Last year I put together a few articles spotlighting the 25 Most Influential People in the Development of Modern Paganism. It was fun and was read by a lot of folks and even resulted in a few other similar lists. The original articles inspired a lot of comments too, mostly along the lines of “I can’t believe Person Y didn’t make your list!” Usually those criticisms were spot-on, I picked twenty-five folks but a credible case could be made for lots of people I left off my initial list.
In order to fill in some of the gaps from that earlier project, and because I really like history, I’m running a feature over the next few weeks called “Ten Important ______.” This time around I’m focused on figures from the Nineteenth Century, last time it was last time it was Witchcraft and before that Druids. Future installments will look at folks involved in Heathenry and Goddess Spirituality, and possibly more! Other than the time involved in writhing these things (longer than an average blog post) and the extra work of tracking down pictures and inserting links (takes forever!) these lists are fun.
Anytime I share one of these lists I’m surprised by the amount of people who miss the fine print. This is a list of ten fascinating figures who share a few common traits, namely an interest in magic and the occult along with births and/or deaths in the Nineteenth Century. That’s all it is. There are no claims being made here that these are the most important figures or the only figures, just that they are figures. The point of these articles is to spark interest in some of our Pagan and occult fore-bearers (and sometimes contemporaries). I’m just hoping that after reading these little bits of history you’ll be intrigued and what to learn more about the people and time periods being written about.
This is a very eclectic list and the definition I’m using of “the occult” here is broad. If there’s magic, talking to spirits, and/or sacrifices to Zeus I’m calling it “occult.” All the people on this list were either born or died in the Nineteenth Century, and sometimes the greatest achievements of a particular person took place in the 1900’s. It’s my list and I really only created it so I could write about Paschal Beverly Randolph and the Fox Sisters.
William Lauron “L.W.” Delaurence (1868-1936) L.W. Delaurance (sometimes spelled de Laurance) is one of the occult’s great trickster figures. He began his occult career selling pamphlets on hypnotism door to door, and then later turned that material into the book Hypnotism: A Complete System in 1900. Disappointed with the publishing industry and cheated out of some royalty money he started his own publishing house in 1904 called De Laurance, Scott & Company, even though there was never any Scott and not much of a company at the time. Though Delaurance had been the victim of a shady publishing business he himself took shadiness to an entirely new level. In perhaps his most brazen act he reprinted Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot as The Illustrated Key to the Tarot and listed himself as the author. His The Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic, and East Indian Occultism was one of the great scams of all time, being nothing more than a stripped down version of the English grimoire The Magus with a few added pictures of scenes from India. He did found his own occult society in the early Twentieth Century Chicago known as the Order of the Black Rose which curiously worshipped a cigar-store Indian. Delaurance was the P.T. Barnum of the occult and through his catalog sold thousands of occult titles. His empire was global with his books reaching Europe and Africa. Pennsylvania Dutch texts such as The Long Lost Friend became a part of numerous magical traditions because Delaurance. To this day books from De Laurance, Scott and Company are not allowed in the country of Jamaica.
Kate, Maggie, and Leah Fox (Kate 1837–1892 Maggie 1833–1893 Leah 1814–1890) Growing up I was always fascinated with Spiritualism, especially the seances that were a part of the movement. I was intrigued by the theatrics, but also by how firmly believers clung to it. If it was all just parlor tricks why were individuals like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle caught up in it?
Modern day Spiritualism began in a little log cabin in Hydesville New York (a town that no longer exists) and at the center of it were the Fox Sisters, Kate and Maggie. Their contact with the spirits began during the horrible Winter of 1847/48 when the girls were 11 and 14 respectively*, and manifested as a series of knocks and thuds that grew especially worrisome that March. Some of the banging sounds were so violent that they shook the walls of their cabin. Eventually the girls and their mother worked out a way to “talk” with the spirit in the house using a series of knocks or raps. The spirit’s name was determined this way and the girls and their mother took to calling him Mr. Splitfoot.
Eventually the neighbors were called in and a sensation started. It was the third Fox sister, the much older Leah, who figured out how to monetize the gifts of her younger siblings, and make them famous. By 1849 they were playing large auditoriums, and eventually they even travelled to Europe due to their gifts. After many years of serious drinking and dwindling receipts Maggie admitted in 1888 that the spirit knocks came from her cracking a toe on her foot. Maggie was paid by skeptics for her public confession which she recanted the following year. Both she and her sister died in incredible poverty and shunned by most friends and family members.
