Monday, October 31, 2016

October 31, 1908 - Olympics Conclude with Spiritualist Competition

Having lasted over six months since April, the third modern Olympic Games would be the longest ever held. It was packed with memorable moments, such as British runner Wyndham Halswelle winning a walkover gold in the re-run 400 meter race, his three American competitors refusing to participate since the call for re-running was based on unclear rules. In other debated events, the first runner to complete the marathon, Italian Dorando Pietri, was disqualified since he entered the stadium in a daze and ran the last leg backwards. No one questioned the success of Swede Oscar Swahn, who at 60 years old won gold in shooting and would become the oldest gold medalist ever at 64 in the 1912 Olympics. He returned for the 1920 Olympics at age 72 to set another record as the oldest athlete ever to compete in the games.

A young medium displays how high she can be levitated.
Other notable activities at the games included exhibitions of sports such as dueling and figure skating. None, however, would be as memorable as the display of spiritualism in which competitors worked with trained teams of spirits to give the most incredible demonstration of ghostly activity.

While contact with the dead occurs in ancient writings and oral traditions to time immemorial, modern spiritualism evolved out of the religious reform taking place in the United States during the 1840s. Disappointed in the establishment for its lack of voice against slavery, freethinkers went as far as calling for women’s rights and humane care for sufferers of mental illness. Out of this movement, young Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York, reported that they had been able to communicate with a spirit. Their fame grew but was soon eclipsed by Cora Scott, who began lecture circuits while the Fox Sisters had primarily held séances to a select few guests. Many other mediums began appearing on the popular stage throughout the nation and abroad, especially before the famous Ghost Club of London, directed at scientific investigations of ghostly phenomena.

For a generation, the western world was divided on the issue of contact with spirits. Many religious figures held it as witchcraft, spurring backlash that fed into several riots in major cities and the countryside. Skeptics spotted numerous frauds, but the 1887 Seybert Commission determined to the best of its judgment that about half their cases of rapping, spirit photography, and objects moved by unseen hands were genuine. Over time, it became a standard affair to contact a love one who had passed or attend a display of spiritualist feats as one might a circus. Famed magician Harry Houdini made a second career as an investigator for the FBI, discerning true mediums from those who were illusionists practicing tricks.

The spiritualism exhibition in 1908 featured several categories in which mediums competed. Mediums were judged on how high they could be levitated into the air, how loudly a prompted spirit could knock, and by the amount of ectoplasm produced by weight. Many brought their preferred spirits along with them, while others hoped to do their best with whoever might be wandering around the other side at the time.

Although such exhibitions would not be included in future Olympics, contact with the spirit world continued to be an important aspect of the twentieth century, especially following the large numbers of dead in the First World War. Most of the Olympic committee’s attention toward ghosts was in the search for frauds, such as the case in 1928 when Oscar Swahn returned, one year after his death, for another silver medal in shooting by possessing a younger athlete.


In reality, the Fox Sisters stated that their activities were a prank, with their infamous “rappings” actually being the popping of toe joints. Every case reviewed by the Seybert Commission was found to be a hoax.

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