When eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln died of typhoid in the White House in February 1862, his parents were devastated. For weeks President Lincoln held solitary grieving sessions every Thursday, the day of his son’s death. Mary Lincoln swung between agonized sobbing and passive despair. She wore mourning clothes for months, wrote on stationery trimmed in black, and could not bear to look at photos of Willie or enter the room in which he had died.
Solace came to her through spiritualism, the popular movement that allegedly put the living in direct contact with the dead. Mary communicated with Willie and other deceased loved ones through mediums and her own powers of spiritual sight. She told a relative about Willie’s private visits to her: he “comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same sweet adorable smile he has always had. You cannot dream of the comfort this gives me.” President Lincoln, who attended some of the dozen or so séances that were held at the White House during the Civil War, was not, like his wife, a devotee of spiritualism, but he viewed it with genuine interest.
Contact with the other world was not considered unusual in America during spiritualism’s heyday, from the late 1840s to the 1880s. Rooted in various kinds of mysticism, spiritualism mushroomed in America during the 1840s—an age of marvelous inventions, notably the telegraph, which was first demonstrated in 1844. If communications could travel thousands of miles within seconds, surely the “spiritual telegraph” could connect the living and the dead through what was thought to be invisible electromagnetic fluid. Emma Hardinge Britten, a leading spiritualist, wrote, “Our city streets are thronged with an unseen people, who flit about us, jostling us in thick crowds; and in our silent chambers, our secret closets.”
In 1848 fourteen-year-old Margaret Fox and her eleven-year-old sister Kate claimed to hear rapping sounds in their upstate New York house produced by a spirit they called Mr. Splitfoot. The Fox sisters traveled the country giving séances and became celebrities. Imitators proliferated, and the spiritualist craze swept America. People gathered in the presence of a medium—often a young woman—whose special powers resulted in miraculous signs from beyond: knocking, musical sounds, ghostly hands, objects rising in the air, and so on. At the peak of the spiritualist movement, some of its leaders claimed 11 million adherents nationally—almost a third of the population. Among those who took up spiritualism were the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, the antislavery novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the progressive journalist Horace Greeley, and the Radical Republican congressmen Benjamin Wade and Joshua Reed Giddings. Walt Whitman attended at least one séance and counted the “spiritualist” among “the lawgivers of poets.”
Terry Alford’s absorbing book In the Houses of Their Dead describes the engagement with spiritualism of the Lincolns and of the family of John Wilkes Booth, the president’s assassin. Alford, the author of a biography of Booth, shows that both families had histories of belief in omens and superstitions that led to experimentation with spiritualism.
Alford does a fine job of describing the Booths and their circle. The actor Junius Brutus Booth moved in 1821 from England to America, settled in Maryland, and toured widely, establishing himself as the nation’s foremost tragedian. He and his common-law wife, Mary Ann Holmes, had ten children, three of whom—John Wilkes, Edwin, and Junius Jr.—became famous actors as well. At an early age, John Wilkes went to a fortune teller who said he was “born under an unlucky star” and was destined for “trouble in plenty.” She predicted for him “a fast life, short but…grand.” Accepting the latter part of the prophecy, he declared, “The Gypsey said I was to have a grand life. No matter how short then, so let it be grand!”
Alford writes that other members of the Booth family also had momentous experiences with the mystical. In the weeks after the death of Junius Brutus Booth, his wife saw his spirit twice. The family member who was most frequently involved in spiritualism was Edwin Booth. Superstitious by nature, Edwin feared peacock feathers, ivy vines, and broken mirrors. During the Civil War he gained fame as an actor but sank into depression after his young wife Mary died in 1863. He had frequent visions of her lying in a coffin with a white cloth wrapped around her head and under her chin. He found relief by communicating with her and others through mediums. Describing two sittings he had with Margaret Fox, Edwin said, “The raps began very loud the moment she entered.” He developed a special enthusiasm for another celebrated seer, Charles H. Foster. With Foster’s help, Edwin reported, “Mary, my Father and my friend Cary converse with me as truly and distinctly as though they were in the flesh…. All is clear—solid—true.”
Edwin’s confidence in Foster’s powers was shared by Mary Lincoln, who had “multiple sittings” with the famous medium. Alford’s revelation of this and other connections between the Booths and the Lincolns is what distinguishes In the Houses of Their Dead from previous studies of spiritualism in the Lincoln White House.1 Both families were haunted by thoughts of the world beyond.
