by Michelle Ann Kratts
With the advent of modern science, so came the need for the scientific explanation, or the cause and subsequent investigation of a paranormal event. The scientists who first discovered the unseen worlds of radio waves and other new technologies began to find themselves wondering about other unseen worlds, as well, for their discoveries revealed that they had proven there are, indeed, invisible layers of existence. Thus the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in England in 1882.
It was the first society formed for the purpose of investigating “that large body of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical and "spiritualistic”, and to do so “in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems.” Its founders and members included an illustrious list of Cambridge and Oxford philosophers, physicists, chemists, psychologists, criminologists and physicians. There were Nobel Prize winners, the founder of the League of Nations, and even a man who would one day become the prime minister of England. Some of the more popular members included C.J. Jung, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge, a pioneer of wireless technology and radio, who would ultimately forge a unique tie, himself, to Niagara Falls and Oakwood Cemetery (story forthcoming).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and a well-known Spiritualist
Spiritualism seemed to have struck a chord within the heart of its strongest enemy—the scientist--and things would never be the same. It wouldn’t be long before one of the world’s most brilliant scientists made his mark upon Niagara and changed the way we live. His name was Nikola Tesla and everyone who has been to Niagara Falls knows how great a man he was for his figure alone has been memorialized into a bronze statue at the State Park.
Tesla was most unusual for in some strange way the spirit of Niagara seemed to reach across the world and into a little Croatian town, where as a precocious young boy, he had a dream that would change the course of history. “I was fascinated by a description of Niagara Falls…and pictured in my imagination a big wheel run by the falls…” His obsessions with Niagara would one day electrify the world. In 1895, the first great hydroelectric power plant in the world was built with patents for generators for polyphase currents from Nikola Tesla, in Niagara Falls, New York. The great power, the spirit of Niagara Falls, was harnessed to create electricity that could light up places near and far and the basic idea had been conceived from a boyhood dream.
There are many other stories about Tesla’s peculiar character and his belief that Niagara was indeed a power point of energy and communication with other realms of life forces. In the early 1900’s Mr. Tesla was reportedly “preparing to hail Mars with Niagara’s voice.” Niagara’s power companies would cooperate by projecting an 800 million horse power message over the 100 million mile gulf between the earth and Mars. It is believed that as he, indeed, received responses to these communications, they were the sound waves emitted from a distant planet though not actually an intelligent communication. But who knows for sure?
November 19, 1907, Niagara Falls Gazette
While Niagara was paving the world with light and energy, simultaneously the most massive movement of people to the Niagara area was taking place. Thousands of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and from lands as far off as Lebanon, Turkey and Armenia flooded every entrance into Niagara Falls. The author William Feder wrote in his landmark work that “Niagara Falls became known for having the highest percentage of immigrants of any city in New York State outside of New York City.” Many of these immigrants brought alongside their suitcases a bit of the darkness, the shadows, from an old and ancient world. They brought their own intense spiritual folklore and superstitions; stories that became forever enmeshed into the history of Niagara. The southern Italians in Niagara Falls brought their ghosts, their fortune tellers and their great fear of "mal occhio" or the Evil Eye. They consulted one another about dream visions, premonitions and demonic possessions. Roman Catholic priests conducted “exorcisms.” And there were those “special women” that I had marveled at; those who had magical powers. Born on Christmas Eve, they were said to have “special gifts.” Girls could also learn how to become “witches” on Christmas Eve—but they could only be taught the craft by another Italian woman who had been taught the craft, herself, on Christmas Eve.
As a young girl, I sat wide-eyed, when a dear family friend told me the story, many times over, of a well known priest who was found to have horns like the devil hidden within his curls. My friend had been a student at a local Roman Catholic school many years ago and said she had walked into the church at an unusual hour to pray and instead she walked into what seemed to be a satanic ritual. The altar was red with blood and crosses inverted. The statue of the Blessed Mother was in a disturbing position. Only the school children had known the truth, that the priest, himself was possessed. Was it a story she made up? I have never heard anything like it. There were other stories my great grandmother and aunts had remembered from Italy; stories of strange and non-human births, of curses and rituals. And one must always wear a crucifix in a cemetery so as to not open yourself to wanton and restless spirits looking for an entryway.
The Armenians, who had faced intolerable death and misery before coming to America, had similar traditions. They often wore blue beads to protect against the “Evil Eye,” and had various spell and curse breaking phrases such as “God be with you,” or “Mashalah.” The Armenians were also proficient at reading the tea leaves at the bottom of their Turkish coffee. For them, the loss had been so recent and so great that perhaps the space between living and dead was ever smaller. Many of the other immigrant groups who made Niagara their home had similar superstitions and it was not too far of a stretch for them to comprehend the basic ideas of Spiritualism, for their own indigenous cultures had cultivated similar beliefs for hundreds of years.