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Title:A modern mecca of psychic forces: the Psychical Science Congress and the culture of progressive occultism in fin-de-siecle Chicago, 1885-1900
Author(s):Andrick, John M
Director of Research:Micale, Mark S.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Micale, Mark S.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Oberdeck, Kathryn J.; Burkhardt, Richard W.; Sommer, Andreas
Department / Program:History
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Progressive occultism
Psychical science congress
Abstract:The Psychical Science Congress (PSC), held from August 21-25, 1893, was a division of the Science and Philosophy congresses of the World’s Congress Auxiliary held in conjunction with Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. The first international congress devoted solely to psychical research, the PSC was initially conceived by John Curtis Bundy, editor of Chicago’s progressive spiritualist newspaper, the Religio-Philosophical Journal (R-PJ). Upon Bundy’s death in August 1892, organizational matters fell to Elliott Coues, an internationally famous natural scientist who became chairman of the PSC. The Congress drew into its fold a number of well-known figures of the fin de siècle including: Richard Hodgson and Frederic W. H. Myers of the London Society for Psychical Research; Benjamin Franklin Underwood, a noted freethinker who assumed editorship of the R-PJ following John Bundy’s death and who established it as the official organ of the PSC; Frances Willard, the internationally acclaimed head of the Women’ Christian Temperance Union and America’s most beloved woman leader; Lyman J. Gage, a corporate officer of the Columbian Exposition, president of Chicago’s First National Bank, and spiritualist who hosted séances in his Chicago home; and Lilian Whiting, a noted journalist and New Thought advocate whose uplifting address regarding the spiritual future to come was delivered on the final day of the PSC by her close friend, the actress Kate Field. These and other notable figures with interests in the occult who presented papers at the Psychical Science Congress drew large audiences in the Halls of Columbus and Washington at the Memorial Art Palace (now the Art Institute Building), making the Congress one of the most popular of all held under the auspices of World’s Congress Auxiliary. In the decade from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s Chicago was a center for American occult activity, boasting a number of spiritualist and theosophical organizations along with its own independent psychical research society, the Western Society for Psychical Research (WSPR). Organized in the summer of 1885, the WSPR was the largest urban psychical research society outside of Boston and its officers and membership provided the corps of organizational leadership which would form the local Arrangements Committee for the Psychical Science Congress. Though modeled after the London SPR, the Western Society for Psychical Research could not match the London group’s scientific standards and it practiced a ‘wilder’ variety of psychical research which betrayed its spiritualist leanings. As with the case of the American SPR which expired in 1889, becoming a branch of the London organization, the WSPR expired in 1890, ceasing all investigations of psychical and spiritual phenomena. The Psychical Science Congress, along with the Theosophical Congress, held from September 15-17, 1893 as a divisional congress of the World’s Parliament of Religions, elevated the public’s awareness of spiritualism, psychical research, and theosophy as elements of a progressive occultism which promised not only to heighten mankind’s spiritual and moral development but to accelerate societal reforms which would improve the human condition. As a profound evolutionary force, progressive occultism promised knowledge and understanding of hidden realities and the heightening of individual mental powers—telepathy, clairvoyance, astral travel, and spirit communication among other supernormal and supernatural psychical abilities. But Chicago’s status as a world center for generating psychical forces and drawing leaders of occult doctrines to its environs was short-lived and the promises of progressive occultism were soon appropriated by New Thought commercial hucksters whose primary concern was money-making. The discoveries of the spiritual unknown which psychical science hoped to deliver remained disappointing as the forays into spiritualism and psychical research in Chicago from 1885-1895 appeared to be another variety of the ‘romantic revival’ in which romance, adventure, and philosophical speculation seemed more attractive than the difficult and time-consuming efforts of serious scientific investigation into an occluded unknown. The hope of the Chicago organizers of the PSC that psychical science would take its place among the newly forming social sciences of the late-nineteenth century failed to materialize. However, certain philosophical notions regarding the centrality of spirituality as a central element of reform survived throughout the Progressive Era.
Issue Date:2016-11-18
Rights Information:Copyright 2016 John Michael Andrick
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-03-01
Date Deposited:2016-12

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