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Spiritualism In 'The In-Betweens'


It's the month for ghosts and hauntings and the new book "The In-Betweens" - looks at those who believe they can actually communicate with the other side as part of their religious beliefs. Moving tables, spiritualists and mediums, spirit guides and even Houdini make an appearance in this exploration of Camp Etna in Maine - America's longest running camp that focuses on the links between this world and the afterlife. Mira Ptacin is the author and she joins me now from Kansas Public Radio. Welcome.

MIRA PTACIN: Thank you for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The book begins with a table-tipping session, right? Describe what that is and what happened.

PTACIN: So my first day in the field at Camp Etna doing the research, one of the spiritualists - her name is Janice (ph) - she invited me to a table-tipping session. And a table-tipping session, she explained, we would place our hands on the table. And within seconds, the table would start dancing, as she said. So I assumed if I got very lucky, I'd see a little bit of movement in the table or it would just be complete fraud and, you know, a string might raise the table up into the air or something. But the minute we sat down, Janice took a deep breath and this table was rocking back and forth like a clodhopper. And I could barely catch up with it and barely keep my hands on the table because it was moving so quickly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this was a science essentially or something similar to that.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And and it all sounds very Victorian. And, in fact, the roots of spiritualism in the U.S. go back to two sisters in the mid-1800s.

PTACIN: Correct. The two sisters were Kate and Margaret Fox. And they essentially launched the spiritualist, modern spiritualist movement in the United States. They were these two tweens who one night in their bedroom in Hydesville, N.Y., alerted their mother that there was a ghost in the room. And he was communicating with them. And he had told them his name was Mr. Split Foot. And soon the two Fox sisters and their ability to communicate with the dead had put them on this big stage. And they were basically overnight celebrities. Fast forward within less than 30 years, United States had approximately 2 million followers of the spiritualist movement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this session with the table happened at Camp Etna, which has been a spiritualist community since the 1870s. So tell us what Camp Etna is and how it fits into this story.

PTACIN: Sure. Camp Etna was founded shortly after the Fox sisters debuted. And every summer, people would come for a little vacation and a little communication with the dead at the same time. And this camp was so big. Every summer on the weekends there would be up to 10,000 visitors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you detail the fascinating history of Camp Etna, that it was a place that was linked to the early feminist movement.

PTACIN: Yes, the Fox sisters, when they started demonstrating their abilities and were starting to speak in front of large crowds, this was happening kind of right down the street from where the first women's rights convention was being held. And on top of this, the abolitionists were backing the Fox sisters. And the women's rights movement were backing the Fox sisters because this was one of the first times they had seen young women or women, in general speaking, in front of a crowd. And they were essentially just speaking from their gut and talking about their intuition. And this was something that was very new and very groundbreaking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just wanted to take this moment for you to just tell briefly the story of Houdini. He even plays a role in the history books and Camp Etna.

PTACIN: Oh, boy, he does. Houdini was a very, very loyal son to his mother. His mother was his world. And after she passed away, he was incredibly, incredibly devastated. And Houdini attempted to contact her through a seance with no one other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And Arthur Conan Doyle - if you don't know who he is, he is the creator of the Sherlock Holmes series. And he was a huge spiritualist. So Arthur Conan Doyle invited Houdini to have a session with Conan Doyle's wife and try to contact Houdini's mother. And it failed miserably. And he felt completely devastated. And after that, he was on this, like, crazed mission to bring down all mediums.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why were you drawn to telling the story? What is it that drew you to want to find out about Camp Etna and spiritualists generally?

PTACIN: Well, my husband and I, we lived in New York City. And we moved to a tiny island in Maine. And our move was really fueled by a loss that we had both suffered. I had lost a child when I was 5 1/2 months pregnant. And a friend of mine - she saw how I was in a really - full of sorrow. And she recommended checking out Camp Etna. Despite being a bit of a skeptic, I felt like with these mediums I accidentally did do a lot of healing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So do you believe now that we can talk to the dead and that they want to talk to us?

PTACIN: Oh, my gosh. Yes, I think I do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mira Ptacin, author of "The In-Betweens," thank you very much.

PTACIN: Lulu, you're amazing. Thank you (laughter).