Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Lincoln Séance at a House in Georgetown

The house located today at 3226 N Street was built between 1876-1877 by Thomas Loockerman, a successful dentist.  However, there was at least one prior dwelling on the site, built before 1851 and probably as early as the 1820s.  In the late 19th century there were claims that during the Civil Wall President Abraham Lincoln attended a séance there.  City directories show people living on the site at least as early as 1863.[1]

The Lincoln Séance


 Thomas Knowles  purchased the two story house then known as 21 First Street in 1851.  According to city directories, 3226 N Street was occupied in 1863 by Cranstoun Laurie, identified as “chief clerk, Post Office Dept.”  Laurie and his wife Margaret had three children, including a daughter, Mary Isabella, nicknamed Belle.  Cranstoun Laurie’s father was the founder and first Rector of what is now New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. 

Years later, in 1891, Nettie Colburn Maynard wrote a book entitled Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?  Or Curious Revelations from the Life of a Trance Medium[2],  in which she described the activities of Mr. and Mrs. Laurie, and particularly their daughter Belle, as spiritual mediums.  The book tells of President Lincoln’s participation in a séance at 21 First Street on February 5, 1863 (150 years ago on Feb 5, 2013!):

Illustration from Was Abraham Lincoln a Spritualist? 
One morning, early in February, we received a note from Mrs. Lincoln, saying she desired us to come over to Georgetown and bring some friends for a seance that evening, and wished the "young ladies" to be present. In the early part of the evening, before her arrival, my little messenger, or "familiar" spirit, controlled me, and declared that (the "long brave," as she denominated him) Mr. Lincoln would also be there.
… [At the gathering that evening] he [Lincoln] turned to me and said, “Well, Miss Nettie; do you think you have anything to say to me tonight?" At first I thought he referred to the request I had made when he entered the room. Recollecting myself, however, I said, "If I have not, there may be others who have." He nodded his head in a pleasant manner, saying, "Suppose we see what they will have to tell us."
Among the spirit friends that have ever controlled me since my first development was one I have before mentioned – known as "old Dr. Bamford." He was quite a favorite with Mr. Lincoln. His quaint dialect, old-fashioned methods of expression, straightforwardness in arriving at his subject, together with fearlessness of utterance, recommended him as no finished style could have done. This spirit took possession of me at once. As I learned from those in the circle, the substance of his remarks was as follows: "That a very precarious state of things existed at the front, where General Hooker had just taken command. The army was totally demoralized; regiments stacking arms, refusing to obey orders or to do duty; threatening a general retreat; declaring their purpose to return to Washington. A vivid picture was drawn of the terrible state of affairs, greatly to the surprise of all present, save the chief to whom the words were addressed. When the picture had been painted in vivid colors, Mr. Lincoln quietly remarked: " You seem to understand the situation. Can you point out the remedy?" Dr. Bamford immediately replied: "Yes; if you have the courage to use it." "He smiled," they said, and answered, "Try me." The old doctor then said to him, "It is one of the simplest, and being so simple it may not appeal to you as being sufficient to cope with what threatens to prove a serious difficulty. The remedy lies with yourself. Go in person to the front; taking with you your wife and children; leaving behind your official dignity, and all manner of display. Resist the importunities of officials to accompany you, and take only such attendants as may be absolutely necessary; avoid the high-grade officers, and seek the tents of the private soldiers. Inquire into their grievances; show Yourself to be what you are, 'The Father of your People.' "
Alexander Hesler photograph, June 1860
…It was at this seance that Mrs. Belle Miller gave an example of her power as a "moving medium," and highly amused and interested us by causing the piano to "waltz around the room," as was facetiously remarked in several recent newspaper articles. The true statement is as follows: Mrs. Miller played upon the piano (a three-corner grand), and under her influence it "rose and fell," keeping time to her touch in a perfectly regular manner. Mr. Laurie suggested that, as an added "test" of the invisible power that moved the piano, Mrs. Miller (his daughter) should place her hand on the instrument, standing at arm's length from it, to show that she was in no wise connected with its movement other than as agent. Mr. Lincoln then placed his hand underneath the piano, at the end nearest Mrs. Miller, who placed her left hand upon his to demonstrate that neither strength nor pressure was used. In this position the piano rose and fell a number of times at her bidding. At Mr. Laurie's desire the President changed his position to another side, meeting with the same result.
The President, with a quaint smile, said, “I think we can hold down that instrument." Whereupon he climbed upon it, sitting with his legs dangling over the side, as also did Mr. Somes, S. P. Kase, and a soldier in the uniform of a major (who, if living, will recall the strange scene) from the Army of the Potomac. The piano, notwithstanding this enormous added weight, continued to wabble [sic] about until the sitters were glad “to vacate the premises." We were convinced that there were no mechanical contrivances to produce the strange result, and Mr. Lincoln expressed himself perfectly satisfied that the motion was caused by some "invisible power"…

