Spirit Rooms, Seances and Ohio in the 19th Century
In the 1850s, Athens County farmer Jonathan Koons created a room where he claimed he could communicate with the dead, part of the burgeoning spiritualist movement that rippled across the nation.
In May of 1853, Dr. J. Everett made the arduous two-day stagecoach journey from Columbus to visit Jonathan Koons’ Spirit Room. Everett’s trip was part of the physician’s exploration of the nation’s burgeoning spiritualist movement that aimed to establish a link between this world and the next, and Koons’ room, located in the hills of Athens County, was billed as a place where those who visited could communicate with the dead.
Five years earlier, a pair of sisters in western New York had reported hearing strange noises at home — a sign, they said, of the dead trying to communicate with them. Everett met with the Fox sisters, determined that their ability was real and began seeking out other spiritualists. Koons, an iconoclastic farmer originally from central Pennsylvania, had built a log cabin on his property and outfitted it with a variety of musical instruments through which the dead made themselves known. Koons’ Spirit Room could accommodate around 20 or so people at a time, and Everett found it delivered just what it promised.
“I have myself heard the musical sounds, not merely audible, but loud, and performed with a skill and excellence that far surpassed any specimen that can be performed by any musician of earth,” Everett said.
The spirits not only played music, Everett recounted in A Book for Skeptics: Communication from Angels, but communicated with him and the other guests who were present. He heard from King, who through a trumpet claimed to be an angel of God; Jonathan Koons’ deceased father and daughter, by way of written message and poem; and an Indian chief who once ruled over the lands on which Koons’ home was built.
“I have conversed with spirits who said they were once residents on this earth, whose physical bodies have long since commingled with the dust, but that now they are angels and in possession of other bodies, and of a continued state of existence, being clothed with immortality,” Everett wrote.
The spiritualist movement took hold in Ohio and the United States throughout the second half of the 19th century, attracting a mix of utopians, women’s rights advocates and other “Victorian hippies,” says Sharon Hatfield, an Athens author who wrote Enchanted Ground: The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons. It gained its greatest prominence in the years after the Civil War, when people wanted to talk to their relatives who had died violently and prematurely. And then it faded away, like the spirits it purported to speak to.
As a result of what is now known as the Second Great Awakening, new religion was at the forefront of American culture in the late 1840s. The Shaker movement — with its communal living, celebration and namesake shaking at religious services — was in full swing. Minister William Miller, who provided the basis for what became the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, proclaimed Jesus would return to earth soon. Brigham Young had taken up the mantle of Mormonism after Joseph Smith’s death and was leading thousands of adherents west.
And in Hydesville, now Arcadia, New York, in 1848, a pair of girls reported hearing otherworldly rapping in the walls, attributable, they said, to a man who years earlier had been murdered in the home. Maggie and Kate Fox, ages 14 and 11, respectively, suddenly became famous for their ability to communicate with the dead and toured the country. Maggie was even invited to the White House to share her skills with first lady Jane Pierce, still mourning her son Benny, who had died in a train crash two months before his father, Franklin Pierce, was inaugurated.
The Foxes’ successful (and profitable) tour led to other people — mostly women — trying their hand at spiritualism, traveling from town to town to conduct seances in people’s homes.
“It was one of the few arenas that allowed women to speak in public,” Hatfield says. “Most ‘respectable’ women weren’t allowed to speak in public. These women were actually given a platform.”
The movement also drew a wide swath of reformers, from people who established communes to further their vision of Utopia to abolitionists.
“They saw it as more optimistic looking at not just the hereafter, but how we’re living today,” Hatfield says. “They believed all souls were equal in the hereafter, and if they were equal there, then why wouldn’t they be equal on Earth, too?”
Eventually, traveling spiritualists gave way to spiritual rooms like the one Koons originated, where crowds would gather for ghostly summits. Koons’ son Nahum, with guidance from the other world, drew a spiritual table in 1852. His father built it and stocked it with pencils and paper for communications, but the spirits wanted more.
“It was not long, however, until the spirits wrote out a bill for other implements and instruments of music,” Koons stated, “amongst which were found two accordions, bass and tenor drums, tambourine, guitar, banjo, harps and bells, on which the spirits perform … Trumpets are also blown by the spirits, and through which they articulate our language, deliver lectures, and sing and play.”
