Classic Columbus Ghost Stories: Communing With Spirits

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

In the Victorian era, when you needed to get in touch with someone no longer of this world, you called a spiritualist medium. Prominent believers included Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, who organized seances at the White House in an effort to contact their son, Willie, who had died after an illness, and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The movement was born in the 1840s and peaked during the Civil War and World War I.

"There was so much death during the 19th century," says Rachel Edwards, who lives in Sunbury and who for years has portrayed Central Ohio spiritualist and suffragist Victoria Woodhull during historic re-enactments. "Seances were big because they were a way to touch base with the lost ones."

Woodhull, who was raised in the tiny town of Homer, in Licking County, first realized her psychic powers as a child, shortly after the death of a friend named Rachel, Edwards says. "Soon after that-Victoria was 5-she entered a swoon, and when she regained her senses, she said Rachel had appeared. She had felt herself floating to another world, where she met the spirits of Napoleon and Josephine."

In "Other Powers," a book about Woodhull's place in the age of spiritualism and suffragism, author Barbara Goldsmith writes, "Victoria would tell fellow Spiritualists that on the periphery of her vision she could see objects-eggs, small bottles, lorgnettes with metal frames-that tumbled and turned slowly in space before alighting at her feet. She maintained that suddenly her water glass would fly out of her hand, her pot of lip rouge would whirl away and plop down in the middle of her wineglass. She said that before her concentrated gaze rings cracked open and forks bent out of shape, their prongs twisting and braiding."

For all her self-promotion as a clairvoyant medium and "magnetic healer," though, Woodhull is best remembered as "a woman ahead of her time," as Ohio Statehouse historian Chris Matheney puts it. Woodhull was the first female presidential nominee. She had the audacity to believe that women should be permitted to marry for love (and divorce when things went south). And she and her sister were the first women to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street.

Spiritualism is still practiced today, though it's a considerably smaller movement than it was 150 years ago, and beliefs have evolved over the decades. The Christian Spiritualist Temple on State Street Downtown is the city's most visible congregation, though several other spiritualist groups are active in the area.