The world is infested, just now, by a new sect of philosophers, who have not yet suspected themselves of forming a sect, and who, consequently, have adopted no name. They are the Believers in Everything Old.
—EDGAR ALLAN POE, “FIFTY SUGGESTIONS”
Today, Manhattan’s West 47th Street—a narrow strip of soot-stained office towers, honking traffic, and sidewalks lined with cut-rate jewelry stalls—seems an unlikely birthplace for a spiritual revolution. But in the late nineteenth century, the grimy thoroughfare was every bit as much a staging ground for a flowering of occultism as the marbled palaces of the Renaissance had been four centuries earlier.
It was there in the summer of 1876 that a bearded lawyer and former Civil War officer whom people still called “the colonel” turned a crucial page in his life. The respected jurist had recently divorced his religiously conservative wife, the daughter of an Episcopal minister. In the process he effectively severed his relationship with two teenage sons, who could not follow, much less understand, the new life their father had chosen. His name was Henry Steel Olcott. Decades later, the Buddhist nation of Ceylon would enshrine his image on a postage stamp and mark his death with a national holiday. Hindus in India would celebrate his birthday. And if there were a Mount Rushmore of American occultism, his visage would be carved on it. But instead, in his home country, his name was quickly forgotten.
A tall, bespectacled man whose muttonchop beard made him look older than his forty-four years, Olcott outwardly appeared the product of his conservative Presbyterian upbringing in Orange, New Jersey. But beneath his respectable exterior lay a passion for the arcane that he had harbored since he was young. As a boy of twelve, he made a pilgrimage to Poughkeepsie. There he climbed the stairs of a two-story building to witness Andrew Jackson Davis, still a teenager himself, hold in his hand the lock of a sick man’s hair, from which Olcott said the seer made a complete medical diagnosis. The memory never left him. After entering New York University at fifteen, Olcott was forced to drop out following his first year, when his businessman father went broke. On his own, he traveled to relatives in Ohio to try a career in farming. When fieldwork was done, his relatives cultivated an unusual set of interests: séances, Spiritualism, and table-rapping—trends that were just winding their way down the Psychic Highway of New York’s Burned-Over District into the farm country of the West.
The fields of Ohio were not enough for Olcott’s ambitions. Within a few years he returned home to work at an agricultural school in Newark, New Jersey. A relative soon left him an inheritance, which he used to open a research farm near Mount Vernon, New York. And here the winds of fate lifted him. The young agriculturalist had developed expertise in a strain of Chinese sugarcane that seemed promisingly adaptable to the climes of the American North. As the threat of war loomed over the Mason–Dixon Line, Northerners grew anxious to loosen their dependence on the South’s sugar crop. Not yet twenty-five, Olcott wrote a widely read monograph in 1857 on the benefits of his imported cane, called “sorgho” (which Americans still consume as a sweetener today). In a short time, Olcott went from being an ex-collegiate Ohio farm boy who dabbled in séances to a wunderkind of scientific agriculture, his advice sought by state legislatures and even foreign governments.
When the Civil War broke out, Olcott’s reputation took yet another turn. Originally commissioned as a signals officer, the still-young man displayed a talent for research, numbers, and money trails. He was placed in charge of a team of auditors and detectives to investigate fraud and forgery among military contractors, and was promoted to staff colonel to lend weight to his investigations. Exposing a racket of fake provisions sales, Olcott saved the Union army enough money for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to write him that his efforts were “as important to the Government as the winning of a battle.” His reputation as an investigator grew. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Olcott volunteered his services. Stanton telegraphed him in New York to “come to Washington at once, and bring your force of detectives with you.” During the twelve days that John Wilkes Booth remained a fugitive, Olcott and his investigators made the first arrests and interrogations of suspected coconspirators.
Rich in government contacts following the war, Olcott studied for the bar and opened a legal practice in New York City. Settling into family life, he could have expected the secure if somewhat ordinary prospects of Sunday suppers, gentleman’s clubs, a lawyer’s paycheck, and maybe even a run for local office. But he grew restless. He took a break from law by writing cultural reviews and investigatory pieces for some of the larger New York dailies, a career he had dabbled in before the war. His interest in Spiritualism began to reemerge—especially upon reading press reports of strange happenings at a Vermont homestead.
In the fall of 1874, Olcott made several trips as a correspondent for the New York Daily Graphic to a gloomy farmhouse in Chittenden, Vermont. There a spirit medium named William Eddy, with the help of his brother Horatio, had been treating witnesses to a nightly parade of ghostly beings, ranging from American Indians to figures draped in costume and couture from faraway lands and eras. The ghostly forms emerged from a wooden cabinet that seated William Eddy and that credulous visitors swore had no trick doors or openings. It was here at the Vermont “ghost farm” that Olcott had a fateful encounter—one that would send tremors not only through his own life but across other continents.
