Spiritualism at the White House

Prior Melton, “A Readable Sketch.  Spiritualism at the White House.”  Herald of Progress (New York), May 1863: 8.

[The following is the most famous, or infamous, story that was widely published and reprinted in various papers around the country about spirit circles at the White House and the Presidents participation in them.  Melton was a regular reporter for the Boston Gazette, which originally published the story.  I do not know what to make of it; however, it is fair to note that Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wellesjournal does not mention any such episode, although he does expound in his journal on the problem of the Confederate privateers during March and April, 1863.  I know of no other mention of the medium, Charles E. Shockle, in the spiritualist pressfor me, this raises the issue of whether Melton simply invented him and the entire episode.  Even the Banner of Light appears to have treated it as a hoax.JB]

Washington, April 23, 1863.

A few evenings since Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, was induced to give a spiritual soiree in the crimson room at the White House, to test the wonderful alleged supernatural powers of Mr. Charles E. Shockle.  It was my good fortune, as a friend of the medium, to be present, the party consisting of the President, Mrs. Lincoln, Mr. Welles, Mr. Stanton, Mr. L—, of New York, and Mr. F—, of Philadelphia.  We took our seats in the circle about 8 o’clock, but the President was called away shortly after the manifestations commenced, and the spirits, which had apparently assembled to convince him of the power, gave visible tokens of their displeasure at the President’s absence, by pinching Mr. Stanton’s ears and twitching Mr. Welles beard.  He soon returned, but it was some time before harmony was restored, for the mishaps to the secretaries caused such bursts of laughter that the influence was very unpropitious.  For some half hour the demonstrations were of a physical character—tables were moved and the picture of Henry Clay, which hangs on the wall, was swayed more than a foot, and two candelabras, presented by the Dey of Algiers to President Adams, were twice raised nearly to the ceiling.

It was nearly 9 o’clock before Shockle was fully under spiritual influence, and so powerful were the subsequent manifestations that twice during the evening restoratives were applied, for he was much weakened; and though I took no notes, I shall endeavor to give you as faithful an account as possible of what took place.

Loud rappings about 9 o’clock were heard directly beneath the President’s feet, and Mr. Shockle stated that an Indian desired to communicate.

“Well, sir,” said the President, “I should be happy to hear what his Indian majesty has to say.  We have recently had a visitation from our red brethren, and it was the only delegation, black, white, or blue which did not volunteer some advice about the conduct of the war.”

The medium then called for pencil and paper, and they were laid upon the table, in sight of all.  A handkerchief was then taken from Mr. Stanton, and the materials were carefully concealed from sight.  In less space of time than it has required me to write this, knocks were heard and the paper was uncovered.  To the surprise of all present it read as follows:

“Haste makes waste, but delays cause vexations.  Give vitality by energy.  Use every means to subdue.  Proclamations are useless; make a bold front and fight the enemy; leave traitors at home to the care of loyal men.  Less note of preparation, less parade and policy-talk, more action.   HENRY KNOX.”

“That is not Indian talk, Mr. Shockle,” said the President.  “Who is Henry Knox?”

I suggested to the medium to ask who General Knox was, and before the words were from my lips the medium spoke in a strange voice: the first Secretary of War.”

“Oh, yes, General Knox,” said the President, who, turning to the Secretary, said: “Stanton that message is for you; it is from your predecessor.”

Mr. Stanton made no reply.

“I should like to ask General Knox,” said the President, if it is within the scope of his ability to tell us when the rebellion will be put down.”

In the same manner as before his message was received:

“Washington, Lafayette, Franklin, Wilberforce, Napoleon, and myself have held frequent consultations upon this point.  There is something which our spiritual eyes cannot detect which appear well formed.  Evil has come at times by removal of men from high positions, and there are those in retirement whose abilities should be made useful to hasten the end.  Napoleon says concentrate your forces upon one point; Lafayette thinks that the rebellion will die of exhaustion; Franklin sees the end approaching, as the South must give up for want of mechanical ability to compete against Northern mechanics.  Wilberforce sees hope only in a negro army.”—“KNOX.”

