Death and disease were not once unknown concepts on the streets of Britain. By the end of the 19th century, tens of thousands of people had contracted deadly infections such as cholera, smallpox and scarlet fever, starting with the first cholera epidemic in 1832, when detailed records first began to be kept.
Wave after wave of typhus swept through populations where the cause, diagnosis and cure were all uncertain – and social class offered no protection. In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens captured the fever deaths in the slums of London. But the most notable victim was Queen Victoria’s own husband, Prince Albert. He was diagnosed with typhus and died in December 1861.
Meanwhile, a bizarre solution was spreading.
The Victorian was not only a time of social change, and scientific advancement but spiritual exploration. It was a period that saw the rise of spiritualism, a movement that claimed to communicate with the afterlife.
In 1848, two sisters in Rochester, New York, claimed to have received messages from the ghost of the long-dead inhabitant of their house, and that their conversation with him had sparked America’s imagination. Soon, table dancing swept across the Americas, modern spiritualism was born, and by the early 1850s, it had crossed the Atlantic. Séances were held in the salons and dining rooms of France, Germany, Italy and Britain. Communication with spirits was through the letters of the alphabet, similar to Ouija boards.
The fashion for spiritist séances was fuelled by those who wished to communicate with lost loved ones or friends.
Gabriel Rosetti’s seances
One of the most famous figures in this movement was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a British Pre-Raphaelite painter who was known for his remarkable artistic talent and his passionate exploration of the spiritual world. He began holding spiritualist séances after the death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal in 1862. Many of these were held at his home in Chelsea with friends and acquaintances. The most regular attendee was his brother William Michael Rossetti.
Many of the séances include conversations he and his brother had with Elizabeth Siddal, whose presence permeates the three years recorded. Many of the other séances feature dead friends and relatives. According to William, on one occasion their uncle Gaetano Polidori, who was once Lord Byron’s physician, confessed that he had died by suicide. On another occasion they allegedly quoted their Italian father, Gabriele Rossetti, who addressed the brothers in his native Italian.
Rossetti had a deep interest in the spirit world and the afterlife, and he often held seance parties in his home. These gatherings were attended by some of the most influential members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, including William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Elizabeth Siddal. The purpose of these seances was to contact the spirit world and gain insights into life beyond the grave.
At these gatherings, Rossetti and his guests would gather in a darkened room, with only a single candle to light the way. Rossetti would then begin the seance, calling on the spirit of a deceased person to appear before him. As he called out for spirits to come forward, the air in the room would become thick with tension, the guests seeming to sense the presence of some unseen entity.
The atmosphere of these seances was often unsettling and eerie, with strange noises and mysterious phenomena occurring throughout the room. Objects would be seen floating in the air, mysterious voices could be heard, and disembodied spirits were said to appear in the corners of the room. Guests reported feeling a cold chill in the air and an overwhelming sense of dread.
Despite the unsettling atmosphere, Rossetti’s seances were said to be productive and insightful. Guests reported gaining insight into the spiritual realm and learning valuable life lessons from the spirits they encountered. Rossetti himself often claimed to have seen visions, and he spoke of the importance of using seances to gain a deeper understanding of the afterlife.
The seances that Rossetti held were believed to be some of the most influential of their time. Some of the most prominent figures in Victorian England, including Arthur Conan Doyle and William Butler Yeats, attended Rossetti’s seances and were said to have been profoundly affected by the experience.
The seances that Dante Gabriel Rossetti held were not just a way to explore the spiritual realm but also a form of entertainment. Guests would often come away from the seances with stories of the strange and mysterious phenomena they had witnessed. These stories inspired a generation of authors and artists, from Bram Stoker to Edgar Allen Poe.
The seances that Dante Gabriel Rossetti held were a shocking and fascinating experience for those who attended them. They were a window into the spiritual realm and a way to gain knowledge and insight that could not be found elsewhere. But they were also a reminder of the mysteries and secrets of the afterlife that remain, to this day, just beyond our reach.
Many of the ghosts who Rossetti said rose from the darkness were artists, and they often gave precise answers to questions about when, where and how they died.
William Rossetti was a hard-working civil servant whose diary provides an unparalleled insight into the Victorian ghost world.
The Rossetti’s were by no means the only Victorians who were committed believers in the occult. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the social reformer Robert Owen, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and the novelist Arthur Conan Doyle were just a few of the other passionate believers in the power of the seances. William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and the painter G. F. Watts were all members of the Society for Psychical Research, and Queen Victoria was rumoured to have received messages from Prince Albert through a psychic teenage boy named Robert James Lees.
Psychics became celebrities. The most famous, D. D. Home, arrived in Britain from America in 1855. In 1853, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray met him in America and, convinced of his credibility, promoted Home’s career in the pages of his journal, The Cornhill Magazine. In Britain, one of the most famous mediums was Mary Marshall, who became famous in the late 1850s and presided over a number of séances recorded by William Rossetti.
However, her contact with the dead attracted as many sceptics as fans. Novelist George Eliot and his partner G. H. Lewis took to the press to denounce spiritualism as a hoax.
The satirical magazine Punch was quick to seize the comic potential of the new fashion. Cartoons depicting humorous conversations with the dead were published weekly.
As the debate over authenticity raged, séances – public and private – were held across the country. Some were spectacular shows that attracted large audiences, others were intimate, reverent gatherings, while others took the form of after-dinner entertainment.
The social, anthropological and religious role of spiritualism in Victorian culture has been much debated, but one important factor drove people to the dark room of mediumship: the need to contact a dead loved one. This was the motivation behind Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s desire to communicate with her brothers, who both died in 1840 – Samuel died of fever in Jamaica in February, and shortly afterwards her favourite brother Edward drowned in a sailing accident in Torquay in July.