On the sunny midday of October 14, Olcott stepped onto the Eddy porch to light the cigarette of a new visitor: a strange, heavyset Russian woman with whom he grew quickly enchanted. She showed him flesh wounds she said she had suffered fighting beside the revolutionary hero Giuseppe Garibaldi in his campaign to unify Italy; she told tales of travels in exotic lands; and she hinted at far deeper truths about the nature of the spirit world than were revealed to the nightly gawkers at the Eddy home. Olcott was perplexed—and utterly fascinated. The college dropout in him seemed somewhat awed by “the arrival of a Russian lady of distinguished birth and rare educational and natural endowments.” He marveled over her tales of “traveling in most of the lands of the Orient, searching for antiquities at the base of the Pyramids, witnessing mysteries of Hindoo temples, and pushing with an armed escort far into the interior of Africa.”
His growing, and soon very intense, friendship with this mysterious lady led him on a late summer’s day in 1876 to the bustling corner of Manhattan’s West 47th Street and Eighth Avenue. His destination was a weathered five-story apartment building, a structure that stands largely unnoticed today as a budget hotel and that possessed little more prestige then. It was there that the colonel rented an eight-room apartment—effectively a salon and headquarters—for himself and his lady friend. In a joking reference to the monasteries of Tibet, the New York World dubbed their home the “Lamasery.” It was a cramped Neverland of a place where, amid stuffed baboons, Japanese cabinets, jungle murals, mechanical birds, and palm fronds, New York’s spiritually adventurous—ranging from inventor Thomas Edison to Major-General Abner Doubleday—huddled to discuss, argue over, and marvel at arcane ideas.
The young Edison told Olcott about an elaborate instrument he had constructed—with one end attached to his forehead and the other to a pendulum—to test the kinetic powers of the mind. By 1920, Edison told a reporter that he had “been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us.” If Edison ever completed the device, it was not unveiled to the public. The baseball popularizer and Civil War commander Doubleday discoursed among his new acquaintances about karma, which he said had given him courage under fire. Doubleday also began producing the first English translation of French magician Éliphas Lévi’s nineteenth-century occult classic Ritual and Dogma of High Magic, better known as Transcendental Magic.
To Olcott’s family and friends, the whole arrangement would have been bizarre enough if Henry’s new roommate was merely one of the sundry mediums he had taken to writing about. But this was odder still. His lady cohabitant—with whom he grew passionately close but never shared a bed—was the rotund, hypnotic-eyed Russian officer’s daughter named Helena Petrovna, or, as she would become famously known in fin de siècle culture, Madame Blavatsky: a magic-making, myth-weaving high priestess of the occult. After years of far-off travel, the eccentric, chain-smoking noblewoman had reached American shores in 1873, shortly before she and Olcott met at the Eddy farmhouse. Many said she could conjure up mediumistic or psychical phenomena at will—such as the ringing of invisible bells, the appearance of magical paintings, or the bump-in-the-night mischief of poltergeistlike “elemental spirits.” On a typical day at the Lamasery, Blavatsky materialized—or, in Olcott’s lexicon, “phenomenally produced”—a set of phantom sugar tongs when no pair could be found for the couple’s after-dinner coffee.
But this was child’s play. Blavatsky said she was dispatched to America by a secret order of religious masters—“Mahatmas,” or the “Great White Brothers,” she would later call them. (She didn’t mean white in any racial sense but in a sense of inner purity.) Her mission was to expose the limits and fallacies of Spiritualism and point the way to higher truths. While she admired the cosmic visions of Andrew Jackson Davis, Blavatsky hinted at secret teachings that the Poughkeepsie Seer and the trance mediums who trailed after him could only begin to guess.
Soon after they met, Olcott began to receive peculiar gold-inked letters from some of Blavatsky’s Eastern Masters, or Mahatmas, signed with pyramidlike cryptograms or the name Tuitit Bey, Observatory of Luxor. Olcott later claimed that one of the turbaned masters materialized before him in their West Side apartment. Addressing Olcott as “Brother Neophyte,” one of the Mahatma letters directed him to stay at Blavatsky’s side and “not let one day pass away without seeing her.” He listened—and the two worked together days into nights. They collaborated on Blavatsky’s epic-in-the-making, Isis Unveiled—a dense, sprawling, and ultimately extraordinary panoply of occult subjects. Blavatsky told of a hidden doctrine that united all the world’s ancient religions and cosmic laws but that was unknown to materialist science and modern religion. Most fatefully, she and Olcott transformed their salon of fellow seekers into a nascent organization dedicated to rediscovering theosophia, or “divine wisdom.” It was called the Theosophical Society. It was not a religion itself but rather aimed to plumb the inner depths of religion, to promote religious universality, and—in a goal that would become increasingly important as time passed—to encourage and defend the Eastern faiths, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, from being chipped away by missionaries and colonialism. In the typically blunt fashion that made her a favorite of the New York press, Madame Blavatsky publicly declared, “The Theosophical Society means, if it cannot rescue Christians from modern Christianity, at least to aid in saving the ‘heathen’ from its influence.” The New York Sun, never wearying of the Russian madame, dubbed her the “famous heathen of Eighth Avenue.”
