October is Archives Month, and the theme this year is ...
Spirits in the Archive
The Dorset Historical Society preserves thousands of documents, ledgers, diaries, letters, handbills, broadsides, which illuminate different aspects of local history. Our role as historians is to place these documents in context of their time and place.
One letter in our Archives is from Charles Field, Sr. to his sister. Field was a marble dealer who lived on Church Street (just east of the entrance to the Field Club). He was born in 1824, died in 1886. The letter is dated September, 1891.
This letter is one in a file folder which includes several “Spirit Letters” written between 1890-1893. These include the written descriptions of what the dead who materialized at séances had to say to the living. One letter is from a father admonishing his son for not appreciating spiritualism.
Urial Kent, who died in 1872, in a letter to his son Charles B. Kent in 1892, chastises, “This is for you, my bigoted and unenlightened son, to commence to use your reasoning powers in another direction.” That direction? “Of course this planet earth’s inhabitants have now commenced an unprejudiced investigation of this the most important of spiritual scientific truths, viz. the science of an eternal spirit life.”
Spiritualism, the belief and practice of speaking with the dead, often quoting the New Testament and espousing pseudo-scientific concepts, was enormously popular around the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, and was practiced in Dorset at least beginning in the early 1860s.
These letters provide a small glimpse into the spiritual world views of many people in this area. They also display social connections and norms, and even shed light on linguistics. For instance, the term Summerland is used throughout the letters, which means it was a word, not in use now, but once much used. It was a spiritualist term for the pleasant place spiritual bodies go after death. To me, it could be an amusement park. And, as it turns out, there is a Summerland Fun Park in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
One nine page letter is especially interesting. The Spirit Writer, Isaac Smith, was asked about a sensitive marital problem. The retired local minister, Prentiss Pratt had recommended divorce, and the Spirit Guide agreed, and went as far as to recommend a replacement husband. A little deeper research shows the advice was not heeded, and the couple remained married until the husband’s death 26 years later.
Lastly, a undated letter asks, “My Superior Spirit Controller, can the people be truthfully informed as to the manner of Dr. Phelp’s Spirit inspired discovery?”
Dr. Edward Elisha Phelps, Sr. (1803-1880), a Dartmouth professor, invented what would become known as Paine’s Celery Compound, an enormously popular elixir made in Burlington, VT., from a mixture of herbs, roots and bark, but its most active ingredients were cocaine and alcohol.
After a lengthy reply, the Superior Spirit Controller says, “This life strengthening remedy. The Celery Compound.”
Revelations from beyond the great veil, or advertisement?
Only the dead can truly say ...