A question that comes up fairly often in discussions of the history of spiritualism is the attitude of Abraham Lincoln toward the subject. It is known that Lincoln's wife, Mary, hosted séances at the White House, and that Lincoln attended some of them. But did he take the events seriously, or was he merely humoring his wife or having a bit of fun?
In her magisterial biography Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin downplays Lincoln's interest in the occult. As she tells it, he enjoyed the séances as performances, nothing more, and he was eager to uncover the trickery that lay behind the sometimes astonishing effects.
A very different perspective is offered by an 1891 publication titled Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?, which can be read in its entirety on Google Books. The book, written by medium Nettie Colburn Maynard, recounts Nettie's experiences in mediumship, with an emphasis on her visits to the White House. I find the author's account quite convincing in its detail and generally levelheaded tone, but of course it may be asking too much to take the medium at her word.
Fortunately, the publisher - a certain Rufus C. Hartranft - anticipated the skepticism of his readers. In a prologue, he offers a number of testimonials to Nettie Colburn Maynard's abilities and honesty. What is more interesting is that he also includes statements from people who knew Abraham Lincoln and, in some cases, were present with him at White House séances.
In February of this year, the writer had the good fortune to meet a gentleman who related that he knew from personal experience and contact, that Abraham Lincoln was a Spiritualist, and implicitly believed in the guidance and teachings of that science or religion, whichever it may be. He further stated that he attended a séance where the President with several other persons had sat upon a piano, and that the instrument had been bodily lifted from the floor by means of spirit power, while the President and his friends remained seated upon it ! He further stated that he knew from personal knowledge that the President had been instructed and guided by spirits in times of particular stress in affairs of state, and that at a period when the nation's future was uncertain, and while the States were in the midst of the throes of a great civil war. He also stated that he knew of his own personal knowledge and experience, that numerous Spiritualistic séances were held in the White House, and that they were frequented by many of the leading men of the time, who were then located in Washington.
This gentleman's statement, being of such peculiar significance, the writer did not believe it. This recitation, however, caused the writer to become greatly interested in the subject from a purely historical standpoint, and, therefore, he immediately started an investigation regarding the matter ...
The investigation led him to discover Mrs. Maynard and to gather encomiums on her behalf, but it also led to some of Lincoln's associates:
Mrs. Daniel E. Somes, of Washington, wife of the late Hon. Daniel E. Somes, Representative from Maine, in the Thirty-sixth Congress, informs the writer that she attended séances at the White House during the war when Miss Colburn (Maynard) was the medium there, and upon one occasion met Major-General Daniel Sickles, and that the circumstances recorded as to that séance are fully described in this volume. This statement she fully and completely indorses; and further adds that her husband was closely and intimately connected with President Lincoln, and had repeatedly informed her of interesting and remarkable incidents which occurred at the White House at séances as herein described and mentioned. She also states that she knows Miss Colburn did not give séances in the White House for money.
Col. Simon P. Kase, of Philadelphia, states that he was present at a séance with Mr. Lincoln, and that he, with several other gentlemen, the President included, sat upon the piano, while it was lifted bodily from the floor by spirit power, and that Mr. Lincoln was not only interested in this physical phenomenon, but was also intensely interested in the statements which the medium made to President Lincoln while in a trance condition.
Mrs. Elvira M. Depuy, of Washington, stated to the writer: "My husband was a visitor to séances where Mr. Lincoln was present, and he has told me of many interesting occurrences which happened thereat. In the winter of 1862-3 I attended a séance at Mrs. Laurie's, at Georgetown, where Mrs. Lincoln was present. She was accompanied by Mr. Newton, Commissioner of Agriculture. At this séance remarkable statements were made by Miss Colburn (Maynard) which surprised Mrs. Lincoln to such a degree that she asked that a séance might be given to Mr. Lincoln. I have always known from my husband and others that Mr. Lincoln attended circles and séances, and was greatly interested in Spiritualism."
Hartranft also includes a statement from Francis Bicknell Carpenter, the artist who painted the "First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation" that is still displayed in the Capitol, and who wrote a biography of Lincoln. According to Wikipedia, "Carpenter resided with President Lincoln at the White House and in 1866 published his one volume memoir Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln."
In his statement, Carpenter vigorously disputes the account of William H. Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, who had depicted Lincoln as lacking any interest in spirituality or religion. This may well have been true of Lincoln in his earlier years, when he was something of a "freethinker," but according to Carpenter, the president's attitude changed late in life. Wrote Carpenter:
"I know that Mr. Herndon knew Mr. Lincoln better than any other man, up to the time of his election in 1861; after his election Mr. Herndon knew but little of him, and absolutely nothing of his mental or spiritual condition before the sickness of his son Willie, nor after Willie's death, and I must say that Mr. Lincoln's mind underwent a vast change after that event. Just what Mr. Lincoln's religious views were, I do not know, but it is a fact that he was known to pray, and his condition was much more in accordance with the statement found in [Carpenter's biography] 'The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln' than that stated by other biographers, and you may quote me, that Herndon's statements have neither weight nor value, after the connection between the two men ceased. I am not prepared to state that Mr. Lincoln was a Spiritualist. I do know that he had faith in spiritual comfort and believed that we were, in a measure, directed by spiritual teachers and guidance."
