Ever since Lincoln’s death, there have been those who have tried to re-cast Abraham Lincoln in their image, especially when it cam to his spiritual beliefs. No soon was the President’s body cold than fundamentalist Protestant bible-thumpers were busy at work making him into a devout Christian of their persuasion, applying successive layers of plaster to his alleged sainthood.
Conversely, the post-war Spiritualists, who tried to turn the movement into a religion—thereby drawing the animosity of mainstream Christianity—tried to claim the dead President as one of their own. These efforts continue even today, with modern Spiritualists not only certain that Lincoln was one of them, but that he continues to speak to them.
Historians—especially that large group who idealize the Sixteenth President—even if they haven’t always sided with the bible-thumpers, have generally denied any connection between Lincoln and the Spiritualists. Whenever the facts rear their ugly heads, these historians lay it all at the feet of Mary Todd Lincoln—an admittedly easy target. Generally they characterize Mary as neurotic, bitchy and vain—if not outright crazy—and the entire crowd of Washington Spiritualists as all “charlatans.”
That some mediums were indeed phonies and fakes is undeniable; but there were many involved in the movement, especially in wartime D.C., who were sincere in their beliefs. Whether they were actually in touch with the spirit world is a moot issue and clearly outside the realm of history.
What is the truth about Lincoln, Mary and the mediums? In my book, The Paranormal Presidency, I go into some depth on the subject, based on extensive research into the primary sources, and come up with a great deal new information. While there is no doubt much more yet to be uncovered, I have come up with contemporary evidence of the President’s involvement with the movement and its individuals. For one thing, I did what previous historians neglected to do—delve into contemporary newspapers and the Library of Congress holdings to uncover corroborating evidence.
As a result of this original research, there is now substantial evidence that Lincoln frequented the company of mediums and psychics before Mary did. This is supported by newspaper accounts, documents in the Library of Congress and postwar testimony. After the death of their middle son Willie in 1862, both Abraham and Mary had visions and dreams about Willie and were both motivated to attend séances more often. This too is substantiated.
Abraham and Mary were by no means unique or peculiar in attending séances or seeking out the advice of mediums. Many parents lost young children to disease in the 1840’s and 1850’s and went to séances to get in contact with them; the war added to the number of grieving families who resorted to mediums for solace. Moreover, Washington D.C. was a very unhealthy place to be, having built over a malarial swamp and with a sewer system that was beyond abysmal. Willie was not the only child to die there due to Washington’s unhealthy environment
There is not sufficient space here to go into greater detail about the Lincoln’s involvement in séances; for more documentation, including the footnotes and bibliography, see chapters 14 and 15 of the Paranormal Presidency, which also goes into far greater depth regarding the political ramifications of Spiritualism and its relationship to various reform movements before the Civil War.
While we can document what Lincoln did with regard to séances and mediums, divining what he actually believed is much harder. Lincoln was a notoriously close-mouthed man and as one of the greatest politicians in American history, he had an extraordinary knack of making people think he believed as they did, without actually committing to anything. What we can say for sure is that both Lincoln and Mary frequented séances and sought out the services of mediums—and that is fact. Moreover, many of Lincoln’s political associates and their wives also attended séances and while many of the mediums they went too may have been on the con, many were sincere believers in the movement, a movement which overlapped with Abolitionism, Feminism and other social and political reform movements of the era. So Mary, whatever her faults (and they were many) was neither crazy, not neurotic, nor the gullible shrew her political enemies, North and South, portrayed her to be.
Moreover, regarding the her well documented consorting with Spiritualists after the war, I think we may cut her some slack on this score too. If, after losing half your family and seeing your husband murdered before your very eyes, you resort to séances to assuage your grief, perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Mary Todd Lincoln had her flaws, but she had many virtues too. It is a pity she has never been given her due.