The Specter of the Indian

Race, Gender, and Ghosts in American Seances, 1848-1890

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Kathryn Troy
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , September
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438466095.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Spiritualism has often been relegated to the sidelines of nineteenth-century religious histories. Even when it is considered, emphasis is usually placed on the veracity of mediums’ claims or the role the movement played in the “woman question.” In her creative approach to reconsidering American Spiritualists, Kathryn Troy turns readers’ attention towards the relationship between Indian ghost visitations and the impulse towards social reform. Indian spirits, Troy argues, were central to the development and persistence of American Spiritualism and provided opportunities for the movement’s participants to debate federal Indian policies, while also engaging shifting notions of race and gender.

The Specter of the Indian is organized thematically with chapters addressing the centrality of Indian hauntings to perceptions of Indian policy, the case of Sauk and Fox leader Black Hawk’s recurrent specter, the role of chiefly ghosts in asserting moral progress through gendered terms, the Romantic figure of the Indian maiden in séances, and the relationship between Spiritualists’ ideas about race and their involvement in promoting reform. Two sources are key in Troy’s analysis: the Religio-Philosophical Journal and The Banner of Light, nineteenth-century newspapers that offer an unmatched glimpse into the topics that interested and motivated Spiritualists, even as their movement remained diffuse and decentralized. Accounts of séances themselves also provide essential insights into how Indian spirits were manifested, engaged, and understood by the diverse participants who sought and witnessed their appearance. A key point that the author makes early in the book and returns to throughout is that as ghosts, Indian spirits were not dead or vanished. They were undead presences whose frequent returns worked against prevailing notions of Indian vanishing that dominated American literature and popular culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Troy asserts that the very return of Indian specters “challenged the rhetoric of vanishing” and that Spiritualist mediums and believers stood apart from their white middle-class peers who presumed that the demise of Native peoples was inevitable. (92) Thus, she argues, they were motivated—even compelled—to advocate federal policy changes designed to establish peace and promote progress and assimilation. To make these claims, Troy resists accepting or denying the actual presence of Indian spirits, choosing instead to take the Spiritualists’ experiences as they described them—a choice that may frustrate readers more inclined to interpret Indian hauntings as a form of “playing Indian” or cultural appropriation.

The book is strongest in its analysis of gender. Troy demonstrates that the appearance of male and female Indian ghosts were instructive to mediums and witnesses largely in terms of amplifying or critiquing prevailing gender norms in Anglo-American society. For instance, chiefly specters increasingly exuded a manhood based on the repudiation rather than the glorification of violence, while Indian maiden ghosts used their innocence to cultivate a sense of feminine sympathy that inspired political action. But the question of Spiritualists’ actual involvement in federal Indian affairs may, in fact, be the book’s weakest point. While Troy aptly shows that massacres, corruption, and misguided policies received copious attention in the above-mentioned periodicals, she only gestures towards how the men and women engaged in Spiritualism actually acted on behalf of living indigenous peoples. As our own age of social media has made clear, writing and reading about justice campaigns is not the same thing as putting one’s own body, life, and livelihood on the line to carry them out. Similarly, readers may be dissatisfied with Troy’s reluctant admission that policies advocated by the Spiritualists (like aggressive assimilation and allotment) did immeasurable harm to the very communities they so fervently claimed to support. Perhaps more sustained attention to the broader context of Protestant northeastern US reformers and their role in implementing disastrous policies would have helped show that, for all their complexity, the Spiritualists were not alone in their self-congratulatory and deeply misguided humanitarianism.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, innovative, and important volume. It is written in clear and engaging prose and should find a ready audience among scholars of American religion, social reform, Indian affairs, and popular notions of race and gender during the second half of the nineteenth century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Angela Pulley Hudson is Professor of History at Texas A&M University.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathryn Troy teaches in the department of social sciences and criminal justice at Suffolk County Community College and the department of history, politics, and geography at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York.

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