The Journey East
For all the heat it generated in the press, the early Theosophical Society was active only briefly during Blavatsky and Olcott’s few years together in America. By December 1878, the pair moved to India, uprooting the organization with them. Their mission to rescue the religions of the East from the Goliath of colonialism, Olcott and Blavatsky reasoned, would be best engaged on the soil from which those traditions sprang. For Blavatsky and Olcott, America had already served its purpose: It was a staging groundwhere the eccentric couple and their nascent following could formulate their ideas unmolested, except for the occasional gibe in the papers. Blavatsky even departed as an American citizen.
Once replanted in India, the story of Theosophy belonged less and less to America or to any nation. Olcott, Blavatsky, and their successors allied themselves with India’s independence movement and encouraged the spread of literacy in Hinduism’s holy texts, endearing themselves to countless Hindu worshippers. Starting in 1880, Olcott, often with a gouty leg and nothing but an oxcart to carry him over muddy roads, traveled throughout the nation of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He spoke in temples and open squares, where he urged youths and their families not to relinquish their Buddhist–monastic tradition and to argue against colonialist missionaries. An Anglican bishop groused in a letter home that “the Secretary of an obscure society” had been encouraging Buddhist monks, “hailing them as brothers in the march of intellect.” Olcott used the missionaries’ own methods against them: He wrote A Buddhist Catechism—still read in Sri Lankan classrooms today—to codify the native faith as missionaries had the Christian one. He successfully lobbied English authorities to permit the national celebration of Buddha’s birthday, during which worshippers rallied around an international Buddhist flag Olcott helped to design. He raised money for schools and educational programs. The Buddhist revival ignited. Within twenty years of Olcott’s first visit, the number of Buddhist schools in the island nation grew from four to more than two hundred.
Had any of his former friends in the law or newspaper business inquired as to what became of old Henry, they might have chortled over the spectacle of a retired military investigator with an eagle eye for fraud now traveling throughout the Orient with this Russian magician lady. But that would be far too shallow a reading of Olcott’s character. With Madame Blavatsky at his side—the two like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, each interchangeably occupying either role—the colonel understood himself to be on the mission of a lifetime. It was a mission whose influence touched Hindu and Buddhist cultures so deeply that Olcott may be the single most significant Western figure in the modern religious history of the East.
And if there were any hidden Mahatmas who had sent Blavatsky to America and then with Olcott to India, they might have had reason to be proud of their neophytes on other counts. Back in the United States and Europe, Blavatsky’s book Isis Unveiledpopularized the word occultism and made the concept a matter of passionate interest among artists, authors, and spiritual seekers of the Western world—more than it had been any time since Renaissance scholars had marveled over the magical writings of Greek–Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus.
The American public’s fascination with Blavatsky, and its ability to make any sense of her aims and background, was assisted by an earlier intellectual movement that would have wanted little truck with so histrionic a figure: New England Transcendentalism. The ideas and interests of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and the venerable Yankee Mystics played a decided role in introducing magical philosophies into American thought.
In 1851, the Boston-based Transcendentalist writer and teacher Alcott made the mythical Hermes Trismegistus the opening subject in a program of literary salons. “Few persons to hear and discuss Hermes, in consequence of the rain,” Alcott remarked in his journals. “But we had a very good time of it.” Alcott’s interest in the magico-Egyptian writings of Hermes probably arose from Emerson, whose influence touched the circle of Transcendentalists more deeply than any other. Emerson mentioned Hermes in his journals as early as 1834, challenging pedants to “strengthen the hearts of the waiting lovers of the primal philosophy.” He admiringly quoted the seventeenth-century philosopher Sir Thomas Browne, who, chin out, declared: “The severe Schools shall never laugh me out of the Philosophy of Hermes, that this visible World is but a Picture of the invisible wherein …” The Transcendentalists wouldn’t be laughed out either, and they embraced the Hermetic concept of man as a microcosm of the universe. “The world,” wrote Emerson in his essay “Compensation,” “globes itself in a drop of dew.” It was an American sounding of the great Hermetic dictum: “As above, so below.”
As seen through his journals, Emerson was among the first serious American writers to carefully consider topics such as the Persian prophet Zoroaster (1822), Hindu mythology (1823), the Greek mage Pythagoras (1832), Confucius (1836), Buddha (1838), the Vedas (1839), Hermes and the Neo-Platonists (1841), and reincarnation (1845). He familiarized the reading public with esoteric ideas in a way that later made it possible for Theosophy and other occult movements to be understood in America. “It may seem ludicrous to suggest that Emerson was the chief forerunner of Madame Blavatsky, her John the Baptist,” wrote religious scholar Alvin Boyd Kuhn in his 1930 study, Theosophy. “Yet, seriously, without Emerson, Madame Blavatsky could hardly have launched her gospel when she did with equal hope of success.”
