Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

MA in Women's History

First Advisor

Priscilla Murolo


Scholars of Spiritualism have long held that the movement grew spontaneously, forming around the Fox sisters as news of their novel “spirit-rapping” spread through New York in 1849. My thesis argues that a wide spectrum of occult workers, already active in New York City, paved the way for these genteel celebrities and their followers. These working women were already refashioning their trade before Spiritualism’s arrival, evident by the myriad new professional identities they claimed. Through newspaper advertisements, public commentaries, and popular occult literature, I closely examine several professional monikers common in New York City at the time. Chapter One chronicles the widespread practice of fortune-telling and its focus on prophecies of romance. By examining the specific services of working-class practitioners and the recreational divination of middle- and upper-class women, I demonstrate how reactions to these pursuits differed across class lines. Chapter Two takes up clairvoyance, its origins in the medical practice of mesmerism, and professional clairvoyants’ partial claim to respectability based on adherence to a scientific methodology. Chapter Three addresses astrology, a centuries-old, male-dominated tradition that in the 1840s was increasingly claimed by women hoping to dissociate themselves from the stigma of fortune-telling. Studying these occult workers is crucial to complicating an overly simplistic story of Spiritualism’s rise and a step in recovering histories vital to modern practitioners, who continue to face discrimination and broken lineages.

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