Though Kate and Maggie met very tragic ends, Spiritualism was an important movement in both the United States and Britain. Many early Spiritualists were big proponents of women’s suffrage and many of them were abolitionists who aided the Underground Railroad. The occupation of “medium” first made famous by Maggie and Kate also provided a means for many women to escape poverty. Job options for women in 1850 were pretty limited, Spiritualism offered a work opportunity beyond the schoolhouse or farmstead. While Maggie did confess to the whole thing being a hoax late in life, there were also miraculous reports involving the Fox Sisters helping to facilitate contact with the deceased, and rarely mentioned are the instances of physical events that occurred around the girls when talking with the spirits (things like being physically slapped). Some of those instances happened when the girls were exceedingly young and according to witnesses they were both terrified.
Kate and Maggie received most of the attention, but it was Leah who might have been the real mother of Spiritualism. She was the one who figured out how to monetize interaction with the spirits and eventually became a medium herself. She lacked the ability to produce the “rapping sounds” her sisters were able to conjure up, so she became a trance medium a practice far more popular and long-lasting than that of her sisters. (In most books on the Fox Sisters the sounds made by the spirits, or the girls toes, are referred to as “raps.” I don’t like to use the term because writing things like “rapping sounds” makes me think of Chuck D and not spectral knocking.) Leah was also able to avoid the alcoholism that plagued her sisters and lived a very long and mostly happy life. The first picture features Maggie (Margaret), Kate, and Leah from left to right, the second has Kate on the left and Maggie on the right. I don’t know what it says about me but I find their pictures rather haunting, and just a bit creepy.
Where are Eliphas Levi, Madame Blavatsky, and Samuel Mathers? They are on another list, as are Robert Graves and Dion Fortune, besides those last two don’t need or deserve a two paragraph introduction.
Papus born as Gerard Encausse (1865-1916) Papus was one of the great French occultists (though he was born in Spain he wrote in French and lived there for most of his life), second in the Nineteenth Century to only Eliphas Levi. Papus was involved in all manner of occult and esoteric orgnizations including the Theosophical Society and The Golden Dawn. He later on went on to found the Marist Order, a mystical Christian fraternal organization in the spirit of Freemasonry. He wrote and assembled one of the great French grimoires, Traite Méthodique De La Magie Pratique in 1898. Pratique appealed to both the occult intelligencia in Paris as well as rural practitioners of French cunning-craft and was full of charms, spells, prayers, and talismans. It was also written in a completely sympathetic tone, unlike many other grimoires. Papus’s greatest contribution to the occult is found in his 1889 work The Tarot of the Bohemians which links each letter of the Hebrew alphabet to a corresponding card from the Major Arcana. His system was later adopted by groups such as The Golden Dawn and The Fraternity of Inner Light.
“Old” George Pickingill (1816-1909) Either George Pickingill was the most influential Witch and occultist of the last two hundred years, or he was a simple English cunning-man. I lean heavily towards the latter. For most of his life Pickingill worked as a farm laborer and cunning-man in the English village of Canewdon in Essex County and died poor and peacefully after a remarkably long life. Fifty some odd years after his death Pickingill was reborn as powerful “witch” by English writer
Robert Eric Maple who featured Old George in his 1962 book The Dark World of the Witches. In Dark World Pickingill is cast as one of the last great English witches and his reputation only grew from there. By the end of the 1960’s stories were being told of Pickingill holding black masses and orgies and being able to make people ill simply by touching them with a stick.
In 1974 E. W. “Bill” Liddell began submitting articles about Pickingill to The Wiccan, a British Witch periodical. In those letters (which later continued in Michael Howard’s The Cauldron) Liddell wrote an alternative Craft history one with Pickingill at its head. In this version of history Pickingill is the initiator of not just Gerald Gardner but also Aleister Crowley. Pickingill was certainly a magician and cunning-man, but the leader of nine covens all worshipping the Horned God? There’s no evidence of this outside of Liddell’s claims (and Liddell has always stated that his writing came from other sources), but there’s not necessarily anything disproving it either. I’m extremely skeptical of the whole thing, but it’s fascinating none the less. Liddell’s letters were released as The Pickingill Papers: The Origin of the Gardnerian Craft back in 1994 and you can read a spirited defense of them and Pickingill as “England’s most notorious witch” here.
Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875) Before there was Aleister Crowley there was Paschal Beverly Randolph, perhaps the most gifted magician and occultist of 19th Century America. Even without the occult Randolph lived an extroridnary life. He spent time on both American coasts, and of special interest to me, lived for a time in San Francisco. He visited every continent but Antarctica and met Napoleon III and Abraham Lincoln. He was a licensed doctor, a spiritualist, and wrote over sixty books in his lifetime, that’s more than one a year. He did all of this while overcoming racism; his mother was of African descent. I also feel like I need to add that he named his son Osiris Buddha. As a magician his biggest accomplishment was introducing (or perhaps reintroducing depending on your interpretation of history) sex magic to the world. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the concept of “sex magic” would not exist today without Randolph. Sadly his life was cut short after he died of suspicious circumstances at the age of 49. Authorities at the time rules his passing a suicide, but many now believe he was murdered.
Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) The tarot deck know as Rider-Waite is perhaps the most well known and influential deck ever. “Generic images” of tarot cards usually feature images from the Rider-Waite. The deck gets its most well known name from the designer of the cards, Arthur Edward Waite (a true giant of English occultism, see below) and the Rider Company, the deck’s original publisher. Rider-Waite is a horrible name for this particular deck of cards, because while Waite helped formulate the design of the cards, they were illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. Over the last couple of decades as more people have become aware of Smith’s contribution to the world’s most famous tarot it’s become increasingly more popular (and far more accurate!) to refer to the deck as the Waite-Smith deck. Smith met Waite after joining the Golden Dawn in 1901. Her now famous cards were released in 1909, but she didn’t have a lot of time to celebrate her triumph; she converted to Catholicism in 1911. Sadly Smith died alone and nearly penniless in 1951, but through her artwork which many of us see on a daily basis, she lives on.
Thomas “The Pagan” Taylor (1758-1835) One of my favorite figures of the early 19th Century is Thomas Taylor, a man so committed to Neo-Platonist thought that both his friends and his foes referred to him as “The Pagan.” Taylor is best known today in scholarly circles for providing the first English translation of The Hymns of Orpheus and the first complete English translations of Socrates and Aristotle. In addition to his work as a translator he wrote a great deal of spiritual philosophy and believed that after death human souls “would be conjoined with the gods.” He was a fierce opponent of Christianity and once described Christian clergy as “consummate arrogance united with a profound ignorance of ancient wisdom and blended with matchless hypocrisy and fraud.” There were rumors during his lifetime that he once sacrificed a bull in his backyard in honor of the Greek god Zeus. Despite Taylor’s love of the Greek gods and contempt of hypocritical Christianity he probably wouldn’t have gotten along with very many Pagans today. He could be a bit of a prude and went out of his way to minimize sexuality in ancient paganisms.
Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942) Waite is most known today for the tarot deck which bears his name (the Waite-Smith deck otherwise known as Rider-Waite), but he was also a hugely influential scholar and practitioner of the occult. Waite was a member of the Golden Dawn and interested in all manner of esoteric things: The Kabbalah, ceremonial magic, the tarot, and Freemasonry. One thing Waite was uncomfortable with was paganism, and was critical of the Golden Dawn for using pagan deities in some of its rites. He was a careful scholar, not given to the flights of fancy that permeate so many 19th and early 20th Century books about the occult. For instance he was well aware that tarot cards were most likely Italian in origin, and not connected to Atlantis or Ancient Egypt. Waite’s tone while writing about the occult was often unsympathetic and he was one of the first occult writers to warn of “The Brotherhood of the Left Hand Path” dividing magical workings between the paths of “Left” and “Right.”
If you liked this article you’ll also probably enjoy my articles on The Long Lost Friend, Albert Pike, and Joseph Smith’s (the founder of The Church of Latter Day Saints) interest in the occult. The last one there drew the ire of a lot of pissed off Mormons, oh well. I’ve also visited Lily Dale which houses a replica of the Fox Sisters cabin.
I could not have written this article without the assistance of the following books:
Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton, most specifically the bit about George Pickingill.
Grimoires by Owen Davies allowed me to accurately write about L.W. Delaurance (and its his spelling I use for L.W.’s last name) and provided some of the information on Papus.
Paul Kleber Monod’s Solomon’s Secret Arts was where the information about Thomas Taylor came from. I had never heard of Taylor before reading that book last summer.
Stealing Fire From Heaven from the late (and missed) Nevil Drury provided some of the material about Papus, Waite, and Smith.
I’ve read a lot about the Fox Sisters over the years but Talking to the Dead by Barbara Weisberg is my favorite.
The majority of this article began as a series of workshops on the history of the tarot and Nineteenth Century magic in Britain and the Americas.
*There is a great deal of debate as to just how old the Fox Sisters were when they had their first ghostly experiences. Like many celebrities they seem to have lied about their ages over the years in order to be perceived as younger.
An earlier version of this article had me writing that the author of The Dark World of the Witches was Robert Maple, his first name is actually Eric. Perhaps I had Robert Maplethorpe on my mind? Who knows?