Some of Blavatsky’s earliest and closest followers harbored a secret hope, discussed in letters and lodge conversations. It was that the mysterious madame had arrived to replace a fallen heterodox hero—the renegade Freemason and occult seeker Cagliostro, who had perished in the prisons of the Inquisition in Central Italy in 1795. First arrested in Rome in 1789 for the “heresy” of Freemasonry and other antipapal activities, the mysterious, widely traveled Cagliostro was probably the last man to die under the penalties of the Inquisition. But in the 1870s, antimonarchists and papal foes were riding on high hopes that history had finally turned their way, as conservative monarchies and Church influence waned throughout the decade. In 1870, Rome itself had fallen as an independent state, disbanding its military and stubbornly joining a unified Italian republic. It was weakened after years of assault by the democratic revolutionary Garibaldi—himself a committed Freemason and reputed confederate of Madame Blavatsky. “For admirers of the martyred Cagliostro,” wrote historian K. Paul Johnson, “events in Italy that decade were long-awaited retribution for the Church’s savage persecution of Masonry.”
In Europe, the occult experimentation that had been cut short by the Thirty Years’ War seemed everywhere to flourish anew. What came to be seen as a European occult revival touched America’s burgeoning occult culture and mixed with it. But the two movements soon divided into different channels, each with its own distinct aims and styles of thought. To understand how these sister movements converged and then split requires a brief look at how Europe’s revival emerged.
Napoleon’s disastrous military campaign in Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century had the strange by-product of giving birth to the field of modern Egyptology. The would-be conqueror brought with him an army of sketch artists, naturalists, and scribes, whose findings ignited a renewed fascination with the symbols and monuments of the lost civilization. Napoleon’s soldiers chanced upon the Rosetta Stone, which in decades ahead unlocked the hieroglyphic wording—if not the underlying meaning—of the Black Land’s rites, gods, and customs.
In France, a highly speculative and widely influential interpretation of the Tarot cards—which had appeared, with little obvious antecedent, in early-fifteenth-century Italy—identified ancient Egypt as the source of their beguiling imagery. The self-styled historian Antoine Court de Gébelin produced a string of subscription volumes on ancient history, Monde primitif (The Primitive World), which in their 1781 series deemed Tarot a secret book of primeval Egyptian wisdom. Closely following de Gébelin was an antiquary and fortune-teller who went by the single name Etteilla (the not-terribly imaginative backward spelling of the surname of Jean-Baptiste Alliette). Etteilla embraced the Egyptian connection and designed the first Tarot deck used expressly for divination.
Translations of Far East mystical literature, such as the mysterious source of Taoist philosophy Tao Te Ching and the divinatory masterpiece the I Ching, also began to emerge from the West’s reencounter with China. Hindu literature, such as the allegorical wisdom book Bhagavad Gita and the magisterial epic Mahabharata, were translated and read in Europe and America for the first time.
In Europe as in America, the theories of Darwin had the dual effect of undermining old ecclesiastical certainties while creating a new hunger for mystery in a biologically ordered world. And there existed, perhaps, a troublesome sense that Europe’s material progress and scientific reason had failed to resolve the inner and outer perplexities of life, particularly as the squalor of industrialization and the bleakness of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” became increasingly evident.
For avant-garde artists and intellectuals who had lost faith in old-line religion, a new light began to shine. In 1855, Éliphas Lévi, in his Transcendental Magic, proclaimed the existence of an occult philosophy hidden at the base of:
all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practised at reception by all secret societies.
In Lévi’s vision, occultists discovered a new sense of mission and drama.
The European occult revival attracted formidable intellects and earnest seekers, though with a peculiar twist: European occultists often adopted airs of secrecy and pageantry, as if mimicking the outer appearances of ancient temple orders and mysterious sects would assist their quest to revive lost or fragmentary knowledge. Sometimes on the thin pretext of concealing hallowed doctrine, they cloaked their study groups and fraternities in mystery. They used—or, more often, invented—the names of antique cults, such as the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In turn, they employed ceremonies and costumes that aped incredibly old, only dimly understood rituals. These groups drew hasty connections between the divinatory arts, such as Tarot and modern number mysticism, and the civilization of ancient Egypt. Indeed, Europe’s leading occultists typically—and often fatuously—claimed lineage to mythical or underground brotherhoods in which the old teachings were said to be preserved.
As a result, the European avant-garde’s laudable efforts at translating and reinterpreting ancient and esoteric doctrine, from alchemical manuscripts to the works of Hermes, gave way to the gloomy prospect that occultism had survived so many storms and buffets only to be lathered over with modern-day fantasy and theatrics. And our story might simply end there—were it not for a young nation across the sea that was feeling the influence of the occult to its very foundations.
The Spiritualist Tide
Madame Blavatsky explained that she approached America, the land of Spiritualism, “with feelings not unlike those of a Mohammedan approaching the birthplace of his Prophet.” The opening created by Spiritualism made the young nation into a magnet for every kind of spiritual experiment. And like many cultural openings, this one appeared so quickly and dramatically that it could leave observers unsure of what was even occurring.