John Buescher wrote a lengthy Internet posting[3] about Lincoln’s interactions with the Lauries and about the séance, relating it to a lock of Lincoln’s hair in the possession of the Chicago Historical Society.  He quotes an 1885 letter from the Lauries’ son Jack confirming that the Lincolns did visit the Lauries’ home.  

At least one mainstream historian appears not to have given much credence to these stories.  Michael Burlingame’s massive 2008 biography of Lincoln[4] obviously attempts to be comprehensive, comprising two volumes of 1000 pages each.  However, the index contains no references to spiritualism, séances, the Lauries, Belle Miller or Nettie Colburn Maynard.  These omissions are despite considerable attention that Burlingame gives to the psychologies of President and Mrs. Lincoln and to Mrs. Lincoln’s at times eccentric behavior.

Thomas Knowles sold 21 First Street to Thomas G. Loockerman in August 1870.  Loockerman built the house that now stands on the property, and he and his descendants would reside in the house for 37 years and own it for 66 years.

Copyright Paul K. Williams and Kenneth G. Peters

[1] Boyd’s directories of Washington were an important source for this history.  The directories are not available for every year, so there are gaps in the information derived from them.  Although the directories provide a wealth of information, errors and omissions were not uncommon in them. 
[2] The book was published by Rufus C. Hartranft of Philadelphia and is available through Google Books.
[3] Unlocking the Mystery of a Lincoln Relic, www.spirithistory.com/lincoln.html.  The site no longer exists, but a copy of the posting is available in the Peabody Room of the D.C. Public Library Georgetown branch. 
[4] Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln, A Life, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

From White to Black: The Unusual History of the Luray Apartment Building at 1320 R Street, NW

Even mundane buildings have the potential to reveal a fascinating history, and in the case of the nondescript apartment building at 1320-1322 R Street, its history includes a connection to an African American Congressman and an innovative housing company that purchased it for the purpose of renting it to an exclusive black clientele.  Though nameless today, the building was known as the Luray Apartments when construction began in 1908.

The building was built for just $12,000, and was initially not wired “for electricity or power.”   It opened in April of 1909.      

The building was one of the first commissions for local architect Matthew G. Lepley, who had opened his offices the same year the Luray was begun.  It was built for owner Thomas J. Kemp.  Lepley had been in Washington in 1886, and  later made headlines in the Washington papers when he was reprimanded by the War Production Board in 1942 when he allegedly violated rules on house price limits and housing preferences for government workers established during wartime. 
The Luray was owned by the National Investment Company and rented to white residents from 1914 to 1920.  The 1920 census revealed that only one of the eight apartments was occupied by a family designated as black.   Census enumerators that year were instructed “to be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto.  The word here in generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood.”  Importantly, it was up the census taker to observe and determine race, not the subject being interviewed.   Families that year at the Luray were employed as bookkeepers, laundress, laborers, machinists, and clerks. 

The Washington Bee newspaper carried a photograph of the Luray on the cover of its November 27, 1920 edition, with a story about its recent purchase by the Mutual Housing Company, Inc., which was a newly formed real estate investment business with offices at 1232 U Street.  An editorial by editor Calvin Chase in the same edition called attention to the work of the Company “doing the necessary work in the matter of housing the colored people of the city of Washington.”

The company had bought the Luray for the express purpose of changing its occupants from white to black, as part of the “City within a City” mentality that had enveloped the overall neighborhood.  Its President was Arthur Wergs Mitchell (1883-1968), and it promoted and sold stock to middle and upper class African Americans to fulfill a need in providing apartments to working class blacks.   The full article is reproduced here.                         
Although he is now one of history's forgotten figures, Mitchell (left) was once almost as well known among black college students as Jesse Owens and Joe Louis.  Mitchell's life began in rural Alabama in 1883, after which he studied briefly at Tuskegee Institute; He went on to study law in Washington, and thereafter became involved in politics when the Republicans sent him to Chicago in 1928 to campaign for Herbert Hoover.  Impressed by Chicago's ward system and patronage politics, he returned to the city and made a bid for a congressional seat, changing political parties in an effort to oust black Republican Congressman Oscar DePriest.             

