Conjuring the Dead in the Kennebunks

A Victorian Modern Spiritualism Craze prevailed in New England before and after the Civil War. One of the most lucrative business plans to capitalize on the delusion that the dead could be conjured at will for conversation, was Spirit Photography. Boston photographer, W. H. Mumler got a pretty penny for portraits for which he posed the dearly departed vaguely with their grieving loved ones. Editor of the Waverly Magazine, Moses A. Dow who summered at Cape Arundel treasured this photograph of him with his beloved assistant and housekeeper Mabel after she passed away.

People of the Kennebunks were not immune to the delusion. Kennebunk Town Clerk and diarist, Andrew Walker was clearly curious when he accepted his first invitation to a séance at Barnabas Palmer’s house. He attended another Séance later the same year at the home of Nathaniel K. Sargent, the local hearse and coffin builder. There, Andrew Walker witnessed table tipping and rapping sounds, 1 rap for no, 2 raps for I don’t know, 3 raps for yes, occurring in response to yes or no questions posed by the medium, George Leach. But the spirits responded incorrectly to the test questions. Andrew Walker’s third séance at Captain Thomas Lord’s house was more compelling. You may know the house at 15 Portland Road recently purchased by the Town of Kennebunk. These spirits seemed to be able to correctly answer yes or no questions about Andrew’s personal life. There were three mediums present, Captain Thomas Lord, Miss Lydia Currier, and the strongest medium, Miss Amanda Robinson.

Lecturers for and against Modern Spiritualism repeatedly packed Town Hall. In 1856 about 20 Kennebunk believers held weekly meetings at the house of Thomas Littlefield. By then, the visiting spirits had somehow learned to communicate more fluently through “talking mediums,” Mrs. J.W. Sargent, Mrs. Benjamin Perkins, Mrs. Thomas Littlefield, Mrs. Ebenezer Huff, and Mrs. Simon Kimball. These gifted ladies no longer needed to interpret yes-or-no answers through table tipping or rapping sounds.

The day before Captain Moses C. Maling departed on a trip Around the Horn as master of the Clipper Bostonian in 1856, he attended a séance at the home of Captain Thomas Lord. Maling’s daughter was very ill when he kissed her and his wife Olive goodbye the following day. He worried he would never again see his little girl alive. During the last month of the journey, once the Bostonian was becalmed in the Pacific Ocean, the seamen entertained themselves every night conjuring the dead in the captain’s cabin. They discovered that 16-year-old seaman Henry Ward, Olive’s nephew, who would later become a celebrated sea captain himself, was a gifted spiritual medium. Good and evil spirits spoke directly and dramatically through Henry Ward.

One night the ghost of Moses Maling’s sister came to call. She had just been in Kennebunk and had good news for Moses. His little girl had regained her strength and was out in the snow with her brother Hobby. Moses had had misgivings when evil spirits Joe Crediford and Daniel Nason influenced Henry Ward to throw a table across the cabin knocking him on the head but the reassurance of daily reports of his loved ones’ activities won him over. Maling sent his wife Olive a long account of his experiences onboard the Bostonian which was later published in The Star. By the end of the voyage Moses was practicing to be a medium, himself. The Bostonian reached San Francisco on January 3rd, 1857. Captain Maling raced to pick up his mail and was delighted to discover that the spirits had been correct about his daughter’s recovery.

Mary Maling Stevens lived another 60 years, but the Victorian Modern Spiritualism Craze did not. Boston Spirit Photographer, W. H. Mumler was charged with fraud by P.T. Barnum. Though Barnum was able to reproduce Mumler’s early photoshop witchery the jury acquitted the charlatan. Several famous mediums of the day were soon exposed as fraudsters and the craze fizzled. There are still a few Spiritualism churches in existence to this day.

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