Book Review: Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: The Life and Times of Henry Louis Rey. By Melissa Daggett (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Pp. 201. 28.00USD)

By Samantha Castleman


Historian Melissa Daggett's recent publication, Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans, fills a long-glaring gap in knowledge regarding creole culture during the Spiritualist movement of the Civil War Reconstruction. Using extensive archrival and historical research, Daggett paints a picture of the historic reality of the Black Creole experience during this era through the lens of one man's personal accomplishments and struggles. Despite the author's weakness in aligning the theme of the work with its title, Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans proves to be a highly informative text useful to anyone interested in learning about Reconstruction-era New Orleans.

Daggett's work focuses on the life of New Orleans resident Henry Louis Rey (1831-1894), chronicling his family's settlement in the Louisiana territory, Rey's own activist work and Spiritualist leanings, and the process by which his spiritual Registers have been collected and maintained for archival research. Boasting a profound amount of historical research, including government documents, print media, online and scholarly resources, oral histories, and even Rey's own French-language records, Daggett masterfully weaves the tale of one man's interactions with a larger cultural movement in a defiantly narrative form, easily drawing in the reader and making the story both accessible and informative. Entwining strands of family history, political struggle, and Spiritualist fervor, Daggett argues that Rey's spiritual Registers mirror the social concerns of his time, offering a voice from beyond the grave to the hopes and fears of Black Creoles experiencing the troubles of the Reconstruction.

The text's biggest success, the incredible depth of its historical examination, also accounts for its greatest weakness. Daggett's focus as a historian clearly resonates with the social and political struggles of Rey's life rather than his Spiritualist practices, despite what the title may lead the reader to believe. Spiritualism plays only a supportive role in Daggett's narrative, assuming an even more minor part when the author discusses Black Creole culture. Aside from one chapter on the growth of Spiritualism in the North (Chapter 2: Echoes from Another World), Daggett's investigation into the movement appears minimally throughout the text, often as a further example of her historic analysis rather than its own topic of inquiry.

This misdirection becomes most evident in later discussions of Rey's life as his séance circles began to disband. Despite illustrating the direct and physical influence of the growth of Northern Spiritualism on the Creole practice, which lagged behind its more mainstream predecessor, Daggett presents no discussion of how the debunking of famed mediums, like the Fox sisters in 1851, affected the belief of Rey and his contemporaries. Rather than examining the possible relationship between the failings of both communities, Daggett attributes the dissolution of Rey's circles only to time constraints and fear of discovery (135). Daggett's analysis of the Spiritualist debunkings accounts for only one paragraph of the text (100), despite the vast impact these events had on the movement itself. While understandably Rey's circles and Northern Spiritualists would have differing responses to these revelations, an interrogation of those responses would go far in contextualizing New Orleans Spiritualism within the larger framework of the movement.

A related point largely missing in Daggett's text is the relationship between Creole Spiritualism and Voodoo, one of New Orleans' greatest claims to fame. In tracing the growth of Spiritualism in her second chapter, Daggett's integration of voodoo scholarship is limited only to a few sentences confirming the shared belief in trance-induced communication with spirits (37). While Daggett includes historic connections to voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, she is clear to point out that such information is lacking from Rey's historic documents and that, instead, "voodoo" is never explicitly referenced. Whatever Rey's relationship to voodoo may have been, when attempting to ground discussions of Spiritualism in New Orleans history it seems imperative to draw connections between the movement and the city's vernacular belief systems. Daggett's comparison of the two, however, is limited to only two pages (71-72), to be revisited in the Epilogue in comparison not with Northern Spiritualism, but with the Spiritual churches, which found their impetus with its fall (155). To fully understand the importance of the movement to its contemporaries, its relationship to vernacular beliefs must be examined. Although Daggett does seem to attempt such a discussion, her work does so from a particularly political perspective rather than one based in belief studies and personal practice.

The reliance on historical politics, which is problematic due only to the stress placed on belief in the book's title, could easily be the outcome of a neglect of folkloristic investigation. Daggett's lengthy bibliography, which includes everything from to House Miscellaneous Document No. 211 on the state of affairs in Louisiana, doesn't seem to include a single work by a folklorist. While any analysis of the relationship between these topics like would necessarily be based largely in conjecture, including research which deals strictly in matters of belief and community maintenance in the way of folklore studies would add a depth of understanding of the importance of Spiritualism within the lives of Rey and his contemporaries, an understanding which is largely neglected in Daggett's writing for more political themes.

The depth of Daggett's research should not be discounted for its lack of attention to the work of folklorists, however. Daggett's bibliography and index illustrate a carefully researched, chronicled, and constructed argument which stresses New Orleans' Spiritualism's reactionary status to Reconstruction events.. Daggett describes her work as a "microhistory", examining the experiences of one "obscure historical person" in order to better understand the larger culture surrounding him, thereby creating a historiography which attempts to revise basic notions of the Reconstruction era through an analysis from a marginal perspective. Although Daggett's work primary strives to provide voice to Creoles of color in Rey's time, her revision of New Orleans history through the lens of Spiritualism also offers space to women of the period, being sure to stress the power female mediums exercised within the movement and their influence on the political scene at large. Daggett's presentation of Reconstruction-era New Orleans paints not a homogenizing white, middle class, male picture, but one of prominent yet conflicted racial diversity and gender equality. It's a story, as she says "that has been waiting for over 150 years to be told".

While Daggett's choice of title may be misleading to those expecting a text heavy on discussions of belief, her work nevertheless serves an important function in beginning to understand the historical situation of culturally marginalized groups such as the New Orleans Creoles of color. Folkloristic research could have prevented the misalignment of the text and its title and offered critical and illuminating insights on the importance of Spiritualism within the lives of Rey and his compatriots, yet even without this perspective Daggett offers an informative look at the social struggles in New Orleans after the Civil War. Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans is powerfully researched and beautifully written for anyone who is historically minded and interested in examining the history of New Orleans from a marginal perspective.

This article was first published in the 2018 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Samantha Castleman is a student at University of Louisiana at Lafayette.