Spiritualism was one of the most salient cultural phenomena of late-nineteenth-century American life. The belief of considerable numbers of respectable citizens that they could communicate with the dead via an entranced medium called into question both popular and scientific conceptions of rationality, volition, and freedom. In turn, these changing ideas about the mind challenged American law’s commitment to its belief in free and reasonable legal actors. This Article, the first to consider Spiritualism’s implications for American law, examines the legal reaction to the anxieties Spiritualism generated for the Age of Contract. Principally, it looks at the judicial response to cases of Spiritualists’ wills that were challenged on the grounds of insanity and undue influence. In these cases, concerns about the mind forced their way through the curtain of formalist objectivity at the heart of contractarian jurisprudence. In dealing with such concerns, I argue, American judges adopted a realist, pragmatic strategy of promoting polyphonic discussion, protecting individual belief, and preserving democratic decision-making. Approaching the subject from the perspective of cultural legal history, I suggest that popular culture, science, and the law were mutually constitutive discourses in which nineteenth-century Americans enacted their anxieties about the mind, the will, and the family. Finally, I propose that a contextualized understanding of these nineteenth-century debates can suggest much about current legal concerns regarding behavioral psychology and cognitive neuroscience.


Contracts | Jurisprudence | Law and Society | Legal History, Theory and Process | Medical Jurisprudence | Psychology and Psychiatry | Science and Technology

Date of this Version

August 2008