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Mysticism in Bootle: Victorian Supernaturalism as an Historical Problem

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2013

School of Humanities, University of Strathclyde, McCance Building, 26 Richmond Street, Glasgow, G1 1XH; e-mail:


This article presents the case of a Victorian schoolteacher who claimed mystical experiences, including ecstasy, the stigmata and mystical espousals. Rather than attempt retrospectively either to prove or disprove these claims, the author seeks to discover where contemporaries drew the line between the natural and supernatural. Reactions shown to the schoolteacher in the 1870s and 1880s by priests, teachers, religious and doctors suggest that clear-cut oppositions between the rationalist and credulous were uncharacteristic of the time. The more common position was to find both atheism and internally consistent Christian theology inadequate and to prefer an idiosyncratic blend of the two.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013

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1 Susan Ryland to Edward Powell, 27 June 1880, in Kerr, Cecil, Teresa Helena Higginson: servant of God, the spouse of the crucified, 1844–1905, London–Edinburgh 1927, 65–7Google Scholar. Despite extensive searches, it has proved impossible to find the original collection of letters to, from and about Teresa Higginson, which was first published by A. M. O'Sullivan osb as Teresa Higginson, the servant of God, school teacher, London 1924. This was reprinted with additional letters by Cecil Kerr in 1927, and an abridged version, Teresa Helena Higginson, school teacher and mystic, 1844–1905, was published in 1928. Selected letters were reissued, as a pamphlet, in Honnor, Brian, Appreciations of Teresa Helena Higginson, school-teacher and mystic, [Taunton] 1986Google Scholar, and most recently in Whittington-Egan, Richard, The devil in Bootle: the life and afterlife of Teresa Higginson, Liverpool 2010Google Scholar. Published versions of Teresa Higginson's letters are the ones cited throughout this article.

2 Ryland to Powell, 27 June 1880, in Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 65.

3 Ryland's testimony in Whittington-Egan, The devil in Bootle, 55–6.

4 Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 178; Mrs Lonsdale's testimony in Honnor, Appreciations of Teresa Helena Higginson, 17–21.

5 Ryland's testimony in Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 52.

6 Ryland's notes, Holy Thursday 1874, ibid. 73–4.

7 Ryland's notes, Good Friday 1874, ibid. 78.

8 Ibid. 50, 78.

9 Teresa Higginson to Alfred Snow, 20 June 1880, ibid. 60.

10 Ibid. 61.

11 Higginson to [Powell], 24 July 1879, in O'Sullivan, Teresa Higginson, 96.

13 Higginson to [Powell], 3 May 1880, ibid. 129–32.

14 Higginson to [Powell], 22 June 1879, ibid. 73–8.

15 Higginson to [Powell], 26 Aug. 1879, ibid. 78–80.

16 Higginson to [Powell], Feast of the Circumcision 1881, and 2 Jan. 1882, ibid. 81–92, and Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 355–9.

17 Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, abridged edn, 53–4.

18 Louise Lateau was claimed to have developed the stigmata in 1868 and retained them until her death in 1883: Thurston, Herbert, Surprising mystics, ed. Crehan, J. H., London 1955, 170Google Scholar.

19 Ryland added that ‘Teresa must have had some kind of communication with her, for she said one day after coming to herself: “Louise Lateaux [sic] told me to read something in the Life of St Teresa.” So I brought the book to her but I don't know what she read. She had the same favours as that saint, one being the seraph's dart of love, but she said it did not seem to come from an angel, it was our Lord Himself’: Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 51. See also Heimann, Mary, ‘Higginson, Teresa Helena’, ODNB xxvii. 71–2Google Scholar.

20 In 1862 an English Catholic bishop issued a first pastoral letter declaring the apparitions at Lourdes to have been genuine, some claimed cures to have been miraculous, and devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Lourdes grotto to be ‘authorised’.

21 Whittington-Egan, The devil in Bootle, 38–9; Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 59.

22 Ferdinand J. M. Lefebvre, Louise Lateau, the ecstatica … her life, stigmata and ecstasies, trans. J. S. Shepard, London–Derby 1872, 75; Molloy, Gerard, A visit to Louise Lateau in the summer of 1872, with a short account of her life and a description of her stigmas and her ecstasy, London 1873Google Scholar.

23 See Heimann, Mary, Catholic devotion in Victorian England, Oxford 1995, 80, 82, 87nCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 See Davies, John, ‘Traditional religion, popular piety, or base superstition? The cause for the beatification of Teresa Higginson’, Recusant History xxiii (1996–7), 123–44Google Scholar.

25 See, for example, Higginson to [Powell], 15 June 1880, in O'Sullivan, Teresa Higginson, 105–7.

26 Whitlock, F. A. and Hynes, J. V., ‘Religious stigmatization’, Psychological Medicine viii (1978), 189Google Scholar; Wilson, Ian, The bleeding mind: an investigation into the mysterious phenomenon of stigmata, London 1988, 99100Google Scholar.

