Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary searches old newspapers for stories about ghosts, séances and psychics – and tells two related stories from her own family’s history.
Starting in the Victorian Era, séances, psychics and spiritualists seemed to be everywhere, as more and more people believed they could talk to – or receive messages from – the spirit world, and thereby communicate with their departed spouse or child.
The interest in séances and ghosts carried over into the early 20th century. This 1916 newspaper article reports there will be an “independent message séance” at the First Independent Spiritual Church, and another “message séance” at the home of Mrs. Jennie Cook – “held under the auspices of the Ladies’ Auxiliary.”
Reactions to séances have been mixed throughout history. Some who turned to spiritual psychic mediums were true believers; others went out of curiosity or on a lark. And then there were the doubters who went to great lengths to debunk what they considered outrageous fraud.
Perhaps your ancestors were among those who attended séances; I know mine were – but whatever their reasons, marvelous reports of séances and ghosts filter through historical newspapers!
Genuine Manifestation Award
In 1937, a $10,000 reward was put up by “medium exposer” Joseph Dunninger for anyone who could provide a “genuine manifestation” – a contact with the spirit world. Spirit Medium Stanley K. Werner struggled and strained to produce a message from the ghost of deceased magician Howard Thurston, but failed. His wife had no better success.
Mrs. Huntoon’s Ruse
This historical newspaper article from 1898 reports that Mrs. Huntoon, a well-known spiritualist, put on quite a show. For 50¢, her customers got to see spirits move, tin cans rattling and hands jingling bells from behind a curtain. Sometimes messages from the other side were received. One man heard from his dear departed wife, who wrote on a piece of paper: “My darling husband.” Mrs. Huntoon’s séances were elaborate ruses which many fell victim to.
The journalist apparently agreed. He examined the written messages and reported that “the writing was a horrible hieroglyphic and all strangely alike.” The end of the old news article reports:
One of the men attending the séance said that Mrs. Huntoon was not so good now as she used to be.
Got It Wrong
The story from this next newspaper article has a humorous twist. At this séance in 1909, one of the participants asked the medium about his “very good friend who did all our work,” and who had departed several years earlier. He left out the part about this “friend” being in reality an old horse. The spiritualist “made a few mysterious motions and rapped on the table,” then reported good news: “Your friend is still in the west of Ireland and is married to a rich woman!”
My Family’s Ghost Stories
Now before we end, I have to tell you about two true life ghost stories in my family’s history.
The first has to do with a condemned government building in Indianapolis, Indiana. The locals believed it was haunted, so they tore it down.
As far as I know, my ancestor, David Macy of Indianapolis, didn’t believe in ghosts. He did, however, recognize a bargain when he saw it. The story is that he purchased the demolished building’s materials and used them to build his own home. Apparently, the ghosts didn’t follow the haunted lumber to his new house. You can see from this photo that Mary Ann (Patterson) Macy and her granddaughter were not a bit afraid to enjoy their front porch!
The second family ghost story has to do with my Scott ancestors who lived in Saratoga, New York.
Their son was often sent by his mother Sophronia to deliver items to a neighbor named Sally Wheeler. Sally had a reputation for being a stern, old woman who lived with a servant. Once she told Sophronia that if anything ever happened to her, she should look in the clock to find money hidden there.
Well, eventually Sally Wheeler did pass away – but when the clock was examined, the money was gone. Afterward, Sophronia visited the estate’s lawyer and asked him about the money in the clock. The family story is that he became white as a ghost and shortly thereafter committed suicide.
Many years later, my grandmother wrote a letter about this. She reported that the story had virtually been forgotten until she and her parents went to a séance. At the end, the medium turned to my great grandfather and told him that she could see him as a frightened little boy outside the door of an old woman’s house. He knocked, the door opened, and the old woman took the items he was delivering to her. Believe it or not, but that is what my grandmother reported!
Now, as every good genealogist knows, you need to check the provenance of the ghost story.
Were these people real?
Yes, A. H. and Sophronia Scott are recorded living in dwelling house #188 on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census for Greenfield, Saratoga, New York. Eight family members were in the household. He was a farmer, as were two of his sons, including the one from the story.
Sarah “Sally” Wheeler was also real. She was age 52 and living in household #185 with her sister Syrissa Wheeler, age 57. With them were three men engaged in farming, or farm laborers. The sisters each owned $3,000 in real estate and $500 in personal property. Interestingly, Sarah and Syrissa Wheeler are buried in the Scott cemetery, although my Scotts are buried in Bailey Cemetery. (The links will direct you to the Wheeler memorials at Findagrave.)
Was the money ever found?
No, but the clock is real. It was given to my ancestor and is still owned by a family member. We all call this heirloom the Sally Wheeler clock.
Was there an estate lawyer who committed suicide?
There probably was a lawyer in Greenfield, but I have no idea who he was. If a kind reader can locate a corresponding death notice from 1894 or 1895 from the Greenfield area, please let me know.
If you have any séance or ghost stories to share, please send them along!
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