Did an Indianapolis Local Help Inspire “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

Photograph by M. B. Parkinson (New York: 1890), Special Collections, University of Virginia.

This has been adapted from its original August 22, 2019 publication in the Weekly View.

Was a Hoosier the inspiration behind the book that sold more copies in the 19th century than any other book except the Bible—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly? It’s a distinct possibility. Stowe penned the novel during a fearful time in America for persons of color. Fleeing intolerable conditions wrought by enslavement, many risked a perilous journey to the North. This was America after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that residents of free states return fleeing slaves to their masters or face imprisonment or fines. The country was at odds over the issue of slavery and as to the responsibility of individuals in protecting the peculiar institution. It appeared America was edging ever closer to being torn in two.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher
Harriet Beecher Stowe, daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes, c. 1856, courtesy metmuseum.org, accessed Britannica.org.

Moved by these events, young abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe put pen to paper and wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hoping to appeal to the heart and conscience of the nation. The National Era serialized the narrative, with the first of forty chapters appearing on June 5, 1851.  A year later it was published in book form and quickly became the most widely-read book in the U.S., selling 300,000 copies in 1852 alone. Stowe’s realistic depiction of American slavery through the character of “Uncle Tom” mobilized support for abolition, particularly in the North.

Playwrights adapted the popular story for the stage, but in doing so distorted Stowe’s original depiction of Tom in order to attract bigger audiences. Readers encountered a benevolent, but deeply convicted character, who would rather lose his life than reveal the location of two enslaved women hiding from their abusive master. The stage version depicts Tom as a doddering, ignorant man, so eager to please his master that he would sell out fellow persons of color. Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at Ferris State University, notes that because of the “perversion” of Stowe’s portrayal, today “in many African American communities ‘Uncle Tom’ is a slur used to disparage a black person who is humiliatingly subservient or deferential to white people.” Despite the modern implications of the term “Uncle Tom,” the Antebellum stage productions further propelled Americans to take action against the plight of enslaved people in the mid-19th century.

Theatrical Poster of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Poster, ca. 1880, courtesy of PBS Learning Media.

While Stowe acknowledged that the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin came from an 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, she’d had personal interactions with former slaves who she had met while living in Cincinnati. She was also familiar with Quaker settlements, which “have always been refuges for the oppressed and outlawed slave.” [1]  In a companion book, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe documented “the truth of the work,” [2] writing that the novel was “a collection and arrangement of real incidents . . . grouped together . . . in the same manner that the mosaic artist groups his fragments of various stones into one general picture.” [3]

Although Stowe does not mention him by name, Indianapolis residents and newspapers credited a local man with influencing her book: Thomas “Uncle Tom” Magruder. Tom had been enslaved by the Noble family.  Dr. Thomas Noble gave up his medical practice and became a planter in Frederick County, Virginia when his brother gave him a plantation sometime after 1782.  Tom Magruder was probably one of the slaves on this plantation who, in 1795, were forced to move with Dr. Noble to Boone County, Kentucky, where he established “Bellevue” farm.

Tom managed the farm during his enslavement until 1830, when both Dr. Noble and Elizabeth Noble had passed away.  He was “permitted to go free” [4] and he moved his family to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, likely to a free slave settlement.  In 1831, Dr. Noble’s son, Indiana Governor Noah Noble, brought the aged Tom and his wife, Sarah, to Indianapolis. There, he had a cabin built for them on a portion of a large tract of land that he had acquired east of the city.  The dwelling that became known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was located on the northeast corner of Noble (now College Avenue) and Market Street.  Eventually Tom and Sarah Magruder’s daughter, Louisa Magruder, and granddaughter Martha, known as “Topsy,” joined the household.  Tom was a member of Roberts Park Methodist Church and was an “enthusiastic worshipper—his ‘amens,’ ‘hallelujahs,’ and ‘glorys’ being . . . frequent and fervent.” [5]

Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1868, Lenox Library Association, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online.

