Home Archives When the Spirits Held Sway at the White House

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What would happen if it was disclosed that President Bush was consulting spirit mediums in the White House? What if it was learned that he was even following the advise given in séances to run the country? The nation would be outraged and demands hade from both parties for his immediate impeachment. Many would suddenly question his reason, others would seek the medical advise of psychologists. Not too long ago First Lady Hillary Clinton got into trouble when it was learned she was talking to the long decease Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Clinton never said she heard Eleanor talking back to her.

Strange as it seems, such a bizarre thing did happen once. It occurred during the terrible Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln held séances in the White House. These meetings were reported in the press at the time (much of it anti-Lincoln as well) few people condemned the president because so many prominent people had embraced the Spiritualist craze.

Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln requested mediums come to the White house after the death of her son, Willie in February of 1862. Mrs. Lincoln’s mind, never stable in any case, was sent into depression by the loss of her beloved son. She was encouraged by advise from a freed slave, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley who served as the dress maker to Mrs. Lincoln (strangely enough, she was also the dress maker of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, wife of the president of the Confederacy as well). It wasn’t long before Mary Todd Lincoln became enmeshed in the occult. In séances, mediums purported to bring back her two dead sons as well as a cousin who had lost his life at the battle of Chickamauga. In her quest for answers from beyond the grave she dragged her husband into the quest. He seemingly indulged her as mediums came and went at the president’s mansion.

One of the worst was an Englishman who called himself “Lord Colchester” claiming he was somehow related to the British aristocracy. He conducted séances at the Lincoln’s summer house. In one session he told of getting a message from Willie. The president was skeptical and asked Joseph Henry, the superintendent of the Smithsonian Institute, to investigate the bogus English lord. After attending a séance Mr. Henry reported that the ghostly sounds must have been the product of some hidden devise. Mr. Noah Brooks, a long-time friend of the Lincoln’s and a Washington journalist came along and was firmly convinced “Lord Colchester” was a despicable leach who preyed upon Mrs. Lincoln’s grief. He caught the medium cheating, passing off simple slight of hand tricks as real psychic phenomena. The British charlatan was told to leave and never return; advise he wisely took. 

Another medium consulted by Mary Todd Lincoln was twenty-one year old Nettie Colburn. She was impressive and had many followers. So impressed was Mary that she secured a position for her in the Department of the Interior so she would not leave the city. Based on the published evidence of the day, many believe she was a true psychic. At least all accounts say she believed the messages she got were from the Spirit World. In a séance conducted in the Red Room of the White House in December of 1862 the spirits urged President Lincoln to free the slaves at once. The question of emancipation was widely discussed in Washington and it wasn’t many weeks after the séance that Lincoln came out with the famous Emancipation Proclamation. Did the séance influence him? Still, Spiritualism was born in upper New York State in 1848 with many roots in New England. It had come out against slavery at its inception. 

In early 1863 a simple test was set up for Nettie Colburn. She was asked to identify a masked man who was wrapped in a dark cloak who had just stepped into the room. Miss Colburn went into a trance and contacted her spirit guide “Pinkie” (said to be a Native American). The figure was named as “crooked knife.” The man removed his disguise and it proved to be General Daniel Sickle. As a sickle is a sort of crooked knife, the experiment was seen as a success. Still, skeptics pointed out the fact that the friendship between General Sickle and the President was widely known. 

At another séance conducted in the White House a number of strange things happened. The meeting was lead by the medium Charles Shcokle. Also in attendance were Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The event was reported by Melton Prior, a journalist. Once the lights were extinguished all sorts of strange events happened. The “spirits” pulled Mr. Well’s long beard and pinched the ear of Stanton. A picture on the wall moved from side to side in the near darkness and two candlesticks, gifts from the ruler of Algiers to president Adams, were seen to levitate nearly to the ceiling.

Abraham Lincoln joked with the “spirits” and seemed to have enjoyed himself. His own belief, or disbelief, was never reveled . Though this séance was widely published all over the North, there was little criticism leveled at the president or his wife. But, then, that was a different age. If such things happened today the story would be very different. Then again, perhaps the spirits might give our current leader better advise than his present staff — who knows? 

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