The Shakers had prophesied that spirits would “visit every city and hamlet, every palace and cottage in the land.” And that prophecy began coming to pass in March of 1848, directing us once more to the American occult’s equivalent of Mount Sinai: the Burned-Over District of upstate New York. In a small wood-framed house outside Rochester, in a village named Hydesville, lived two attractive young girls: Kate, who had just turned eleven, and Margaret, fourteen. Weird things had been happening in the Fox home; strange cracklings and noises ripped through the darkened rooms, coming, it seemed, from nowhere. The girls told their Methodist parents that the bangs and knocks were “spirit raps.” Soon, in front of baffled neighbors, the young sisters made a display of asking questions and receiving replies in the form of ghostly raps, worked out in a language so that knocks corresponded to letters of the alphabet. Local tales told of the murder of a traveling peddler in the area, and, sure enough, bones were discovered in the Fox basement. They were considered the earthly remains of the rapping spirit whom the Fox girls eerily called “Mr. Splitfoot.” Within weeks, curiosity seekers, clergy, and newspaper reporters converged on the little hamlet. The girls were tested, talked about, and looked over by newspaper editor Horace Greeley, New York Supreme Court Justice John Edmonds, and a variety of religious and scientific examiners—many of whom publicly attested to the genuineness of the phenomena. Americans were transfixed, and by the end of the 1840s the Spiritualist era was born.
Why did the relatively modest event grip people so? Hauntings, ghosts, and belief in an afterlife had touched every culture and civilization. And news from the spirit world was hardly unknown in America: The Publick Universal Friend had claimed to speak as an avatar from the heavens; the Poughkeepsie Seer had already produced his first massive volume of trance writing; and the Shakers had reported that spirits were visiting them ten years prior to Rochester. So spirit communiqués were nothing new. But the story told by the Fox sisters provided something of a different order. It fulfilled what was implicit in the career of Andrew Jackson Davis: that spirit communication was open to anyone, anytime. If two teenage girls could reach the otherworld, it stood to reason thateveryone could. It was a completely egalitarian take on the supernatural, with newspapers and publicity-hungry investigators ready to spread the word.
And the spirit raps heard in Rochester could strike at the deepest emotions of American homes in an era when children were constantly lost to disease. In New York City in 1853, nearly half of all reported deaths were children under five. “And oh! mother that reads this,” wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “has there never been in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave? Ah! happy mother that you are, if it has not been so.” For many, the hope of contact soothed the agony of loss.
As the news from Rochester spread, grieving parents, widows and widowers, or those simply pursuing otherworldly thrills gathered together in clubs and parlor rooms, schoolhouses and churches, to reach out to the dead. And many avowed that such contact came. In darkened rooms, tables lifted and rocked, disembodied knocks cracked through the night air, and trance mediums spoke in otherworldly voices: I-am-here-Mother, a medium might intone, as a listener sobbed and squeezed the hands of those on either side of her.
Americans like organizing things, and the supernatural was no exception. Within a decade of the Fox sisters, the nation saw the growth of Spiritualist clubs, lecture societies, and séance circles. Modeled on the instructions developed by Andrew Jackson Davis in his 1851 book The Philosophy of Spiritual Intercourse, three hundred distinct “circles” emerged in Philadelphia alone during that decade. According to a survey, the Burned-Over District was home to eighty-nine trance mediums and Spiritualist lecturers by 1859. And those numbers probably failed to capture the full range of “hobbyist” mediums. In 1850, journalist E. W. Capron counted in Auburn, New York, “fifty to one hundred” mediums “in different stages of development,” including those who could induce unseen hands to strum guitars and pound drums.
In the 1850s and beyond, believers and enthusiasts were served by dozens of newspapers specifically devoted to Spiritualist phenomena and ideas. Among the largest were The Banner of Light and The New Era in Boston, The Spiritual Telegraph in New York,The Better Way in Cincinnati, The Carrier Dove in Oakland, and Spiritual Republic and Religio-Philosophical Journal in Chicago. Most were ardently progressive, espousing suffragism and abolitionism alongside news of the spirit world. The Religio-Philosophical Journal, which began publication just after the Civil War, launched its maiden issue with an editorial against capital punishment for Confederate leaders, urging Spiritualists to “heal the breach” of war and begin “the regenerative work of enlightening and spiritualizing the masses.”
There soon emerged Spiritualist churches, summer camps, and—again at the instigation of Andrew Jackson Davis—Sunday schools, the first of which opened in New York in 1863. It was based on Davis’s description of teaching methods in the heavenly realm of Summer Land. Aiming to cultivate the wisdom of the “imperishable and perfect” soul of the individual child, Davis’s Children’s Lyceums anticipated future trends in progressive education by emphasizing the personal needs of each pupil.
In the minds of many Spiritualists, their movement held a special place for children. Oakland’s Carrier Dove featured a “Children’s Department,” which offered stories of “little angels coming to converse with wee Willy and Maud.” In 1886, the paper covered a children’s séance where a motherly trance medium:
placed the little stand into the center of the room and took her seat beside it, then called the children, six at a time, to come and put their hands upon it, while it danced to the tune of lively music. Then came the raps, and each child received some little message. It was indeed a beautiful picture to see the sweet, animated faces of the little ones as they heard for the first time the signals from the spirit land.
