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Tom Dillard: Spiritualism popular entertainment, belief in early days of Arkansas

by Tom Dillard | July 11, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

While doing research recently in the Arkansas Gazette of the 1880s, I chanced upon a series of tantalizing articles recounting the prosecution by Little Rock authorities of two "spiritualists." Upon digging deeper, I discovered that spiritualism found its way to Arkansas following the Civil War, and it developed a sizable following.

Spiritualists believe in the possibility of communicating with the dead. Since spirits are on a more advanced plane, they sometimes have wisdom to share. Skeptics -- who are legion -- view communicating with the dead as pathetic attempts to deny the death of a loved one.

Spiritualism is usually traced back to Swedish mining engineer and physician Emanuel Swedenborg, who at the age of 56 in 1744 began writing about his ability to communicate with spirits. During the remaining 28 years of his life, Swedenborg wrote 30 books in which he portrayed a spiritual world that parallels our physical one. The movement grew in the United States with the publication in 1848 of "The Great Harmonia" by American mystic Andrew Jackson Davis.

A recent article in the New Yorker reported that during the late 19th century substantially more than 4 million people were spiritualists. Perhaps the best-known British spiritualist was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books. Many other prominent people dabbled in spiritualism; even Queen Victoria attended a seance. Black people played active roles in the movement, with Sojourner Truth -- who resided in the spiritualist utopia of Harmonia for several years -- being the most prominent.

The earliest reference to spiritualism in Arkansas I could find dates to 1867 when the grand master of the Masonic Lodge in Arkansas, Elbert H. English, promised in a speech that Masonic-owned Little Rock University would teach its students "all the popular ologies and isms (except mesmerism and spiritualism)."

Anti-spiritualism cropped up occasionally during Reconstruction. In 1870, a Reconstruction Republican state senator and later the namesake for Howard County, James H. Howard, was ridiculed by one opponent as "anything from a 'Secesh' [secessionist] to a 'Spiritualist."

The prevailing prejudice against spiritualism did not prevent its development in Arkansas. In March 1877, the Arkansas Gazette reported that "there [are] quite a number of persons in Little Rock who believe in spiritualism, and recently a circle was formed for the purpose of procuring the attendance of a medium." A month earlier the newspaper had estimated "about 150" spiritualists lived in the capital city.

Although a psychic named Miss Claire Robertson advertised in the Gazette as early as April 1872, the first documented visit by a medium to Arkansas occurred in March 1877 when a Col. and Mrs. Eldridge of Memphis gave a series of demonstrations at St. Charles House Hotel in Little Rock.

"Many prominent citizens" paid visits to Mrs. Eldridge, the medium, and according to a newspaper reporter, "all of whom ... appear to be satisfied with the strangeness and yet genuineness of the manifestations presented."

During one of Mrs. Eldridge's seances in Little Rock, "a bow of ribbon was taken by invisible hands from the head of a lady sitting near, and disappeared under the table, but an immediate examination failed to reveal it."

The Gazette reporter acknowledged that he "is a Christian on the old-fashioned and orthodox plan, trained in a school of prejudice against the theory of spiritualism ..." Despite his skepticism and "watchfulness," he "failed to detect anything like fraud."

Mrs. Eldridge and her husband were from the upper class, typical throughout the movement. "Colonel" Eldridge, who had been a high-ranking Confederate artillery officer, was a prominent Memphis attorney. The movement was led mostly by women.

While it is probably more than a little hyperbolic, the Gazette claimed in early 1882 that "... it would astonish the average orthodox church goer to know how many spiritualists there are in this city. Meetings are held almost nightly." The reporter then described a seance he had recently observed where "quite a number of spirits attended."

Two long-dead political leaders were contacted at the seance -- governor and congressman Archibald Yell, who had been killed during the Mexican War, and U.S. Sen. Solon Borland, who had been dead since 1864. Yell's spirit was quoted as saying through the medium: "Back to Arkansas once more. History knows my life. How little is known of this world I am in [now]."

While it seems that spiritualists and their mediums encountered little sustained opposition, in April 1883 Little Rock authorities arrested two mediums, one being charged with fortune telling, and a Mrs. Sawyer, who was charged with "obtaining money under false pretenses."

The Sawyer trial lasted for several days, the courtroom reportedly filled with local spiritualists, some described as "prominent men." Two spirits, Elon and Little Maude, were quoted as playing "a prominent part in nearly all of the testimony.

The Gazette reporter jokingly suggested that it would be a good idea to subpoena Elon and Little Maude. I was unable to determine the outcome of the trial, but later news stories reported that Mrs. Sawyer was still practicing.

By 1893, Little Rock was home to "First Spiritualist Church, located on the corner of Markham and Victory streets," though little is known of this institution. A 1903 religious census of Little Rock found only two spiritualists, barely edging out the count of a single "infidel."

While spiritualists were never numerous in Arkansas, they did persevere. William Grant Still, the Little Rock native and dean of Black American composers, and Mrs. Bernie Babcock, a well-known Little Rock writer and museum founder, were spiritualists.

Another true believer was Lessie Stringfellow Read, a Fayetteville author, journalist, club woman, suffragette and newspaper editor. Her adoptive parents held seances nightly to communicate with their deceased son, eventually publishing a book of those communications in 1926. Read corresponded with other spiritualists, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who described spiritualism as "the most consoling message which the poor old human race has ever received..."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column was published Aug. 17, 2016.

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