How much do you know about Spiritualism? Spiritualism was a religious movement that focused on contacting the spirits of the deceased via mediums. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a believer in Spiritualism and so was Mary Todd Lincoln. Communication often took the form of rapping on tables, séances, and automatic writing. I’ve been reading about Spiritualism because it plays a role in my next story.
I’ve started (just barely!) on a sequel to The Gardenia Blonde, set in July 1935, immediately after the events of the first book. Lana Hayward and Andy Halloran flee New York City for Europe aboard the RMS Athena, an ocean liner with a very spooky history. The Athena, you see, was built in 1912, and is the physical twin of the world’s most famous sunken ocean liner. As Andy says wryly in chapter one:
“Other passengers kept clustering around the ornate Grand Staircase in first class, pointing and gawking. I’m not a superstitious man as a rule, but none of it improved my mood. And I was tired of hearing people talk about icebergs.”
I was inspired to create the Athena after reading about the RMS Olympic, a real-life ocean liner that was the sister ship of the Titanic. The two ships had similar architecture and the Olympic actually continued to sail well into the 1930s, so it provided an appropriately creepy inspiration for the RMS Athena. What’s unusual about my fictional ship is her passenger list–a famous spiritualist medium and her entourage. They aim to use the ship’s unique characteristics to commune with the spirit world because of the Athena’s relationship with tragedy. Getting in touch with the spirit world leads to earthly misfortune for Lana and Andy, who find themselves entangled in a murder investigation during their voyage. While some may want to talk to the dead, there are others onboard the Athena who’d like the spirits to remain silent…
I’m trying not to get too derailed by research, because spiritualism is a fascinating topic and it would be easy to lose myself in reading. Intriguingly enough, the popularity of Spiritualism allowed some female mediums to become important social figures. Even though its popularity peaked in the Victorian era, spiritualism still exists as a movement today. In fact, one of the books I’m reading for research is about Lily Dale, NY, a famous spiritualist community that still holds workshops every summer. I was dazzled by this quote from author and Lily Dale visitor Christine Wicker, describing a summer resident’s daily bicycle ride around the community:
“Lynn passes the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church, the little white church where people gather summer mornings hoping to be healed, and Assembly Hall, a two-story meetinghouse where students practice bending spoons and making tables rise. She coasts around men who carry passports to Orion in their wallets and women who give lessons in how to tell an angel from a human being. She wheels around widows hoping to talk with their late husbands, skirts lovestruck girls anxious to find out if their boyfriends are cheating, steers clear of divorcees yearning to know whether passion will ever visit them again.” –Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead
Doesn’t that just make you want to visit Lily Dale?