In the early 1860s, Washington, D.C. was not the place that we picture today. The Washington Canal, which flowed into the Potomac River a little to the south of the White House, was used as a cesspit and sewer, the stench of which permeated the presidential mansion every summer. One contemporary summed it up neatly: "The ghosts of twenty thousand drowned cats come in nights through the South Windows". Pestilence reigned, and not even the White House was exempt from its grip, as Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, discovered to their cost when their second son, Willie, contracted typhoid fever and died in the February of 1962.
By the start of June, as summer arrived, Mary Lincoln insisted that the family quit the city and relocate to their favourite retreat, a former plantation a few miles north of the capital that had been redeveloped by the banker George Riggs as an estate to house former military men: The Soldiers' Home. It was here that they stayed until mid-November, in the humbly-named but really rather grand Riggs Cottage. Although the cottage was light and airy, as the estate was set on a higher elevation than the neighbouring city, it was often far from peaceful. In addition to the braying of nearly two thousand mules stabled nearby, there was also the din of drums, rifles and band practice to contend with from Lincoln's hundred-strong presidential guard.
Despite the noise and the disruptions of war, the Lincolns entertained regularly. One particular guest that summer, at Mary's invitation, was a man calling himself Lord Colchester, a trance medium who claimed to be the illegitimate son of an English duke. In her desire for some form of contact from her beloved son, Willie, and her first-born, Eddie, who had died some years earlier, Mary was only too keen to avail herself of his services. And so she arranged for a séance to be held in the Riggs Cottage library.
As the participants seated themselves around the table, Colchester produced a number of musical instruments—a banjo, some bells and a drum—and laid them out on top. Everybody held hands and the lights were extinguished. At first nothing happened. Then came some loud raps, some scratching sounds, the twang of the banjo. Strands of hair were pulled; people's skin was pinched. Mary was delighted.
Lincoln was sufficiently concerned by this séance to ask Dr Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, to investigate. Unable to determine exactly how Colchester managed to produce his phenomena, he turned to the journalist, Noah Brooks, for help. Brooks, who, after the death of his wife earlier that year, had been sent by the Sacramento Daily Union to cover the Lincoln administration, had been readily accepted into the Lincoln household as if he were a long-lost friend. And quite a friend he proved to be.
That evening in the dimly-lit library, with the medium's selection of musical instruments set out before them, the company once more joined hands and again the lights were extinguished. Suddenly the sound of a drum was heard, hovering high above their heads. This is Noah Brooks's own account of what happened next:
"Loosening my hands from my neighbours', who were unbelievers, I rose, and, grasping in the direction of the drumbeat, grabbed a very solid and fleshy hand in which was held a bell that was being thumped on a drum-head. I shouted, 'Strike a light!' My friend, after what appeared to be an unconscionable length of time, lighted a match; but meanwhile somebody had dealt me a severe blow with the drum, the edge of which cut a slight wound on my forehead. When the gas was finally lighted, the singular spectacle was presented of 'the son of the duke' firmly grasped by a man whose forehead was covered with blood, while the arrested scion of nobility was glowering at the drum and bells which he still held in his hands."
Undeterred by the events at the Soldiers' Home, on her return to the White House in November Mary sought solace at the two-storey Georgetown home of a Mr and Mrs Cranston Laurie and their daughter Belle, at what was then 21 First Street (3226 N Street today). Mr Laurie was chief clerk of the Post Office Service and many of his spiritualist acquaintances held equally high government posts; Mrs Laurie and her daughter were both trance mediums of some renown. On New Year's Day 1863, Mary Lincoln revealed to a friend that she had attended a number of séances there, and that Mrs Laurie had made wonderful revelations to her about her dead son, Willie, and had received communications that her husband's cabinet was full of enemies plotting against him for their own ends.
However, according to Nettie Colburn Maynard in her memoir "Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?", published many years later in 1891, it was Nettie herself who acted as medium, and not Mrs Laurie or Belle, on the evening of February 5th 1863 when President Lincoln accompanied his wife to one of the Lauries' popular séances. When Lincoln asked the spirit she had channelled about the current situation regarding the war, she writes that he received the following reply:
'…That a very precarious state of things existed at the front, where General Hooker had just taken command. The army was totally demoralized; regiments stacking arms, refusing to obey orders or to do duty; threatening a general retreat; declaring their purpose to return to Washington. A vivid picture was drawn of the terrible state of affairs, greatly to the surprise of all present, save the chief to whom the words were addressed. When the picture had been painted in vivid colours, Mr Lincoln quietly remarked: "You seem to understand the situation. Can you point out the remedy?"'
The remedy suggested was that he go to the front in person, taking with him his wife and children, and, avoiding the high-grade officers, seek out the tents of private soldiers and enquire into their grievances. In other words, that he should show himself to be "the Father of the People".
Although Nettie Colburn Maynard may have been embroidering the truth somewhat (many if not most of her claims are rather doubtful, and there are reports—though these too are dubious—that it was the Lauries' daughter Belle who acted as medium on that night), in the simple matter of the president's attendance at this séance, I think this at least is true, for something certainly triggered the extraordinary event that came next. Barely seven weeks later, on the 23rd of April, 1863, President Lincoln—a lifelong sceptic—organized his own séance…in the White House.
The evening was attended by his wife, a reporter from the Boston Gazette, two of his Cabinet Secretaries, Stanton and Welles. His medium of choice was a man named Charles E. Shockle. The séance began with a few loud raps and a false start or two, but eventually Shockle came through with a message from Henry Knox, George Washington's Secretary of War: "Haste makes waste, but delays cause vexations". When Lincoln asked when the revolt would be put down, Knox replied that a lively discussion held between Washington, Franklin and Napoleon had produced a variety of answers, which he then went on to summarize for the president. This is reportedly Lincoln's rather wry response:
"Well, opinions differ among the saints as well as among the sinners. They don't seem to understand running the machines among the celestials much better than we do. Their talk and advice sound very much like the talk of my cabinet."
It was a tongue-in-cheek sceptic's comment. Quite why Lincoln held his séance is anyone's guess, but the inclusion of a reporter from the Boston Gazette among the party—and not his trusted friend Noah Brooks—suggests that he may have contrived it as a publicity stunt, and one in which he was unwilling to involve his friend. And yet the article that subsequently appeared in the Gazette was reprinted in Brooks's Sacramento Daily Union some two months later.
Mary Todd Lincoln was to remain in the thrall of spiritualism for the rest of her life, and we will be revisiting her occasionally, as she still has a part to play in its story.