Inside the Spirit Room, Jonathon Koons began by playing his fiddle before other ghostly instruments joined in to accompany him. He operated the room for three years, until he burnt out (and had been accused of fraud, Hatfield notes). But he maintained an interest in the movement, ultimately moving to Illinois in 1858 and holding seances privately almost until his own death in 1893.
In the 1850s, famous devotees to spiritualism included poet William Cullen Bryant and New-York Tribune publisher (and later presidential candidate) Horace Greeley. But at the same time, there were skeptics. Future President Rutherford B. Hayes, then a lawyer in Cincinnati, wrote in his diary of a spiritualist addressing his literary group.
“He was annoyed the guy was there to speak,” says Kevin Moore, curator of artifacts for the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums. “He found his arguments pretty ridiculous.”
Spiritualism remained a fringe fad throughout the 1850s. Then war broke out. The Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in American history, with death estimates ranging from 620,000 to more than 800,000. Roughly 2% of the United States population died in the war, leaving behind thousands of grieving relatives.
“There’s a strong correlation between interest in spiritualism and war, which makes sense on some level,” says Moore, noting that the Fox sisters’ claim came the month after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican War. “People who have lost a son, or brother, or husband, want to communicate with them.”
It was estimated that immediately after the Civil War, 40% of Americans adhered to some form of spiritualist beliefs. Admittedly, Hatfield says, that’s a tough figure to pin down. But as America got farther away from the Civil War, interest in spiritualism started to wane. Part of that was because con artists started to people the ranks of traveling mediums (Margaret Fox herself said her initial experience was a hoax — a confession she quickly recanted), Moore said, and as technology became more readily available to the general public, it was easy to see what fakers were doing. Moore cites the example of spirit photographs, pictures taken showing some spiritual aura.
“It worked for a while because very few people had access to cameras,” Moore says. “As the technology becomes democratized, they start to understand how photographers are doing it.”
Technology was also starting to eliminate the need for traveling mediums and spirit rooms, as people started to become able to conduct readings in their own homes (by this time, more for entertainment). The musical instruments in rooms like Koons’ were replaced by a planchette, a small piece of wood on casters with a pencil attached, allowing people to write messages dictated by spirits. By 1886, spirit boards — using planchettes to form words — had taken over Ohio spiritualist camps, and four years later, Charles Kennard of Baltimore patented a board with letters, numbers and symbols, with a planchette that could be used to spell out messages. It was called the Ouija board.
“Ouija boards put thousands of mediums out of work,” Moore says.
But even in the 19th century, religious leaders saw spiritualism as a dark art. Philadelphia pastor William Ramsey published a book in 1857 labeling it “a satanic delusion,” and Michaelis Machol, rabbi of the Anshe Chesed Congregation of Cleveland, voiced his opposition to spiritualism as an affront to God’s will.
“That is one of God’s blessings, to keep the future from us,” he said from the pulpit in 1899, “for this world would be a torture chamber were we to know what is to come at all times.”
As the 1910s drew to a close, The Great War visited death and destruction on the world on a scale previously unseen, as the technologies developed in the preceding years — airplanes, mechanized vehicles, automatic weapons and poison gas — were turned on humanity. The war was followed by a flu pandemic, which killed millions more.
The wanton death and destruction led to a revival of spiritualism, more pronounced in the United Kingdom, which had been more devastated by war than the United States. One of its greatest adherents was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who gained worldwide fame as the creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. His son Kingsley and his brother, Brig. Gen. Innes Doyle, had both died from pneumonia. Conan Doyle’s fascination with spiritualism dated to the 1880s, but he found “the relief afforded by posthumous messages taught him how great a solace it would be to a tortured world.”
Conan Doyle traveled the United States seeking out mediums and made a stop in Cincinnati in 1922 and 1923 to meet with Laura Pruden, a “slate spiritualist,” who wrote messages from beyond on a slate in a box hidden from view.
“Altogether, it was a most utterly convincing demonstration,” Conan Doyle wrote in Our American Adventure, a book detailing his trips throughout the United States.
Pruden died in 1939, nine years after Conan Doyle’s death. Her son, Albert Carter, developed a fortune-telling device called the Syco-Seer. It was a cylinder with dice in it. Each side of the die offered some piece of advice and became visible through a viscous liquid when the cylinder was turned over. Carter died before the patent was granted in 1948 — the exact date of his death is unclear — and the Syco-Seer was redesigned, this time in a sphere.
The item attracted the attention of Brunswick Billiards, which started using it as a promotional device. It’s still in production today, selling more than a million items annually. It’s called the Magic 8-Ball.