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THE RIOT OF THE SLOBBERY SPIRITS

Xavier Perez-Pons

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The New York’s high society of the second half of 19th century, the so-called “The Four Hundred”, was very strict in everything related to etiquette. Everything had a correct way to be done. And the guru of The Four Hundred’s etiquette was a social snob called Ward McAllister. No one has managed to explain how such a dull guy (it's said that, when he told a joke, caused sobbing and even occasional suicide attempts) could had emerged as the benchmark for fashionable New York Society. Not only was he the benchmark in matters of etiquette but, since he had drafted that list, he had even the right to select who deserved to be part of “The Four Hundred”. But like any idle community, this social elite had a dangerous tendency to get bored and, therefore, to adhere to the mundane pastimes of its time, and among these pastimes featured communication with spirits.

When McAllister learned that in the Astor, Vanderbilt and Goelet mansions séances were being held, he drew up a list of The Four Hundred spirits with whom it was permissible to maintain contact, and established the strict code of conduct to be followed on such occasions. In addition, not all mediums were admissible and, before they entered the scene, he lectured them on the topics that could be brought up and those that should be avoided at any cost, as well as other details such as the objects worthy of floating through the air or the sort of ghosts that could appear and those who should abstain from appearing by all means. However (as the members of the newly created American Society for Psychical Research well knew), the one thing that spirits do have is their unpredictability and their reluctance to submit to any etiquette.

During the first séance to which McAllister attended, he was horrified at the freedom with which a spirit could refer to the most gruesome subjects, use profanity, say nonsense, and even break a violin in someone’s head. The spirits were whimsical, and McAllister resolved to bring them into line. He organized a séance to which he summoned “The Four Hundred” spirits and informed them of the rules of etiquette that from now on they had to follow during séances held in the mansion of any of the living Four Hundred. Any spirit who didn't toe the line would be immediately expelled from the list. The spirits were scared at the authority with which that ordinary mortal addressed them and for some time they obeyed the prescribed etiquette. But one day they mutinied and, during the weekly séance at Mrs. Astor's mansion (where the crème de la crème of New York Society gathered), a major scandal was caused when a spirit called Sigfrid pounced on Mrs. Astor with the obvious purpose of kissing her on the lips, something totally forbidden by the most elementary etiquette rules. The fact is that the gentlemen came to the aid of Mrs. Astor, while on the other side came the friends of Sigfrid, thus causing a brawl that would go down in the history of spiritualism with the name of "The Riot of the Slobbery Spirits".



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