“Well,” exclaimed the President, “opinions differ among the saints as well as among the sinners.  They don’t seem to understand running the machines among the celestials much better than we do.  Their talk and advice sound very much like the talk of my cabinet—don’t you think so, Mr. Welles?”

“Well, I don’t know—I will think the matter over and see what conclusion to arrive at.”

Heavy raps were heard and the alphabet was called for, when “That’s what’s the matter” was spelt out.

There was a shout of laughter, and Mr. Welles stroked his beard.

“That means, Mr. Welles,” said the President, “that you are apt to be long-winded, and think the nearest way home is the longest way round.  Short cuts in war times.  I wish the spirits could tell us how to catch the Alabama.”

The lights, which had been partially lowered, almost instantaneously became so dim that I could not see sufficiently to distinguish the features of any one in the room, and on the large mirror over the mantle-piece there appeared the most beautiful though supernatural picture ever beheld.  It represented a sea view, the Alabama with all steam up flying from the pursuit of another large steamer.  Two merchantmen in the distance were seen partially destroyed by fire.  The picture changed, and the Alabama was seen at anchor under the shadow of an English fort—from which an English flag was waving.  The Alabama was floating idly, not a soul on board, and no signs of life visible about her.  The picture vanished, and in letters of purple appeared, “The English people demanded this of England’s aristocracy.”

“So England is to seize the Alabama finally?” said the President.  “It may be possible; but Mr. Welles, don’t let one gunboat or monitor less be built.”

“The spirits called for the alphabet, and again, “That’s what’s the matter,” was spelt out.

“I see, I see,” said the President.  “Mother England thinks that what’s sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander.  It may be tit, tat, too, hereafter.  But it is not very complimentary to our navy, anyhow.”

“We’ve done our best, Mr. President,” said Mr. Welles.  “I’m maturing a plan which, when perfected, I think, if it works well, will be a perfect trap for the Alabama.”

“Well, Mr. Shockle,” remarked the President, “I have seen strange things and heard rather odd remarks, but nothing which convinces me, except the pictures, that there is anything very heavenly about all this.  I should like, if possible, to hear what Judge Douglas says about this war.”

“I’ll try to get his spirit,” said Mr. Shockle, “but it sometimes happens, as it did tonight in the case of the Indian, that though first impressed by one spirit, I yield to another more powerful.  If perfect silence is maintained I will see if we cannot induce General Knox to send for Mr. Douglas.”

Three raps were given, signifying assent to the proposition.  Perfect silence was maintained, and after an interval of perhaps three minutes, Mr. Shockle rose quickly from his chair and stood up behind it, resting his left arm on the back, his right thrust into his bosom.  In a voice such as no one could mistake who had ever heard Mr. Douglas, he spoke.  I shall not pretend to quote the language.  It was eloquent and choice.  He urged the President to throw aside all advisers who hesitate about the policy to be pursued, and to listen to the wishes of the people, who would sustain him at all points if his aim was, as he believed it was, to restore the Union.  He said their [sic] were Burrs and Blennerhassetts living, but that they would wither before the popular approval which would follow one or two victories, such as he thought must take place ere long.  The turning point in this war will be the proper use of these victories—if wicked men in the first hours of success think it time to devote their attention to party, the war will be prolonged; but if victory is followed up by energetic action, all will be well.

“I believe that,” said the President, “whether it comes from spirit or human.”

Mr. Shockle was much prostrated after this, and at Mrs. Lincoln’s request it was thought best to adjourn the dance [sic—séance?], which, if resumed, I shall give you an account of.

Yours, as ever.

Was He or Was He Not?

From the Cleveland Plaindealer.
The President Elect a Spiritualist.

