that that is part of what made me more comfortable going into that environment where it didn’t feel outwardly exploitative of like, you’re gonna talk to your grandma today are like, you’re gonna get closure with your dead parent today, or like you’re going to, especially like what you’re talking about with children. And that is, I think, a very valid criticism of early Spiritualism is, that was more of an element with big mediums at the time, they would say you lost a son, welcome. And let’s see if he comes through. And very often you find and even with one of the Fox sisters, there was this financial relationship that goes deeper, because it’s like, why are these women so dependent on these wealthy benefactors, but like wealthy people who had lost a child, which obviously, you know, not unusual in the 1800s, wanted to talk to their children, and then would basically say, to a medium, I will give you lodging and food and you will be able to survive, if you keep me in touch with my dead wife with my dead child? And then what kind of situation does that set up? And it feels like an easy road that even if it is a legitimate medium, if you believe in that, it can lead to like, Well what happens to me if I don’t bring this person through? And so it comes ethical minor, but it in with modern spiritualists, I was kind of encouraged to see that most of them are aware of that dynamic and tell you upfront that like whatever happens here happens.
V Spehar 43:02
Yeah, this idea of miracles on demand is something that not even Jesus could do and turned out poorly when he couldn’t do them. And so it’s good that that that expectation is at least being built into modern spiritualism as you can come, and we’ll see what happens. But I cannot promise you that we’re gonna be able to pull the energy of this person that you loved previously into this realm. Because if that energy has moved on, then it has moved on.
Jamie Loftus 43:26
And that could be seen as a good thing.
V Spehar 43:28
Yeah, it could be a good thing. There are some people that I truly do believe their energy didn’t move on. And the energy we hold for them keeps us feeling like we see the signs a lot of the time or we can talk to them, or we feel them still with us. And I think that’s maybe a different topic that we could explore another day. But you said of the podcast, people come to spiritualism because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than grief therapy. And it does kind of the same thing. Did you notice a difference between grief tourists, people who were coming in the summer, and they wanted to speak to their dead loved one and people who were genuine parishioners of the faith?
Jamie Loftus 44:04
Yes, you do find people who are there often with their families, or groups of there’s a lot of groups of women who will go together. I noticed that yeah, they have something specific that they want to talk about, or it’s out of just like raw curiosity. And then you have I would say, you know, it’s about a split down the middle maybe leaning a little favoring the tourists but then you have people who are genuine believers and sometimes are on the road to becoming mediums themselves. There’s people who are, you know, community planners, and so you get the tourists which spiritualists are not annoyed by because even when you’re outside of Orlando, like that’s kind of what they’re there for is for someone to come when they’re grieving, and then when they feel like they have some closure, sometimes they’ll walk away. And that’ll be it. And that’s, I mean, I’ve talked to people at spiritualist churches that are actively bankrupt that are not, you know, they’re like, well, I would never, you know, call a grieving person and be like, hey, come back, you know, if we’re able to give them closure, that’s great. And that’s kind of what the religions for.
V Spehar 44:04
It’s hard to accuse them of being capitalist scammers when oftentimes, these folks are pretty broke.
Jamie Loftus 45:31
It’s so air conditioning in this building. Like, I don’t know what to say. And you’re not asking me for money. Yeah, there is a wholesome element to it with all of the issues.
V Spehar 45:43
So at the end of the podcast after doing all of this, what was your takeaway? How do you feel about American spiritualism now?
Jamie Loftus 45:49
I mean, I think it’s like a really fascinating movement that I wish, you know, I wish that they were more receptive to criticism and acknowledging the heavy appropriation and excluding people, specifically, Black Americans and indigenous Americans from the movement, especially because that was such a foundational idea for them at the beginning. I think that there is definitely like some soul searching and acknowledgement that needs to go on within the movement. But I don’t view it as something that’s unsalvageable. And I kind of hope it’s something that, you know, continues to some extent, I would be really sad to hear that the camp had to close because of money issues, or whatever it was, because I think that it is able to provide a lot of people who are grieving and are looking for something. Something very necessary, that isn’t always accessible elsewhere. And I also think that it’s good to keep that curiosity alive. I think it’s very weird and silly to be like, we should just stop figuring out if it’s possible, if this is possible, which maybe makes me a sucker, but I was like, I think that there’s good, that’s good that there’s still movements around curiosity.
V Spehar 47:16
I agree. I think that it’s good too, and I had so many more questions. I truly cannot tell you all how much I loved this podcast. I listened to episodes two and three times. There’s just so much good information and so much heart that you put into it. I just want to let you know I personally appreciate it. Let people know where they can hear ghost church.
Jamie Loftus 47:34
Yes. You can hear it wherever you hear a podcast, but it’s called Ghost church. And yeah, all the episodes are out now for now, although I’ve been having so many interesting conversations like this one that I kind of want to do a second season.
V Spehar 47:50
If you do a second season, you have to come to Rochester. I’ll take you around for a day we’ll go to spiritualist church. It’s very different up here because up here there is a Black spiritualist church that is led by a Black Reverend, that is incredible. should take you there and show you a little bit there is a schism and there is a whole other world worth exploring and getting to know to and just Rochester is a weird, cool place and will give you garbage plates. So come on up and visit me.
Jamie Loftus 48:15
Season two confirmed okay, perfect.
V Spehar 48:19
Thank you so much, Jamie.
Jamie Loftus 48:20
Thank you for having me.
V Spehar 48:25
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V Spehar 53:20
V INTERESTING is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Rachel Neel, Xorje Olivares, Martín Macías, Jr. And Dani Matias. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mixing and Scoring is by Brian Castillo, Johnny Evans and Ivan Kuraev. music is by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar and @UnderTheDeskNews, also, @LemonadaMedia. If you want more be interesting, subscribe to Lemonada premium only on Apple podcasts.