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Lottie Fowler: The Forgotten American Medium

Although she is relatively unkown today, during the second half of the nineteenth century, Lottie Fowler (née Charlotte Connelly) was one of the rising stars of spiritualism.

Born in Boston in 1846, Fowler skyrocketed to fame amongst spiritualists in 1870 when she moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Early into her stay, Fowler predicted that there would be an explosion at the local factory owned by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. A week later her premonition came true. Initially, the local authorities believed that Fowler was responsible for the explosion, but she was eventually exonerated when there was no evidence to back up the claim

SOURCE: Alexandria Gazette, 7 January 1870

With a growing public interest in her clairvoyance, Fowler began to tour around the north-east of the United States. Eventually, she travelled to Europe where she hosted further séances in major cities such as London. Her first séance in England was well-received and a description of the proceedings appeared in the popular Spiritualist Newspaper on 15 November 1871

SOURCE: The Spiritualist Newspaper, 15 November 1871

Fowler’s popularity also attracted the attention of some high-profile scientific figures in the Victorian world. One of these investigators was the famed Victorian anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor. In November of 1872, Tylor had travelled to London specifically to investigate spiritualism. For several years he had been interested in the movement. However, like most men of science, he believed that spirit and psychic forces were little more than the products of deception, superstition, and credulity. Tylor kept a thorough record of these investigations in a notebook, which is now housed in the archives at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

SOURCE: Portrait of E.B Tylor

In an attempt to determine the true causes of spirit phenomena, Tylor attended numerous séances, including a performance led by Fowler at the Burns Spiritual Institution on Southampton Row, in Holborn, London. The Burns Spiritual Institution was a short-lived private organization founded in 1863 by the journalist and publisher James Burns. It provided a regular program of spiritualist performances, and was a central hub for spiritualist activities in London.

Tylor was highly sceptical of Fowler and early on during the séance he was already identifying flaws in her performance. When under the possession of a young German spirit named “Annie,” Tylor recorded in his notebook that “She went round the company stopping before each with eyes shut, and telling each of the spirits she saw behind him or her. Her descriptions were guessed wrong 4 times in 5, or 9 in 10, but cleverly shifted and made right by getting something out of the sitter.”

In Tylor's view, Fowler used various types of misdirection and cold reading techniques to gather information from audience members on their deceased friends and relatives. This was done in order to give the impression that she was genuinely communicating with the dead.

Yet as Tylor recorded in his notebook, most of it was guesswork and only provided vague or non-specific information. For example, Fowler might correctly guess that a sitter lost a sibling, “but the name[,] age and description [were] more or less wrong.” Tylor left the séance concluding that most of the so-called spirit phenomena witnessed, was either “tricked out or guessed in the course of talk,” and he believed that Fowler was a complete fraud.

Despite Tylor’s rather low opinion of Fowler, she continued to perform on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 1870s. Moreover, there was plenty of praise for Fowler’s mediumship in the press. Take for example an account from March of 1872 that written by Emily Kislingbury, the future secretary of the British Association of Spiritualists in 1877, & co-founder the British Theosophical Society in 1878.

SOURCE: The Spiritualist, 15 March 1872.

Throughout her period of success, Fowler experienced some mental health issues and eventually by the 1880s things escalated further.

SOURCE: Bridgeport Herald, 26 March 1899.

After a particularly intense séance in New York, where Fowler struggled to regain consciousness after going into trance, she began suffering from “terrors.” Worried for her well-being, she was committed to a mental health facility at Bellevue Hospital, New York. She spent the remainder of her days there and was buried on the site. It marked a tragic end to an otherwise fascinating life.

SOURCE: Baltimore Sun, 23 March 1899.

Further Readings

Buckland, Raymond. The Spirit Book: The Encyclopedia of Clairvoyance, Channeling, and Spirit Communication. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2005.

Lehman, Amy. Victorian Women and the Theatre of Trance: Mediums, Spiritualists and Mesmerists in Performance. London: MacFarland and Co., 2002.

Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. London: Virago Press, 1989.

Stocking, George. “Animism in Theory and Practice: E.B. Tylor’s Unpublished ‘Notes on “Spiritualism.”’” Man 6 (1971): 88-104.

Walkowitz, Judith. “Science and the Séance: Transgressions of Gender and Genre in Late Victorian London.” Representations 22 (1988): 3-29.

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