President Lincoln and the White House séances

On 23 April 1863, President Lincoln took time away from the campaigns and politics of the US Civil War to attend a séance. Lincoln was a man famous for his pragmatism and he eschewed ostentatious religious devotion. So why did Lincoln allow a series of séances to be held at the White House? And did he ever attend one of them?

Abraham Lincoln has always been one of the most celebrated, analysed and discussed historical figures in the United States. At the moment, the Great Emancipator is at the centre of a resurgence of popularity fuelled by President Obama’s homage to one of his heroes and silver screen success.

Abraham Lincoln, April 10, 1865 Alexander Gardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln has been recognised by Hollywood’s elite with Oscar wins for Steven Spielburg’s film telling the story of the banning of slavery through the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

One of the aspects of Lincoln’s life that is most memorably conveyed in the film is the fragile mental state of Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady who had never recovered from the death of two of her boys. In the film, Mary is depicted in deep, tremulous, overwhelming grief. She is unable to give emotional support to the president and unwilling to countenance the enlistment of her surviving adult son, Robert.

Death is all around, given physical expression in the sombre blacks and purples of a house in mourning. The sense of the macabre is made all the more intense with heavy crapes and chintz of true Victorian-era sadness; Mary Todd Lincoln’s deep grief can be compared with Queen Victoria’s enduring and all-encompassing reaction to the death of Prince Albert (there are other similarities – the subject of the grief of both women succumbed to typhoid fever probably caused by overworked and unsuitable drainage systems).

A seemingly unbalanced approach to grieving is a hallmark of the period. Another key trend in the period was a revival of interest in spiritualism. This manifested itself in swelling numbers of mediums and a fashionable interest in staging audiences with the dead and séances. With Mary deep in grief, she was an easy target for those who claimed they could talk to the dead.

A Victorian seance

So it was that Lincoln snatched some time away from overseeing the cessation of West Virginia from Virginia and its accession as the 35th state of the Union and reviewing reports from military campaigns that were striking deep into the Confederate south. According to Earl Schenck Miers’s Lincoln: Day by Day the President allegedly attended the séance on 23 April 1863.

Lincoln wasn’t a natural believer, but his scepticism did not rub off on his wife. Mary was a true believer, writing to her sister in October 1863 that: “Willie lives. He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him, and twice he has come with our brother, Alex.”

Whilst a record survives of President Lincoln attending a séance, there is no record that he attended a séance at the White House. Several authors have suggested that Lincoln did attend White House séances and others speculate that he probably did. This is based on the numerous reports that Mary held séances at the White House. In Kenneth J. Winkle’s Abraham and Mary Lincoln it is noted that: “she held eight recorded séances in the White House and at least one in the Soldiers’ Home”.

Mary Todd Lincoln in later life Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC USZ 62 15325) [Public Domain]

Mary Lincoln’s faith in spiritualists and mediums was not limited to her time in the White House. The assassination of her husband gave Mary even more reason to try and reach across the divide between the living and the dead. Several biographers report that Mary went beyond the passive spectator, “training herself to fall into a kind of trance”

Once, on a trip to Boston, she reportedly attended a séance using a false name in an effort to test the psychic powers of the medium. According to Mary, the spirits were not fooled – Mr Lincoln ‘appeared’ before her during the séance.