Indiana has been home to a lively Spiritualist community since the very early days of the religion. Although Spiritualism, in the broad sense of the term, has existed for thousands of years, Modern American Spiritualism began in the late 1840s in upstate New York with the Fox Sisters. Margaret and Catherine Fox first claimed to have direct communication with the spirit world in late March 1848. In the next two years they would tour much of the country demonstrating these communications, which came in the form of rappings or knockings, to thousands of Americans, inviting anyone to come test the claims for themselves.
Spiritualism was championed by many reformers and intellectuals of the day as a means to find “scientific ground on which to rest every real Christian doctrine.” Although Margaret and Catherine would confess in 1888 that they themselves were the source of the rappings, (they made the sounds by popping their toes) the movement had a life of its own at that point and the confessions were seen as ploys for attention and money by most dedicated spiritualists.
In Anderson, Indiana, a group of free thinkers began to meet in the meeting hall of J.W. Westerfield in the 1880s. Westerfield organized a lecture series which included lecturers on mesmerism, phrenology, trance speaking, healing, clairvoyance, and spirit contact. Many of the attendants at these lectures soon became spiritualists and after attending a Spiritualist Camp meeting in Michigan, members of this group set themselves to the task of creating a Spiritualist camp in Indiana. In 1890, Westerfield became the president of the Indiana Association of Spiritualists and under his leadership founded a camp in Chesterfield. Beginning as a sort of tent city, more and more buildings and infrastructure were added to Camp Chesterfield over the years until it became almost a city unto itself. The grounds included cottages for many of the mediums of the camp as well as a grocery store, ice cream parlor, and a band stand.
Many spiritual happenings were reported at Camp Chesterfield. Between 1901 and 1908, the camp’s programs advertised mediums with a wide variety of abilities. These abilities included trumpet mediumship, slate writing, spirit photography, materializing mediumship, and precipitated spirit portraits. Examples of each of these forms of mediumship can be seen below.
Camp Chesterfield faced many hardships throughout its history, including a mass arrest of 14 mediums in 1925 (the charges of false pretense were eventually thrown out), dwindling interest in Spiritualism, and the 1997 release of the expose The Psychic Mafia by former Chesterfield medium Lamar Keene. Through it all, Champ Chesterfield endured. In fact, it is still open and active today as one of the oldest continually active Spiritualism camps in America. In 2015 and 2016, the camp was listed as one of the top 10 most endangered historical sites in Indiana by Indiana Landmarks. The Friends of Camp Chesterfield Foundation is a non-profit working to restore, renew, preserve, and maintain historic Camp Chesterfield for future generations. To see the work being done by the Friends of Camp Chesterfield, join their Facebook page! Visit Camp Chesterfield’s website here to learn more about the work they are currently doing.