Before the Ouija board: William Rossetti’s diary gives an insight into Victorian séances
Ouija Board (Shutterstock)

Death and disease are no strangers to the streets of Britain. By the late 19th century, tens of thousands of people had contracted fatal infections, such as cholera, smallpox and scarlatina, beginning with the first cholera epidemic of 1832, when detailed records first started being kept.

Wave after wave of typhoid also swept over the population where cause, diagnosis and cure were all equally uncertain – and social class provided no protection. In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens recorded “fever” deaths in the slums of London. But the most prominent flesh-and-bone victim was Queen Victoria’s own husband, Prince Albert. He was diagnosed with typhoid and died in December 1861.

Meanwhile, a bizarre form of comfort was at hand. In 1848 in Rochester, New York, two sisters claimed to have received messages from the spirit of a long-dead inhabitant of their house, and their conversation with him fired the imagination of America. Soon “table-rapping” swept the American continent, modern spiritualism was born and in the early 1850s it crossed the Atlantic. Séances began to take place in the parlours and dining rooms of France, Germany, Italy and Britain. All communication with the spirits was done through letters of the alphabet, similar to ouija boards.

The fashion for spiritualist séances was fuelled by those who longed for communication with lost loved ones or friends. The pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, started holding spiritualist séances after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, in 1862. Many of these took place in his home in Chelsea, attended by friends and acquaintances. The most regular participant was his brother, William Michael Rossetti.

Pursuing William Rossetti’s stray memories led me and my colleagues Rosalind White and Lenore Beaky to the Special Collection of the Library of the University of British Columbia where a small notebook by William Rossetti (labelled “Séance Diary”) is kept. We have co-edited this meticulous record of 20 séances that William attended between 1865 and 1868, published for the first time this year as a volume titled Pre-Raphaelites in the Spirit World – The Séance Diary of William Michael Rossetti.

Many of the séances feature conversations he and his brother had with Elizabeth Siddal, whose presence punctuates the three recorded years. Many others feature dead friends and relatives. According to William, on one occasion their uncle, Gaetano Polidori, once Lord Byron’s doctor, correctly confessed that he had died by suicide. On another, their Italian father, Gabriele Rossetti, was reportedly summoned and addressed the brothers in his native Italian.

Many of the spirits that Rossetti said rose from the dark were artists, often responding accurately to being asked about when, where and how their deaths had occurred. Some of the most remarkable manifestations involve figures of whom there is no evidence yet whose accounts have been confirmed recently through the archival research of the editors of this volume. And so, like many people curious about spiritualism we remain mystified by the bizarre accuracy of some of the messages coming from the spirit world through these diaries.


This story is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism and is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects to tackle societal and scientific challenges.


William Rossetti was a diligent civil servant with a strong sense of probity and an eye for detail, and what he gave us in this little notebook was an unparalleled insight into the Victorian spirit world.

Victorian séances

The Rossettis were by no means the only Victorians committed to a belief in the occult. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the social reformer Robert Owen, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and the novelist Arthur Conan Doyle were just a few more passionate believers in the power of séances. William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and the painter G.F. Watts were all members of the Society for Psychical Research, a badge of belief in spirit activity, and it was even rumoured that Queen Victoria received messages from Prince Albert via a psychic teenage boy named Robert James Lees.

Mediums became celebrities. The most famous, D.D. Home, came to Britain from America in 1855. In 1853 the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray met him in America and, convinced of his authenticity, used the pages of his journal, The Cornhill Magazine, to promote Home’s career. In Britain, one of the most famous mediums was Mary Marshall, who had risen to prominence in the late 1850s and who presided over a number of séances recorded by William Rossetti.

But dealing with the dead created as many sceptics as it did fans. The novelist George Eliot and her partner G.H. Lewis turned to the press to denounce spiritualism as a sham. Meanwhile the journal Once A Week described the aforementioned Mary Marshall as “poor”, “vulgar”, but hugely eminent as the “washerwoman medium”, describing “the abominable profanity and wickedness” of her séances.

The satirical journal Punch was quick to seize on the comic potential of the new vogue. Weekly cartoons depicting humorous dialogues with the dead appeared. Like this piece of doggerel in which Mr Punch:

Wanted to know what on earth are the merits
That make Mrs. Marshall affected by ‘sperrits!
Wanted to know why respectable dead
Come back to life at five shillings a head.

The most consistent war on spiritualism, however, was waged by the powerful voice of Dickens. He was outraged by D.D. Home. In 1860, he denounced Home’s autobiography as “odious”, written by a “ruffian” and a “scoundrel” and agreed with George Eliot that Home was “an object of moral disgust”. As for Mary Marshall and her daughter, he said they possessed the “duplicity and legerdemain of … two illiterate conjurors” playing on “the holiest and deepest feelings of their audience”.

Illustration of a duck dressed in woman clothes next to poem

Punch was a weekly satirical magazine published between 1871 and 2002. Among its most influential contributors was Sir John Tenniel, best known for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.