In fact, the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, Alfred Russel Wallace, began his own career in spiritualism after the death of his brother in 1845. And the death of Conan Doyle’s son Kingsley confirmed the crime writer’s lifelong belief in the occult. Death was also behind the séances in William Rossetti’s diary, many of which were driven by his brother’s desire to contact the spirit of his dead wife.
Although the 19th century produced many records of spiritual experiences, it is the detail of William Rossetti’s diary that makes it so valuable. He meticulously recorded every moment of the 20 séances, documenting each participant and his reaction to the events, and the presence of many prominent artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement sheds new light on individual personal beliefs and prejudices.
The spirit world
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s fascination with the occult can be traced back to his early experiences with the poetry of Dante Alighieri, which he gained through the scholarly works of his father Gabriele. In his work, Gabriele often referred to the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, who began to have visionary experiences of the afterlife around 1744. According to him, he became a seer at the command of God to explain the correspondence between life on earth and life in heaven.
He spoke not only of communicating with angels and demons but also of how he gained insight into the spirit world and how he returned to the earthly sphere to tell the story. Consequently, Rossetti’s poems and paintings are full of spiritual experiences; stories of ghosts and gruesome events. He started attending séances in the late 1850s, but the death of his wife Elizabeth Siddal gave him renewed encouragement to attend.
Before his death, Siddal suffered from post-natal depression, as his child was stillborn. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, distraught by his long-standing infidelity and neglect, overdosed on laudanum. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was consumed with guilt and remorse, and as a form of compensation, he buried the complete manuscript of his unpublished poems in her coffin. But no sooner was she laid in the ground than visions of her began to appear in his bedroom at night. That’s when he decided to try to find her in the afterlife.
In October 1862, leaving the house they shared, he settled by the River Thames, where he began to hold séances with his new friend, the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Many years later, Whistler spoke of strange things happening when she attended séances at Rossetti’s, as William Michael’s daughter William Michael said that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was eager to receive a message from Elizabeth.
William Rossetti’s seance diary
When William Rossetti began his seance diary in 1865, he was already convinced of the spiritualist’s communications. Some of the séances he recorded were mediated by amateur mediums.
The richest and most dynamic séances were conducted by two professional mediums, Mary Marshall and Elizabeth Guppy, and the very first he recorded took place in Marshall’s house. William Rossetti was accompanied by his artist friend William Bell Scott. The two men, certain that the Marshalls did not know them personally, wanted to contact Scott’s lover’s recently deceased brother, Spencer Boyd.
The information that emerged from the seance was shocking. The ghost of Spencer Boyd was said to have been summoned and told that he had died in Scott’s home, giving the address and time of death – information that was true. He was also reported to have correctly told the group that he had heard of William Scott but had never met him in person.
Even more shocking, however, is the communication with people about whom there is no evidence that any of those present knew anything – but whose accounts were subsequently confirmed by our own archival research. In February 1866, for example, a Maori chieftain from New Zealand calling himself Hemi reportedly appeared out of the darkness. According to sources, he claimed to have met William Rossetti in Newcastle three years earlier, when the chief was on tour in Britain, where he was performing Maori dances.
Information gathered from New Zealand historians and our own research in the archives of the local newspaper, the Newcastle Chronicle, confirmed that a group of Maori chiefs did indeed perform for a Newcastle audience during the week beginning 14 September 1863. On the same day, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a letter to a friend, casually mentioning that his brother was about to travel to Newcastle.
On other occasions, so-called aports are said to have materialised. Cologne and water were described as being rained out of nowhere, books were thrown from bookshelves, and in one instance the medium asked participants if they would like to receive flowers. In response, they asked for roses and ferns, which to their dismay seemed to drop out of the darkness onto the table in front of them or onto their laps. At two such séances, Dante Gabriel Rossetti invited Jane Morris, wife of William Morris, who claimed to have seen unexpected lights and cold currents of air passing over her hands.
The most moving and dramatic séances, however, were those at which the ghost of Elizabeth Siddal was present. In the second séance, recorded by William Rossetti, her brother spoke to her, clearly referring to the past. In a later séance, the ghost is said to have confessed that he knew William Bell Scott and believed that William Rossetti was much loved by his brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Later, at the home of historian and folklorist Thomas Keightley, the diary describes her telling the participants that she knew William Morris and correctly gave his London address.
The most interesting cross-examination of Elizabeth’s ghost took place at the very last séance, at 2am on Friday 14 August 1868. In it, the spirit was questioned about Rossetti’s father, Gabriele Rossetti, in the afterlife, the nature of Christ, and the nature of the manifestations witnessed at another séance recently. The most moving exchange between Dante Gabriel and Elizabeth was also described:
Gabriel: Are you my wife?Elizabeth: Elizabeth: YesGabriel: Are you happy now?Elizabeth: YesGabriel: Happier than on earth?Elizabeth: YesGabriel: If I joined you now, would I be happy?Elizabeth: If I were happy? YesGabriel: Shall we meet at once?Elizabeth: NoGabriel: Soon?Elizabeth: No
The Rossetti brothers are also known in the field of 19th-century painting, as they created several works of art depicting seances.
In Victorian-era Britain, the huge death rate encouraged large crowds to seek the help of mediums. Likewise, around 1918, the carnage of the First World War and the waves of the Spanish flu sparked a new interest in spiritualism. Perhaps in this context, it is not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic should also promote a revival of the Ouija board.
Although spiritualism is still surrounded by suspicion and mystery, William Rossetti’s diary shows that belief in contact with the afterlife generally brings comfort and reassurance. For some, spiritualism was an important place to escape from harsh and cold reality.