Season 1, Episode 4: “Passing Notes”
Directed by Nick Copus
Written by Glen Morgan
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “Black Stockings” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “The Beast Within” – click here
In 1921, Feburary 5th, Thomas Bradford wrote a book about what happens after death. Then “tested it.” He’d recently put an ad in a Detroit newspaper, seeking people involved with spiritualism and science. Ruth Doran responded.
What followed was his “great adventure” – he committed suicide, planning to communicate back with Ruth after his death. When reporters caught up with her, she said he spoke to her. But what she actually heard is a mystery.
1843. Reverend Eliakim Phelps (Robert Patrick) lost his wife Elizabeth, challenging his beliefs. He lived in a time where people were trying many methods to contact the dead, from seances to all sorts of other techniques. Rumours even say Mary Todd Lincoln had one in the White House. All these techniques and the interest gave birth to the Spiritualist movement.
Rev. Phelps eventually remarried, to a Sarah Nicholson Phelps (Bethany Anne Lind), taking her children as his own. Yet he couldn’t let go of his wife’s memory. Longing perpetually. Things were fine, for a while. One day, the family returned home from church to find their house ransacked, plates and vegetables on the floor, chairs overturned and stacked on tables, everything a mess. Looking like somebody robbed them. Only they found no one. Save for a dress and some carrots on the bed. An eerie scene.
Eliakim passes it off to his family as “a bluff.” However, it’s very clear they’re all unsettled by the event. The Reverend keeps an eye on things, waiting for any of the troublesome visitors to return. He hears a booming knock at the door in the night. He hears other noises, someone in their dining room at the silver. When he goes into the room he finds only clothes, shaped like people standing and sitting around the table. He touches them and they fall to the floor. More noise draws him away, but he can never find the source. He began believing he’d let bad spirits into his home.
Dr. Isaac Bristol (Tom Thon) was a good friend of Rev. Phelps, bringing word of Austin (Daniel Thomas May) back from the seminary. Father and son aren’t as close lately, due to dad marrying a much younger woman. Eliakim reveals to his friend he’d thought of attending a seance; Isaac advises against it. In that day and age, many were interested in trying to communicate beyond the veil of death.
Aaron Mahnke takes us back to Franz Mesmer and his “animal magnetism.” Yes, this is where we get hypnosis, from those who were mesmerised by his practice. He did all sorts of mad shit, some involving metal rods. He didn’t claim to be able to conduct seances, though they grew out of his mesmerism, the unconscious, revelatory state, and so on.
No matter what anyone said, Eliakim was willing to risk everything to “hear one last word” from his wife. Dead set on contacting her, at any cost to his personal or professional life/reputation. Isaac believes it’s all “liberal Christian theologies” in the big cities. The Reverend is convinced theology and science will cross over into one unifying theory, essentially.
In 1848, we hear of John and Margaret Fox. Their daughters Kate and Margaret (The Fox Sisters) supposedly contacted the dead. A spirit of Charles Rosna, a peddler; he was buried in the basement, they said. His spirit spoke to them through “clicks and knocks.” They went on to attract other spirits with which to speak. They quickly became famous, conducting seances for others using the click-and-knock system. People were thrilled.
And so, Rev. Phelps had his friend Dr. Bristol help him conduct his own seance. The grieving widower calls out to Elizabeth, asking if she’s there with them. Nothing actually comes of it all.
Mahnke talks about Houdini, whose interest in the afterlife found him as spiritualism’s biggest sceptic in the public sphere. He’d lost his mother in 1913, devastating him. He stopped performing. Spiritualists wanted to do a seance for him. He immediately knew it was a fraud, the message from beyond coming in English when his mother did not speak it. This put him on a sceptic’s warpath. He left his widow with a message, that if she should ever hear it from the afterlife that it would truly be him. She never heard it, denouncing “spirit communication in any form.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, friend of Mr. Houdini, never gave up hope himself. He read of the Fox Sisters, as well. In 1919, he saw a psychic and had portraits taken. In one of those appeared the ghost of his dead son.
On went the search of Phelps. More strange events at home. After word spread, Austin and uncle Abner (Steven Sean Garland) arrived to speak with the Reverend. Everybody’s talking of hauntings, a supposed witch haunting the home. Parishioners had already left Eliakim’s church. But he never wavered. And something weird WAS happening, no matter what anybody said.
It all got worse, and more dangerous. The haunting of the Phelps home became clear to Austin and Abner while they stayed. Inexplicable noises from all around the house, from the cellar, everywhere. One night, they found young Henry down in the cellar, asleep in a cupboard with a noose around his neck: “Like they hung the witch.” It was, they believed, Goody Bassett, a free willed woman branded as a witch in the 17th century. This preceded the Salem Witch Trials. Not far from where Phelps would come to live.
Even with some inklings, Austin and Abner left Eliakim. The Reverend would not leave. He continued in his belief that theology and science were able to co-exist. He performed another seance in order to hopefully expel Goody’s spirit. He called out to the hanged witch, trying to help her go home, away from there. Some knocks and shaking come when he asks. Eliakim figures out it’s not Elizabeth, but somebody else entirely; a damned soul. The air becomes oppressive, everyone choking, a couple vomiting. Followed by furniture flying.
And so the Reverend decides they’ll leave, rather than face any further evil forces. The story blew up. In 1888, the Fox sisters confessed their own story as a hoax. They had strange physical quirks, able to crack and pop joints and knuckles in such a way to trick others. People “continued to believe.” In 1930, Arthur Conan Doyle’s voice was apparently recorded at a seance.
So, is there life after death? Or do we merely want to believe in it so badly that we MAKE it become real? Will we ever actually know, for sure?
Another solid episode, this one I’d not actually listened to on the podcast before. So a nice treat! Robert Patrick is an underrated actor, so his performance here was a wonderful addition. So much history packed into a single episode, too. Impressive.
“The Beast Within” comes as the next instalment.