Surveying Abraham Lincoln’s youth, Alford reminds us that the frontier people among whom he grew up in Indiana believed in ghosts, witches, and portents. They planted crops according to phases of the moon and searched for water by using hazel sticks. Lincoln, though rightly remembered as a rational pragmatist, was at the same time superstitious. His longtime law partner William Herndon wrote that Lincoln’s superstition “ran through his being like a bluish red vein runs through the whitest marble.” Another lawyer recalled him saying that he heard “phantom voices” when he was alone in the woods. Lincoln declared, “Once I heard a voice right at my elbow—heard it distinctly and plainly. I turned around expecting to see someone. No one there but the voice.”
Although as a young man Lincoln had said that he had doubts about an afterlife, he clung to the hope of one. When he and Mary lost their son Eddie, who died at three in 1850, they consulted what he called “three good women who were in touch with the spirit world,” according to a woman who worked for the Lincolns. As president, Lincoln was fascinated by Mary’s mediums, especially Nettie Colburn, a slim, curly-haired woman in her early twenties who conducted séances in the White House. Colburn channeled many spirits, including Pinkie (an ancient Aztec princess), Bright Eyes (a diminutive Native American woman), Priscilla Alden (of Mayflower fame), and Dr. Bamford (a physician from Colburn’s Connecticut childhood).
Lincoln said that Dr. Bamford, with his Yankee twang, was his favorite spirit. Aware of the calming effect that Colburn’s appearances had on Mary, he once told the young medium, “My child, you possess a very singular gift. That it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here tonight.” While in a trance, Colburn gave Lincoln political counsel. She told him that he should stand firm and not waver in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which, she said, would be “the crowning event, the spirit said, of his administration and his life.”
Alford cites this statement and other evidence to suggest a political dimension of spiritualism. He presents a gallery of people in the Lincoln administration who accepted spiritualism, including the Treasury Department clerk John Pierpont, Thomas Gale Foster in the War Department, Cranston Laurie in the Post Office Department, and Commissioner of Agriculture Isaac Newton, who arranged visits of mediums for the Lincolns. Alford casts light on these and other government officials, but he overlooks some of the president’s other political associates who were connected with spiritualism, most notably the Indiana congressman Robert Dale Owen. The author of Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1860), Owen was a leading spiritualist and a strong antislavery voice. In September 1862, shortly before Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, Owen drafted a similar proclamation and sent it to the president. His version was more radical than Lincoln’s, because it called for the complete abolition of slavery nationally, not just in the rebel states.
Owen’s sweeping declaration of freedom points up a connection between spiritualism and abolitionism that Alford doesn’t explore in depth. In the main, spiritualists were abolitionists who came to be vocal supporters of Lincoln.2 Emma Hardinge Britten, a staunch advocate of the president, explained that “the known and wide-spread proclivity of Spiritualists for anti-slavery” sprang from the radically egalitarian belief that all humans, regardless of race or social rank, have souls that pass from this world to the next in a positive progression. All people, then, were equal in a spiritual sense. Britten explained:
The teachings of Spiritualism, this democracy of its tendencies on earth, and the republicanism of its societies after death, were wholly inconsistent with the autocracy of the slave-holding power.
A nationwide spiritualist convention held in Chicago in August 1864, when the president’s prospects for reelection seemed dim, passed resolutions backing Lincoln’s antislavery war effort in the firmest terms. Lincoln alone, the convention affirmed, had the moral fiber to lead the war to end slavery. In the words of one of its resolutions:
Abraham Lincoln stands before this nation, and before all Europe, as the political embodiment of the spirit and principle of freedom and free institutions, and as the political representative of the anti-slavery sentiment of the nation.
Lincoln’s critics, on the other hand, sharply attacked him because of his alleged devotion to spiritualism. Alford notes the hostility vented by the Ohio attorney David Quinn, who in 1863 wrote that “Mr. Lincoln is not only a spiritualist of the abolitionist school…but is, and has been, from the beginning of his term, directing the war under the direction of spirit rappings.”3 There was a secret “rapping table” in the White House, Quinn claimed, where the president received advice from Caesar, Washington, Jefferson, Napoleon, and Andrew Jackson.