It should be noted that Carpenter became interested in spiritualism in his later years, so possibly his interpretation of Lincoln's outlook is colored by his own beliefs. Nevertheless it seems clear enough from the various testimonies that Lincoln did have a genuine interest in spiritualism and séances, even if he may have balanced his interest with some healthy skepticism about the details (especially regarding the physical phenomena, as Doris Kearns Goodwin points out).
Those who've read Lincoln's speeches and other writings are usually struck by the increasingly religious or spiritual tone of his later remarks. It is likely that the huge tragedy of the Civil War, combined with the intense grief arising from the death of his young son, opened Lincoln's mind to possibilities that he had dismissed in his earlier days. Séances with Nettie Colburn and others seem to have played a role in his spiritual development also. Indeed, if Mrs. Maynard's account can be trusted, her channeled advice may have helped Lincoln to withstand considerable pressure and publish the Emancipation Proclamation.
Here is how Nettie Colburn Maynard herself described the scene (with the first very long paragraph broken up for easier reading):
Mrs. Lincoln received us graciously, and introduced us to a gentleman and lady present whose names I have forgotten. Mr. Lincoln was not then present. While all were conversing pleasantly on general subjects, Mrs. Miller (Mr. Laurie's daughter) seated herself, under control, at the double grand piano at one side of the room, seemingly awaiting some one. Mrs. Lincoln was talking with us in a pleasant strain when suddenly Mrs. Miller's hands fell upon the keys with a force that betokened a master hand, and the strains of a grand march filled the room. As the measured notes rose and fell we became silent. The heavy end of the piano began rising and falling in perfect time to the music. All at once it ceased, and Mr. Lincoln stood upon the threshold of the room. (He afterwards informed us that the first notes of the music fell upon his ears as he reached the head of the grand staircase to descend, and that he kept step to the music until he reached the doorway).
Mr. and Mrs. Laurie and Mrs. Miller were duly presented. Then I was led forward and presented. He stood before me, tall and kindly, with a smile on his face. Dropping his hand upon my head, he said, in a humorous tone, "So this is our ' little Nettie' is it, that we have heard so much about ?" I could only smile and say, "Yes, sir," like any school-girl; when he kindly led me to an ottoman. Sitting down in a chair, the ottoman at his feet, he began asking me questions in a kindly way about my mediumship; and I think he must have thought me stupid, as my answers were little beyond a "Yes" and "No." His manner, however, was genial and kind, and it was then suggested we form in a circle. He said, "Well, how do you do it ?" looking at me.
Mr. Laurie came to the rescue, and said we had been accustomed to sit in a circle and to join hands; but he did not think it would be necessary in this instance. While he was yet speaking, I lost all consciousness of my surroundings and passed under control.
For more than an hour I was made to talk to him, and I learned from my friends afterward that it was upon matters that he seemed fully to understand, while they comprehended very little until that portion was reached that related to the forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation. He was charged with the utmost solemnity and force of manner not to abate the terms of its issue, and not to delay its enforcement as a law beyond the opening of the year; and he was assured that it was to be the crowning event of his administration and his life; and that while he was being counseled by strong parties to defer the enforcement of it, hoping to supplant it by other measures and to delay action, he must in no wise heed such counsel, but stand firm to his convictions and fearlessly perform the work and fulfil the mission for which he had been raised up by an overruling Providence.
Those present declared that they lost sight of the timid girl in the majesty of the utterance, the strength and force of the language, and the importance of that which was conveyed, and seemed to realize that some strong masculine spirit force was giving speech to almost divine commands.
I shall never forget the scene around me when I regained consciousness. I was standing in front of Mr. Lincoln, and he was sitting back in his chair, with his arms folded upon his breast, looking intently at me. I stepped back, naturally confused at the situation—not remembering at once where I was; and glancing around the group, where perfect silence reigned. It took me a moment to remember my whereabouts.
A gentleman present then said in a low tone, "Mr. President, did you notice anything peculiar in the method of address?" Mr. Lincoln raised himself, as if shaking off his spell. He glanced quickly at the full-length portrait of Daniel Webster, that hung above the piano, and replied, "Yes, and it is very singular, very!" with a marked emphasis.
Mr. Somes said: "Mr. President, would it be improper for me to inquire whether there has been any pressure brought to bear upon you to defer the enforcement of the Proclamation?" To which the President replied: "Under these circumstances that question is perfectly proper, as we are all friends [smiling upon the company]. It is taking all my nerve and strength to withstand such a pressure." At this point the gentlemen drew around him, and spoke together in low tones, Mr. Lincoln saying least of all. At last he turned to me, and laying his hand upon my head, uttered these words in a manner that I shall never forget: "My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here to-night. It is more important than perhaps any one present can understand. I must leave you all now; but I hope I shall see you again." He shook me kindly by the hand, bowed to the rest of the company, and was gone. We remained an hour longer, talking with Mrs. Lincoln and her friends, and then returned to Georgetown. Such was my first interview with Abraham Lincoln, and the memory of it is as clear and vivid as the evening on which it occurred.