Mitchell was elected as the first black Democrat in the Seventy-fourth and to the three succeeding Congresses (January 3, 1935-January 3, 1943).  In 1937, Mitchell sued three railroad companies for not offering equal treatment and accommodations for all passengers. The case went to the Supreme Court, which gave Mitchell a favorable ruling. As a result of these "confrontational" acts, the Chicago Machine quickly decided not to endorse Mitchell in the elections of 1942.

Throughout his career, Mitchell issued bills holding state and local offices accountable for lynching and to prohibit racial discrimination.  In 1943, he resumed the practice of law, and was also engaged in civil rights work, public lecturing, and farming near Petersburg, Virginia.  He died at his home on May 9, 1968, and was interred on his estate, “Land of a Thousand Roses,” in Dinwiddie County.

By the time the 1930 census was taken at the Luray Apartment building, all of its residents were indeed classified as black.  They paid monthly rents ranging from $50 to $65, and were employed in myriad occupations, including a projectionist at a local theater, chauffeur for a piano business, tailor, laundress, porter, printer, waitress, and even a University Professor named Elwood Cox.    

Mitchell’s Mutual Housing Company would continue to own the Luray until shortly after 1949.  It was later owned by the Luray Limited partnership, who converted the building into condominiums in 1987.  

Copyright Paul K. Williams        

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Fraser Mansion at 1701 20th Street, NW

When it was completed in 1890, the pink granite and brick mansion constructed at 1701 20th Street, near the corner of R Street and Connecticut Avenue towered over its more humble neighboring houses built of wood frame.  It was the home of New York merchant George S. Fraser, and had been designed by the noted architects Joseph Hornblower and James Marshall. 

Fraser had first come to Washington in 1888, and obtained the permit to build the mansion at 1720 20th Street in June of 1890.  It was built at a cost of $75,000, far more than ten times the cost of a typical Washington townhouse being built at the time.  The Frasers summered at Northeast Harbor on the Maine coast.  George Fraser didn’t enjoy the house for long, however, as he died in 1896.    

The architectural firm of Hornblower and Marshall was formed in 1883 and was responsible for many Washington homes and public buildings of significance.  Joseph Hornblower had studied at Yale University and the famed Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, completing his studies in 1871.  Marshall had graduated from Rutgers College in 1871.  Their Fraser mansion was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. 

In 1901, George Fraser’s widow sold the mansion to Pennsylvania Congressman Joseph Earlston Thropp (1847-1927) and his wife, Miriam Douglas Scott-Thropp.  She was the eldest and widowed daughter of Col. Thomas Alexander Scott, a President of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a former Assistant Secretary of War under President Lincoln.  Joseph Throop made a fortune from the manufacturer of pig iron, and served as a Representative from Pennsylvania in the 56th Congress from March 4, 1899 to March 3, 1901, when they moved into 1720 20th Street. 

Thropp graduated from the Polytechnic College of Pennsylvania in 1868 with a degree in engineering.  He first gained employment constructing docks at Duluth, Minnesota, and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, eventually attaining the position of railroad division engineer.  In 1870, he moved to Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, and engaged in the manufacture of pig iron, sub subsequently becoming owner of the Earlston Furnaces in Everett, Pennsylvania, in 1888.  He died in 1927, and his wife Miriam died in 1930.   

The mansion served as a series of restaurants beginning with the Parrot Tea Room in 1932, with a boarding house located upstairs.  It was subsequently leased to John Goldstein in 1950, who renamed the restaurant Golden Parrot.  It was sold in 1974 and later became known as the Golden Booeymonger, and Bermuda House restaurants, and the nightclub’s known as Larry Brown’s and Sagittarius.  In 1981, international restaurateur Walter Sommer purchased the mansion for $2 million, and after a $3 renovation, opened a restaurant named the Four Ways.   A plan in 1987 to convert the mansion and built a seven story condominium building on the rear lot was thwarted by local residents.    

The mansion was purchased by the Founding Church of Scientology in April of 1994.  Its founder, L. Ron Hubbard had moved to Washington, DC in 1923, and attended The George Washington University.  At his home near Dupont Circle, Hubbard wrote the very first manuscript of his discoveries: Dianetics: The Original Thesis, known today as The Dynamics of Life.  That led to his founding the Church of Scientology in this city in 1955.
The Church undertook a massive renovation of the structure that lasted over a year; its interior woodwork and fourteen fireplaces were all meticulously restored.  Located on the lower ground floor are three stained glass windows depicting the seals of Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC that were discovered in the attic during the project.  

Copyright Paul K. Williams