Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Mary's Walk in the Jewel Garden: Spiritualism in the 19th Century

By Marilyn Pemberton

There is a general consensus that the huge increase in the popularity of spiritualism in the nineteenth century started with the Fox sisters in 1847. The Fox family had recently taken up residence in Hydesville, a village in New York State, when they began to hear strange noises in the house. Mr Fox and his wife got up each night to try and discover from whence the knockings came but to no avail. There seemed to be some intelligence behind the knocks because when the mother asked, “How old is my daughter Margaret?” there was a reply of 12 knocks, and of nine knocks when the age of Kate was asked. When Kate was sent to a relation at Rochester the raps followed her. Similar knocks occurred about the same time in the houses of the neighbours. An alphabet and code of signals was established, and one of the first messages given from beyond was, “We are all your dear friends and relatives.”

L-R: Margaret, Kate and Leah Fox

This may well have been the start of the spiritualist phenomena that swept through the UK during the second half of the nineteenth century. Well before the Fox sisters “created spiritualism”, however, Sophia Frend, later De Morgan, (1809 - 1892), was a firm believer in the existence of spirits, in a life after death and the ability of spirits to communicate with the living. Whilst still a child, she expressed to a Jewish neighbour her hope in such “another world”. The neighbour promised to visit her and tell her all about it when he died, which he unfortunately did just a few weeks later. In her reminiscences, Three Score Years and Ten, Sophia recounts how she went to bed the night of the man’s death with no fear or apprehension, or indeed, any memory of his promise. She was roused, however, by strange noises, fluttering curtains and the feeling of a “presence” beside her, which remained throughout that night and subsequent nights for the rest of the week.

Although Sophia was a whole-hearted believer in spiritualism, her husband was somewhat less so. Augustus De Morgan (1806 - 1871), a renowned mathematician, was considered to be the first man of science to study the phenomena of spiritualism, clairvoyance and telepathy with seriousness. Although Augustus never categorically confirmed the existence of spirits, he did experience events that he could find no rational answer for. He wrote a letter to the Reverend Heald  in 1853, for instance, telling of a séance he had attended at the house of Mrs Hayden, an American medium. He was allowed to ask questions mentally, and was surprised that the rapped answers, which only he and the dead knew, were correct. He concluded the letter by saying “I have no theory about it ...”
Augustus was unable to be totally serious about rapping, however, and in a letter to his holidaying wife he finishes with a typically humorous comment on there being in the house “a great rapping - but I am afraid only workmen.”

Augustus de Morgan

Sophia’s desire to prove the existence of a life after death increased after the death of her beloved sister Harriet (1814-1836) and her daughter Alice (1838-1853) and resulted in the publication in 1863 of From Matter to Spirit: The Result of Ten Years’ Experience in Spirit Manifestations, Intended as a Guide to Enquirers. Sophia was the author and Augustus wrote the Preface - his reputation as an intelligent, rational investigator giving great credence to the book. Augustus’s prevarication in the letter to the Reverend Heald had not subsided a decade later and he admitted that:

I am satisfied, by the evidence of my own senses, of some of the facts narrated: of some others I have evidence as good as testimony can give. I am perfectly convinced that I have both seen, and heard in a manner which should make unbelief impossible, things called spiritual which cannot be taken by a rational being to be capable of explanation by imposture, coincidence, or mistake. So far I feel the ground firm under me. But when it comes to what is the cause of these phenomena, I find I cannot adopt any explanation which has yet been suggested. 

In From Matter to Spirit, Sophia describes multiple examples of rapping, table-moving, mesmerism, mediumship, spirit-writing and drawing, visions, and the formation of the spiritual body after death - all experienced by herself or by others well known to her. The detailed descriptions are interesting and thought provoking, and although Sophia maintains that she is merely reporting the facts and it is up to the reader to decide on the cause, it is clear that she absolutely believes that the spirits can, and do, communicate with the living. She claims, quite unequivocally, that the force that passes between a mesmeriser to the patient “is that by which all the operations of mediumship are carried on, and the source from whence it immediately flows is an unseen and intelligent being, asserting itself to be a spirit, which has quitted the material earthly form.”

What is of greater interest than the different experiments and the looked and unlooked-for visions or communications from the spirits, or even Sophia’s very detailed instructions on how to carry out a séance, is how these experiences were incorporated into the daily life, not just of Sophia, but also of her whole family. For instance, the De Morgan family and another family were both staying in a seaside lodging-house and they agreed to hold a séance. It is not so much the description of the moving table that is of interest, but rather that the account of the séance held during a holiday is told as if this was an everyday occurrence. On another occasion, Sophia describes how, one evening, she became very sleepy and how “the influence like mesmerism remained with me after I had gone with my children to the nursery.”

De Morgan describes so many personal experiences in From Matter to Spirit, that the reader gets the impression that Sophia’s life was indeed divided equally between the world of the living and the world of the spirits. One wonders what effect this had on her seven children.

