Ghostly Messages from Beyond the Titanic: W.T. Stead, Spiritualism, and The Blue Island

Emily Vincent is a PhD researcher in English Literature at the University of Birmingham. Since receiving her MSt in English (1830 – 1914) from the University of Oxford, Emily has been researching how child loss was confronted in late-Victorian women’s writing. Her thesis examines the importance of spiritualism, ocular science, and domestic architecture in the supernatural works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Florence Marryat, and Margaret Oliphant. You can find her research profile here: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/edacs/departments/english/research/postgraduateresearch/profiles/vincent-emily.aspx and contact her at ESV939@student.bham.ac.uk or on Twitter @Emily__Vincent.

 

‘A fortnight after the disaster I saw my father’s face, and heard his voice just as distinctly as I heard it when he bade me good-bye before embarking on the Titanic’

– Estelle W. Stead, The Blue Island (1922).[1]

 

Over a century since the disaster aboard the infamously ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic on April 15th 1912, this blog post rediscovers how the peculiar post-mortem messages of journalist and spiritualist William Thomas Stead continued long after the ship’s watery end.

 

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RMS Titanic departing Southampton in April 1912 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Titanic#/media/FILE:RMS_Titanic_3.jpg)

 

From the fin de siècle onwards, W.T. Stead was as vocal in life as he was, remarkably, in death. Stead was a popular, yet controversial, investigative journalist whose profile came to attention for embodying the personality of the ‘new journalism’ that emerged during the 1880s. His exposés were both engaging and scandalous, with a provocative style which was ‘highly idiosyncratic, full of affect and – his critics would say – affectation’[2]. Of his numerous narrative scandals, his most controversial was ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ series, which appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885, and revealed the horrors of contemporary child prostitution. Socially and politically, the series caused such a stir in late-Victorian society that it put pressure on lawmakers to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act of the same year, raising the age of consent from 13 to 16 and further regulating the sex industry.

But it was not only Stead’s professional endeavours which brought him to such public attention. Concurrent with his editorial scandals, he, like many of his literary contemporaries – such as Florence Marryat and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – took a great personal interest in spiritualism. Popular in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century, spiritualism was a new religious movement arising from several amalgamated principles, including mesmerism and the teachings of eighteenth-century mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, which centred on communicating with spirits of the dead via clairvoyant mediums, usually in the form of a séance. As the movement developed into the 1880s, British spiritualism undertook an opportunistic ‘tactical deployment of science’, catalysed by the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. This revolutionary approach to interrogating the paranormal gave way to a new kind of spiritualist taxonomy; a discourse of ‘psychical research’ which aimed to propagate natural causes for supernatural occurrences, and thus ghosts, who were once known as spectres, were termed ‘veridical hallucinations’. [3] As ghost-seeing shifted to ghost-investigation, Stead entered his first séance (in 1881) ambivalent to the ghostly cause, yet he left energised by a ‘remarkable prophecy’ given from the spirit world: ‘“Young man, you are going to be the St. Paul of Spiritualism”’.[4]

Despite the threat of spiritualism to his journalistic reputation (English feminist Josephine Butler warned Stead that ‘while many Englishmen cherish him as “a national institution…always honest and independent”, they can’t abide his addiction to spiritualism’) he created a periodical and national institution in its name: Borderland and Julia’s Bureau.[5] Stead founded Borderland in 1893 with renowned medium Ada Goodrich Freer, or ‘Miss X’, as his assistant and designated the paper’s position as ‘a medium of communication between the scientific expert […] and the great mass of ordinary people’.[6] Through its bold intentions of ‘popularizing Psychical Research’ it was regarded as ‘a bombshell, as it were, into the journalistic world’.[7] Stead later moved his ghostly communications from print to people, beginning mediumistic institution Julia’s Bureau in 1909 as an attempt ‘to bridge the abyss between the Two Worlds’. Julia’s Bureau gained particular popularity following the First World War as a source of support for the bereaved to reconnect with lost soldiers.[8]

However, it is undeniable that Stead’s most remarkable intersection with the spirit world occurred after his own death on the Titanic. Prior to his fateful demise, Stead had several ominous prophecies: he once presaged that his death would be ‘sudden and dramatic’, often citing drowning, and had even written an extraordinary piece of fiction, ‘From the Old World to the New’, about a ship which sunk after encountering an iceberg.[9] Written twenty years before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, Stead’s tale detailed a ship’s crossing from Liverpool to Chicago for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair when Mrs Irwin, imbued with the gift of ‘second sight’, has the uncanny vision of an iceberg sinking the ship. Stead’s daughter, Estelle, also pointed out the strange coincidence of the Captain Smith in the book with the Titanic’s captain of the same name.[10] Yet despite his inadvertently portentous story, Stead boarded the Titanic in 1912 on a trip to New York and was lost – in the mortal sense at least – along with over 2000 others. Testimonies from the Titanic’s survivors commented on the stoic and contemplative way that Stead faced his fate. Mrs William Shelley, who left on the ship’s final lifeboat reflected on watching his ‘prayerful attitude, or one of profound meditation’, and a New York lawyer, Frederick Seward, remarked on Stead’s ‘beautiful composure’, concluding that ‘he faced death with philosophic calm’.[11]

 

For his spiritualist daughter Estelle, her father’s tragic death was merely the beginning of a series of extended séance communications she would have with him through the medium, Pardoe Woodman. Purportedly voiced by her father after the Titanic’s sinking, Estelle and Woodman published The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil, in which Stead revealed his journey into the spirit world, from floating above the sinking Titanic, to his observations of the spirit world’s aesthetic appearance. In climactic detail, the narrative opens with Stead relaying emotive descriptions of the ship’s destruction and the effect on the spirits who passed on:

