Maria B. Hayden: Exports to Britain

Queen Victoria - photo by Alexander Bassano (1829–1913)

Queen Victoria - photo by Alexander Bassano (1829–1913) [PD]

It wasn't long before the rapping-type séances popularized by the Fox sisters in the late 1840s spread abroad—here to Britain. The first emissary to arrive at these shores was Mrs Maria B. Hayden (1826-1883). Born in Nova Scotia, she married one William R. Hayden in a ceremony in Boston in 1850. She was his second wife. Maria's mediumship began in the March or April of 1851, at the age of 25, after a séance held by the Haydens at their Hartford home in Connecticut, New England. The medium they invited to preside over the occasion was an 18-year-old youth, Daniel Home (pronounced "Hume", of whom we will learn more next month). If not his first séance, it was at least one of his very earliest. According to Home in his memoirs, Incidents in my Life (1863), the evening was reported in the local press by Maria's husband, William, who described how Home had managed to move a table about the room without anybody touching it.

As an important aside, William Hayden is usually depicted as a wealthy and influential newsman, congressional reporter, and eventual editor of the Boston Atlas, as well as being a dedicated abolitionist. This view, which has been the prevailing one since the late Victorian period, has recently been challenged by a direct descendant of Maria Hayden, who presents a compelling case that he was in fact a family physician. Based on the very limited evidence I could find of his published writings (one letter to the editor of an American newspaper concerning the couple's first few months in London, which, as you will see, reads exactly like an ordinary letter-to-the-editor), I would tend to agree. Equally, if he were a physician, it would go some way to explain why in later years Maria Hayden herself trained as a doctor, at a time when few women would have the opportunity or receive the encouragement to do so.

After achieving a certain degree of success at table rapping, Maria and her husband set sail for Britain in October 1852 with the sole aim of spreading the spiritualist message. Unfortunately the couple met with a rather hostile reception in London, as the letter written by her husband attests:

"22 QUEEN ANNE STREET, CAVENDISH SQUARE, LONDON, Feb. 4, 1853. Dear Sir– I think I promised, before leaving New York, in September last, to write to you and let you know how we succeeded in England…Thus far we have had much opposition to contend against, but have met with a remarkable few failures. The worst was that of two of Dickens' friends, who paid Mrs. H. a visit a few days after her arrival. They evidently came with the intention of having every thing [go] wrong, and they nearly succeeded to their mind." [excerpt of letter from William R. Hayden to Samuel Byron Brittan, editor of the American weekly periodical The Spiritual Telegraph]

George Henry Lewes, who was later to become the partner of the author George Eliot, played an especially mean trick Mrs Hayden. Unseen by Maria, he wrote out a question on a sheet of paper: "Is Mrs Hayden an impostor?" The spirit controlling Maria rapped out: "Yes." Lewes went on to claim this as an admission of her guilt.

Though the literary world may not have been kind to her, Maria Hayden was not without her supporters. Both Sir Charles Isham, 10th Baronet of Isham, and Dr Ashburner, one of the Royal physicians, defended her very publicly in the press. Another convert to her cause was Professor Augustus de Morgan, philosopher and mathematician, whose work on logic, differential calculus, and probability is still remembered to this day. This is his recollection of one of the séances he attended:

"At a late period in the evening, after nearly three hours of experiment, Mrs. Hayden having risen, and talking at another table while taking refreshment, a child suddenly called out, "Will all the spirits who have been here this evening rap together?" The words were no sooner uttered than a hailstorm of knitting-needles was heard, crowded into certainly less than two seconds; the big needle sounds of the men, and the little ones of the women and children, being clearly distinguishable, but perfectly disorderly in their arrival." [from Professor de Morgan's preface to his wife's book, From Matter to Spirit, 1863]

It's been said that Maria had a limited mediumship consisting mainly of raps, but, as we've seen in the case of George Henry Lewes, she was also a "test" medium, in that she fielded questions where the answers were known only to the sitter. At least one person was greatly impressed by Mrs Hayden's talents in this regard—the tragedian actor Charles Young. Here is an account of their meeting—though be aware, confusingly it is in fact written by his son, the Rev. Julian Young, some years later:

"1853, APRIL 19TH. I went up to London this day for the purpose of consulting my lawyers on a subject of some importance to myself, and having heard much of a Mrs. Hayden, an American lady, as a spiritual medium, I resolved, as I was in town, to…judge of her gifts for myself…I was so astounded by the correctness of the answers I received to my inquiries that I told the gentleman who was with me that I wanted particularly to ask a question to the nature of which I did not wish him to be privy, and that I should be obliged to him if he would go into the adjoining room for a few minutes. On his doing so I resumed my dialogue with Mrs. Hayden.
Mr. Charles Young: I have induced my friend to withdraw because I did not wish him to know the question I want to put, but I am equally anxious that you should not know it either, and yet, if I understand rightly, no answer can be transmitted to me except through you. What is to be done under these circumstances?
Mrs. Hayden: Ask your question in such a form that the answer returned shall represent by one word the salient idea in your mind.
Mr. Charles Young: I will try. Will what I am threatened with take place?
Mrs. Hayden: No.
Mr. Charles Young: That is unsatisfactory. It is easy to say Yes or No, but the value of the affirmation or negation will depend on the conviction I have that you know what I am thinking of. Give me one word which shall show that you have the clue to my thoughts.
Mrs. Hayden: Will.
Now, a will by which I had benefited was threatened to be disputed. I wished to know whether the threat would be carried out. The answer I received was correct.
[The Spiritualist, November 22nd, 1878]

Despite Maria Hayden's séances being essentially private, domestic affairs, by April she was charging a fee of one guinea (one pound and one shilling; i.e., twenty-one shillings in total) per person to attend them. Newsman or not, in May her husband William did set up a magazine, The Spirit World, the first spiritualist publication in Britain, though it only ran to one edition. The Haydens remained for a year in England, and returned to America at the end of 1853. Maria retained an active interest all things psychic even after becoming a doctor. She was noted for her clairvoyant abilities, as well as her aptitude for psychometry (divining insights by holding an object in her hands).

Although spiritualism may have failed to take root in London, it certainly found a home in Yorkshire when a Mr David Richmond, an American Shaker, brought the art of table-turning to the town of Keighley in the early 1850s. By 1854 "Tea and Table-Turning" had become an indispensable social pastime in the north of England, as the movement rapidly spread to neighbouring county of Lancashire. Funded by his Yorkshire contact, Mr David Weatherhead, at whose home he had first demonstrated table-turning, Richmond set up The Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph in 1855. It proved far more successful than William Hayden's effort as the ground had been better prepared. Spiritualism had finally gained a foothold in Britain, but via the non-commercial domestic route.

Next chapter: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The Extraordinary Life of Medium Daniel Dunglas Home