27 The mystic whom Herbert Thurston had in mind was the French stigmatic Marie Julie Jahenny: Surprising mystics, 163–4.

28 Higginson to [Snow], Edinburgh, 1888, in O'Sullivan, Teresa Higginson, 46, 49.

29 Ibid. 57. See also Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 33.

30 She made her vows at St Alexander's Church, Bootle, on 5 June 1881. They are reproduced in O'Sullivan, Teresa Higginson, 176–9.

31 See Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 59, 78–9.

32 See, for example, Whittington–Egan, The devil in Bootle, 52.

33 Bland, Lucy, Banishing the beast: English feminism and sexual morality, 1885–1914, London 2001, 64–5Google Scholar.

34 Thurston, Surprising mystics, 168.

35 Powell to Fr Fisher, 17 Aug. 1882, in Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 164.

36 Higginson to Snow, Eve of the Annunciation 1886, ibid. 184–5.

37 Higginson to Snow, 20 June 1880, ibid. 60–1.

38 Ibid. 61–2.

39 Ibid. 62.

40 Ibid. 49.

41 O'Sullivan, Teresa Higginson, 57–8; Whittington-Egan, The devil in Bootle, 35.

42 Whittington-Egan, The devil in Bootle, 38.

43 Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 183.

44 Fr W. Lea to Higginson, 1879, ibid. 89.

45 Higginson to Powell, 1879, ibid. 86–7, 94.

46 Ibid. 92.

47 Powell to [John Placid] Hall, Sept. 1883, ibid. 169–70.

48 Manuscript petition to the pope from the archbishop and bishops of Scotland [1937], Scottish Catholic Archives, Edinburgh, diocese of Dunkeld, DD/15/30/6.

49 Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 259–67.

50 Anon., The last days of Teresa Helena Higginson, written by a Poor Clare of Lynton, North Devon, who nursed Teresa Higginson in her last illness, 2nd edn, Ormskirk 1938, 3.

51 Davies, ‘Traditional religion’, 131.

52 Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique xxxii (1936), 447; Nouvelle Revue théologique (Nov. 1936), 1088; Clergy Review xiii (Mar. 1937), 93–7. See also Catholic Record ii (1932), 519–20, 550–1; iv (1934), 1158–62, 1233; v (1935), 1806–7; vi (1936), 48–9, 113–14; The Harvest (July 1930; Oct. 1932; Feb. 1934; Sept. 1934; Mar. 1936; Dec. 1936); The Tablet (Nov.–Dec. 1937; Jan.–Mar. 1938). See also B. Plumb, ‘Teresa Helena Higginson (1844–1905): a bibliography’, North West Catholic History xviii (1991), 40–5, and Heimann, ‘Higginson, Teresa Helena’.

53 For a representative sample of the sorts of natural explanations offered by historians to account for claimed supernatural phenomena see Devlin, Judith, The superstitious mind: French peasants and the supernatural in the nineteenth century, New Haven–London 1987Google Scholar; Walker, Caroline Bynum, Holy feast and holy fast: the religious significance of food to medieval women, Berkeley, Ca 1987Google Scholar; Barrow, Logie, Independent spirits: spiritualism and English plebians, 1850–1910, London 1986Google Scholar; Christian, William A., Visionaries: the Spanish Republic and the reign of Christ, Berkeley, Ca 1996Google Scholar; Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra L., Encountering Mary: from La Salette to Medjugorje, Princeton, NJ 1991CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Harris, Ruth, Lourdes: body and spirit in the secular age, New York, 1999Google Scholar.

54 See, for example, Owen, Alex, The darkened room: women, power and spiritualism in late Victorian England, London 1989Google Scholar, and The place of enchantment: British occultism and the culture of the modern, Chicago–London 2004; Oppenheim, Janet, The other world: spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850–1914, Cambridge 1985Google Scholar and Janet Rose, ‘The woman who claimed to be Christ: the millennial belief of Mary Ann Girling and her disciples, 1860–1886’, unpubl. PhD diss. Oxford 2008.

55 See, for example, The life and many deaths of Harry Houdini, London 1993; Heimann, Mary, ‘Girling, Mary Ann’, ODNB xxii. 347–8Google Scholar; and Winter, Alison, Mesmerized: powers of mind in Victorian Britain, Chicago–London 1998Google Scholar.

56 For a fascinating and informed account of how the case for Teresa Higginson's beatification divided the English Catholic community during the 1920s and 1930s see Davies, ‘Traditional religion’.

57 William Ullathorne as cited in Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, 166.

58 Bertrand Wilberforce to Powell, 9 Nov 1882, ibid. appendix A at pp. 345–6.

59 Ibid. 348.

60 Ibid. 349.

61 Ibid. 350.

63 Ibid. 350–1.

64 Ibid. 351.

65 Ibid. 353.

66 Ibid. 352.

67 See Imbert-Gourbeyre, Antoine, Les Stigmatisées, Paris 1873, 294310Google Scholar.

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