Electrical Magic and the Science of the Supernatural

By Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire

Over the last two millennia, the idea of a world governed by invisible forces has shaped the way people in western cultures have understood the relationship between us, the natural world, and the heavens. It has also profoundly shaped our interactions with each other as humans. Up until the eighteenth century, the concept of Neoplatonism, which had its origins in antiquity, was central to scientific and religious understanding. It explained how all matter was interconnected through myriad spirits. So witches, for example, were able to cause harm at a distance using spells, looks, and muttered curses, through this invisible spiritual soup.

Then, in the late eighteenth century, after Neoplatonism had given way to Cartesian and Newtonian science, the popular pseudo-science of animal magnetism or mesmerism emerged. It re-asserted that people could have positive and harmful influence over others by directing an invisible fluid into the body of another through touch and look. It was considered a scientific explanation for the extraordinary stories of witches causing harm during the era of the witch trials.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the rise of spiritualism combined with the advent of the telegraph, generated a new wave of scientific thinking about the unseen world. The electric force that now allowed messages to be sent across hundreds of miles might also provide scientific proof that the spirits of the dead really could communicate from another realm – a spiritual telegraph. So when electricity and electrical appliances spread from country houses to the homes of the poor, it is not surprising that some people in Ireland and Britain initially interpreted this new power in their homes, or those of their neighbours, in a spiritual as well as a scientific way.

We saw in our last Electric Generations blog post how, in rural Ireland, electricity was initially seen as a grave fire risk in thatched cottages. But, for some, electricity was also feared as a force that others could use and manipulate to do harm – a form of scientific witchcraft. As an asylum case book from the 1890s states of one inmate, “She imagines she is under electric influences which are exercised upon her by people having a spite against her”. An entry for another inmate explained, “thinks she has been mersmerized and that she has been married by electricity.”

Look through court cases and asylum records for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and one finds numerous examples of what the time-travelling mediaeval wizard Catweazle called “electrickery.” People were concerned about the intrusion of wires into the home. Were they being used by nasty people to channel negative influences that might otherwise be stopped by magically protecting doorways, windows, and chimneys? One woman in the 1890s was tormented because she thought: “electric wires are all through her house … that men are constantly digging in her cellars laying down telegraph wires.”

What to make of batteries? Strange, heavy boxes that were used to cause electric shocks, powered early cars, and gave rise to new-fangled torches that people flashed around their homes at night. In 1911, magistrates in Devon dealt with a case where a man accused his neighbour of throwing ‘electrical powers’ over him by using a battery. When his neighbour turned it on, he believed it caused fumes to appear that inflicted him with a choking sensation.

Some of those who expressed such fears clearly where suffering from mental illnesses, but there was nothing pathological, ignorant, or foolish in interpreting electricity in such ‘magical’ ways. The reception of many technologies over the centuries has raised similar concerns as people seek to make sense of, and peace with, forces that challenge what is natural and what is supernatural.

Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home will be at dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire from 2 October until 2 December 2017 and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about Owen and the Electric Generations team here.

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