White House Seances and Madness
On this President's Day let's take a look at some of the little known spiritual dalliances of our former first ladies. Jane Pierce, wife of Franklin Pierce, was obsessed with death and illness from a very young age. She often wrote metaphysical letters to her family members discussing mortality and the afterlife. When she suffered the tragic loss of their son Bennie prior to her husband's inauguration in March 1853, however, she made it her mission in life to reconnect with him.
The family had been traveling by train in Massachusetts when the train derailed and their car was overturned. The 11 year old boy's skull was crushed, a sight Jane could never recover from fully. Consumed with grief and guilt, Jane sought out the help of the Fox sisters, three sisters from New York who played an important role in the development of spiritualism. In fact, it can be said that they pioneered spirit communication. Leah, Margaret, and Kate Fox had made a career out of speaking with the dead from a very young age through the spirits knocking or rapping on furniture and walls in response to questions. It's said they discovered the murdered corpse of a traveling salesman under their home by asking the spirit to spell out its location. The skeleton found under their house, however, was a construction of several different corpses and included the bones of a chicken as well.
The Fox sisters had become fairly famous by the time the first lady called on them to perform a seance in the White House. It was unusual for single women to earn their own money and earn they surely did. In five years they presided over more than 400 seances, many of which are well documented. Not much is known about the actual White House seance, but Jane Pierce wrote to her sister that her son appeared to her in dreams twice after and that her soul was now calm.
Around 1888 the two younger Fox sisters became embroiled in an argument with Leah, the eldest of the sisters and their manager. Margaret and Kate were offered $1500 to expose their methods. They held a press conference for 2000 people and confessed that their years of success as mediums had all been based on lies and that the rappings were the result of toe joint cracking and well timed routines. The two women had developed drinking problems by this point and now, shunned by the spiritualist community, would recant the confession but the damage to their reputations was done. Both died penniless and were buried in pauper's graves in Cyprus Hills Cemetery. Their sister Leah, who they never reconciled with, is buried in Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn. They are still discussed in some paranormal circles without mention of their trickery ,but fakes they certainly were. Harry Houdini, who made a career out of debunking spiritualists, said that had the women not confessed and been paid the $1500 they would have starved.
Jane Pierce had shared the story of her successful seance with the Fox sisters with Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary was a controversial figure in Washington from day one of her husband's presidency. Prone to wild fits of overspending, she once purchased 400 pairs of gloves in a single month. She also undertook the complete redecoration of the White House using federal funds, a decision that was wildly unpopular during the Civil War when many citizens were suffering personal losses and struggling to provide for their families.
In February 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln's son died of typhoid. She was met with little sympathy as so many young men were dying in The Civil War and the public blamed her husband. Even Mary's family were cold, many were confederate sympathizers.
Like Jane Pierce, Mary called on the services of well known spiritualists like Cranston Laurie, also a high ranking employee of the US Postal Service, young Nettie Colburn Maynard and "another identified in the record only as 'Colchester of Georgetown' to conduct these 'calls to the dead' in the White House Red Room."
Mary is said to have been so taken by the young spiritualist, Nettie Colburn Maynard, that she secured a furlough for her brother as well as a job for Nettie as a clerk at the Department of Agriculture. She was desperate for Nettie to remain in Washington and asked Nettie to perform a seance in the presence of the President. Mary believed she was speaking to her son and that after the seance “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same, sweet adorable smile he has always had..."she wrote to her sister.
Nettie wrote in her 1891 memoir, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? Curious Revelations from a Trance Medium, that she and her congress of spirits had influenced the President on matters of state and had brought about the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Bold claim, Nettie.
After Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Mary would travel through Europe meeting more spiritualists. She was also photographed by William Mumler, a well known spirit photographer, in 1871. The image of Lincoln's ghost resting his hands protectively on Mary's shoulders is said to have brought her great comfort.
In the years that followed Abraham's death, Mary fell into a deep depression mixed with paranoia. Due to the delay in Lincoln's estate settlement, Mary was convinced she would end up penniless and once tried to sell her entire wardrobe. She also believed the city would be consumed by fire. Her son, Robert, eventually had her committed to Bellevue Place an upscale asylum for women for several months. The hearings leading up to her hospital stay were a source of great humiliation for her. She never forgave her son. As explained in The Doctor's Review:
Some said that Mary claimed to hear voices through the walls; servants were forced to stand guard over their fearful mistress while she slept. Her alternating habits of wasteful spending and frugal saving were exposed before the court. Some historians believe she may have had bipolar disorder, though few would go so far as to diagnose schizophrenia, despite the fact that she seemed to suffer at times from psychosis and delusions.
One of Mary's doctors, Willis Danforth, was the star witness. He reported that Mary had told him that an evil Indian spirit was pulling wires out of her left eye, that she was distracted by premonitions of her own death and that she was prone to vomiting up her meals to foil imaginary poisoners. The manager of the Chicago hotel she lived in explained how Mary had shown up in the elevator half-naked, and sent all her belongings to Milwaukee one day believing the city was being consumed by a raging fire.
After Mary's death, many theories surfaced surrounding her apparent madness. A brain tumor, possible syphilis, post traumatic stress disorder, bi polar disorder...the list of possible causes is long. What can be said for certain is that she was preyed upon by fake spiritualists and is now only really remembered for her folly and her madness vs her political beliefs when, by all accounts, she served as her husband's conscience for much of the war.