Spirits And Abraham Lincoln: Letters To President Lincoln Concerning Spiritualism

3149 words - 13 pages

In the late nineteenth century, American spiritualists maintained that Abraham Lincoln had been a spiritualist too. Whenever they drew up lists of prominent believers, Lincoln was foremost among the reformers, judges, governors, senators, and scientists whose stature lent credence to their movement. In this paper, I look at letters written to President Lincoln by spiritualists or about spiritualism, but it is not my aim to determine whether or not Lincoln was a spiritualist. Instead, I use these letters to reflect on spiritualism as a cultural phenomena. It captured the imaginations of many Americans in the years leading up to the Civil War, drawing them to séance rooms, to mediums, or to their family parlors to commune with the dead. The letters to Lincoln reveal how spiritualism evolved from older cultural traditions and what it came to mean for spiritualists.

Letters to Abraham Lincoln are available on the World Wide Web, part of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. The Lincoln Papers include a large number of incoming letters from a variety of correspondents: friends, political figures, and regular people. Most of the letters have been transcribed and annotated by scholars at the Lincoln Study Center . Very few letters—only ten—deal with spiritualism at all. The authors, however, represent the full spectrum of letter writers, from Lincoln ’s closest friend, to a well-known New York judge, to ordinary people—that is, ordinary people who received messages from spirits. Five of these ten letters came from avowed spiritualists, four men and one woman.[1] One man denied being a spiritualist, and another sent a tongue-in-cheek introduction to two mediums, leaving his sentiments unclear. Although most spiritualists revered Abraham Lincoln during his presidency, they did not write to him. I have drawn upon these ten letters, along with others by the same author or on related topics, for a total of about twenty letters.

Spiritualism did not simply arise out of the blue and the letters to Lincoln reflect this. Although believers pointed to a specific event that inaugurated the dawn of “Modern Spiritualism”—the infamous raps heard by the Fox sisters at Hydesville , New York , in 1848—spiritualism drew upon many precedents, particularly the traditions of clairvoyant somnambulism, mesmerism, and second sight. The earliest letters to Lincoln concerning spiritualism warn him of danger. An anonymous writer, one G. A., “A Wide Awake,” wrote from Cleveland in December, 1860, to warn Lincoln of a plot to murder him by poison upon his arrival in Washington D.C. G. A. wrote, as he explained it, because “as a good Republican, I deem it my duty, to communicate the following facts.” A young local girl, a somnambulist and clairvoyant, “not a Spiritualist” (he hastened to add), had requested his presence and then, while entranced, told of the scheme. The clairvoyant girl had specifically...

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