Notes on the Transcription of the Petition Signatures

The editors and publishers of The Spiritual Telegraph, Charles Partridge and Samuel Brittan, sent out printed copies of the petition to their newspaper subscriber list, along with a request that the recipients solicit signatures on these sheets and then return the copies to them in New York.

Brittan and Partridge pasted the lists of signatures onto a continuous roll of hemmed silk backing and cut it into 18 rolls.  The Congressional archivist, or perhaps Senator Shields or someone on his staff, wrapped the package of rolls in a sheet of parchment inscribed with the words “Memorial of the Spirit Rappers.”  The first roll begins with a printed copy of the petition itself.  Then follows the signatures, as transcribed here.  There are actually less than 12,000 (not 13,000 as reported) non-duplicated signatures altogether.

I have transcribed the list from the original rolls at the National Archives in Washington, D. C.  As far as I know, these rolls have not been examined since they were placed in the archives in 1854.  The transcription has been shaped by my method:

I began by unrolling each of the eighteen rolls and entering the names and the localities listed, one after the other, on my laptop.  The signatures were sometimes crystal clear and sometimes almost illegible or indecipherable.  I indicated on individual entries if I had doubts about my reading of them.  Individual initials in the modified Spencerian hand that most people used were particularly difficult to distinguish one from the other—the letters M, W, H, and N resemble one another, for example, as do A, D and N; and as do L and S; and J and I; and E and C; and F and T; and R, P, and B.

After I finished the initial transcription of all the names, I began checking each entry against an online database and index of the Federal Census, correcting and completing the names in the cases where I thought it was warranted.  Essentially, I took the clump of data I had and passed it through the screen of the census records.  This part of the process took much more time than the mere initial transcription.

The petition asked those who signed it for their names and their localities.  Information given about the localities was quite uneven.  Sometimes those who signed from New York City or Brooklyn or Philadelphia or Boston provided their street addresses.  Sometimes they did not.  Those who signed from elsewhere often simply gave their city or county or state.  Those who signed farther down on the pages often just indicated their locality by marking dittos under the place names at the top of the pages.  I have done more than this.  In a few of the largest metropolitan areas, I have simply left the name of the city and perhaps the state, unless the signer has also given his or her street address, which I have included.  Elsewhere, however, I have written out the city or town or village of each signer along with the county and the state.  In cases where a signature did not include a first name but only an initial or two, I have converted the initial to the entire name as given by the census records when identification was unambiguous.

It would be unreasonable to think that I have transcribed every single name correctly, even with the laborious cross checking I have done.  In some ways, completing this list has reminded me of doing a giant crossword puzzle.  Having admitted that, however, I implore you not to email me questions about the individual entries here.  I offer the list “as is.”  If verifying a particular entry or entries is important to you, all I can offer to you is the fact that the National Archives is open to the public and that you can check its website for information on how you can pay it a visit and, thereby, take a look at the original petition.

The names are in groups, according to locality, each group having been collected by an individual, sent back to Partridge and Brittan, and then entered together on the rolls.  If more than one person in a locality went looking for signatures, the separate groups of names they collected would not necessarily be entered onto the master list in proximity to one another.  To find all the signatures from a particular locality, therefore, one needs to search through the entire list.  Because I have made a point of explicitly listing each person’s complete locality, this is easily done with the find function on your web browser.

The editors seem to have checked to eliminate duplicates.  A couple of names were marked as such.  I have dropped those from the list as it appears here.  Also, because the individual sheets were glued onto a continuous rolled backing just as they were received, if the signatures on them had filled the front and continued onto the reverse, the names on the back had to be copied over again onto new separate sheets.  This seems to have caused some confusion because a few groups of names that were recopied in this way duplicated groups appearing elsewhere.  I have dropped such duplicates—a hundred or so—from this transcription.

The individual groups of names were evidently collected in a variety of ways, using the canvassers’ own judgment about how to collect them and who should sign the petition.  Some groups contain nothing but elderly people—those most respected in the community, perhaps (or those most likely to be interested in the afterlife?).  Some groups contain nothing but men—registered voters, perhaps, petitioning their Congressional representatives.  But some lists consist of nothing but family members.  Some contain, not only men and women, but children as well.  Some canvassers collected their lists by going door to door through a neighborhood, but some collected them at local gatherings—perhaps at meetings of people interested in spirit rappings or at town meetings, county fairs, or some other gatherings where many people could be enlisted altogether.  Perhaps some of the petitions were displayed on the walls of stores so that customers could sign them there.  Some of the lists appear to have been collected by individuals who signed them and mailed them to other members of their families or friends who were sympathetic to spiritualism.

I think it would be fair to infer that most of the people who signed the petition were interested in the “spirit rappings.”  Most of them were probably inclined toward belief.  However, some of the people who signed probably had not come to a conclusion about the phenomena, but simply thought it would be a good idea to have an official investigation done.  A few names on the petition are even notated explicitly as unbelievers.  It is also likely that some people signed the petition in order to humor the canvassers—their family members, friends, or neighbors.  While a few of the names on the list also appear on other lists of mediums, lecturers, or leaders of the spiritualist movement, the names of most of the people who became identified with the movement are absent.  This might be attributed to the haphazard way in which the signatures were collected.  Nevertheless, the sheer number of signatures seems a testament to the widespread interest in the spirit rappings, especially given the eccentric methods of canvassing.  It suggests that a truly systematic attempt to poll the public would probably have resulted in a huge number of people who would have voted to look into the phenomena purported to be the result of spirit activity.


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