Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of "Occult America," awarded the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence. Horowitz has recently written for The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and BoingBoing.
Horowitz is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: Was Lincoln an occultist?
Mitch Horowitz: The Lincolns moved into the White House in March of 1861 and the country was just enthralled with spiritualism. Everybody had heard of it, a vast number of people were practicing it with different levels of seriousness. Shortly after the Lincolns moved into the White House, they lost their 11-year-old son, Willie, to what was probably from typhus fever and the grief was too much for Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady. And she, as with hundreds and thousands of Americans, more or less converted to spiritualism. And she began to frequent spirit mediums, engage in séances and she absolutely believed in the authenticity of contact with her departed son.
There are historical records that attest to séances being held in the Lincoln White House during the Civil War. And one of the trickiest tasks when you’re approaching the history of the occult—probably with any religious movement—is, which sources do you believe? Who can be relied upon? So one of the most convincing historical records of a séance being held in the Lincoln White House appeared in the Boston Gazette. The President had a trance sitting in 1863, and he permitted a correspondent from the Boston Gazette to be present and the proceedings were pure Lincoln. He was in good humor, he was in good spirits, to put it a certain way, he was teasing people, he was subjecting his cabinet secretaries to advice about the war from this transmedium who was in touch at one point with the spirit of Henry Knox, who had been George Washington’s Secretary of War.
From the content of the article, I think there’s reason to think that something did go on like what was reported. But it’s tricky because the transmedium who conducted the séance was named Charles Shauckle, and there’s no Charles Shauckle who appears in any of the spiritualist newspapers of the day which could lead one to conclude that the story was just made up or that it was some sort of a pseudonym. The historian, Carl Sandburg wondered—he seemed to take seriously that this séance did occur and I think he’s correct. But he wondered, why, why would Lincoln have permitted a reported from the Boston Gazette to have been present. And this is where we have to approach spiritualism very carefully and shrewdly to understand how educated folks in the mid-19th Century understood it.
To some people, like Mary Todd Lincoln, it was a gravely serious matter. To others, like Abraham Lincoln, it may have been a novelty, an experiment; just something for liberal people to try. And I think Lincoln actually engineered the whole event for a very shrewd political purpose, which was that during the Civil War he wanted to project an image to the public of a Commander in Chief who was relaxed, who could sit back and try out a parlor room novelty, like other Americans were doing. A man who was not overly encumbered by the strains of wartime command. And I think Lincoln actually succeeded in achieving what he set out to do because the piece in the Boston Gazette, which is just enthralling and bizarre, was reprinted in newspapers all over the country—including the newspapers of the Confederacy. So you see this relaxed Abraham Lincoln joking and teasing his cabinet secretaries, you know, pitching these questions almost as he’s tipping back in his chair just sort of enjoying an experiment.
There is another record of a much graver, and a much more somber séance that was held in the Lincoln White House. It’s a more difficult to verify and accept because it’s left behind by a transmedium herself. And you don’t know when people are just making something up to simply make themselves look good. Nonetheless, the account has a certain verisimilitude and it squares with how spiritualism saw itself politically.
In this other account of a séance being held in the Lincoln White House, Lincoln is told by these spirit contacts that if he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which he had been hesitant to do, that would be the greatest act for which he would be remembered. And the interesting thing about this story is not whether it’s provable or not because there’s no way to verify it, but it does capture the political mood and ideals of spiritualism in the 19th Century.
Occultists in other countries had reputations for being people like the Russian monk Gregori Rasputin who wanted to manipulate people in power, take advantage of them, collect goodies and riches for themselves. American spiritualists wanted to be associated with social progress. They were interested in suffragism, abolitionism, temperance, which at the time was a progressive cause. And so, it’s very typical that a transmedium would want to take credit for having urged Lincoln or some other influential figure to do the right thing in the eyes of progressive reformers.
This is something we’ve lost in the history of spiritualism. We paint it as the story of fraud and chicanery, but we lose the idea that spiritualism was a political and social force in the country, like any other religious movement.
Recorded on October 4, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller