By Erin Carlson Mast
Starting with Willie Lincoln’s death in February 1862, Mary Lincoln began to engage in spirit circles. Spirit circles, or seances, were led by a medium who helped those gathered communicate with loved ones who had “crossed over.” Spirits communicated with the living by various means including sounds like rapping, scratching, and playing instruments and touches like tugging on hair or clothing, and pinching those gathered. In her grief, Mary Lincoln was all too eager to entertain the idea that she could communicate with her sons who had died, Willie and Eddie, and other deceased family members.
Mary Lincoln was not alone. Although it had plenty of critics and skeptics, spiritualism was a popular movement that crossed economic, social, cultural, and political divides and was particularly appealing to the many who had lost loved ones during the Civil War. And yet, the movement was already strong well before the war began. As historian Jean Baker noted, prior to the Civil War there “were more spiritualists than abolitionists.” One contemporary stated, “in 1856, it seems more likely that spiritualism would become the religion of America than in 156 that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire, or in 756 that [Islam] would be to Arabian populations.”
Despite the widespread interest and practice of spiritualism in its many forms, Mary Lincoln’s involvement in spirit circles drew gossip and criticism, not just of her, but of Abraham Lincoln who occasionally accompanied her. Scholars maintain Lincoln attended seances out of curiosity or concern for his wife, not out of belief in the legitimacy of “spirit rappings.” It is clear he had reservations about mediums, and his concern over one in particular, Lord Colchester, a man who claimed to be the illegitimate son of an English duke, caused him to ask Dr. Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian, to investigate the supposed medium. When Henry was unable to determine the source of the spirit rappings Colchester summoned, Henry asked Noah Brooks to investigate at a seance. According to Brooks, that seance took place right here at the Soldiers’ Home.
Here is Noah Brooks’s recollection of what happened that night.
“After the company had been seated around the table in the usual approved manner, and the lights were turned out, the silence was broken by the thumping of a drum, the twanging of a banjo, and the ringing of bells, all of which instruments had been laid on the table, ready for use. By some hocus-pocus, it was evident, [Colchester] had freed his hands from the hands of those who sat on each side of him, and was himself making ‘music in the air.’ Loosening my hands from my neighbors’, 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.”
Colchester later tried to blackmail Mary Lincoln, but Noah Brooks again intervened. Despite the embarrassing and potentially dangerous seance at the Soldiers’ Home that night, Mary Lincoln continued to attend spirit circles and seek out the talents of spiritualists throughout her life.