, Salem, MA


October 26, 2012

Speaking with spirits in Salem

Spiritualism, or communicating with the dead, took off in America after 1848, when the Fox sisters of Hydesville, N.Y., started “talking” to spirits through rapping sounds.

In “A History of Spiritualism and the Occult in Salem,” musician and historian Maggi Smith-Dalton examines the career of this movement in a local context.

Her book, which she will discuss Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Abbot Public Library in Marblehead, is in some ways an intellectual history of Salem in the 19th century.

She summarizes “precursor” movements of the period such as mesmerism, a belief in the existence of a magnetic force in living creatures that could be exploited through hypnotism.

The influence of writings by Emmanuel Swedenborg, the 18th-century Swedish mystic, are also examined.

Smith-Dalton also discusses local figures, including luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and some of Salem’s most respected citizens, who participated in spiritualist sessions and entertained its claims.

She writes that the perception of spiritualism in Salem and elsewhere was deeply influenced by the witch hysteria of 1692:

“The memory of Salem’s ‘delusion’ and the varied responses people had to it were key ingredients in the reception of spiritualism and the rise of the occult in the nineteenth century, nationwide no less than locally.”

Smith-Dalton is a performer and writer who also wrote “Stories and Shadows From Salem’s Past.”

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