Alice’s death, at the age of fifteen, was indeed a physical loss, but could perhaps be considered to be a spiritual gain. When, for instance, Sophia had a photograph taken with a medium, the developed picture showed a shadowy figure standing behind her, whom Sophia identified as her dead daughter. This can doubtless be attributed to the wishful thinking of a grieving mother, but From Matter to Spirit makes very clear Sophia’s absolute confidence in a life after death, and the ability of the spirits to communicate with and to guide the mere mortals still living in the here and now. This is evidenced by a fascinating hand-written notebook in which she recorded the dreams and visions experienced not only by herself but also of her youngest daughter, Mary (1850 - 1907). The notebook covers the years 1856-1857, at which time Mary was only six, and her dreams, according to her mother’s records, often include references to Alice, who had died some three years earlier. Sophia was a firm believer in the concept of a spirit guide and it would have come as no surprise to her that Mary, being an innocent child and therefore receptive to such visions, was communicated to in her dreams by her dead sister.

The words recorded in the notebook are blatantly not those of a six-year old child, nor are most of the sketches. One must therefore assume that there was a certain amount of “interpretation” done by her mother. This in itself is fascinating, as this was some forty years before Freud published his own Interpretation of Dreams. Freud, of course, interpreted dreams from an objective point of view and searched for the dreamer’s subconscious desires and fears. Sophia, on the other hand, assumed every object in a dream to be a symbol of religion or spiritualism; she saw no inconsistency between spiritualism and Christianity.

There follows an excerpt from one of the records in the notebook that tells of “Mary’s Walk in the Jewel Garden”, based on a dream November 14th 1856. The notebook itself can be found in the De Morgan Archives, held at Senate House, University of London.

I was walking along till I came to the arch which was like this. 
I could not get through the middle one, because the handle was too high up; if I had been dead I should have gone through the middle door. I don’t know why the right hand door had no handle. I went through the small door with the handle and got into the garden.
First of all there were violets of a rich blue sapphire and green emeralds for the leaves; the lilies grew among them made of white pearl with emerald leaves also. The roses were some of red ruby and some of red ruby with pearl. The chrysanthemums were made of many coloured stones. The periwinkles were of turquoise and some of a beautiful white pearl. The geraniums were of ruby and coral and the buds were so transparent that they shewed the colour of the flowers’ buds through. The breezes smelt so sweet without your trying to smell them the scent comes to you. The jasmines were inside and outside the crystal water and shewed through. Then I came back. 

The picture which accompanied the notes

According to Sophia, there are three spiritual degrees that are represented by gardens: the first degree is symbolised by lanes, groves and gardens similar to those on earth; the second, higher degree is symbolised by the silver and gold garden; the third and highest degree is the jewelled garden. Sophia gave no explanation here or in From Matter to Spirit of the symbolism of the flowers and jewels but the Victorians commonly used flowers and gems as symbols for emotions or ideologies that they wished to evoke: violets for virtue; emeralds for hope; lilies for beauty; pearls for tears; roses for love; chrysanthemums for abundance; periwinkles for sweet memories; coral for innocence; jasmine for grace; geraniums for consolation; sapphire for truth.

One cannot but wonder what the six-year Mary saw, heard, was told or was involved in during the day, such that she experienced - or told her mother that she had experienced - such dreams as she supposedly had at night. Did Mary have fairly ordinary dreams which her mother interpreted according to her own belief in the spirits? Did Mary describe dreams that she knew her mother wanted to hear, realising, even at the age of six, that her mother yearned for confirmation that the dead endure - including Alice whom Mary could surely barely remember? Or was Mary in truth one of those “innocent loving children” through whom the spirits communicated?

Three of the De Morgan children died during the lifetime of their parents and a further two during Sophia’s. One can only hope that her belief in a life after death sustained her and that she maintained her conviction in a better and higher existence, one that can be equated, according to her husband, with “emigration to a country from which there is no way back, and no mail packets.”


Marilyn Pemberton is still a full-time IT project manager. At the age of 40 she commenced a part-time BA that ended, many years later, with a PhD on the utopian & dystopian aspects of Victorian fairy tales. 
During her research Marilyn became obsessed with Mary De Morgan, a Victorian writer of fairy tales. Her obsession resulted in Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan, followed by a fictional novel based on Mary’s life, The Jewel Garden, published February 2018.
Marilyn is a member of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists, the Historical Novel Society and The Society of Authors. 
Marilyn has just completed her second novel, Song of the Nightingale, about two young boys in eighteenth-century Italy, who are bought from their families, castrated and then trained to be singers. It tells not only of singing, but also deceit, murderous revenge, passion and reconciliation.   


  1. Interesting post. I actually started to read a book about the Fox sisters (as I'm a historical fiction writer and was looking for some info on spiritualism in America in the 19th century) but stopped 1/3 of the way through, as the book just wasn't what I was looking for.

    Tam May

  2. Thank you for your comment. I took this article from my biography on Mary De Morgan. So it is only a small piece of the whole.


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