Things That Go BUMP in the Parlor: Spiritualism, Lincoln, and a Happy Hallowe’en

Nettie Colburn

The tall, thin man with the sad face folded himself into an uncomfortable Italianate armchair in the Red Room of the Executive Mansion. “So this is our ‘little Nettie’ is it, that we have heard so much about? Well, how do you do it?” At this point, twenty-one-year-old Nettie Colburn claimed that she lost all consciousness of her surroundings and passed under control of a spirit guide.

Meeting President Lincoln must have been unnerving for young Nettie, but apparently, her spirit guide did not care and proceeded to give the President advice about the Emancipation Proclamation on that cold December night in 1862. In fact, Nettie’s spirit guides gave information and advice to both Mrs. Lincoln and her husband several times during the years she resided in Washington during the Civil War. Mrs. Lincoln was often identified as believing in Spiritualism, seeking contact with her deceased sons and family. Mr. Lincoln mostly ignored attempts to place him within any sort of religious confine, and publically denied Spiritualism.

America had undergone the Second Great Awakening as short a time ago as 1820, and both Baptist and Methodist churches were enjoying significant rises in their memberships. But neither of these faiths offered the opportunity for communication with the dead. Unfortunately, the Civil War had a lot of dead with whom to communicate. America’s obsession with Spiritualism began in Hydesville, New York, in 1848. There, two sisters were allegedly subject to various rappings coming from the walls in their bedroom. Margaret and Katie Fox insisted that the knocks came from a traveling peddler, murdered in the house the year before. The girls–because it seemed like such a logical thing to do–knocked in response.

The Fox Sisters

The neighborhood quickly became aware of the mysterious goings-on at the house of the Fox sisters. People were willing to pay to witness the phenomenon, and soon the eldest Fox sister, Leah, was managing the show. By 1850 word of the rappings had progressed down the map, settling in both New York and Boston. Boston particularly attracted clairvoyants. Such well-known mediums as Fanny Conant, LaRoy Sunderland, and Margaretta Cooper held séances in Boston whose audiences included William Lloyd Garrison and abolitionist Wendell Phillips.

Antique illustration of seance session

The practice of attending a séance became so popular that more traditional congregations began to demand that congregants who also claimed to believe in Spiritualism leave their churches. Three “mortals” founded the newspaper that spread the word of Spiritualism beyond the confines of Boston. Luther Colby and William Berry ran the Banner of Light, inspired and directed “from beyond” by Fanny Conant. Harvard College, home of rational thought for many years, challenged this movement. Student of Divinity Frederick L. H. Willis was removed from Harvard for conducting séances in private homes. Some of the spirits he claimed to have contacted were poets Byron and Shelly. The Banner of Light quickly came to his defense, arguing that Willis was a “God-fearing scholar who had been vilified for his beliefs.” Naturally, Harvard responded with a challenge: $500 was to be awarded to anyone who could produce authentic spiritual manifestations that included table-tipping and rappings. The disbelieving Boston Clarion newspaper publicized and supported the challenge, to be held on June 25-27. Even the Fox sisters were part of the judging panel. Alas, medium after medium failed to attract any interested spirits. The money was never awarded.

Masthead for The Banner of Light

All this activity happened before April 1861. The Civil War changed everything. Suddenly there were more dead people and bereaved families who wanted just one last word. Unfortunately, there were a lot of folks with just enough information to make it easy to prey on the bereaved. By 1860, Boston began to offer a sort-of strip mall area on Tremont Street that catered to “believers.” Mediums of all kinds opened their own small storefront businesses. Others combined resources to provide a variety of services to customers who were looking for one-stop Spiritual shopping. Body, soul, and mind could be treated under the same roof. The “Reading Room Resort” offered business advice, private or group séances, and medical diagnosis and healing, all while music, comfortable chairs, and a tea-room atmosphere created a warm, welcoming environment.

First Spiritualist Church of Boston

Because New England was where Spiritualism had begun, it was seen as a mainly Yankee phenomenon. The Banner of Light claimed to have spiritualists embedded with Major Anderson and his men at Fort Sumter. On November 12, 1861, the paper ran an article suggesting the creation of a regiment of Spiritualists. It would be commanded by men whose psychic credentials were impeccable: “… powerful physical mediums, all gentlemen of military experience, good intelligence, and courteous bearing.” This idea never came to fruition. Emma Hardinge, a British medium, claimed that during the war, many soldiers who were also Spiritualists had advised their commanding officers on military matters. Ms. Hardinge did not provide any particulars, however.

Public Circles, created by the Banner and held at its offices, were meetings open to the public. Usually, Fanny Conant was the clairvoyant who delivered messages from beyond to the Boston public. Through her, the spirit of abolitionist John Brown appeared one evening. Deceased soldiers from both sides–accents intact–regularly attended with messages to loved ones who were present on that particular night. These same spirits told editor William Berry not to “throw his life away” by joining the military. They predicted his death “on the battlefield.” Berry did not take their advice and joined the 15th Regiment of Massachusetts in 1861. He was quickly promoted to first lieutenant and was fatally wounded at the Battle of Antietam.

Frances “Fanny” Conant

As the war continued, Spiritualist mediums and healers descended on the Union capital at Washington. Bereaved family members, agonized nurses unable to staunch the death around them, and desperate politicians made natural marks for the unscrupulous. Nettie Colburn has never been accused of using her relationship with the Lincolns for personal gain of any sort. In fact, she sewed seed bags at the Department of the Interior to support herself while she remained in the city, waiting and working for a furlough for her injured brother. In her book Séances in Washington, Nettie is careful to explain that she did not help write the Emancipation Proclamation or give advice of a military nature about the Battle of First Bull Run. She claimed he knew several purported mediums, and attended meetings at the Executive Residence as well as other places. She wrote:

If he had not had faith in Spiritualism, he would not have connected himself with it… .especially in particularly dangerous times, while the fate of the nation was in peril. However, had he declared an open belief in the subject, he would have been pronounced insane and probably incarcerated. It is also true that Mrs. Lincoln was more openly enthusiastic regarding the subject than her husband, and openly and avowedly professed herself connected with the new religion.

President Lincoln is said to have predicted his own death at least twice, seeing a double vision in a mirror, and dreaming about a boat on the water. Whether these intuitive claims are true or not, Lincoln did not live out his second term in office. He was assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865. Mary Lincoln was shattered in both body and mind. Her belief in Spiritualism, however, was only shaken, not destroyed. In January 1875, a short, plain woman wearing a long black veil came to the Boston door of Spiritualist photographer William H. Mumler. She said her name was “Mrs. Lindall,” and she wanted her photograph taken. When she returned for it, she was shaken. She turned for advice to Mumler’s wife, Hannah. Mrs. Hannah Mumler immediately went into a trance. Using the spirit voice of a young man, Hannah spoke: “Mother, if you cannot recognize father, then show the picture to Robert.” Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln, for that is who she was, recognized the voice of her deceased son Willy. She was convinced. The shadowy image of the bearded man standing behind her seated form, his hands placed tenderly on her shoulders, was her beloved husband, caring for her in death as in life.

Photograph by William Mumler


Happy Hallowe’en!


Further Reading: (Writer’s Note: Both books below are written by authors who believe in Spiritualism. I do not.)

  • Boston in the Golden Age of Spiritualism: Séances, Mediums, and Immortality by Dee Morris. Charleston, London: The History Press, 2014.
  • Séances in Washington: Abraham Lincoln and Spiritualism during the Civil War by Nettie Colburn Maynard. Edited by Irene McGarvie. Toronto, ON: Nixon-Carre Ltd,. 2009.

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