What Alford doesn’t mention is that criticism like Quinn’s was part of an avalanche of attacks on Lincoln by Southerners and antiwar Democrats in the North who counted spiritualism among the evil “isms” that Lincoln and his fellow Republicans supposedly espoused. Just as today, when epithets like “radical socialist” and “fascist” are traded by political opponents, so in the Civil War era both sides engaged in mudslinging.
Especially rabid were defenders of slavery. A Confederate political cartoon pictured antislavery Republicans swarming around a religious altar that featured an image of Lincoln and was made up of stones representing nefarious Northern movements; one was labeled SPIRIT RAPPING, and others included SOCIALISM, FREE LOVE, and NEGRO WORSHIP. In 1864 a typical Lincoln critic wrote, “It is well known that the infidels, atheists, free-thinkers, free-lovers, Spiritualists and ‘progressive Christians’ have always been ardent admirers of Mr. Lincoln and his policy.” Another alarmed commentator wrote, “Has it come to this! A great country governed by ghosts, spirits, hobgoblins, table-turnings, rappings, &c. Be not deceived; this is the nimbus of the administration.”
A belief that the country was controlled by hobgoblins and spirits sounds bizarre, but no more so than current conspiracy theories, such as the claim that an international pedophile ring is trying to subvert a former US president. To Alford’s credit, he treats spiritualism with the same evenhandedness that Lincoln did. For instance, he tells of Lincoln’s genial response to Belle Miller, who sat with Mary Lincoln more than any other medium. One of Belle’s stunts was playing the piano under the influence of spirits who made the instrument pitch back and forth. Lincoln once sat at the White House piano, banged away at it, and shoved it around with his knees. He turned to Mary and said, “See, mother, our piano can dance, too!”
Alford ranges widely into the personal backgrounds of Lincoln and the Booth family, opening new vistas on both. His book is made up of many interwoven threads—neglected biographical facts, events of the Civil War, and acting styles—connected in varied ways to superstition or the afterlife. Alford tells us of the mentally unstable paterfamilias Junius Brutus Booth, who once exhumed the corpse of a daughter, cut open a vein in her arm, and tried to suck out impure blood in the hope of reviving her. Alford also follows the lives of the journalist Adam Badeau and the Boston Brahmin Richard Cary, close friends of Edwin Booth’s. Badeau, a closeted homosexual who made a futile advance toward Edwin, at first rejected spiritualism but then embraced it when he became convinced that otherworldly forces had overtaken him during a séance. Alford also provides a moving account of Cary’s death in a Civil War battle and Edwin’s struggles to cope with the loss through the aid of mediums.
Alford’s portrayal of John Wilkes Booth is interestingly complex. On the one hand, he takes note of Booth’s cruel streak. As a boy, he took pleasure in killing cats or torturing them by tying them together in a way that caused severe pain. This behavior, Alford writes, showed “a lack of common compassion, and it boded ill. Repeated intentional abuse of animals by a child is a likely precursor of later violent behavior by an adult.” On the other hand, he informs us, Booth had a high regard for dogs, horses, and even insects, such as butterflies and katydids, which he tried to protect. Although he had bouts of gloom, he was capable of great joy. He told his sister, “How glorious it is to live! How divine! To breathe this breath of life with a clear mind and healthy lungs! Don’t let us be sad. Life is so short, and the world is so beautiful.”
This is not the kind of language that we would expect from the murderer of a president. How was this man capable of killing Lincoln? One can point to Booth’s political views, which were intensely reactionary. He called slavery “one of the greatest blessings” for both whites and blacks “that God ever bestowed on a favored nation.” He loathed abolitionism and regarded Lincoln as a dangerous leader whose reelection would install him as a tyrant for life. (There were then no presidential term limits.) Ironically, Lincoln, who often attended the theater, admired Booth’s acting. Booth, repeatedly urged by a fellow actor to visit the president in his theater box, rejected the idea. A contemporary wrote, “Booth said that he would rather have the applause of a negro” than that of Lincoln.