While the numbers were large, it is difficult to say precisely how many Americans considered themselves Spiritualists in the nineteenth century. The figure of 1.5 million, out of a total population of about thirty million, appears repeatedly at the movement’s initial flush of excitement in the 1850s—sometimes attributed to surveys, other times not attributed at all.
Works of history, both old and new, report figures upward of that amount. As a rule, the higher the number, the thinner the attribution: 2.5 million from the pen of a sympathetic Reverend W. R. Hayden in 1885 (and repeated in an influential British study); three million reported in several early Spiritualist journals; nine million claimed in 1874 by the movement’s preeminent theologian Davis (confirmed while in a clairvoyant trance); and Boston’s Banner of Light, hitting the all-time record, reported eleven to thirteen million the same year. It was, claimed The Banner, a figure encompassing the many secret believers who were afraid to formally step forward.
Given Spiritualism’s nationwide range of clubs and publications—including a peak of sixty-seven newspapers—it is reasonable to estimate that the population ran into hundreds of thousands and, depending on how stringently one defines a follower, possibly a million or higher. In a nation that counted its overall population at thirty to thirty-five million in the mid-nineteenth century, it is likely that almost one in ten free adults considered themselves believers, of one degree or another. The numbers were so large that, by the close of the 1850s, the Burned-Over District had become eclipsed by the movement it spawned and would no longer serve as the laboratory of mystical religion in American life. Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and many towns and cities had Spiritualist societies, newspapers, and congregations and soon produced innovations of their own. Spiritualism was not a regional sensation but a national movement.
“He Was Too Good for This Earth”
When facing the tragedies of death, many families were remarkably alike. In this sense, the Spiritualist experience was typified by the household of the most famous family in the nation: the Lincolns. Several months after occupying the White House in March of 1861, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln experienced the nightmare of so many mid-century parents: Their eleven-year-old son, Willie, was gripped by a serious fever, probably from typhus. A sensitive, precociously religious child with a keen mind and a love for adult company, Willie was the family favorite. He was seen holding hands with his father, whom he sometimes accompanied on official trips, the two sharing a room together. After illness struck, weeks of struggle and bedside vigils did no good. In February of 1862, the boy died late one afternoon.
“My poor boy,” Lincoln said at the bedside. “He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!” For Mary Todd, the loss was too great. She began to frequent trance mediums in desperate hope of contact. And, in the aggrieved mother’s heart, contact did occur. One evening she rushed into the room of her half sister, who had served as a nursemaid to Willie. “He lives, Emilie!” the first lady exclaimed. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed, with the same sweet, adorable smile he always had.” Mary Todd’s was the kind of story told time and again, repeated in newspapers and letters by people from every walk of life who eloquently, if agonizingly, testified to the reality of another world. For those Americans who ardently believed, Spiritualism provided some of the most moving and deeply affecting experiences of their lives.
Mary Todd Lincoln, Spiritualist
For Mary Todd Lincoln, Spiritualism was a lifelong interest—and sometimes a public embarrassment. Seven years after her husband’s assassination, she was the subject of bruising articles in February 1872 in both the Boston Herald and The New York Times. Each reported that the veiled widow clandestinely sought out the mediumistic services of the older Fox sister, Margaret. The New York Times, in “A Curious Story About Mrs. Lincoln Reiterated,” obliquely called Margaret Fox “a well-known lady medium on Washington-street” in Boston. Knowledgeable readers immediately understood the reference to the Spiritualist pioneer. Margaret was a no-longer-young woman suffering family fissures and heated charges and countercharges of fraud, and now earning her living at the séance table. Mrs. Lincoln had made the insufficient effort of disguising herself on a Boston hotel registry as a “Mrs. Linder.” The most famous widow in America joined others at a public sitting in Margaret’s parlor, where, reported The Times, “the spirit of her lamented husband appeared and, by unmistakable manifestations, revealed to all present the identity of Mrs. Lincoln, which she had attempted to keep secret.” In 1875, Mary Todd’s one surviving son, Robert, had her briefly committed to a sanitorium, claiming—spuriously—that she was squandering her estate on Spiritualist hoo-ha such as that in Boston.
And this, at last, is the image with which most historians are comfortable: the widow Lincoln, famously nervous and often depressed, her mind loosened from too much loss, seeking final solace in the darkened séance room. But less understood is that President Lincoln himself may have taken more than a passing interest in Spiritualism. In April of 1863, in the presence of a reporter from the Boston Gazette, Lincoln hosted a séance in the Crimson Room of the White House. Attending were Mary Todd, two cabinet secretaries, and a trance medium, Charles E. Shockle, who seemed more nervous than anyone else during the whole affair (twice during the evening he fainted and had to be revived). Once everyone was seated at the table, according to the Gazette’s correspondent, Prior Melton, Lincoln gamely pitched political questions to Shockle, the “spirit visitors” who spoke through him, and the two cabinet members, while Mary Todd looked on silently.