     It so happened that Conklin, the celebrated test Medium, was in town the day that President Lincoln arrived, on his way to Washington.  Being a Republican himself and not wishing to run an opposition to the distinguished visitant, he broke up his own Levees at the “Johnson” to attend that of the “Weddell.”  The moment he set eyes on the Lion of the occasion he recognized in him a very peculiar individual he had formerly met at his rooms in New York, but at the time did not know his name.  He used to come alone, sit silently, ask questions mentally, and depart quietly.  On one occasion he got an extraordinary test which was thus chronicled in “The Spiritualist,” published in New York at the time:

A Good Test.

     A gentleman called upon Mr. Conklin on the evening of March 21st, for the purpose of communicating with his spirit friends; and after asking some twenty mental questions, all of which were correctly answered, he wrote the following question:
     “Can you inform me of Mr. K’s condition?”
     It was answered “Yes, he is present now.”
    Q. “When did he die?”
    A. “Yesterday morning; he is happy, but cannot communicate yet.”
    The gentleman stated that Mr. K. was a friend of his, and that he had left him three days previously, in Wisconsin, twelve hundred miles distant—said by his physician to be fast recovering from a long and severe illness.
    The gentleman called again the next morning and stated that a brother-in-law of Mr. K’s had just received a telegraphic despatch, informing him of the death of Mr. K., on the morning mentioned by the spirit.
    Here was intelligence received twelve hours in advance of the despatch of an event which had occurred twelve hundred miles distant.  (Savans, please explain?)
    Mr. Conklin says that Mr. Lincoln is the identical ‘gentleman’ referred to in the above extract, that he remembers him from the peculiarities of person, his frequent calls, and as the recipient of this particular test.  So with this link of connection established between the spheres, spiritual association with the patriots of the past, thus availing himself of the wisdom of the two worlds; the President elect ought to have his political pathway so enlightened as to give the country assurances of perpetual union and peace.

Waukesha Freeman, March 12, 1861

Mr. Lincoln Not a Spiritualist.

     John G. Nicolay, who was the private secretary of Abraham Lincoln while President, says of the report that he was a spiritualist:
     “Of course, I have no doubt that Mr. Lincoln, like a great many other men, might have had some curiosity as to spiritualism, and he might have attended some of these séances solely out of curiosity.  But he was the last man in the world to yield to any other judgment than that arrived at by his own mature deliberation.  He was not superstitious, nor did he have any spiritualistic tendencies.  I have attended spiritualistic séances, not because I believed in them, but because I was curious to see the proceedings.  They were such manifest humbugs that I usually came away disgusted.  If President Lincoln ever attended séances, as alleged, it was with this same feeling of curiosity.  But I do not remember that even curiosity ever impelled him to attend a séance.  He had more important business on hand during those days.  In any event I can say without the slightest qualification that a séance never occurred at the White House.”

Daily Republican (Decatur, Illinois), October 24, 1891.

He Was a Spiritualist.

     Chicago, Oct. 28—In reference to the statement made by Mrs. Nettie Colburn of White Plains, N. Y., to the effect that President Lincoln was a spiritualist, Colonel Bundy of this city, editor of The Religio-Philosophical Journal, said today:
     There can be no question but that Mr. Lincoln sat in séances and repeatedly had mediums at the White House.  I know positively that through his investigations he became convinced of the continuity of life and of communication between the two worlds.  He was an unusually cautious, discreet man; and while it is quite probable that he received advice from the spirit world, it is also certain that he never blindly followed it.  It would have to conform to his own better judgment before being adopted.  It is a fact, as has been stated, that Lincoln held séances during the winter of 1864-5 with Charles Colchester and Charles Foster, the well known mediums, and I also am able to say confidently that he held a séance with Miss Nettie Colburn.  Mrs. Lincoln became a confirmed spiritualist, and it is within my knowledge that after the death of her husband she spent several weeks at different times in St. Charles, Ill., in order to be near Mrs. Leonard Howard, a noted medium.  It is my firm conviction and that of others that but for her faith in spiritualism and the messages from the spirit world she received through the mediumship of Mrs. Howard and others, Mrs. Lincoln would have become hopelessly insane and probably a raving maniac.”