Living a few blocks from Tom at the southwest corner of Ohio and New Jersey in the 1840s was Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, white pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church. [6]  He was “a constant visitor of Uncle Tom’s, well acquainted with his history, and a sincere admirer of his virtues.” [7]  Like the main character in Stowe’s novel, Tom Magruder was a “very religious old Negro;” [8] of commanding appearance, his “open, gentle, manly countenance made him warm friends of all persons, white and black, who became acquainted with him.” [9] 

It is known that Rev. Beecher mentioned the venerable gentleman in a sermon, which may have been when he preached on slavery on May 34, 1846. [10]  Harriet Beecher Stowe visited her brother in Indianapolis that summer and may have accompanied him on one of his frequent visits to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  It is possible that she left the city with the future title of her novel and its main character in mind.  It is likely that the names of the Magruder sons—Moses and Peter—and the name of their granddaughter Topsy remained with Stowe to later find their way into her tale of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. [11]

Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis; The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes (Indianapolis Public Library, 1910), 242, accessed Archive.org.

Tom Magruder died on February 22, 1857 at about 110 years old. He was buried in the Noble family lot at the city’s Greenlawn Cemetery.  At the time of his death, there was a universal belief in Indianapolis that “there are some circumstances which give it an air of probability” [12] that “Old Tom” is “Stowe’s celebrated hero.” [13]  Among other things, “‘Uncle Tom’s cabin’ . . . was a familiar phrase here long before Mrs. Stowe immortalized it.” [14] Local papers “stood up for the claim” [15] in the immediate years after Tom’s death.  The Daily Citizen wrote in April 1858, “It is believed here that Thomas Magruder . . . was the ‘veritable Uncle Tom,’” [16] and the Indianapolis News in March 1875 bluntly stated, “[Josiah Henson] is a fraud.  The original Uncle Tom lived in this city and his old cabin was near the corner of Market and Noble Street.” [17]

In his 1910 book Greater Indianapolis, historian Jacob Piatt Dunn thought it unlikely that Tom Magruder would ever be confirmed as the inspiration behind Stowe’s legendary fictional character. However, he noted that “it is passing strange that none of the numerous friends and admirers of the Beechers in this city received any denial of it, which would necessarily have broken the uniform faith in the tradition.” [18] What Dunn was certain about is that nearly everyone in Indianapolis at the time knew Tom Magruder, “‘for he was noted as an exemplary and religious man and was generally respected.'” [19]

 

SOURCES USED:

[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe,  A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (John P. Jewett & Co, Boston, 1858), Part I, Chapter XIII: The Quakers, p. 54.

[2] Ibid., title page.

[3] Ibid., Part I, Chapter I, p. 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jacob Piatt Dunn,  Greater Indianapolis, vol. 1 (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1910), p. 243.

[6] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol II, 1838-1842 (Indiana Historical Society Press, 1973), p. 164, p. 340.

[7] “An Old Resident Dead,” The Indianapolis Journal, February 24, 1857, 3:1.

[8] Jacob P. Dunn, “Indiana’s Part in the Making of the Story ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’” The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History 7, no. 3 (September 1911), 115.

[9] “Early Recollections. Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Daily State Sentinel, December 31, 1862, 2:4.

[10] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, vol. III, 1844-1847, (Indiana Historical Society Press, 1974), p. 62, p. 259.

[11] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1852), title page.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jacob Piatt Dunn, Greater Indianapolis, vol. I (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1910), p. 244.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Scraps,” The Indianapolis News, March 27, 1875, 2:3.

[18] “‘Uncle Tom’ Was Resident of City,” The Indianapolis Star, July 22, 1912, 19.

[19] Ibid.

Giving Voice: Rachel Smith

Transcript for Giving Voice: Rachel Smith

Jump to Useful Links

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.

Beckley: On this Giving Voice, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Rachel Smith, an assistant lecturer on Women and Gender Studies at Ball State University. She studies the intersection of Modern American Spiritualism and Feminism. If you haven’t listened to the latest full episode, “Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle,” you might want to do that now before listening to our conversation, as it will give you a good base of knowledge about the history of Spiritualism in Indiana.

And now, Giving Voice.

(Music)

Beckley: I’m here today with Rachel Smith and I’m going to go ahead and let you introduce yourself, Rachel.

Smith: My name is Rachel, and I am an assistant lecturer at Ball State University in the Women and Gender Studies program. Um, I’m also a non-tenured faculty for the history department and I’m also the office manager for Historic Camp Chesterfield in Chesterfield, Indiana.

Beckley: And of course, that’s why you’re here talking with us today.

Smith: It is, yes.

