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.

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