Bodleian Library, Oxford, Author provided

While the debate about authenticity raged, séances – both in public and in private – took place throughout the country. Some were spectacular displays of showmanship involving large audiences; some were intimate, devout gatherings, while others took the form of after-dinner entertainment.

The social, anthropological and religious role of spiritualism in Victorian culture has been much debated, but one important factor drove people to the darkened room of the medium: the need to contact a dead loved one. It was this motive that lay behind Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s desire to communicate with her brothers, both of whom died in 1840 – in February Samuel died of a fever in Jamaica, and shortly afterwards her favourite brother Edward was drowned in a sailing accident in Torquay in July.

Indeed, the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, started a career of his own in spiritualism after the death his brother in 1845. And the death of Conan Doyle’s son, Kingsley, strengthened the crime-writer’s lifelong belief in the occult. Death also lay behind the séances in William Rossetti’s diary, since many of them were driven by his brother’s desire to reach out to the spirit of his dead wife.

Though there are many records of spiritualist experiences in the 19th century, what makes William Rossetti’s diary so valuable is its detail. Every moment in the 20 séances is meticulously recorded, every participant and his or her reaction to the events is noted down, and the presence of so many prominent artists from the Pre-Raphaelite movement casts each of their personal beliefs and prejudices in a new light.

The spirit world

The lights are dimmed. The candles flicker. William Michael Rossetti asks some questions of the spirit of Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife. His questions involve a picture that he has just sent to a wealthy patron in Birkenhead called George Rae. The questions are strange, the responses reported by the diary monosyllabic but accurate.

William: Did you consider that picture which Gabriel sent away the other day one of his very best?
Elizabeth: Yes.
William: Do you know to whom it has gone?
Elizabeth: Yes.
William: Give initial of surname?
Elizabeth: R [correct for Rae]
William: Do you know in what room of Rae’s house that picture is now placed?
Elizabeth: Yes.
William: Dining room?
Elizabeth: No.
William: Drawing room?
Elizabeth: Yes.
William: How many in the whole house?

At this point, a pause of some 15 minutes ensues, within which no answers are reported.

William: During that pause were you absent looking into Rae’s house?
Elizabeth: Yes.
William: Can you give me any idea of the process by which you pass from one place to another?
Elizabeth: No.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s fascination with the occult went back to his early experiences of the poetry of Dante Alighieri in the scholarly work of his father Gabriele. In the course of his work, Gabriele frequently invoked the authority of the Swedish mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg who, around 1744, began to have visionary experiences of the afterlife. He had become a “seer”, he said, by God’s command to explain the correspondences between life on earth and life in heaven.

Group of people posing for a picture

All four Rossetti siblings – two sisters and two brothers – became famous in the arts during the era of Romanticism.

Wikimedia Commons

He claimed not only communication with angels and demons, but spoke of how he had been admitted into the spirit world and how he had returned to the terrestrial sphere to tell the story. Consequently, Rossetti’s poems and pictures are filled with spiritual experiences; with stories of hauntings and uncanny events. In the late 1850s he began to participate in séances, but it was the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, that lent his participation a new urgency.

Prior her death, Siddal had been suffering from post-natal depression caused by a still birth. Driven to despair by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s long-term infidelity and neglect of her, she took an overdose of laudanum. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was consumed by guilt and filled with remorse and, as some kind of compensation, he buried the whole manuscript of his unpublished poems in her coffin. But no sooner had she been placed in the earth than he began to have nightly visions of her in his bedroom. At that point he decided to try and look for her in the afterlife.

In October 1862, abandoning the house which they had shared, he took up residence beside the River Thames, where he began holding séances with his new friend, the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Many years later, Whistler spoke of the “strange things that happened when he went to séances at Rossetti’s” since, according to William Michael’s daughter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was “anxious to get some message” from Elizabeth.

William Rossetti’s séance diary

By the time William Rossetti began his séance diary in 1865, he was already a firm believer in spiritualist communications. Some of the séances he recorded came under the auspices of amateur mediums.

The richest and most dynamic ones took place under the mediumship of two professionals, Mary Marshall and Elizabeth Guppy, and the very first one he recorded took place in Marshall’s house. William Rossetti was accompanied by his artist friend, William Bell Scott. The two men, who were certain that the Marshalls had no personal knowledge of them, wanted to make contact with the recently deceased brother of Scott’s mistress, Spencer Boyd.

The information that emerged from this séance was striking. The spirit of Spencer Boyd was reportedly summoned, and stated, correctly, that he had died in Scott’s home, providing the address together with the date on which he had passed away. He is also reported as correctly telling the group that he had heard of, but never met, William Scott in person.

More startlingly, however, was a communication with people of whom there is no evidence that anyone present had any knowledge of – yet whose accounts have been subsequently confirmed by our own archival research. In February 1866, for example, a New Zealand Maori chief calling himself “Hemi” is reported to have appeared out of the dark. Sources show that he claimed to have met William Rossetti three years previously in Newcastle, when the chief was touring Britain exhibiting Maori dances.