Beckley: Um, so our most recent episode, just to fill you in a little bit, is about spiritualism, and kind of the history of that and it includes a history of Camp Chesterfield – a very brief history of Camp Chesterfield. But we don’t go into the intersection – I mention it briefly – the intersection of Feminism and the Woman’s Rights Movement and spiritualism and I brought you in today because you are an expert on the subject. How did you get interested in the intersection of those two, on their own, very fascinating fields?

Smith: Well, by nature I’m a feminist. And so, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. But also the fact that I teach Women and Gender Studies and my master’s degree is in history with an emphasis on religious history. When I started working at Camp Chesterfield, I actually worked part time when I was in grad school I got hired because of my interest in religious history. And, as time has now went on and it’s nearly 15 years later and I’m still there – they haven’t been able to get rid of me – and I’ve learned so much by being there that it’s about – especially of the areas in which feminism really played a role, and the suffrage movement played a role, in Indiana and the women of Camp Chesterfield playing a role in that suffrage movement and then nationally, so, it – it just piqued my interest.

Beckley: That was one of the things, as I was reading through some of the early history, I kept coming across all these women that are involved in ways that they’re not involved in other religions, so that really caught my interest and that’s how I came across you, actually. So, um, I was wondering if you could talk about the early history of spiritualism and how women’s rights and suffrage and, really, other radical movements kind of played a role in the early history.

Smith: Well, spiritualism itself, I mean, the birth of spiritualism happened in the mid-1800s, so, one of the things that did come naturally from that, and especially a large group of Quaker and having a Quaker background, a lot of these people – Quakers also naturally had a background of feminism within themselves and equality and so that kind of transferred over into Modern American Spiritualism. And so when spiritualism developed – it came about, that came with it. That aspect of it came with it. And interestingly enough – one of the things that seems kind of amazing and something that somebody at Camp Chesterfield said – a male resident at Camp Chesterfield said that spiritualism is matriarchal and that Camp Chesterfield is matriarchal. And you find that historically, spiritualism has given women the opportunity to become ordained. They’ve given them the opportunity to be leaders. They’ve given them the opportunity to be teachers. You know, during a time when women were supposed to be in the private sphere, they weren’t supposed to be in the public sphere, and they certainly weren’t supposed to be preaching or moving people religiously by any means. And even all those times when there were splits in mainstream churches – you know one of the big splits to happen, especially like in and around the 1980s of where main line religions they – women were pretty much told that you need to submit to your husbands, you need to go back to your homes, you need to get off the pulpit. Spiritualism didn’t do that to women and so you kind of find that women did flock to spiritualism – not just for the communication with spirit aspect, but also for the aspect that they were treated and were on a level playing field with the men. And of course, you have very famous spiritualists like Victoria Woodhull who definitely rocked the boat and spiced it up a little bit – more so than what people would like. But I was also reading not too long ago – Susan B. Anthony would actually write into spiritualist newspaper and particularly to the Sunflower Newspaper at Lily Dale, New York. And so, even prominent, you know, Women’s Movement, people like Susan B. Anthony, Anna Shaw – Reverend Anna Shaw – you know, and they would be writing into these newspapers and getting women involved.

Beckley: That’s awesome. I actually – right before we came in here – I was reading the introduction of a book Radical Spirits and – it’s a great book – and she was talking about the book the History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement that is edited by Susan B Anthony and Cady B. Stanton, and in it, they say that spiritualism is the only religion that, from its beginning, has included women, and in fact, promoted women not only being in it but being at the forefront of it, which is, just such an amazing thing that I think often gets passed over in its quote unquote spooky beginnings and its ghostly tales and things like that so I’m glad we’re having this conversation to kind of bring that more towards the front.

Smith: Yea, a woman by the name of Amelia Colby-Luther actually, she was a nationally known suffragette, but she was also one of the founders of the charter for the Indiana Association for Spiritualists at Camp Chesterfield and at one time she was also Camp Chesterfield’s vice president of the association. And so, I mean, you have women like her who were known on a national scale for suffrage, but who religiously also participated in places like Camp Chesterfield and who help a leadership position. Not only just in the suffrage position but also then in their religious community as well. And so, you really don’t see that too often, even now.

Beckley: That’s extremely interesting cause then you look at somebody like May Wright Sewall, where she was nationally known for her suffrage and then at the very end of her life came out as a spiritualist for the last two decades, so, that’s such an interesting dichotomy of – you know – I think a lot of people think back to that and think that maybe May Wright Sewall’s reputation was overshadowed as a suffragist by her late revelations of spiritualism. But it went hand and hand so much back then that I think that being so far removed we often forget that now.

