The Magnetic North

Imp Kerr, Ahura Mazda, 2014

Shane McCorristine interviewed by Courtney Stephens

In the 19th century, female clairvoyants often described psychic visits to distant lands. The practices of these women, mostly housemaids, were alternately seen as therapeutic, treated as public spectacle, and taken seriously as proto-scientific. The network of psychic connectivity that they were believed to be accessing while in “the magnetic state” was compared by some to the electric telegraph. A number of clairvoyants reported to the British Admiralty on the whereabouts of male explorers gone missing in the far reachers of the empire. Here, Courtney Stephens talks to Shane McCorristine, an Irish geographer and historian and the author of the forthcoming Spectral Geographies of Arctic Exploration, a monograph on supernatural narratives and arctic exploration in the Victorian era. McCorristine, who has lectured widely on “occult geographies,” is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leicester.

Where did the idea of the female clairvoyant come from?

A long tradition associates women with the spirit world.  Examples of women as visionaries or seers abound in the historical record: “wise women” in European folklore, witchcraft beliefs, oracles, and so on. Masculinity was associated with common sense, action, and physical possession of the earth, while women were relegated to the home and associated with emotion and otherworldliness. This “two spheres” ideology reached its zenith in Victorian Britain and was visible in the realm of geographical exploration: Men expanded the borders of the empire while women remained indoors. Altered states allowed them other forms of mobility.

Clairvoyant practices originate in mesmerism, which was a set of therapies, often staged for entertainment, positing a magnetic fluid that emanated from the bodies of the patients during trance states. The practice typically involved a male mesmerist using magnets and candles and making “passes” with his hands over a seated patient, usually a young woman.  It was quite an erotic exchange. The language of mesmerism was full of touches, “crises,” and ecstasy. The state that most interested mesmerists was called somnambulism, where the mesmerist reached what was called a rapport between himself and the patient. In this state she could taste what he tasted, feel pain when he did. This could also extend to thoughts, whereby feelings and secrets were seen to move spontaneously between people via a sympathetic connection.


When did these states come to involve outbound travel, rather than focusing on the transference between patient and mesmerist?

During the 19th century, and especially around the 1840s, mesmerists began to ask women under their power to leave their bodies and travel far distances. The women employed were typically maidservants. Because they were seen as too uneducated to perform fraudulently, their visions were seen as all the more marvelous. During these experiments, the maidservants would describe everything from prosaic scenes in nearby houses to exotic scenes on foreign shores, and sometimes solve crimes.

The concept of a “community of sensation”—a network linking the mesmerist and the patient—was discussed in the context of technological networks such as the electric telegraph. What if the rapport was an intangible connection between the nerves of people, a vast network capable of being empirically demonstrated? Clairvoyance was seen as one technology along a spectrum of other mid-Victorian discoveries about the unseen world, from electricity to microscopy. It was described in terms of a magnetic state or vision, in which light projected from within like a current. The women were referred to as living stethoscopes or compared to telescopes in the hands of an astronomer.

The idea of women as messaging services linking male observers with distant places later manifested as communication with the dead. In New York, the Fox sisters led the first séances through tapping on tables, a practice that is again resonant of the telegraph. But in 1845 mesmeric traveling was predominantly imagined as a mobility across real space and time, through contact with or rapport between living bodies.


Did these women, while in trances, physically experience the places they visited?

When the women were “sent” to the Arctic they would often shiver and shake or perform the kind of hardships associated with male explorers. I’ve found a report about a clairvoyant who visited the Arctic and described drinking the same fish oil that she saw the men drinking, which unsurprisingly made her nauseous. How did housebound women imagine moving through landscapes they would never encounter? There’s an analogy between this otherworldly mobility and the panorama, which was a very popular form of entertainment at the time that offered people something like an IMAX experience. At the panorama shows people described the strong sense of actually being in a different place—you could walk off the street at Leicester Square and enter a boat journey up the Mississippi River or a balloon trip across the English Channel. At the panorama one could be both there and not there, inside and outside, traveling and stationary.


Did the public view the clairvoyant travelogues as similarly spectacular? How widely believed were the reports?

These types of communications were frequently satirized in medical journals and lampooned in the general press. Then, in 1845, an Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin famously disappeared, leading to a worldwide storm of clairvoyants claiming that they had located the expedition. It’s at this moment that we see how many in society, not least Franklin’s family, desired that the claims be true. The case became something of a test for proving or disproving this new technology.

