Ectoplasmic Nervousness: Mediumship and Medicine

Sarah Turner was a devout Christian, a widowed mother, and a woman removed from her Rhode Island community because of a chronic illness. Sarah Turner also had visions. In her 1841 memoir, Turner writes that words once appeared on the floor before her blind and deaf daughter that read “she hears,” “she will read,” and “she will talk.”[i] Despite derision from neighbors, Turner acted on the authority of her visions to call meetings among church members, ultimately becoming a figure of spiritual influence in the community. Three decades later, another widow sat in front of noted nineteenth-century Spiritualist photographer William H. Mumler. Mrs. H. B. Sawyer told Mumler nothing about herself beyond her insistence that she “sit as she pleased.” She crooked her right elbow, held her hand aloft, and gazed down at it. Her left arm lay in her lap. Mumler remarked that the position was “uncouth.” “No matter,” she responded. “Take it so.” The resulting photograph shows a translucent man reaching around the widow’s shoulders to place a figure of a baby in her carefully positioned arms (figure 1). This was, Mrs. Sawyer later told Mumler, a tribute to her departed infant in accordance with an agreement she made with her dying husband.[ii]

Figure 1: Mrs. Sawyer with the spirits of her husband and baby (Mumler)

Nineteenth-century Spiritualists and psychologists agreed that grief, chronic illness, and femininity all put a person in danger of excessive nervousness. Further, followers of both fields agreed that excessive nervousness meant that a woman was more likely to receive spiritual messages. For doctors like George Beard, author of 1881 American Nervousness, nervousness was a medical abnormality caused by a quickly-moving “nerve-force,” a problem common in upper-class white American women and the “brain-worker” class. The speed of one’s nerve-force was responsible for the hyper-perceptiveness needed for mind-reading and mediumship.[iii] As medicine raced to contain excess nervousness with diagnoses of hysteria, rest cures, and psychiatric institutions, Spiritualists used nervousness to grapple with contours of health that exceeded the scope of typical institutionalized medical practice: grief, sexuality, femininity, faith, and emotion.

Vision narratives like Turner’s and spirit photography like Mumler’s were joined by another artifact, allegedly the material product of nervousness escaping the body: ectoplasm, alternately called spirit material, nervous emanation, or psychic force. During a séance, ectoplasm might spew from a medium’s mouth, ears, or vagina (much of it made from artfully-crafted paper-maché and strategically-placed cheesecloth) (figure 2). While medical practices aim to re-inscribe broken body boundaries where blood, infection, vomit, and pus leak out, spiritualists found power in the performance of materializing nervous energy. As today’s feminist bioethicists tell us, the leakiness of menstruation, female sexuality, and an allegedly-feminine excess of emotion often get culturally coded as unhealthy by medicine’s historically masculine standards.[iv] With vision narratives, spirit photography, and ectoplasm, Spiritualist women harnessed their “unhealthy” excess of nervousness to command spiritual authority.

Figure 2: Cloth-like ectoplasm emerging from between a sitting medium’s legs; photographed, recorded, and studied by William Crawford[v]

The differences in the medical and Spiritualist approaches to nervousness have broad implications when considering how women’s healthcare in the U.S. reached its current state. Over the course of the nineteenth century, healthcare in the U.S. transitioned from domestic practices with women in roles of authority (midwives, botanists, healers) to a specialized institution that reserved its authority for white men. Medical historian Paul Starr argues that those who were suspicious of the burgeoning medical institution didn’t typically oppose science, “but opposed the control of knowledge and the ineffectiveness of doctors.”[vi] Built into the patriarchal control of knowledge was a fundamentally limited idea of “health,” the effects of which women patients still feel today. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine concluded that women report overall worse health than their male counterparts and tend to consider health to reach beyond the biological. The group suggested that researchers and practitioners who fail to consider social, environmental, political, economic, and cultural factors to be within the scope of medicine stand in the way of access, safety, and efficacy in women’s healthcare.[vii] [viii] Returning to the rise of the life sciences in the nineteenth century allows us to return to those who, from the start, opposed the patriarchal control of knowledge and a limited definition of health. Because both Spiritualism and psychology took interest in the nervous system, which seemed to live in the in-betweens of body, mind, and spirit, nervousness provides a glimpse into a lineage of women challenging practices of determining and knowing the body.

[i] Turner, Sarah. Seven Visions and Remarkable Revelations. Published by the author, Newport, RI, 1841.

[ii] Kaplan, Louis. The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008.

[iii] Beard, George M. American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences, a Supplement to Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia). New York : Putnam, 1881. Pp 12.

[iv] Ibid., 100.

[v] Crawford, W. J. The Psychic Structures At the Goligher Circle. New York: E. P. Dutton & company, 1921. Digitized by Internet Archive, Library of Congress.

[vi] Starr, Paul. The Social Transformation of American Medicine. Basic Books, New York, 1982.

[vii] Institute of Medicine. 2010. Women’s Health Research: Progress, Pitfalls, and Promise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[viii] Work in Medical Humanities over the last two decades has asked practitioners to widen their clinical gaze to recognize suffering beyond physical pain (Cassell), the experience of illness beyond the bodily disease (Kleinman), and the narrative models one uses to explain their experiences and symptoms (Kleinman, Charon, Bates).

Bates, Victoria, Alan Bleakley, and Sam Goodman. Medicine, Health and the Arts: Approaches to the Medical Humanities. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2014.

Cassell, Eric J. The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine. Oxford University Press, New York, 2004.

Charon, Rita. The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2017.

Kleinman, Arthur. The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition. Basic Books, New York, 1988.

Liana Kathleen Glew is a PhD candidate and graduate instructor in the English department at the Pennsylvania State University. She studies American literature, archival paperwork, and personal writing from nineteenth and twentieth-century psychiatric institutions in the context of Disability Studies and Medical Humanities. Her work has been featured in an episode of the C19 Podcast, “On Intake and Insanity: Women’s Narratives of Institutionalization.”