Smith: Well, and I also think too, especially for her case – for May Wright Sewall, I think for her case too, because of the profession that she was in – I mean, she was in education, right? – and even though spiritualism was very much at its peak and in its heyday and very much popular – it was still on the outside and it was still considered radical and so I think that there are people who argue, and I’d want to do a little more digging before I could definitively say, but I think she may have been a spiritualist for a lot longer than just the end of her life. I think that she just may have come out of the closet towards the end of her life because it was acceptable to do so.

Beckley: Well, she writes in her book that it was 25 years before, so I think she died in 1917, so – that would have been at the height, right? I mean, she says she was converted at Lilly Dale, which would make sense.

Smith: Well, in her book, she also talks about lily Dale. It is sad to me that, of course, Camp Chesterfield was literally right up the road, you know, and she didn’t make it up there. Or, at least, if she did she didn’t write about it. I’m still going through old hotel ledgers so, I’m looking to see if I could come across her name, which would be nice.

Beckley: That would be a good find.

Smith: That would be a good find, yes.

Beckley: Especially with the suffrage centennial upcoming.

Smith: That’s right. Yes.

Beckley: So, are you working on any specific projects in conjunction with the suffrage centennial?

Smith: We actually are. One of the things that we’re doing is at Camp Chesterfield is, we’re going to hold a suffrage and spiritualism conference. It will be a one day conference on August 22 and we’ll be sending out a call for papers soon. So, we would really like for people to come in and to really tour the grounds of Camp Chesterfield and, you know, it’s going to turn 134 years only this year, and it’s beautiful and it’s relaxing and it’s also a place with a very deep history and a very deep spiritualist and suffrage history for women and I think that often people get so wrapped up in the spookiness of spiritualism or the ghost aspect or the spirit aspect of spiritualism that they don’t pay attention that these people were real people and these people did real things. It wasn’t – their entire life was not just contacting, you know, they spirit world – they did, you know, tangible things that have benefited everyone.

Beckley: Absolutely. Um, I’m wondering how – ‘cause, you know, you said how, even at its peak and its heyday, it was still an outside movement, and I think suffrage is very much the same way, it was still a few “radical” women and men taking on the “norms” of society and I think that also, in the late 19th early 20th century, people often lumped them together and said: “here, look, this is what’s wrong with society. These radicals are coming in and trying to change the whole fabric of our life.” So, from our vantage point looking back, do you think that the tight association between spiritualism and suffrage, over all, hindered or helped suffrage: did it promote it, did it further the cause, or did it, maybe – was it a hindrance?

Smith: I think that’s a double edged sword. Because women like Victoria Woodhull, I mean, honestly, I don’t think she would have been able to do what she did had she not been so popular because of spiritualism and through her mediumship and then her connection to the Vanderbilt’s. And so, even though people looked down on her, and even the more proper spiritualists, you know, very much looked down on her for her behavior and for the things that she said or would write in her newsletter, I think, though, that she would never have been able to do what she did – I don’t think that she would have been the first woman to run for president, had she not had that background and I think that also at the same time, spiritualism and suffrage go hand in hand. I mean, you have a religious organization that views women as equals. And yet you had at the time, a national government who most certainly did not. And so, it’s a double edged sword – I think that in some ways it helps and some ways it hinders because of both being on the outskirts and both being considered radical ideas and notions. But I don’t think that it could be one or the other. It’s a mish mash of both.

Beckley: Right. For the listeners at home, can you just explain a little bit about Victoria Woodhull?

Smith: Victoria Woodhull, she was an interesting woman and if ever get the chance to read on her, she was amazing. But she was very loud, she was ver boisterous, she had several husbands, she was also a very huge advocate of free love, which also did not go over very well during the Victorian era. She had associations with the Vanderbilt’s and, actually, she was able to create a brokerage firm because of a loan that she had received from them. And so, she was a savvy business woman and she was a spiritualist and she was a medium and she was known for this and she actually became the first woman to run for president in the United States, which is in and of itself, I mean people always like to – and don’t get me wrong, it was great that Hillary was so close last time, but, she wasn’t the first, you know. And so, I think that people have a tendency to forget her because she was so much on the outside and she was so radical and so people really didn’t appreciate her candor as much as she gave it because, boy did she ever, yes.