Franklin’s ships, the Terror and Erebus, left London in 1845 with 128 men, looking for a northwest passage through the now Canadian Arctic and out to the Pacific. This had been a British quest since the 16th century, and although Franklin’s men did not know it, no navigable passage existed at the time due to ice. Ironically, they are now being used by the shipping industry because of climate change.

Given the difficulties the British had in the Arctic, these places had otherworldly connotations in the popular imagination of the time. There had been, going back, ancient ideas of the North as the domain of Satan, a place of darkness and icy horror where humans could not survive. These were succeeded by the medieval idea of the far north as Ultima Thule, the borders of the known world. In the early modern period there was a renewed interest in the lost Viking colonies on Greenland and a thirst to explore the unmapped Arctic for riches. By the time of the age of exploration, the idea of actually physically traveling through the Arctic had the sense of crossing an ontological boundary, of going outside historical time and into a realm of visions.


This is interesting because the real Arctic is demanding and brutal. 

That’s just it. On the one hand the Arctic is a testing ground for manliness. On the other, there has always been a link between this brutal embodiment and a kind of disembodied dream travel. It’s not like the southern regions, which were exoticized but also somehow knowable. The Arctic’s main quality was its white blankness, which allowed explorers to claim that what they did was different from the more brutal and physically wasting work of subduing African or Asian colonies. This of course disguised the fact that the Arctic was only blank to the British: The people who lived there were well able to travel vast distances across ice and land and had accurate maps.

In the case of the Franklin expedition, communication was lost when it entered the regions beyond Lancaster Sound in 1845. When, in 1848, there was no word of the ships from the Pacific side, the British Admiralty began sending search parties by land and sea. A whole range of schemes and ideas were proposed to the Admiralty about how to make contact with the lost expedition. They released Arctic foxes with special collars that contained the coordinates of a rescue ship. They sent dolls to the Inuit children of the Arctic with the same details sewn into them, in the hope that a lost sailor would recognize them as European toys. Neither the dolls nor the foxes were heard of again. They also experimented with releasing hundreds of unmanned messenger balloons over the Arctic, rigged to release brightly colored messages with details of rescue locations, but the balloons only went a short distance. Some suggested that the men might be located through the efforts of clairvoyants, and during this period we have records of at least a dozen women from Ireland, Britain, India, and Australia who claimed that they visited Franklin and could give helpful information.


What were their reports?

Almost all reported that Franklin was alive, that the expedition was struggling but that the men would be home in a number of months. One exception is the report by a Melbourne clairvoyante who claimed that Franklin had achieved the northwest passage, visited several islands in the Pacific, and succumbed to illness off the coast of South America. She accurately described the protocol of a naval officer’s funeral and cried discussing the grief of the other officers. Her story seems to have been inspired by a six-month-old press report that had probably just reached Australia from Britain.

The medium who gained the most notoriety around the time of Franklin’s disappearance was Emma L. of Bolton.  Emma had the ability to travel to distant parts of the globe on the basis of handwriting—she would place a letter over her head and be transported to the place and present climate. She was once very surprised to find, following the letter of an Australian man, that the seasons were reversed where he was.

Emma’s travels were not limited to the earth—her operator, a surgeon apothecary named Dr. Joseph W. Haddock—sent  her on an excursion to the moon. There she saw inhabitants who “were very small dwarfs—not larger than children on our earth.”  She became a phenomenon based on her exotic travels, and all the more marvelous because she was seen as an uneducated and naive source.

In 1849, Haddock was contacted directly by a naval officer, a friend of Franklin’s, about the possibility of using Emma in his search for the missing ships. Haddock requested a letter in Franklin’s handwriting and a morsel of hair. When Haddock consulted Emma, she reported that Franklin was still alive, with three or four companions, and that they were clothed in rough skins. In subsequent communications, she said that Franklin was in good hope of returning to England within the year, thought often of Lady Franklin, and thought it very strange that no one had come to help him. She correctly stated that he was bald and gave picturesque details describing the ice, marvelous animals, and what she called “many queer looking things.” She also gave notes on longitude and latitude and would trace her fingers along maps to show the route Franklin had taken.


Were these reports submitted to official channels? 

Oh, yes, detailed memoranda on Emma were sent to the Admiralty, and they provided letters from other crew members on the ship. Her visions were widely covered in the British press and the colonies and seen as good news—that Franklin was with a few companions, despite Emma’s report of seeing a sunken ship and the dead bodies of others in different postures under the snow. Lady Franklin was very interested in these reports and began to attend mediums herself.

