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Talking to the Dead: How the 1918 Pandemic Spurred a Spiritualism Craze

April 21, 2020 in History

By Greg Daugherty

People turned to séances, Ouija boards and more to help communicate with their dearly departed.

When the influenza pandemic hit the U.S. between 1918 and 1920, Americans wanted answers. Their questions weren’t limited to what caused the pandemic or might prevent the next one. They struggled with more eternal concerns, such as what happens to us after we die and whether it’s possible to communicate with dead loved ones.

The flu pandemic wasn’t alone in spurring this search for meaning. World War I, which ended in November 1918, had racked up a worldwide death toll of 20 million soldiers and civilians, according to one estimate. And if that wasn’t sufficiently staggering, the influenza had taken at least 50 million lives. In both cases, most victims were young—between 20 and 40, in the case of the flu—and left behind parents, spouses, sweethearts and children.

Not surprisingly, spiritualism, which promised a window into the afterlife, saw a sudden resurgence in the United States, Great Britain, France and elsewhere. A February 1920 headline in the New York Sun said it all: “Riddle of the Life Hereafter Draws World’s Attention.”

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

WATCH: The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than World War II

Famous names gave spiritualism credence

The two most prominent proponents of spiritualism were British: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge. Doyle was, of course, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Lodge was a respected physicist known for his work with radio waves.

Both men had a longtime interest in the supernatural, and both had lost sons in the war. Lodge’s son Raymond had been struck down by a shell fragment while fighting in Belgium in 1915. Doyle’s son Kingsley had been wounded in France in 1916 and died of pneumonia in 1918, likely brought on by the influenza pandemic. Doyle also lost his younger brother to the flu in 1919, while his wife’s brother had been killed in Belgium in 1914.

After the war, both men lectured widely in the U.S. and also wrote books describing their psychic experiences.

Lodge’s 1916 book, Raymond, or Life and Death, describes numerous purported contacts with his late son. Lodge and his wife met with a variety of mediums, who practiced such techniques as automatic writing and table tilting to communicate with the dead.

In automatic writing, the spirit supposedly guided the medium’s hand to write out …read more


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How the First Earth Day Was Borne From 1960s Counterculture

April 21, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

On April 22, 1970, a nationwide “teach-in” inspired millions of Americans to care more about the environment.

During , published in 1962, introduced many Americans to the devastating effects of the large-scale use of pesticides, especially DDT. As the 1960s continued, more and more people became aware of other threats to the environment, such as automobile emissions, oil spills and industrial waste.

By 1967, the federal government had passed the first Clean Air Act, the first federal emissions standards and the first list of endangered species (including the bald eagle, America’s national symbol). These laws were a start, but they did not go far enough to address the serious environmental problems facing the nation.

In January 1969, the Union Oil well in Santa Barbara, California spilled more than 200,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean over 11 days. That June, oil and chemicals floating on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burst into flames. Images of such disasters, broadcast across the country, helped fuel a growing outrage over the state of the environment, especially among young radicals.

Drawing Inspiration from the Anti-War Movement

This sign hung behind the bike of an activist during the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

Despite this growing consciousness, environmental activists hadn’t yet come together as a true movement by the end of the 1960s, as civil rights and anti-war activists had. This lack of momentum had long frustrated Gaylord Nelson, a Democratic senator and former governor of Wisconsin (1959-63) who was one of Congress’ most passionate environmentalists. During his years in the Senate, Nelson had also backed civil rights legislation and voted against appropriating funds for the war in Vietnam.

In August 1969, Nelson traveled to California, where he spoke at a water conference and visited the scene of the Santa Barbara oil spill. On that trip, he was struck by an article he read in Ramparts magazine about the anti-war “teach-ins” held on college campuses in the mid-1960s. Though teach-ins had been abandoned as an anti-war tactic, Nelson now saw their potential to energize people—especially young people—by educating them about the need to protect the environment.

On September 20, 1969, speaking at the annual symposium of the Washington Environmental Council in Seattle, Nelson announced that he was planning a nationwide teach-in on the environment for the following spring. “I am convinced that the same concern the …read more