Beckley: Yes, I know I’ve read a little on her, not as much as I’d like, but she’s definitely an interesting figure.

Smith: Yes. Yes. She was.

Beckley: So, is there anything ongoing – would you say that spiritualism now is still in the realm of feminism, is it still working for some of the same equal rights as it was, you know, in the 1800s and early 1900s?

Smith: I do believe so, yes, absolutely. I think that if you look back at the numbers and if you look at Camp Chesterfield, for example, has a seminary which is the Chesterfield Spiritualist College, these people will go through classes and training in order to develop mediumship and get certifications, but even become ordained spiritualist ministers. And if you look at the numbers, you will see that far more women are actually becoming ordained than males. And so that’s not to say that it’s for women and men need not apply, you know, but it is saying that it very much is a place where women can thrive. And in a world – especially in a religious world – that often times wants to push women to the sides and say that you don’t belong here.

Beckley: So you think that is a direct outcome of spiritualist’s history of being accepting of women, it’s just continuing.

Smith: It is. And I think that it pushes not just for women, but it pushed that whole equality thing, whether it’s for the LGBTQ community, the Trans community – it pushes diversity always. And they really are huge advocates and proponents of equality and making sure that people are treated equally. You know, because quite frankly when it comes to spiritualists and in the spiritualist mind, a spirit comes through when they come through and quite frankly, it doesn’t matter – sex and race and all of that stuff, it just happens.

Beckley: Yea – so, if people are interested in learning more about the history of spiritualism, your work, or about spiritualism in general, could you give them some places to go to learn more about that?

Smith: Yep, absolutely. Of course, naturally the first place you can go is CampChesterfield.net, the website for historic Camp Chesterfield in Chesterfield, Indiana. There is also Camp Chesterfield’s Facebook page as well as a twitter account, an Instagram account, were trying to – we’re the best kept secret of Indiana and so, we do have an online and a social media presence, but at the same time, the spiritualist community, they don’t recruit, and so people will find it when they need to find it or when they are ready to find it. But that’s definitely a good place to start – at Camp Chesterfield, there is a book store and of course, there’s book stores everywhere so if you just pick up any book on Modern American Spiritualism, it’s always a really great place to start, but if you’re really specifically wanting to know about Indiana History, spiritualism in Indiana, then a good trip up interstate 69 is going to be your best bet.

Beckley: Awesome, well, thank you so much for coming in today. This has been a wonderful conversation.

Smith: Yes, Thank you very much.

(Music)

Beckley: I want to thank Rachel once again for taking the time to come talk with us for this episode. If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America by Ann Braude. It’s a fascinating read and delves deep into some of the topics we covered today. We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. IN the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review to Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Useful Links

Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle 

Camp Chesterfield Website

Camp Chesterfield Facebook Page

More about Victoria Woodhull

THH: Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

Transcript of Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey Beckley

Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

Voice actor reading from newspaper: The town of Andrews [Indiana] . . . is much disturbed over the result of several spiritualistic séances, which have been held there by a medium named Johnson.

The first séance was held last Saturday night. At the meeting the terrible wreck at Keller’s station some years ago was called up. The five men killed in that wreck, including Trainmaster Wilcox, were talked to, and the noise made by the fated train, the puffing of the engine and the crash of the wreck were plainly reproduced. Those who were present in the room were terribly frightened, so realistic was the scene. A second séance was held at the residence of Robert Hart, with twenty people present. At this séance there were the customary exhibitions of tambourine playing, bell ringing, etc. While the bell was ringing someone requested that it be thrown, and it was hurled across the room with great violence, breaking a lamp chimney in its flight. After the séance was over the medium requested his audience never again to ask the spirits to throw anything, because that was one thing they always did when commanded.

Beckley: Scenes such as this, described in the July 11, 1893 issue of the Indianapolis News, were more common place in the Hoosier state than you might imagine at this time. By the late 19th century, American Spiritualism had swept the nation, including Indiana. And if you look past the spectacle described in that article – the tambourine playing, bell ringing, and flying furniture – you can glimpse the complexities surrounding Spiritualist beliefs. That story, like so many stories in Spiritualism, begins with tragedy. Five local men were killed in a dreadful accident, and here were their neighbors and friends still trying to find closure by calling them back from the dead. In this episode, we’ll explore a movement that meant different things to different people. For some, a night of entertainment. For others, a coping mechanism for unbearable grief.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Beckley: American Spiritualism, as opposed to spiritualism in the general sense of the word, was a religious movement based in the belief that not only do spirits exist, but they’re able and willing to communicate with the living through mediums. The root of the movement can be traced to the spring of 1848 when the Fox family began to hear knocking noises coming from the walls of their Hydesville, New York home. As the knockings continued, two of the Fox children, Margaret and Catherine, discovered that they could communicate with what they had come to believe was a spirit. Soon, the sisters took this new-found talent to nearby Rochester, New York, where they met prominent Quaker abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post.