Information gathered from historians in New Zealand, and our own research in the archives of local newspaper, the Newcastle Chronicle, confirmed that in the week beginning September 14, 1863, a group of “Maori chiefs” had indeed performed to audiences in Newcastle. On that same day, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a letter to a friend saying, in passing, that his brother was about to leave on a visit to Newcastle.

On other occasions, what were called “aports” were allegedly materialised. Eau-de-cologne and water were described showering out of nowhere, books thrown from the bookcases and, in one incident, the medium asked the participants if they would like to receive flowers. In response, roses, ferns and jonquils were requested and, to their amazement, appear to have dropped out of the darkness onto the table in front of them or onto their laps. Dante Gabriel Rossetti invited Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris, to two of these séances, where she claimed to have seen unexpected lights and cold draughts of air passed over her hands.

The most moving and dramatic séances, however, are those that featured the spirit of Elizabeth Siddal. In the second séance recorded by William Rossetti, his brother spoke to her with clear reference to the past. “You used to give me clear [and] significant answers,” he said, “but of late the reverse: can you tell me why?” He writes that she had no answer. In a later séance, the spirit reportedly confessed that she knew William Bell Scott, and thought that William Rossetti had been a very affectionate brother to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Later, at the home of Thomas Keightley, historian and folklorist, the diary describes her as telling the participants that she knew William Morris, and correctly told them his London address.

The most intensive cross-questioning of Elizabeth’s spirit took place in the very last séance at 2am on Friday August 14 1868. In this, the spirit was asked about the Rossetti’s father Gabriele in the afterlife, about the nature of Christ, and about the nature of the manifestations that they had recently witnessed at another séance. The most touching exchange is described as occurring between Dante Gabriel and Elizabeth.

Gabriel: Are you my wife?
Elizabeth: Yes
Gabriel: Are you now happy?
Elizabeth: Yes
Gabriel: Happier than on earth?
Elizabeth: Yes
Gabriel: If I were now to join you, should I be happy?
Elizabeth: Yes
Gabriel: Should I see you at once?
Elizabeth: No
Gabriel: Quite soon?
Elizabeth: No

“Bogie pictures”

Though they are not usually linked, during this period, both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Whistler created pictures with an occult significance. Dante Gabriel’s drawing How They Met Themselves (1860-64) is a ghostly double in a dense wood. It was completed in its first version during his honeymoon in 1860, and reworked as a coloured version in 1864. Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it his “bogie picture”.

William Rossetti said of it: “To meet one’s wraith is ominous of death, and to figure Elizabeth as meeting her wraith might well have struck her bridegroom as uncanny in a high degree. In less than two years the weird was woefully fulfilled”. Then, in 1863, both Whistler and Rossetti embarked on paintings with links to other spiritualist experiences.

Whistler’s Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864) has a contemporary setting and, like Dante’s drawing How They Met Themselves, it is also a doppelganger work: in it, Jo Hiffernan, Whistler’s mistress and her reflected image gaze down towards a lacquered Japanese box which Whistler employed in séances. Attached to the frame were Swinburne’s lines:

Art thou the ghost, my sister,
White sister there,
Am I the ghost, who knows?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1864-79), was begun at about the same time. Its original title was “Beatrice in a Death Trance”, a Dantean image which linked the death of Beatrice Portinari, the woman believed to be the muse for Dante’s Vita Nuova, beside the Arno with Elizabeth Siddal’s death beside the Thames. The painting was based on an unfinished portrait of Elizabeth and depicts the moment of her passage from life into death. The picture came to the notice of the prominent spiritualists William and Georgina Cowper-Temple.

William Cowper-Temple was president of the Board of Trade, and he and Georgina presided over séances in their family home with the most famous mediums of the day. In September 1865 they began to take an interest in Dante Rossetti’s work. They frequently visited his studio where he was working on the painting and offered to buy it as a genuine spiritualist work. It was beneath this picture and in the same studio that Rossetti was trying to conjure up the spirit of Elizabeth Siddal.

Painting showing three men converse with each other

How They Met Themselves, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864)

Wikimedia Commons

The Rossetti brothers have long been known for their contribution to writing and painting in the 19th century, but the record of their séances connects them to the widespread Victorian preoccupation with the occult.

The huge mortality rate in Victorian Britain encouraged large numbers to seek the support of mediums. Similarly, around 1918 the carnage of the first world war and the waves of Spanish flu created a new interest in spiritualism. Perhaps in this context, it’s unsurprising that the COVID-19 pandemic is reportedly driving a revival of the ouija board.

Though spiritualism is still surrounded with an air of suspicion and mystery, William Rossetti’s diary shows that believing one has made contact with the next world is usually a source of consolation and reassurance. For some, spiritualism was as precious as fiction: a place to go to when needing to step away from too harsh a reality.

For you: more from our Insights series:

To hear about new Insights articles, join the hundreds of thousands of people who value The Conversation’s evidence-based news. Subscribe to our newsletter.The Conversation

Barrie Bullen, Visiting Professor, Kellogg College, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.