This outing let us delve a little into a much neglected aspect of Abraham Lincoln: his interest—nay obsession—with the paranormal. To be sure, I covered the subject in depth in The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and I have blogged on some aspects of it before. However, the subject is worth more exploring, since mainstream historians have largely ignored the subject or dismiss it by emphasizing that our 16th President was merely humoring his “neurotic” wife (they really mean bitchy, but don’t wish to sound sexist) and they let it go at that.
Mary Todd Lincoln had her faults, to be sure; and after the death of their son Willie she was indeed very much drawn to Spiritualism, both as an emotional outlet and as a method to get in touch, not only with Willie, but her dead brother, a Confederate officer killed in combat.
But in truth, in my research for The Paranormal Presidency, I uncovered evidence pointing to Lincoln’s involvement with psychics—or at least persons posing as psychics—well before Willie’s death and which did not involve his wife.
The evidence for Lincoln’s early involvement with psychics is admittedly sketchy. The trail is difficult to follow in this and other controversial aspects of Lincoln, mainly because his sole surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, did such a good job at suppressing all evidence after the war that did not portray his father as a living saint. We know for a fact that for several days Robert Lincoln running burned satchels full of papers relating to his father’s life and politics. So, when you read about Honest Abe, bear in mind that as voluminous as the Lincoln Papers may seem, they are in fact heavily “scrubbed.”
But not everything went up in flames. There was eyewitness testimony, for one thing, although here again, historians cast aspersions on the witnesses, dismissing them as liars and cranks. One witness in particular, testifies to Abraham Lincoln consulting at least one psychic which had anything to do with Mary and preceded the death of their son Willie.
After the war a gentleman named Colonel Simon P. Kase came forward to testify that he had been instrumental in securing a meeting between the President and a “writing medium” by the name of “Mr. Conkling.” He recounts visiting Washington on business (he was a government contractor) and out of curiosity visiting his old apartments only to encounter the mysterious Mr. Conkling. Being already a believer in Spiritualism, this Conkling prevailed upon him to deliver a letter to Lincoln and to set up a meeting between him and the President. Colonel Kase obliged, but for whatever reason, Conkling stayed in another room of the White House during Kase’s interview with the President.
The story is a curious one and Colonel Kase conflated this encounter with a full séance attended by the President sometime later, attended by the young medium Nettie Colbun. In seeking to verify Kase’s accounts, it is not helpful that he related these encounters with the President a number of years later, when the good gentlemen was apparently up in years and his memory less than perfect.
Fortunately, we have contemporary documentation to support Colonel Kase’s narrative. Deep within the Library of Congress’s Lincoln Papers is preserved the missive from Conkling which he delivered to Lincoln. Kase recalled it happening sometime in 1862; in fact the letter is date December 28, 1861 and the medium’s name was H. B. Conklin. His return address was actually New York City, not Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C.
Conklin’s missive to Lincoln was actually just a cover letter for another gentleman’s letter, a man named Edward Baker. Baker was a person well known to Lincoln, having been a good friend of the President’s. The reason Baker was unable to deliver the letter in person is that he had been killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, months before and he had written it from the grave!
The Library of Congress not only has transcribed this correspondence into a readable printed text, it has also provided access photostats of the original documents. Curiously, there are some eight pages to the original, although the printed transcription is much shorter. Most of the original papers seemed to be filled with meaningless scribbling and when I first examined it I was at a loss to make sense of it. Then I realized: Conklin was a “writing medium” and what those pages were what we would call today “automatic writing.”
Beyond Kase’s eyewitness account, there is other evidence of Lincoln’s encounters with H. B. Conklin. Apparently Lincoln met Conklin even before he became President; an article published in March of 1861 and entitled “The President is a Spiritualist,” relates how Conklin met him a year before and delivered another message from a dead acquaintance.
Whether H. B. Conklin was the real deal or simply a clever charlatan is irrelevant. The fact remains that there is solid evidence that Lincoln was frequenting psychics and mediums without Mary and doing so well before their son’s death. What Lincoln’s motives may have to do is open to debate: the fact that he did so is not. For more on the subject, see Chapter 14 of The Paranormal Presidency.