In turn, the Posts introduced the young women and their ability to communicate with spirits to their prominent Quaker, Abolitionist, and Methodist friends. Through this network, Spiritualist beliefs were introduced into the highly mobile upper crust of East Coast society. This, alongside the accessible nature of the new movement which replaced the hierarchy and specialized facilities of other religions with a more informal structure, allowed Spiritualism to spread rapidly. Just months after the initial rappings were heard in Hydesville, there were thousands of so called “spirit circles” communicating with sprits in drawing rooms and kitchens up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Spirit circles, or séances, were a part of Spiritualism from the very beginning. Early séances conducted by the Fox sisters were described by historian David Chapman.

Voice actor reading from Chapman: Séances would begin with a prayer, while the party sat around a wooden table in a darkened room. If a spirit made its presence felt, participants could ask it yes-or-no questions, or the spirit might ‘call for the alphabet’ by knocking five times in rapid succession. If this happened someone would recite the alphabet until a knock was heard on a particular letter. This would be repeated until words and sentences were spelled out. The spirits had to be treated with great respect, or else they might refuse to participate.

Beckley: Soon, public demonstrations where hundreds of people gathered to witness the Fox sisters communicating with the spirits were organized.

[Eerie music]

Beckley: This is yet another factor in the rapid dissemination of American Spiritualism – each and every person who attended a séance or public demonstration was able to go back to their home town and hold a similar circle in their own home, with their own friends, who could in turn repeat the pattern, spreading the movement even further.

In this way, Spiritualism quickly reached the Midwest. By the mid-1850s, less than a decade after the Fox Sisters first made contact with the spirits in upstate New York, Spiritualism was fairly widespread in Indiana. It’s hard to estimate the number of practitioners since there was no formal system of reporting, but one historian claims that by the 1860s, 90% of Angola, Indiana residents were practicing Spiritualists. Of course, that’s an extreme case and the rest of the state was by no means majority-Spiritualist, but it shows how deeply the new religion had permeated Hoosier society. To get an idea of what at least some Indiana spirit circles were like, let’s look at Charles Cathcart, a judge and ex-congressman turned spiritualist.

[Music box music]

Beckley: Originally a skeptic, Cathcart attended his first spirit circle at the home of Mr. Poston of La Porte County, Indiana, with the goal of exposing the fraud he was sure was taking place there. The séances held at this particular circle were much different from those held by the Fox sisters which I described earlier – you see this a lot in Spiritualism since there was no official church structure and practitioners were able to just kind of make things up as they went along. The Poston circle, styled after circles held in Ohio, was a lively affair, similar to that described in the newspaper article at the top of the show.

[Dramatic music]

Beckley: Cathcart arrived to the séance armed with a homemade device that, when deployed, would light up the room in a flash. The lights were put out and the show started with a spirit referred to as “old king” taking up a bass drum. Cathcart deployed his flash device and described what he saw next in the Spiritual Telegraph, a New York-based spiritualist newspaper.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: What a picture for an artist! . . . [I] witnessed the stick beating the drum as if handled from above, and no mortal nearer than about eight feet of it! After striking a few blows by itself, in the light, the stick rose yet higher and leisurely, a curve in the air, gingerly fell on the shoulder of Miss Poston.

Beckley: With this shocking turn of events, Cathcart was a convert. He started his own spirit circle, also in LaPorte County, which was attended by many of his affluent acquaintances. Unsurprisingly, given the theatrical nature of his first encounter with Spiritualism, Cathcart’s own circles were quite showy with flying furniture, disembodied voices, and a veritable ensemble of spirits playing everything from a triangle to the guitar.  Obviously, this strain of Spiritualism is much closer to entertainment than to the expression of grief it was for many others. This included May Wright Sewall, who is better known as Indiana’s preeminent suffragist.

