While his name is not well-known nowadays, Andrew Jackson Davis was a man of great renown in early nineteenth century America. His works–dealing with prophecy and the paranormal–were read by Abraham Lincoln and other notable men of the day.
Davis’s ideas were heavily influenced by the works of the eighteenth century philosopher Swedenborg, who had once had a Near Death Experience and believed in the paranormal. Like Joan of Arc, the witch turned Catholic saint, Davis claimed that spirit voices talked to him, guided him and told him of many unknown things. Davis came from a part of upstate New York called “The Burnt-Over District” because so many radical spiritual and social movements arose there and then spread like wild-fire across the rest of the country.
In 1843, Andrew Jackson Davis attended a lecture on “Animal magnetism” (an early form of hypnosis) and soon thereafter the spirit voices came to him, advising him of his mission in life. Shortly thereafter Davis had an epiphany of sorts. He went into a deep trance, and when he awoke three days later, Davis was on a mountaintop forty miles away from where he had fallen asleep, seemingly transported there by supernatural means.
Davis through his writings and lectures developed a large and devoted following. Edgar Allan Poe heard his lectures on mesmerism and was inspired to write “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” in 1845 as a result. Edgar Cayce, the “sleeping prophet” of Kentucky, was later inspired by his ideas as well.
At this point, enter the Fox sisters. In 1848 the two younger sisters, Kate and Maggie, had just moved into a home that locals said was haunted. Soon knocking sounds were heard around the house, but mainly focused on the sister’s room. The father tried to nail and tighten every loose board and window in the house, to no avail. They even sent the two young girls to their older sister Leah’s home, hoping the mysterious spirit would leave them alone. It did not. The ghostly activities not only continued in the parents home but the poltergeist activities also started up in their sister Leah’s house. Leah, it turns out, was a dedicated follower of Andrew Jackson Davis, and she saw in her sisters paranormal activities the fulfillment of some of Davis’ prophecies. Through trial and error the sisters devised a way of communicating with the spirit—a method which came to be called the seance. Soon the girls went public and put on public displays of their abilities as mediums and the Spiritualism movement was born.
The Fox sisters became celebrities and put on public performances in New York City and elsewhere; politicians, publishers and leading intellectuals of the day attended and were impressed. Spiritualism also began to take on the aspects of a social reform movement, with leading spiritualists also championing political and economic ideas of the day, such as Abolitionism. Spiritualism also had a strong theatrical aspect to it, with many mediums performing before audiences on stage. While many bereaved families used seances to get in touch with loved ones, it was also widely regarded by many people as a sort of parlour game. Individuals high and low tried for themselves and found that it worked.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and his wife attended a number of such seances, some by genuine mediums, and others held by charlatans. While historians dispute that Lincoln was himself a spiritualist, many around him definitely were.
After the war, the two younger Fox sisters fell into alcoholism and also resented their older sister’s controlling influence on them. When a newspaper offered one of them a bribe to “expose” Spiritualism and say it was a fake, she took the money; she later recanted, however. The three sisters’ legacy remains controversial to this day.
For more on Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with seances and Spiritualism, see my new book, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, January, 2013). If you want t read more about battlefield hauntings of the Civil War, then I recommend my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War from Rutledge Hill.