Ancestors of the race : the antimodern ethnography of Henry Steel Olcott's People from the other world

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2012-12

Authors

Sussman, Sarah Gail

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Abstract

In this report, I will examine People from the Other World (1875), a text which documents the transition from American Spiritualism to international Theosophy. The narrative is based off of reports which lawyer-turned-mystic Henry Steel Olcott wrote concerning the validity of séances that were held by the famous mediums, the Eddy brothers, at their rural homestead in Chittenden, Vermont. These gatherings were unique because unlike early Spiritualist séances, which featured the ghosts of departed family members, the Eddy brothers most often contacted a more diverse group including Native American spirits, the ghost of a Khourdish warrior, and the ghost of an Egyptian juggler, among others. I attribute the variety of spirits at these séances to three intersecting tides of cultural influence: The first is the rise of ethnographic studies and the subsequent vogue of ethnographic subjects. Secondly, the Eddy group exhibited signs of antimodern ambivalence towards an age rich with new inventions which may have seemed, to the lay person, to be the work of magic. Finally, at the Eddy séances costumed play is used as a form of therapeutically reassuring ritual during this time of rapid change. While some critics in recent years have posited that such Theosophic meetings may have served as a sign of cross-cultural civic engagement, I will argue that it is far more likely that for the Eddy group, becoming possessed by foreign spirits served as a tool for self understanding which helped them to adapt to the encroachment of a seemingly haunted age.

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