‘here were hundreds of bodies floating in the water —dead —hundreds of souls carried through the air, alive; very much alive, some were. Many, realising their death had come, were enraged at their own powerlessness to save their valuables. They fought to save what they had on earth prized so much. The scene on the boat at the time of striking was not pleasant, but it was as nothing to the scene among the poor souls newly thrust out of their bodies, all unwillingly’.[12]

The rest of the narrative is lighter in tone, focusing on practical details of the afterlife, including the clothes ghosts wear, architecture in the spirit world, and the change in corporeal desires, such as not needing to smoke, and only consuming food as a means of ‘refreshment’, rather than as vital sustenance.[13] However, it was the triviality of many of these details that led one critic to deem Stead’s bold visualisation of the afterlife ‘a trifle dull’.[14] Due for publication on December 14th 1922, Estelle was astute in capitalising on the commercial success of the afterlife genre around the Christmas period (as exemplified by Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’) and it was marketed as a ‘Christmas Gift Story’ in spiritualist periodicals. Further boosting its commercial appeal, Estelle included an endorsement letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, also one of the period’s most prominent spiritualists, who found it ‘most interesting and helpful’, although he did question the odd blue quality of Stead’s iteration of the spirit world.[15]

Considering its place in late-Victorian studies, it is interesting to reflect on The Blue Island, and the spiritualist background of W.T. Stead as an alternative and undervalued record of a dramatic historical event, as well as a case study in the value of rediscovering spiritualist records of history and culture.

 

Works cited

Baylen, J. O., ‘W. T. Stead as Publisher and Editor of the ‘Review of Reviews’’ Victorian Periodicals Review, 12. 2 (1979) 70–84 (77).

Doyle, Arthur Conan, ‘Letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’, in The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil by W.T. Stead (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1922) pp. ix-xi.

Ferguson, Christine, ‘Recent Scholarship on Spiritualism and Science’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult, ed. by Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn, (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012) pp. 19-24.

Hadley, Elaine, ‘Signature Liberalism in the Fortnightly Review’, in Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010) pp. 126-173 (p. 157).

Harper, Edith K., ‘W.T. Stead: Chief of the Old Brigade’, Psypioneer Journal, 8.4 (2012) 111-114.

‘Julia’s Bureau’, The Review of Reviews, 233.39 (1909) 393-489 (p. 433).

‘The Observatory’, Light, 2.43 (1923) 1-15 (p. 9).

Stead, Estelle W., ‘His First Séance’, in My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (New York, NY: George H. Doran and Company, 1913), pp. 95-103 (p. 97).

——‘A Dramatic Incident’, in My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (New York, NY: George H. Doran and Company, 1913), pp. 194-210 (p.197-198).

——‘His Passing and Return’, in My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (New York, NY: George H. Doran and Company, 1913), pp. 341-344. (p. 341; p. 343).

——‘Preface’, in The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1922) pp. xiii-xxix (p. xiv).

Stead, W.T. ‘II. Seeking Counsel of the Wise: What Think ye of the Study of Borderland?’ Borderland: A Quarterly Review and Index, 1.1, (1893) 6-9 (p. 7).

——Real Ghost Stories, (New York NY: George H. Doran Company, 1921).

—— ‘Chapter One’, in The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1922) pp. 33-42 (p. 37-38).

—— Stead, W.T., ‘Chapter Two’, in The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1922) pp. 43-53 (p. 48).

 

 

[1] Estelle W. Stead, ‘Preface’, in The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1922) pp. xiii-xxix (p. xiv).

[2] Elaine Hadley, ‘Signature Liberalism in the Fortnightly Review’, in Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010) pp. 126-173 (p. 157).

[3] Christine Ferguson, ‘Recent Scholarship on Spiritualism and Science’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult, ed. by Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn, (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012) pp. 19-24.

[4] Estelle W. Stead, ‘His First Séance’, in My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (New York, NY: George H. Doran and Company, 1913), pp. 95-103 (p. 97).

[5] J.O. Baylen, ‘W. T. Stead as Publisher and Editor of the ‘Review of Reviews’’ Victorian Periodicals Review, 12. 2 (1979) 70–84 (77).

[6] W.T. Stead ‘II. Seeking Counsel of the Wise: What Think ye of the Study of Borderland?’ Borderland: A Quarterly Review and Index, 1.1, (1893) 6-9 (p. 7).

[7] Edith K. Harper, ‘W.T. Stead: Chief of the Old Brigade’, Psypioneer Journal, 8.4 (2012) 111-114.

[8] ‘Julia’s Bureau’, The Review of Reviews, 233.39 (1909) 393-489 (p. 433).

[9] W.T. Stead, Real Ghost Stories, (New York NY: George H. Doran Company, 1921)

[10] Estelle W. Stead, ‘A Dramatic Incident’, in My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (New York, NY: George H. Doran and Company, 1913), pp. 194-210 (p.197-198).

[11] Estelle W. Stead, ‘His Passing and Return’, in My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (New York, NY: George H. Doran and Company, 1913), pp. 341-344. (p. 341; p. 343).

[12] W.T. Stead, ‘Chapter One’, in The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1922) pp. 33-42 (p. 37-38).

[13] W.T. Stead, ‘Chapter Two’, in The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1922) pp. 43-53 (p. 48).

[14] ‘The Observatory’, Light, 2.43 (1923) 1-15 (p. 9).

[15] Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘Letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’, in The Blue Island: Experiences of a New Arrival Beyond the Veil by W.T. Stead (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1922) pp. ix-xi.