But such proslavery venom was often spewed at Lincoln, who received so many threats that he had a folder of letters on his desk marked “A” for “Assassination.” What explains the persistence of Booth, who obsessively plotted against Lincoln for months? The answer seems to lie in Alford’s perception that Booth came to identify with “heroes of resistance to autocratic rule” that he played on stage, such as Brutus, the nobleman in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who conspires against the would-be Roman emperor, and William Tell, the Swiss huntsman who in Friedrich Schiller’s play of that name kills an oppressive governor. Booth didn’t just relate to such assassins, whom he impersonated onstage; in effect, he became one of them. When in 1864 he quit acting and committed himself to political terrorism, America itself became his stage and Lincoln the targeted tyrant. Even Booth’s most private thoughts, as recorded in a diary he kept while he was fleeing south after the assassination, ran to stage roles he had played. While being hunted through the cold swamps and woods, he scribbled these words:
I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs.4
Alford gives vivid accounts of the murder in Ford’s Theatre and the manhunt for Booth, who was pursued to a Virginia farm and shot by the Union soldier Boston Corbett. Afterward spiritualists circulated a story of a reunion between Lincoln and his killer in the afterlife. Booth at first wanted to fight Lincoln but then became contrite, regretted his crime, and befriended the president, who forgave him.
Tracing spiritualism into the post–Civil War period, Alford describes its brief expansion and ensuing decline. Mary Lincoln remained a believer. She attended séances in which she communed with her husband and her three dead sons. (Eighteen-year-old Tad Lincoln died in 1871.) She was invigorated after a visit in 1872 to William Mumler, a Bostonian famous for producing spirit photographs for the bereaved. In the picture he made for Mary, her husband stands like a benign ghost, his hands on the shoulders of the round-faced, thin-lipped widow, who is dressed in the mourning apparel that she wore in her later years. Mary wept with joy over the photograph. Soon thereafter, she gave accounts of an Indian spirit visiting her at night and doing various things to her head. Such delusions were not unusual for spiritualists, but the staid Robert Lincoln, Mary’s only surviving son, used this and other symptoms as grounds for having her committed in 1875 to Bellevue Place, an asylum in Batavia, Illinois. Mary’s four-month stay there was uneventful. After her release, she struggled on until her death in 1882.
By that time, Alford notes, spiritualism was on the wane, as alternative forms of belief, such as Christian Science, theosophy, and various social and political causes won adherents. Formerly famous spiritualists went in various directions. Nettie Colburn retired and wrote her autobiography, in which she recounted her experiences as a medium for the Lincolns. Charles H. Foster, after a stay in the Danvers Insane Asylum in Massachusetts, died of “brain fever” in 1885. The Fox sisters turned against the movement they had pioneered, calling it “an absolute falsehood from beginning to end,…the flimsiest of superstitions,…one of the greatest curses that the world has ever known.” “Mr. Splitfoot,” they revealed, referred to sounds they had made by cracking their toe joints under their dresses. In the early twentieth century Arthur Conan Doyle and others tried to revive spiritualism, but Harry Houdini punctured their efforts by demonstrating that spiritualism’s apparent miracles could be easily produced by an illusionist.
But spiritualism had performed significant cultural work. During America’s greatest crisis, it had brought consolation and hope to millions—most crucially to the grief-stricken couple in the White House.
Alford’s claim that his book is “the first to examine in depth Lincoln’s curiosity about spiritualism” is not true. See Troy Taylor, The Haunted President: The History, Hauntings and Supernatural Life of Abraham Lincoln (Whitechapel Productions, 2005); Susan B. Martinez, The Psychic Life of Abraham Lincoln (New Page, 2007); Christopher Kiernan Coleman, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln: Presentiments, Precognition, Prophetic Dreams, and Other Uncanny Encounters of the 16th President of the United States (Schiffer, 2012); and Michelle L. Hamilton, “I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears”: Spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln’s White House (Savas, 2013). See also chapter 3 of Mark Lause, Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era (University of Illinois Press, 2016). A number of Lincoln biographies include discussions of spiritualism, including my Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times (Penguin, 2020), which explores this and other movements. ↩
R. Laurence Moore notes, “Many of the abolitionist leaders believed in spirit voices as strongly as they did the wickedness of slaveholding.” See “Spiritualism and Science: Reflections on the First Decade of the Spirit Rappings,” American Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4 (October 1972), p. 474. ↩
Interior Causes of the War: The Nation Demonized, and Its President a Spirit-Rapper (M. Doolady, 1863), p. 6. ↩
Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper (University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 154. ↩