When there is a disappearance, and when it is particularly traumatic, there is a sense that any information is good information. When “official” channels fail, people no longer recognize the barriers that exist between, say, the Admiralty and a psychic. This is not to say that families of the missing who use psychics are irrational, but to argue that the important thing is information, clues, hope. People will seek these things anywhere; it just so happens we decide that seeking them from “legitimate” authorities is normative.


It’s as though the psychics were providing a live feed, a form of surveillance.

Traversing such long distances as explorers did meant that authorities back home had extended periods of dead time with little or no reliable knowledge of what was occurring in the field. In a séance, the journey is immediate, while confirmation channels of the day depended on networks of information, networks created by and accessible to men. While the clairvoyant network was also controlled by men, in that it was always male mesmerists who put the women in trances and sifted through the information, the female clairvoyants could influence the messages. They could express their sense of a sentimental relationship between Lady Franklin and her husband; they could display emotion; they could request extra payment for séances and skive off work.

So these performances were also a kind of dance between competing forms of authority. I like to think of these clairvoyant techniques as revealing a geographic unconscious, another sphere of thought, about the nature of physical movement, place, and expansion. But this sphere was also worldly in that it involved young, illiterate maidservants who were being “sent” on journeys they could never physically make in life. For me the phenomenon reveals tensions about geographical knowledge at the time. What makes something “credible” or “incredible”? These women made their own maps to terra incognita, and this challenged the viewpoint that only Admiralty sources were legitimate.

I can’t help but think of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Its disappearance seemed to possess the public for reverse reasons—because it challenged our assumption that everything is now mapped. The idea that something could exist in geographic space and yet not be located seems preposterous. A CNN anchorman pondered aloud the possibility that the plane flew into a black hole, as if that were a more likely alternative.?

Yes, we can draw a lot of analogies here. There is the panic that an airplane can actually “disappear”—people assume that in the age of satellites, radar, and telecommunications signals, every moving object leaves behind a trace. Geographers today argue that disappearance is social and political as much as it is geographic. In Argentina in the 1970s and ’80s, thousands of people were “disappeared” by the state; some people conscious of our current surveillance society choose to disappear from CCTV using masking techniques. Malaysia 370 may have disappeared, or it may have been made to disappear. People and things disappear everyday; the crucial thing is naming something as disappeared, because this gives it a social life. For the families of those on board, the plane is somewhere.

With Franklin’s Terror and Erebus, people knew they would not hear from them for years, but they had faith in the technological power of the ships and the intellectual power of the men. When these ships were lost, it was frightening enough that, just like the news anchor you mentioned, the media began to wildly speculate that the men had found some kind of temperate paradise in the North or that they had traveled into the mythical “open polar sea.”


Did they eventually find out what happened to Franklin? 

In 1854, a Scottish explorer reported stories from Inuit people of seeing bands of white men, starving, wandering southward from the King William Island region years before. This was not a place named by any of the clairvoyants, incidentally. Sir Franklin had died shortly after the ship first became stuck, in 1847. There was information suggesting the men later engaged in cannibalism. Relics and bones from their death march are still found by archaeologists every summer.

Proof of Franklin’s death arrived to England in 1859, but people had long suspected it. Indeed Franklin was already something of a celebrity in the world of spiritualism. Mediums, especially in the United States, would contact him during séances to ask questions about his death. There, in the company of other dead celebrities, such as Emmanuel Swedenborg and Benjamin Franklin, Franklin would discuss how the expedition ended in disaster and what life was like in the other world.


There is real defiance in saying “I can go places you cannot go.” 

These earlier clairvoyants were quite subversive in that they performed social mobility as fantasy. During one séance it was reported that Emma L. went in search of Franklin still wearing her apron from work. Here was an illiterate maid who could use the power of the trance to elevate herself from her proper sphere. Some clairvoyants described themselves as lifting off in balloons. During her visions Emma also told the men in the Arctic that she could write, which she could not, and would then make the motions of writing with her left hand on her right arm.

For Emma the trance was perhaps an opportunity to earn some extra money and take time off work. But when we add in all the other clairvoyant accounts, we can see that the trance was a route to somewhere else. Whereas other imperial female travelers like Lady Franklin and Mary Kingsley came from privileged backgrounds and carried this with them as they traveled to exotic locations, Emma was bound in social class and location and therefore had to move differently through colonial space. The fact that these travels were imaginative or otherworldly in scope should not disguise the social geography underlying them. If the Arctic was not so distant from Emma, then perhaps little people were not so distant from the big empire?