In 1895, Sewall’s husband and work partner, Theodore Lovett Sewall died. In the wake of his death, she wrote:

Voice actor reading from Sewall: Unlike many bereaved, I did not seek to forget my sorrow or him whose removal had caused it; on the contrary, I strove to keep the memory of him always present in my own mind.

Beckley: This reluctance to “move on” or forget is prevalent in many who eventually find themselves face to face with a medium, attempting to contact the dead. So it was with Sewall. In August 1897, after delivering a suffrage speech at Lily Dale, one of the largest Spiritualist camps in the country, a series of misfortunes stranded her in the camp for several days. During that time, she met with a medium, a meeting which she describes in her book Neither Dead Nor Sleeping.

Voice actor reading from Sewall: In that sitting, quite contrary to my own expectations, and equally so to any conscious desire, I received letters written upon slates which I had carefully selected from a high pile of apparently quite new and empty ones, had carefully sponged off, tied together with my own handkerchief, and held in my own hands, no other hand touching them. These letters, when read later in my room. . . were found to contain perfectly coherent, intelligent and characteristic replies to questions which I had written upon bits of paper that had not passed out of my hands.

Beckley: From that first experience, Sewall began visiting mediums on a regular basis and kept in regular communication with her deceased husband for the remaining two decades of her life. This was a something she did not share publicly. Neither Dead Nor Sleeping wasn’t published until July, 1920, twenty-three years after she first made contact with her deceased husband. In it, she revealed her Spiritualist beliefs and experiences and laid out her reasons for that belief.

The book was fairly well received, being heralded as an exceptionally logical exploration of the practice of Spiritualism, if a surprising subject for a woman of Sewall’s esteemed reputation to write on. But just two months after its release, with the revelation of Sewall’s convictions still fresh in the minds of Americans, Sewall died in Indianapolis. Her death following so close on the heels of Neither Dead Nor Sleeping resulted in the majority of her obituaries giving an inordinate amount of weight to that part of her life, leaving some of her very impressive accomplishments in the shadows.

Of course, Sewall wasn’t the only prominent Hoosier Spiritualist. Long before Neither Dead Nor Sleeping revealed May Wright Sewall as a convert, Dr. John and Mary Westerfield of Anderson, Indiana, were introduced to the movement. This introduction would eventually lead to the establishment of what would become one of the nation’s most prominent Spiritualist centers.

In 1855, John’s and Mary’s only son, John Jr. died at the age of fourteen. The couple, who organized lectures on various topics of a scientific and pseudo-scientific nature, were already familiar with the idea of Spiritualism. So, perhaps it was natural that they turned to the comfort offered by mediums in their grief. Over the next months, many of those who had attended their lecture series also converted to Spiritualism and this small group began to advocate for a state-wide organization of Spiritualists.

[Music]

Beckley: Alongside this effort to organize, the Westerfields also began searching for a location for a Spiritualist camp, where believers could congregate and commune.

[Music]

Beckley: From these efforts, the Indiana Association of Spiritualists was founded in the late 1880s, and in 1890, thirty acres of land was purchased in Chesterfield, Indiana where their Spiritualist camp – Camp Chesterfield – was established.

If you’re imagining a small, backwoods operation, you’re mistaken. When the camp opened, there was a dining hall, lodging house, two séance rooms, a few small cottages, and a tent auditorium structure that seated 500 people. By 1895, an office building, Bazaar building, stables, a grocery store, an ice cream parlor, and a wooden auditorium building had been added to the site, showing a phenomenal amount of growth.

This was far from the last growth spurt that the camp experienced. Under the leadership of Mable Riffle, the camp reached its zenith in the 1920s. Two fully furnished hotels were constructed, as well as a chapel, several more cottages, and a decorative outdoor area. By 1927, the six week season at Champ Chesterfield was drawing an average of 20,000 people. Some of these visitors came seeking the thrill of communing with the spirits and others looking to reach deceased loved ones during a time a grief, illustrated by the increase in attendance in the wake of both World War I and World War II.

Throughout its history, Camp Chesterfield hosted mediums with a wide variety of different Spiritualistic abilities. These included materializing mediumship, a phenomena where a medium summons the physical form of a spirit, and spirit photography, in which the forms of dead loved ones can be seen in the presence of their living family members. And also slate writing, or writing done without the aid of human hands – usually on a slate using chalk.