Idaho Daily Statesman (Boise City), October 24, 1891.

     The statement that Abraham Lincoln was a spiritualist and had a medium living in the White House has gained such wide publicity that ex-Minister Robert T. Lincoln is at pains to deny it.  He says there is not an iota of truth in the story.

Freeborn County Standard (Albert Lea, Minnesota), September 20, 1893.

And How About Grant?

Grant’s Belief.
Rumor That He Has Become a Spiritualist.

     Chicago, Dec. 5—It is learned, from sources of the highest authority, that General Grant and his wife have been recently converted to spiritualism in its most pronounced form.  This statement comes from two ladies, one of whom has a national reputation for culture, attainments and position in society, while the other is likewise a lady of great prominence, publicly identified with the advocacy of spiritualism, and who is not only welcome, but the petted guest, in some of the finest of Gotham’s palaces.  It is stated that both General and Mrs. Grant first became interested in spiritualism and its doctrines from being present, by invitation, at séances held in Fifth avenue and Murray Hill mansions.  From being mere specttors they gradually developed into investigators, until they finally found themselves in full accord with followers of the spiritualistic school.  The unquestionable authority from which the information comes is also authority for the additional statement that only the fear of public ridicule prevents the General from acknowledging and championing his new-found faith.
     New York, Dec. 5—General Grant indignantly denies the story telegraphed from Detroit that he and Mrs. Grant have been converted to spiritualism.  He says that, although he never attended a séance in his life, he believed spiritualism to be a system of jugglery carried on by jugglers.

Newark (Ohio) Daily Advocate, December 5, 1883.

    A statement has been widely published in the newspapers of the country that General Grant was a spiritualist.  Henry W. Wilbar of Hammonton, N.J., has just sent a letter to the Washington Post, which he received from Gen. Grant in 1883, on the subject.  In this letter Gen. Grant says: “Dear Sir: My published denial of the charge of being a spiritualist or believer in spiritualism was as explicit as I knew how to make it.  I never witnessed, nor took interest enough in the subject to wish to do so.  I never held a conversation on the subject with one who was a believer.”

Athens (Ohio) Messenger, August 1, 1889.


     General Grant denies that he is a Spiritualist.  Of course he is not a Spiritualist.  He is a tobacconist.

Trenton (N. J.) Times, December 6, 1883.

And Johnson?

     The Spirits at the White House—We extract the following from a Washington letter to the Baltimore Gazette:
     It appears that the “spirits” will not down, even at “Executive” bidding, but have again invaded the White House, and this time the audience chamber of the President.  Under the escort of Col. Tom Florence, the editor and proprietor of the Constitutional Union, Mrs. Daniels, the Boston Medium, visited the Executive Mansion a few days since and sought an interview with his Excellency.  Col. Tom is himself a first-class spiritualist, and he was but too happy to present the fascinating medium to Mr. Johnson.  His card, as usual, was talismanic, and the President’s mahogany door soon opened for the admission of the gallant Col. and his companion.  But no sooner was the door again closed than the President was startled by the well-remembered horse-laugh of the “Late lamented Lincoln,” with the words from the lips of the entranced mediums, “Let him laugh who wins.”  What could it mean?  There was no mistaking the laugh, the manner, the expression.  Col. Florence swears it was Lincoln’s own laugh, and the President recognized it, and was dumb with astonishment.  “Let him laugh who wins,” said the spirit of the “Martyred President;” and his corase good-natured laugh again rang through the Presidential Mansion.  What did it mean?  Ah! there’s the rub!  Mrs. Daniels explained not, but said Mr. Lincoln wanted to have a long talk with President Johnson on important matters of State, but would seek another opportunity when the President was less occupied with official duties.  Before leaving, Mrs. Daniels was presented with a magnificent bouquet, in partial remuneration, perhaps, for the thrilling souvenir she had left of “the great martyr.”

Atlanta Constitution, September 13, 1868.


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