So, this month I jumped head-first down the rabbit hole of genealogy research, snuffling like a truffle-hunting pig through the family search sites and newspapers.com (where, for a yearly fee, you can search through millions of pages of archived newspapers from around the globe). In the middle of this wine-soaked process, I discovered my great-great-great grandmother, Ethel. Ethel and 3G-Grandpa lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma during and after World War I, where she was a very active member of her church. She hosted the Ladies Aid meeting at her home every weekend, ice cream socials, and dances. She even went to the national church conference in St. Louis as a delegate one year.
But unlike most of our family, she didn’t stick to the traditional Catholic and Presbyterian modes of worship—oh, no! Ethel was a Spiritualist, a member of an exploding number of people who believed in communicating with the beyond, through Tarot readings, seances, trance states and the like. Famous spiritualists in her day included the godfather of all things occult, Aleister Crowley, and Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle.
Ethel’s congregation didn’t meet in a church: They gathered each week for their lectures at the Tulsa city hall. And when she went to the national spiritualist conference, she and hundreds of others were greeted by none other than Mayor Kiel himself. Furthermore, Ethel’s group was one of three Tulsa Spiritualist congregations listed in the weekly church section of the paper. All across America, spiritualist groups were common enough to be almost mainstream.
But, then as now (and perhaps even more so then) they were also reviled on a daily basis for doing the Devil’s work by various ministers and congregations. Anti-spiritualism sermons were featured in almost every Christian denomination. If this bothered 3G-Grandma Ethel, I don’t know. But it didn’t stop her from hosting Ladies Aid.
I make a lot of assumptions about my ancestor’s character based on snippets from newspaper ad sections: I like to think she was a little rebellious, even as she filled her role as housewife and mother to three. I like to think she was creative and open-minded. And I like to imagine that one of these days, when I spread out one of my own Tarot decks, Ethel will have a message or two for me from the Beyond.