Time Capsule: The Spiritualist Movement

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

One morning in January, 1863, Mrs. Laurie desired me to go to the White House and inquire after Mrs. Lincoln’s health. Mrs. Laurie had visited Mrs. Lincoln the previous day, and found her prostrated by one of her severe headaches. It was about eleven o’clock when I called. Upon sending up my name and inquiry to Mrs. Lincoln, I was requested to walk upstairs to her rooms, where I found Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, a gentleman, and two ladies. I was cordially received by Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, and presented to the guests, whose names were not mentioned, and when I noticed their glances, I knew that they had been told I was a “medium.” After explaining my errand and being about to withdraw, Mrs. Lincoln asked whether I felt equal to the task of a séance. Noticing that all were expectant, I signified my willingness and reseated myself.
[After the séance], Mr. Lincoln rousing himself with an effort, saying: “I must go, and am afraid I have already stayed too long.” Shaking hands with his visitors, he turned in his kind way to me, and, while warmly shaking my hand, said: “I thank you, Miss Nettie, for obliging us; we have deeply enjoyed our little circles.” As he left the room, the others expressed the same sentiment.
Both Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, participated in the Spiritualist religious movement, which began in the late 1840s. This excerpt is from the memoir of Spiritualist medium Nettie Colburn Maynard, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?, published in 1891. The Psychic Life of Abraham Lincoln by Susan B. Martinez, PhD, and other biographies also have discussed the Lincolns’ Spiritualism.

Still an active religion, Spiritualism peaked in popularity between 1848 and 1920, with 2 to 3 million estimated followers. The first national organization of Spiritualists was founded in 1864, and communities cropped up around the nation, including The Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly in Lily Dale, NY, in 1879; the Historic Sunset Spiritualist Church in Central Kansas in 1881; and the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association in Florida in 1894, to name a few.

As the movement grew, the women’s rights movement also gained momentum. The new religion drew many women, and most mediums were women. Spiritualism provided women not only with a voice and audience, but a new profession.

Was your ancestor a Spiritualist? Look for Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America and Todd Leonard’s Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship for more on the history of the movement, and Dwight A. Radford’s article “From Séances to Ouija Boards: Tracing Your Spiritualist Ancestor,” in the June/July 2004 National Genealogical Society News Magazine.

From the September 2013 Family Tree Magazine