A Seance in the White House
By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
On April 25, 1863, the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette published a piece titled “Lincoln and Spirits” dated April 23 and bylined to one Mr. Melton. The report described a “spiritual soiree” in the Red Room of the White House hosted by the President of the United States and attended by the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The President’s guest of honor was Melton’s friend, one Mr. Charles E. Shockle, and the purpose of the meeting was to test his “wonderful alleged superpowers.”
The mere fact of the President attending a spiritual séance seemed quite unremarkable. By the beginning of the Civil War, spiritualism, born in the “burned over district” of upstate New York in the 1840s, had become a popular obsession, subject to fervent belief, amused skepticism, and harsh criticism.
The bereaved and disconsolate anxiously seized on the chance to talk to the departed loved ones. More fortunate delighted in tipping tables, pieces of furniture moving on their own volition, and messages from beyond the grave. It also helped that “spirits” who popped up in parlors and living rooms tended to endorse the causes of their earthly hosts or share their political preferences.
Lending additional credence to the mediums was the fact that “spirits” made their presence known by repeated knocking or rapping, which was followed by “automatic” messages appearing on blank sheets of paper, which evoked telegraphic communications.
As the war raged on, thousands of grief-stricken men and women invited mediums to their homes. One such homes was the White House. It was a matter of common knowledge that Mrs. Lincoln, buckling under the pressures of life in war-time Washington and pining for her dead sons Eddie and Willy, resorted to various mediums and spirit guides.
The séance was off to a brisk start, when the President was briefly called away. The annoyed spirits, who had assembled with the sole purpose of convincing the Chief Executive of their power, took it up with the Cabinet members, pinching Secretary Stanton’s ears and tweaking Secretary Welles’ generous beard.
After Lincoln returned, the spirits calmed down and duly moved the tables, swayed the portrait of Henry Clay that adorned the wall “more than a foot,” and hoisted “two candelabras, presented by the Dey of Algiers to President Adams” to the ceiling, before placing the Mr. Shockle under “spiritual influence” that was so “powerful that twice during the evening restoratives were applied.”
In short order, knocks were heard “directly beneath the President’s feet” and a blank sheet of paper covered by a handkerchief requisitioned from Stanton revealed a message from none other than Henry Knox, the Secretary of War under George Washington. For an otherworldly presence, Knox was rather explicit: “Haste makes waste, but delays cause vexations. Give vitality by energy. Use every means to subdue. Proclamations are useless; make a bold front and fight the enemy; leave traitors at home to the care of loyal men. Less note of preparation, less parade and policy talk, more action.”
When the President politely inquired if it was within “within the scope of his ability” to predict the “when the rebellion will be put down,” Knox’s spirit assured Lincoln that “Washington, Lafayette, Franklin, Wilberforce, Napoleon, and myself have held frequent consultations upon this point.” The advice of the illustrious panel, as Lincoln sarcastically quipped, “sounded very much like the talk of my cabinet: Napoleon “says concentrate your forces upon one point; Lafayette thinks that the rebellion will die of exhaustion; Franklin sees the end approaching, as the South must give up for want of mechanical ability to compete against Norther mechanics.” Wilberforce, the message concluded, “sees hope only a negro army.”
The spirits then prophesized that “English people” would demand that “England’s aristocracy” stop propping up their Southern brethren. As the piece-de-résistance, the spirit of Stephen A. Douglass delivered a full-blown oration, imploring his old rival to “throw aside all advisers who hesitate about the policy to be pursued” and prophesying a surge in “the popular approval which would follow one or two victories” that were sure to follow “ere long.”
This was quite a story. It was immediately reprinted in Northern and Southern newspapers before the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette published a retraction on June 6, 1863, calling it a “humbug.” Two weeks later the spiritualist publication Banner of Light followed suit. Yet the story grew legs. Lincoln’s numerous detractors seized on the story to paint him at best as a deluded individual and at worst, a demon-worshipper. In the fall of 1863, Ohio Democrats painted a picture “the Nation demonized, and its president a spirit-rapper.” Spiritualism’s advocates cited the incident as the ultimate endorsement.
Repeated ever since, the episode has fed various strains of Lincoln scholarship, from the exploration of his spirituality to speculations of his interest in the occult and paranormal, even though Gideon Welles made no mention of the séance in his diary, and there are no records of either Charles E. Shockle or a Boston reporter named Melton. (The latter is frequently conflated with Melton Prior, the famous journalist and artist for the London Illustrated News.)
To be clear, the story is in fact a piece of fiction. It is a combination of a fictional personal letter, opinion piece, and a Lincoln joke, complete with samples of the president’s unique blend of sarcasm and amused observation of human folly and digs at the members of his cabinet. It is somewhat reminiscent of the missives of Orpheus C. Kerr, the ingenious creation of R.H. Newell, which were too full of rather fanciful (and hilarious) accounts of the president.
It is no surprise that a piece featuring various departed historical celebrities urging the president to press on with the war effort, cautioning him against “traitors” and the “spirit of party,” and promoting a “negro army” would appear in a Boston Republican newspaper. Nor was the image of Lincoln as a conscientious and level-headed war-time leader who, despite his sound skepticism, was willing to listen to good advice even if it came from beyond the grave.
As we proceed with the challenge, let us follow Lincoln’s example and heed the spirits’ advice to “give vitality by energy.”
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens: The soldier’s grave, 1862, Jay T. Last Collection (UDID 383505)