Unobscured, a podcast hosted by Aaron Mahnke, chronicles the story of the American Spiritualist movement, a religious movement that began in the 1840s and drew in a surprising collection of people: radical Quakers, Methodists, intellectuals, scientists, and abolitionists. Rural and city dwellers alike experienced trance lectures and séances, where the spirits of dead thinkers, leaders, and family members would speak through mediums. But as the popularity of spiritualism grew, “there were more and more wolves waiting in the shadows,” Aaron warns. “Predators ready to take advantage of a heartfelt faith.” In this episode, Aaron tells the stories of these con men, and the women who defied them to start a movement of their own.
Many anti-slavery abolitionists were “intensely religious,” Aaron says, criticizing and even leaving their churches for their hypocrisy in tolerating slavery. Often, these defectors would create their own communes to continue worshipping on their terms, and in one of these places, a rural Methodist community, a freed slave named Belle found her calling. She was encouraged to preach her message of national reform, and even opened a Sabbath Hall in the notorious Five Points in New York with another radical preacher named Matthias. But the Methodist Church was starting to chafe against their more radical members, compelling Matthias to leave New York and start his own utopian community called Zion Hill, dedicated to clean living, temperance, and unity. “But when Belle arrived, she realized the reality didn't pass the smell test,” Aaron says; Matthias was actually helping wealthy friends with real estate speculation and preaching that he had the right to sleep with other men’s wives. They even tried to pin a murder on Belle, but she said “I've got the truth on my side and I can crush them with the truth," and went to the press with the story of the corrupt commune. “She came out of the Kingdom of Matthias with a new disgust for flamboyant leaders, and for how easily the desire for a loving community could be turned to selfish ends,” Aaron says, and, wanting to get away from her slave name, took the name Sojourner Truth. “It was, in her own words, ‘a name with a handle to it.’”
15-year-old Cora had already been astounding people for years with her trance lectures, including intellectuals and scholars; “One writer,” Aaron says, “remarked that regardless of whether her lectures were her own thoughts or truly from a spirit control, they would have astonished him coming from the most accomplished orator in the world.” Then she met and married Dr. Benjamin F. Hatch, who was in his fifties, “a bit of a charlatan and something of a pimp” whose MD was “self-awarded.” Only two years after marrying him, “Cora was run ragged, exhausted, sick and trapped. One night in New Haven, Connecticut, a bedraggled Cora burst into a hotel and begged for shelter. She had run out into the night to escape a beating from Benjamin. She was worried that he was going to kill her.” A spiritualist recognized the famous girl, and paid for her hotel room so she could get to the safety of friends. Their divorce proceedings would create a “snarl of lawsuits, battles for the proceeds of her lectures, and venomous public statements that would stretch out for almost a decade,” Aaron says.
Anna had the same problem: a profligate husband named Buck Claflin. He was, as historian Mary Gabriel puts it, “a notorious thief, arsonist. He called himself a lawyer, but his main connection to the law was breaking it.” Aaron tells us that “during their painful marriage, Anna would give birth, on average, every two years over a 20 year period...her only solace came in the fervor of her religious visions,” but Buck only saw a way to make, well, a buck. Soon Anna was setting up as a fortune teller at local fairs, while Buck sold a “life elixir” made from alcohol, molasses, and opium. “He was brutal with his wife and children,” Aaron says, and her daughter, Victoria, also found her escape in “religious ecstasies” that “lifted her spirit out of the violent home.” But Buck put her on display as well, telling the world that “his 14 year old daughter Victoria was a medium” who would “hold seances, convey spirit messages and make spirit music, all for the low price of just $1 per visit.”
Victoria married a doctor named Canning Woodhull, thinking it was a more permanent escape from her circumstances, but he turned out to be as bad as her father. Instead of a credentialed doctor with rich relatives as he had claimed, he was an alcoholic and a morphine addict, who spent the third night of their marriage in a brothel. “She would later write: ‘I soon learned that what I had believed of marriage and society was the merest sham, a cloak made by devotees to hide the realities and to entice the innocent into their snares,’” Aaron relates. “Victoria didn't know it then, but there were already a host of people working to challenge...the central pillars of the society that allowed men like Matthias, Buck Claflin, Benjamin Hatch and Canning Woodhull to wield so much power over the women in their lives.”
Spiritualists may have been dealing with a lot of fakers and frauds, but their values and ideas were taking root in some major ways. Listen to the episode to hear the whole story of these women’s lives, what Sojourner Truth said about the séance she attended, and how the Fox sisters were debunked, on Unobscured.
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