As with all such episodes in Spiritualist history, this one raises the question of which sources to believe. Historian John B. Buescher noted that no trance medium named Charles E. Shockle appeared in any of the Spiritualist newspapers of the day, which suggests the Gazette’s correspondent may have invented the whole affair. Several days after the Gazette article’s publication, however, The New York Herald reprinted the evening’s account (“which we presume to be true,” stated an adjunct note) and added its own news analysis about Spiritualism’s popularity. Several other newspapers followed suit in reprinting the piece. There is no record of the White House ever disputing the report. Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg took note of the affair and wondered why the president permitted a reporter to be present at all. The likelihood is that the White House séance served a shrewd political end. Lincoln used the encounter to show the public that, even in the midst of the Civil War, the commander in chief could sit back and sample the same kind of parlor-room novelty that other Americans were marveling over. The Gazette story presented Lincoln as relaxed, good humored, and not excessively encumbered by wartime command. In something of a White House propaganda coup, at least one paper of the Confederacy, Georgia’s Macon Daily Telegraph and Confederate, reprinted the Gazette piece in full.
Whether elements of the story were fabricated—such as the mysterious, possibly pseudonymous Mr. Shockle—the dialogue does suggest vintage Lincoln. When the medium told the president that an Indian spirit wished to convey a message, Lincoln replied: “Well, sir, I should be happy to hear what his Indian Majesty has to say. We have recently had a visitation from our red brethren, and it was the only delegation—black, white or blue—which did not volunteer some advice about the conduct of the war.” In other settings, the president had often—and humorously—complained of how visitors liked nothing better than to bestow advice about the war, when what he needed were victories.
When Shockle’s spirits did get around to giving their inevitable military advice—through the channeled words of no less than Henry Knox, secretary of war to George Washington—Lincoln was unimpressed: “Well, opinions differ among the saints as well as among the sinners. They don’t seem to understand running the machine among the celestials much better than we do. Their talk and advice sounds very much like the talk of my Cabinet.” Lincoln then asked his discomforted cabinet secretaries whether they agreed that the spirits knew little better how to proceed than the mortals—which elicited stammering assurances from Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that, uh, well, sir, he would certainly consider the matter.
If the Gazette had intended to expose Lincoln as a Spiritualist, it more fully captured him as a good-humored skeptic. But there exists another remembrance of the Civil War era that depicts a different Lincoln from the one teasingly subjecting his cabinet members to spirit counsels.
An 1891 memoir by a trance medium named Nettie Colburn Maynard, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?, stands apart from some of the era’s hackneyed literature in its vividness of style and even verisimilitude. At the end of 1862, wrote Maynard, as the Civil War passed into a second Christmas season, with hopes for peace at a dreary low, she was, at the instigation of Mary Todd Lincoln, ushered into the private quarters of the White House and asked to give a spirit reading to the exhausted commander. At the time, Lincoln had drafted but not yet signed the cornerstone measure of his presidency: the Emancipation Proclamation. There was enormous tension in the nation over when or whether he would put his signature to it.
“For more than an hour I was made to talk to him,” Maynard reported. During the course of her unconscious transmission from the spirit realm, Maynard wrote, Lincoln was assured that if he acted to sign and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, it would be the primary achievement for which he would be remembered. As Maynard emerged from her trance, she found that a grave hush had fallen over the room. “Mr. President,” asked Congressman Daniel E. Somes of Maine, an onlooker at the séance, “would it be improper for me to inquire whether there has been any pressure brought to bear upon you to defer the enforcement of the Proclamation?” Yes, Maynard reported Lincoln saying, “It is taking all of my nerve and strength to withstand such a pressure.” Lincoln then turned to the teenage medium. “My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here tonight. It is more important than perhaps anyone present can understand.”
Whether any part of the account is true cannot be known. But it underscores a distinct and misunderstood quality among many American Spiritualists. And this was the desire to associate supernaturalism with the social good.* Here is the impulse of Andrew Jackson Davis and his vision of heaven as a place containing all of the world’s peoples; of the Shakers to whom spirits spoke of the need to end slavery and the tragedy that settlers had visited upon the Indians; and of the Freemasons and their ideal of a religious nation that eschewed sectarian division. Maynard, whatever her veracity as a witness, sought not to convince the public that she counseled Lincoln on how to conduct himself in war, how to exercise power, or how to deal with the Confederacy, but rather that, through her trance reading, she advised him to do the greatest thing a leader could do, in the eyes of social reformers.
In this way, Spiritualism was both an occult movement and a political one. It attracted the interest and participation of utopians, suffragists, and radicals, because, among other things, it provided a setting in which women—for the first time in American history—could regularly serve as religious leaders, at least of a sort. Most spirit mediums were women, with many voting-rights activists among them. Spiritualist thought-leaders included the formidable Anglo-American religious thinker Emma Hardinge Britten—an early Theosophist and political reformer who had stumped for Lincoln’s candidacy and who saw Spiritualism as the basis of a new religious order. Andrew Jackson Davis’s second wife (the seer married thrice) was the suffragette–activist Mary Fenn Love, who in 1853 coconvened the first New York State Women’s Rights Convention. “Spiritualism has inaugurated the era of woman,” Love announced.
