Spiritualism, Astrology, and Women’s Suffrage in Boston
Spiritualism grew in popularity in Northeastern states after both the U.S. Civil War and World War I.
By Anna Boyles
Women in Boston were active supporters of spiritualism and astrology, but their affiliations with these unorthodox beliefs are not apparent in the city’s voter registers following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The Mary Eliza transcription team has not yet identified any woman whose occupation was recorded by city clerks as medium, spiritualist, astrologer, pastor, or public speaker. After reading periodicals and directories published by spiritualist and occult societies, however, we were able to locate several women voters who were active leaders in these unconventional practices in Boston.
Spiritualism grew in popularity in Northeastern states after both the U.S. Civil War and World War I. Mourning Americans sought ways to cope with the immeasurable grief from losing loved ones, and spiritualism offered solace for many. “The fundamental tenets of Spiritualism,” according to religious scholar Elizabeth Lowry, “held that one could communicate with spirits of the deceased – either with the help of a medium at a séance, or (with enough practice) on one’s own.” The ability to communicate with the dead, or access the divine truth, was available to each individual human being. This central belief created an environment in which many women were able to hold public meetings and serve in leadership positions. Furthermore, spiritualism’s embrace of individual human ability laid the foundation for many in the movement to reject male supremacy, whether in religion, politics, or society. Women’s suffrage was one of many progressive social movements supported by spiritualists.
Like spiritualism, astrology's central tenets challenged the social and religious status quo. Astrology is the belief that the stars and planets of our solar system have an effect on human personality and behavior. By simply studying astrological movements, an individual could predict future events and act accordingly.
Prominent Boston astrologer Catherine H. Thompson registered to vote in October of 1920; for unknown reasons, the city clerk reported her occupation to be a teacher. She was born in England before immigrating to the United States in 1880 at the age of twenty-two. It is unclear when Thompson was first introduced to astrology, but she studied the practice under famed astrologer Dr. Luke Broughton of New York. She settled in Boston in the 1890s and began advertising astrological consultations from her home at the Hotel Pelham, on the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets. When Thompson discovered that no magazine in the country was devoted to the practice of astrology, she began publishing The Sphinx in 1899.
Catherine H. Thompson, like many of her contemporary astrologists and spiritualists, used her platform to voice her opinions and observations on women’s place in society. In addition to publishing an astrological magazine and offering private readings, Thompson began giving weekly public speeches at Huntington Chambers, near Copley Square, around 1911. Her speeches covered a variety of topics, such as planetary law and karmic law, horoscopes, Biblical astronomy, love, and women. Thompson began writing on astronomy for the Boston Post during WWI, and her articles became syndicated across the country. In one article, she predicted that the year 1915 would see the “Feminist movement . . . place limitations on man’s excess and extravagance in war, finance, and politics. . . . Even now, woman is gathering in the harvest, entering the business places, running the street cars and trying to gather up and save all that man is scattering and smashing up.”
For several summers in the 1910s, Catherine H. Thompson traveled to Lake Pleasant to attend spiritualist camp meetings. Lake Pleasant was established in the 1870s in Montague, Massachusetts, and was one of several dozen spiritualist camps in the Northeast. Activities at these camps ranged from public lectures and private séances to boating, roller skating, and dancing. Spiritualist communities entertained a broad range of views, often welcoming speakers on topics such as astrology. Thompson gave astrological lectures and assisted in at least one séance at Lake Pleasant. Northeastern camps like Lake Pleasant attracted newcomers to spiritualism, but they also strengthened regional connections among spiritualists.
Although spiritualism rejected hierarchy and institutionalization throughout much of its early history, several spiritualist churches formed in Boston during the early twentieth century. As many as six spiritualist churches advertised their weekly services to readers of the Boston Post in 1920. We have located a few of their leaders who registered to vote following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Rebecca G. Treadwell, for example, registered to vote in October 1920. At the time, she lived near Dudley Square in Roxbury, and the city clerk recorded her occupation as housewife. Further research revealed that Treadwell was actually the pastor of the First Science Bible Spiritual Church. Her first service was in 1916, and she held as many as three services a week in Cambridge’s Central Square.
Many spiritualist churches incorporated Christian scripture into their services, and Black spiritualist churches, in particular, incorporated African traditions of ancestor veneration and spirit possession into their practice. The secretary of the First Spiritualist Science Church, Estelle H. Ferriabough, registered to vote in September 1920. She lived in Lower Roxbury, and Census enumerators reported her as being Black. She assisted her church’s president, Julia E. Lee, who was mixed-race and born in antebellum Delaware. Lee was employed in Boston as a caterer, but records indicate she also ran spiritualist church services in her Lower Roxbury apartment, near the present-day intersection of Shawmut Avenue and Ruggles Street.
While spiritualism never became a mainstream religion in the United States, its validity was studied by scientists in the early twentieth century. Physicists, in particular, were interested in how mediums were able to communicate with the dead, while skeptics sought to expose so-called charlatans. The Scientific American responded to these investigations in 1922 by arranging a competition: the magazine offered $5000 to whoever could produce “conclusive psychic manifestations.” Famed magician Harry Houdini challenged one of Boston’s mediums, Mina S. Crandon, to prove her abilities. After studying Crandon’s work for a year, both Houdini and the magazine concluded that she was a fraud. Spiritualism endured such critiques from both science and mainstream Christian denominations, and after the mid-1920s, its base of supporters significantly dwindled. Spiritualism and astrology both offered women unique opportunities to serve as public speakers and religious leaders, and it is curious that their popularity did not last much beyond women’s achievement of the right to vote.
- Sphinx Magazine (1899-1901)
- Hartmann’s Who’s Who in Occult, Psychic, and Spiritual Realms (1925)
- Ann Braud, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (1989)
- Mary Ann Clark, “Spirit is Universal: Development of Black Spiritualist Churches,” in Esotericism in African American Religious Experience (2014)
- Dianca London Potts, “Holy Spirits: The Power and Legacy of America’s Female Spiritualists,” Shondaland (2018)
- Katherine Harmon Courage, “Scientific American vs. the Supernatural,” Scientific American (2020)
- Mary Eliza Project Page
Anna Boyles is a dual-degree student in History and Archives Management at Simmons University.
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- Published by: Archives and Records Management