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W.T. Stead & Spiritualism

Stead's interest in Spiritualism seems to have begun in his final year at the Northern Echo, probably through his association with Mark Fooks, his assistant editor, who "had some knowledge of the matter." But it was not until he moved to London that he began to take a serious interest. In 1881, he attended his first seance where, he later claimed, he was hailed as the future "St. Paul of Spiritualism." Though he continued to dabble in spiritualism during his time at the Pall Mall Gazette, political and editorial contraints prevented him from over-indulging, and it was not until he became his own boss as owner and editor of the Review of Reviews in 1890, that he was able to pursue his interest further. In 1891, he published Real Ghost Stories as the Review of Reviews Christmas annual, and a year later, he followed this up with More Ghost Stories, again as a Christmas Annual. By this time, Stead was almost completely engrossed with matters supernatural, and in 1893, he founded the spiritualism quarterly, Borderland, with himself as editor. Sadly, massive work commitments forced him to abandon this venture four years later, but he continued publishing on the supernatural, becoming something of a spiritualist guru in the process. Stead's most famous work on spiritualism is Letters from Julia, a record of apparent "conversations" between himself and departed American journalist, Julia Amis, achieved by means of "automatic" writing. Stead later republished the work as After Death and even set up "Julia's Bureau", a seance circle that met each morning. Another notable "work" attributed to Stead is the implausible The blue island (1922), an alleged account of his after death experiences as "written" by him through the hand of a medium during several seances. Stead's apparent clairvoyant powers seem to originate from his two fictional stories, "How the Mail Steamer went Down in Mid Atlantic" (1886) and "From the Old World to the New" (1892), both of which suggest the Titanic disaster in which, years later, he would ultimately perish. Inevitably, Stead's absorption in spiritualism fatally eroded his political reputation, so much so that, by the time of his death, he was derided in many circles as a fanatic and a crank.

© Owen Mulpetre 2012