Yet, not everyone who experienced these supposedly otherworldly happenings were convinced by their experiences at the camp.

[Music]

Beckley: In 1925, at the height of its popularity, reporter Virginia Swain attended the camp and participated in several séances, which seem to have quite missed the mark on all accounts. The first of a long series of articles written about her time there starts.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: I have met a brother whom I had never heard of before. Nevertheless he died in my arms six months ago – he told me so himself!

Beckley: She goes on to detail a long list of almost laughably bad readings she received at the camp, but even more damaging than the bad press – she reported the perceived fraud to the police and on the very same day her first article ran, news of a mass arrest of 14 mediums was reported. The charges were dropped just weeks later, but the exposé and the arrests left a wake of soured public sentiment in its wake.

In 1960, scandal arose once again when Tom O’Neill, editor of the popular Spiritualist magazine the Psychic Observer and researcher Dr. Andriga Puharrich uncovered fraud while trying to capture the first motion pictures of the materialization of a spirit. With the full knowledge and permission of the mediums conducting the séance, the two men took an infrared camera into the séance room. Looking through the lens of the camera, they saw that what in the dark had looked to be wispy figures emerging from nowhere were actually workers of the camp entering the séance room from a hidden door.

When these findings, and the images captured during the séance, were published in the Psychic Observer under the headline “Fraud Uncovered at Chesterfield Spiritualism Camp,” something rather surprising happened. It was O’Neill, rather than the camp, that came under fire, with droves of advertisers dropping their support for the magazine, eventually leading to its demise. I suppose that’s a clear demonstration of just how deeply adherents to Spiritualism hold their beliefs.

Perhaps the worst blow to the camp came in 1976, when medium Lamar Keene wrote his exposé The Psychic Mafia, in which he laid bare allegations of widespread fraud throughout the camp. According to his claims, there were rooms full of tens of thousands of notecards with information on every person who had ever had a reading at the camp. He told stories of stealing, pickpocketing, and more, all in the name of a good spiritualist reading.

But, of course, even this exposé didn’t spell the end for Champ Chesterfield, which is now considered to be the longest continually active Spiritualist camp in the nation. The camp, like Spiritualism itself, has persisted through scandal, bad press, and more. Today, the camp is a mixture of American Spiritualism, with several resident mediums available for readings, New Age Spiritualism, with meditation retreats and Tai Chi classes, and a training center for up and coming Spiritualist leaders.

Even outside of historical camps like Chesterfield, of which there are a handful left scattered across the country, we still hear the echoes of Spiritualism in modern America. Take, for instance, mediums such as TLC’s “Long Island Medium,” Theresa Caputo, or if you’re a 90s kid like me, Sylvia Brown. Like the Fox sisters in the mid-1800s, these women mix entertainment with amateur grief counseling, helping people through difficult times by giving them the chance to communicate with lost loved ones. Or, if one wants to be cynical about it, using people’s grief for financial gain and personal fame.

But that’s what makes Spiritualism such a wonderfully complex topic. It can be a coping mechanism. It can be entertainment. It has film-flam men and sincere practitioners. Some people feel genuinely helped, and others feel helplessly duped. And we didn’t even get to this, but it was led, in large, by women and had close ties with both the abolition and women’s suffrage movements. But many of its practitioners, like May Wright Sewall, were tarnished by their association with it. Spiritualism is often used as an entry point into ghost stories and ghastly tales, something to be trotted out for Halloween and then put back into the closet with the paper skeletons on November 1, but that paints a much more one dimensional picture of it than in reality. Join us in two weeks when we dig further into this topic with Ball State University professor Rachel Smith, who studies the intersection of Spiritualism and feminism.

[THH theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark and Dr. Michella Marino of IHB for lending their voices to today’s episode. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for Listening.

Show Notes for Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

Braude, Ann, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Britten, Emma Hardinge, Modern American Spiritualism, New York: MDCCCLXX,

Chapin, David, “Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.

Keene, M. Lamar, The Psychic Mafia, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1997.

Sewall, May Wright, Neither Dead Nor Sleeping, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1920.

Newspapers

                “Events in Hoosierdom,” Indianapolis News, July 11, 1893, 6.

“Mediums Under Bond After Raid,” Muncie Evening Press, August 24, 1925, 1.

Websites

                “Camp Chesterfield: A Spiritual Center of Light,” campchesterfield.net.