Canadian Spiritualism, Mary Melville and the Female Biographical Narrative

By Thomas Hodd

Mary Melville, The Psychic:
A Critical Edition

Mary Melville, The Psychic (1900) is an extraordinary Canadian cultural artifact. Written by first-wave feminist, psychical researcher, and suffrage leader Flora MacDonald (Merrill) Denison (1867-1921), this significant yet hitherto-undervalued text bears witness to a transformative and vibrant period in Canada’s social, literary and religious history. Based on the life of Denison’s older sister, Mary Merrill, Mary Melville is the story of an alternative New Woman figure, a gifted young scholar with psychical abilities from small-town Ontario, whose promising life is cut short by a world not yet ready for her message or her powers.

Scant historical information exists about Mary’s life. Born in 1858, Mary, like Flora, had an aptitude for intellectual pursuits. In 1876, she graduated from Alexandra College, the Ladies’ Wing of Belleville’s Albert College, with high honours in mathematics. She also appears to have worked as a teacher after graduation, although no published materials about Mary’s life discuss the four years between her graduation and death. In fact, little else is known about Mary, with the exception of two areas: her interest in spiritualism and the circumstances surrounding her death. Mary’s ties to spiritualism are not surprising, given Belleville’s long-standing history with the movement: the Fox Sisters, arguably the founders of modern spiritualism, were originally from the Belleville area. Furthermore, in the 1850s one of the sisters, Kate, introduced spiritualism to Susanna Moodie and her husband, who were residents of Belleville during this period; the trio also conducted séances together, although as Stan McMullin points out, to do so was at some social risk given the “rigid religious milieu” of the town at the time.1 Nor did the town’s penchant for spiritualism escape controversy: witness the infamous case of New York medium Dr. Henry Slade, who was invited to Belleville in the summer of 1882, then purportedly outed as a fraud by the town’s police chief.

Flora MacDonald Denison

As for Mary’s personal links to spiritualism, circumstantial evidence suggests she was believed to possess psychic abilities or at the very least participated in spiritualist activities near the end of her life. Chief among the proofs is a letter by W. Hague Evans published in the Toronto Daily Star in February 1901, in which he claims to have met Mary in Belleville in 1875 and that she performed levitation during a séance he attended.2 There is also Benjamin Fish Austin’s declaration in the Foreword to Mary Melville that “in all essential features, it is a genuine biography of a real and wonderful life” – a statement made plausible by the fact that Austin attended Albert College at the same time Mary was at Alexandra College, and so he may well have been aware of or even witnessed her extraordinary abilities. A third piece of evidence is an article that appeared in the Daily Intelligencer on 19 April 1880, summarizing a sermon by Rev. Mr. Schuster in which he uses the death of Mary Merrill as an opportunity to castigate the practice of spiritualism. 

According to the report, Rev. Mr. Schuster preached a sermon at the Bible Christian church on the death of Mary Merrill that “drew together a large congregation” and that “all the seats…were well filled.” He began by suggesting that “God speaks” through our actions and that citizens must take warning from Mary’s death, pointing out that although she “was well educated and talented and was a lady of superior mental attainments…the death of this young lady teaches us that there is no comfort but in the religion of Christ. Spiritualism…had not given her any comfort, but true religion would have achieved that end….Ingersoll and his doctrines had added nothing to the happiness of Miss Merrill.”3

Kate and Maggie Fox

While much has been written about the movement’s influence in the UK and the United States, spiritualism in Canada is less well understood. In fact, many Canadians at the time seemed ignorant of the movement’s presence in Canada: “Orthodoxy would be astonished if it only knew the extent to which spiritualism is followed in Toronto,” declares The Lamp, one of Canada’s occult journals (1894-1900).4 Indeed, existing historical evidence reveals there were many small, but vibrant communities of practitioners in several Canadian provinces, including New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia, and that activities likely began in earnest in the early 1850s. Societies sprang up in cities like Victoria and Nanaimo in the 1880s and early 1890s, while one of the earliest groups, the Spiritualistic-Harmonial Association of London, Ontario, was founded in 1862. In 1908, Dr. John King created The Canadian Society for Psychical Research in Toronto, while spiritualist churches in cities such as Hamilton and Calgary were incorporated both during and after the First World War; the National Spiritualist Association of Canada, founded in 1928, had 18 branches across Canada by 1951. Canadian newspapers likewise regularly reported on the activities of mediums, both sincere and fraudulent, in Canadian towns and cities. In a December 1876 issue of Montreal’s Canadian Illustrated News, for instance, there is a column on “Spiritualism” by Loop Revil, who decries the “idea that the immortal spirit of a ‘Milton’ or ‘Newton’ leaves, or is permitted to leave, at a beck from one of these imposters, the sublime atmosphere of heaven”.5 The Toronto Evening Star, on the other hand, offered a lengthier, more balanced reporting on a series of lectures on spiritualism by the U.S. medium, Mrs. S.F. Prior, at St.George’s Hall for its 16 September 1896 issue.6 Even a cursory search of Canadian newspapers reveals a host of columns, references, reviews, and public speaking announcements from such journals as the Halifax British Colonist, Ottawa Free Press, Kingston Daily News, Toronto World, Bathurst Courier, Winnipeg Daily Times, and even the Yukon World.

As for Canada’s spiritualists, some of the country’s more famous practitioners or enthusiasts include former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, as well as early Canadian writers Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, Alexander McLachlan, Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, J.G. Sime, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. From the medical field, in addition to the Toronto poet-physician, Albert Durrant Watson, as well as Dr. John King, there is Winnipeg’s Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, a medical doctor, psychical researcher, and former member of the Manitoba Legislature, whose scientific experiments with mediums in Winnipeg during the 1920s and 1930s attracted the attention of writer turned spiritualist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited Hamilton in 1923. Graham Jensen has also recently demonstrated some of the ways in which Canadian modernist poet E.J. Pratt “showed a continued interest in, if not ‘acceptance’ of, spiritualism…in the 1930s and 1940s.”7 

In short, Flora MacDonald Denison’s interest in spiritualism and the purported powers of her eldest sister represent part of a long albeit occluded cultural tradition in Canada that scholars are only beginning to analyze in depth. Mary Melville is a significant text in the story of Canadian spiritualism. Surprisingly modern in its blending of fiction and nonfiction, this narrative challenges the narrowly prescribed categories of romance that have come to dominate scholarly discourse of the period’s fiction in Canada. It also forms part of a compelling subgenre of supernatural literature not found in earlier Canadian gothic novels such as Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart’s St. Ursula’s Convent (1824), John Richardson’s Wacousta (1832), or William Kirby’s The Golden Dog (1877). Indeed, the book’s rejection by early reviewers as lacklustre romance was a result of their failure to recognize it as an experimental and progressive work, a new kind of female biographical narrative.

Thomas Hodd is Associate Professor of Atlantic and Canadian Literature at the Université de Moncton. He is a noted cultural critic, editor and playwright. He is the editor of a new, critical edition of Mary Melville: The Psychic, available from Borealis Press.


  1. Anatomy of a Séance (2004), 22-23, 25.
  2. Toronto Daily Star, 6 February 1901: 6.
  3. Daily Intelligencer, 19 April 1880: 2.
  4. The Lamp, (August 1894), 12.
  5. Loop Revil, “Spiritualism.” Canadian Illustrated News, 2 December 1876: 326.
  6. “Voice in the Wilderness.” Toronto Evening Star, 16 September 1896: 1.
  7. “Beyond the Temple and the Cave: William James, E.J. Pratt, and Christian-Spiritualist Syncretisms,” University of Toronto Quarterly, Fall 2017: 11.

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