In 1872, the Equal Rights Party, a consortium of suffragists and abolitionists, named trance-medium Victoria Woodhull the nation’s first female presidential candidate. Woodhull had gained national prominence the previous year in a historic voting-rights speech before the congressional Judiciary Committee. She was the first woman to appear before a joint committee of Congress. She later told supporters that the Woodhull Memorial, as her testimony was known, had been dictated to her in a dream by a ghostly, tunic-wearing Greek elder—a spirit guardian who had guided all of her public utterances ever since she was a little girl. Woodhull’s presidential campaign was quixotic and short-lived, quickly eclipsed by her twin passions for publicity-mongering and political chicanery. The medium–activist selected Frederick Douglass as her running mate—but without asking him. “I never heard of this,” the abolitionist hero later said.
Another Spiritualist voice in Congress belonged to U.S. Senator James Shields. In 1854, the Illinois Democrat rose on the Senate floor to present a petition signed by fifteen thousand American Spiritualists. Shields begged senators to take seriously the petitioners’ request to fund a “scientific commission” to investigate the possibility of talking to the dead—perhaps, Shields offered, even looking into “establishing a spiritual telegraph between the material and spiritual world.” For most Spiritualists, science and religion were not at odds but were natural allies in the march of progress. Many considered communiqués from the spirit world to be as scientifically provable as the electrical current or the telegraph signal—faculties that only strengthened their belief in unseen forms of communication. Shields’s Senate colleagues were having none of it, and in short order they hooted down the former general, one guffawing that his proposal should be dispatched to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
Some of the nation’s better-respected political reformers also counted themselves as believers in the Rochester rappings. They included the liberal congressman and Lincoln confidant Robert Dale Owen, who participated in dozens of nightly sittings that summoned up a voluptuous female spirit named Katie King. King “materialized” in physical form and received gifts and doting gazes from the aging activist. When Owen learned he was being tricked by an actress, it so broke him that he spent time in a sanitorium. The reformist newspaper editor Horace Greeley invited the younger Fox sister, Kate, to live for four months in his dark, rambling home in Chappaqua, New York. With Greeley and his wife, Kate attempted to contact the couple’s departed five-year-old son. So heavily did the lines between progressive politics and Spiritualism intersect in the nineteenth century that it was rare to find a leader in one field who had not at least a passing involvement in the other.
Spirit rappings had a peculiar way of spreading. Soon they were being heard at séance circles in the drawing rooms of Paris and London, where the fashionable classes took a deep interest in things that went bump. Spiritualism became, in effect, the first spiritual movement that America exported abroad.
In France in the late 1850s, a stout, bearded writer and lecturer named Allan Kardec crafted “Spiritism” into a full-blown religion, complete with its own cosmic theology, liturgy, and doctrine of redemptive, or karmic, reincarnation. Determined to appear as no one’s imitator, Kardec displayed little fondness for his American counterparts—or, it seemed, for anyone. His English friend and translator Anna Blackwell recalled Kardec as possessing such a “habitual sobriety of demeanor that he was never known to laugh.” Regardless, after his death in 1869, the French theologian became venerated as a kind of Spiritualist saint in Latin America, where his writings had been spread by Portuguese traders. To the current day, Kardec’s image—depicted not as stout but firm and angular—appears on devotional candles and amulets from Peru to the barrios of North America. In Brazil, where Espiritismo is an officially recognized faith, the government placed Kardec’s image on a postage stamp in 1957 to celebrate the First Centenary of Organized Spiritism.
And Spiritualism traveled still farther, inspiring a vast supernatural religion in the nation of Vietnam. It began in the late 1920s, when a Vietnamese civil servant working for the French colonial administration conceived of the faith he called Caodaism (roughly, “religion of the high palace”). It was a mélange of Eastern traditions—from Taoism to Buddhism to Hinduism—combined with the ideas of Allan Kardec and other French Spiritists, including poet and novelist Victor Hugo, himself a habitué of séances. To communicate with the otherworld, Caodaism relied upon American Spiritualism’s most popular innovation: the Ouija board. Ouija proved surprisingly adaptable to the Latinized version of the Vietnamese language that had begun under the influence of Catholic missionaries. So closely was Ouija associated with Caodaism that novelist Graham Greene in The Quiet American lampooned the Vietnamese faith as “prophecy by planchette,” using the French name for the little platform that slides around the board.
Caodaism had a defiant politics. It was militantly anticommunist and maintained a private army that sided with American forces against the Vietcong as late as 1975. After the war, the religion fled underground. Newly emergent in the twenty-first century, Caodaism claims up to eight million followers worldwide and ranks as Vietnam’s third-largest faith, after Buddhism and Catholicism. Though unknown to most Americans—whose primary association with Vietnam is war and loss—Caodaism is by far the largest organized religion to emerge from the Spiritualist age. And its origins can be traced back to the ghostly rappings heard one winter night at a cottage in the Burned-Over District. The “cradle of Modern Spiritualism,” as Madame Blavatsky once called America, had sent its children on a long journey. And they would find still stranger games to play along the way.
* Maynard’s account, and particularly her record of Lincoln’s remarks, also shows Spiritualism’s continued emphasis on the Christian underpinnings of mediumship.