In the 1860s and 1870s, many Americans grew obsessed with spiritualism and communicating with the dead. The movement, which began in 1848 in upstate New York, caught fire after the war, and it had no bigger supporter than Epes Sargent.
Epes Sargent, author, journalist and editor, devoted a good portion of his career to trying to convince readers in the reality of the spirit world. He believed spirits were actually talking, moving objects and otherwise interacting with people.
Sargent belonged to a well known American clan that included Revolutionary War soldiers and the painter John Singer Sargent. His own fame came from his writing. Born in 1813, he became a reporter for the Boston Daily Advertiser and the Boston Daily Atlas, reporting on politics in Washington, D.C. He would move to New York in 1839 and work in magazines there until he returned to Boston in 1847.
By his 30s, Sargent had established himself as a playwright, journalist and poet. In addition, he wrote a series of books for school children to teach spelling and grammar. In his role as editor of the Boston Evening Transcript, he began to bring the abolition movement into mainstream political discourse.
Epes Sargent and the Ghosts
Yet late in his life, Sargent’s career took a fanciful turn. He became an ardent spiritualist. Leaving behind the journalist’s skepticism, Sargent began publishing full-on defenses for the spiritualist movement.
The idea of ghosts communicating with the living was nothing new, but spiritualism had gotten a significant boost of publicity with the Fox sisters. In 1848 they began demonstrating how spirits communicated with them through rapping and knocking sounds in their upstate New York home. The phenomenon percolated and others joined in over the next 25 years, conducting séances and other spiritualist rituals.
One of the more prominent spiritualists in Boston was Frances Ann Conant. For 17 years, up to her death in 1875, Conant gave free, public seances in Boston. Originally from Portsmouth, N.H., Conant moved to Boston after getting married. She then got involved with an avid group of spiritualists in the city.
One regular ghost at Conant’s seances was Dr. John Dix Fisher. Fisher, founder of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, would offer medical advice from the grave through Conant, who acted as a medium.
Photographs of the Dead
Another practitioner of spiritualism was William H. Mumler, a Boston photographer who had the gift of photographing ghosts. He traveled to Bridgewater to photograph Master Herrod, a young psychic, with a ghost hovering over his shoulder. He took a picture of Frances Conant with her brother’s ghost behind her. And, most famously, he photographed Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, standing behind her.
Sargent swallowed it all. He published three books on spiritualism, The Proof Palpable of Immortality, The Scientific Basis of Spiritualism and Planchette, or the Despair of Science. The Planchette preceded the Ouija Board. It was a small platform that held a pencil and people could use it to write messages from spirits.
Sargent’s books were filled with his own personal experiences as well as historical references to spiritual phenomena. Sargent died in 1880, and there is no record of his having contacted the living after death. As for Conant, Mumler and the Fox sisters, all were pretty well debunked.
Mumler, who caused a national stir with his photograph of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, went to trial for fraud in 1869. Though not convicted, the trial ended his career as a ghost photographer.
Conant was debunked by showman P.T. Barnum, who published a book about the world’s greatest frauds. He said that Conant relied heavily on obituaries to inform her about the dead people she spoke with.
The Fox sisters, meanwhile, outed themselves as fakes, explaining that one sister produced the mysterious rapping sounds herself. She did it by cracking her toes.