May 2021

Out of the Shadows

By Emily Midorikawa
Review by
Emily Midorikawa unveils the triumphant, tragic and deeply unconventional lives of six of the Victorian era’s best known spirit mediums.
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Spirit mediums have been capturing imaginations since the rise of spiritualism in the 19th century. A veiled woman commanding the attention of a room, speaking in the voices of the beloved dead as tables tilt, loud mysterious knocks echo from the corners and unlikely objects materialize out of thin air—such a woman is either an ethereal figure from a ghost story, or she is a charlatan, a silky smooth con artist who exploits the grief of others.

But what if there were a third option, one of revolution and rebellion? In Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, Emily Midorikawa unveils the triumphant, tragic and deeply unconventional lives of six of the Victorian era’s best known spirit mediums.

Midorikawa roots her story in both the history of spiritualism and the powerlessness of Victorian women like the Fox sisters—Leah, Maggie and Kate—who were left to grasp for influence in seemingly manipulative ways. As the book proceeds through the extraordinary lives of Emma Harding, Victoria Woodhull and Georgina Weldon, we witness women masterfully wielding the public’s fascination with the revelations of the dead. They capitalized on this fascination not only to improve their own lives but also to uplift other disenfranchised people across the United States and Great Britain. Strident orations on abolition, women’s rights within marriage and suffrage, which would have been ridiculous coming from a constricted and disregarded 19th-century woman, suddenly gained gravitas when spoken by the all-knowing dead.

Midorikawa breathes life into these long-ago women in ways that make them feel contemporary despite their extraordinary circumstances and distance in time. Her description of Harding enduring an incident of stalking resonates with chilling familiarity. You’ll feel these women’s frustration and conviction, and you’ll cheer at their progressive empowerment.

It’s remarkable that none of these women seems disingenuous. Throughout Out of the Shadows, they occupy a liminal space between genuine belief in supernatural forces and the ingenious ways they used those forces to their own ends. By the book’s end, it no longer matters whether you believe these six remarkable spirit mediums were hoaxes or not; you’ll certainly believe in them.

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Out of the Shadows

Out of the Shadows

By Emily Midorikawa
ISBN 9781640092303

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