Great Spiritualists and Friends
Before serving on the New York State Supreme Court and then on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, John Edmonds (1816-74) served in both houses of the New York legislature, including as president of the Senate. He had a reputation as a tough, scholarly, reform-minded lawyer, especially involved with reform of the state prison system. In January 1851, Edmonds began investigating mediums. While a number of other educated men and women had observed mediumistic phenomena following the spirit communication epidemic that hit the world with the so-called “Rochester knockings” in 1848, Edmonds carried his investigation beyond a few casual “sittings.” He may have been the first serious psychical researcher.
Edmonds, whose wife had died in late 1850, was persuaded by a friend to attend a séance. “I was all this time an unbeliever, and tried the patience of believers sorely by my skepticism, my captiousness, and my obdurate refusal to yield my belief,” Edmonds explained his early thoughts about spiritualism, as it came to be called. “I saw around me some who yielded a ready faith on one or two sittings only; others again, under the same circumstances, avowing a determined unbelief; and some who refused to witness it at all, and yet were confirmed unbelievers. I could not imitate any of these parties, and refused to yield unless upon most irrefragable testimony.”
After witnessing phenomena that puzzled him in that first séance, Edmonds decided to further investigate. He later wrote that over a period of 23 months he witnessed several hundred manifestations in various forms, keeping very detailed records of them, collecting some 1,600 pages of manuscript. He reported witnessing a variety of physical phenomena, including a heavy pine table with four legs lifted from the floor (by spirits) and, in the center of a circle of six or eight persons, a table turned upside down and laid upon its top at their feet.
On March 28, 1851, Edmonds was one of a party of 10 who were directed by the spirit rappings to stand up in the middle of the room. All of them were touched by an unseen power and some were shoved from a standing position to the sofa behind them. “I was repeatedly touched on different parts of my person,” Edmonds recorded. “Chairs were pulled about, and a small table slid along of itself several feet on the carpet.”
The spirits communicated that the physical manifestations had a simple purpose – to prove to them that they (the spirits) existed even though they couldn’t be seen.
But Edmonds witnessed much more than physical phenomena. “I have known Latin, French, and Spanish words spelled out through the rappings, and I have heard mediums who knew no language but their own speak in those languages, and in Italian, German, and Greek, and in other languages unknown to me, but which were represented to be Arabic, Chinese, and Indian, and all done with the ease and rapidity of a native,” he wrote.
“I resorted to every expedient I could devise to detect imposture and to guard against delusion,” Edmonds wrote in a letter to the New York Tribune sometime in 1853. “I felt in myself, and saw in others, how exciting was the idea that we were actually communing with the dead, and I laboured to prevent any undue bias of my judgment. I was at times critical and captious to an unreasonable extreme.”
Early in 1852, Edmonds met George T. Dexter, a New York physician, who, like Edmonds, had begun as a doubter, then had become a believer, and then a medium himself. Edmonds, Dexter, and several others formed a circle that met on a regular basis and received frequent teachings of a profound nature purportedly coming from the spirits of Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th Century mystic, and Francis Bacon, the 17th Century philosopher, through the hand of Dr. Dexter.
“It is not for the purpose of showing to the world that spirits can confer with man, or that God’s law obtains in spirit-connection as well as physical,” the spirit claiming to be Swedenborg communicated at one sitting, “but it is for the purpose of showing you the truths of your spirit-life, after the spirit has left the body, that we leave our high estate and the blissful life of the spheres, and come to teach you.”
At another sitting, the sitters wondered why there was so much mystery connected with life. “What would be the benefit conferred on man by opening to his comprehension all the mysteries of spirit life and all the beauties of the spheres – revealing the truths belonging to his material and spiritual nature, if we were not able to teach him how that life on earth should be directed – how to govern his passions, how to progress, how to live that his death may be productive of life everlasting in happiness?” Swedenborg responded through Dexter.
“Christ found a world buried in ignorance,” Bacon communicated at one sitting. “No true ideas had been given of their destiny; and not until he dispelled the darkness which shrouded his whole moral nature did man make the effort to understand his true relationship to himself, the world, or to God. Looking back to Christ, we see the light which has been poured through the vista of years till it has now illuminated the whole civilized world, flickering as a spark, and scarcely afford a ray to guide the benighted footsteps of man.”
When Edmonds went public with his findings in an 1853 book, co-authored with Dexter, titled Spiritualism, he was attacked by the press, the pulpit, and politicians, and he was forced to resign his position on the Bench and return to the practice of law. One of the more sympathetic articles appeared in the New York Evening Mirror during 1853, reading: “John W. Edmonds, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of this District, is an able lawyer, an industrious judge, and a good citizen. For the last eight years, occupying without interruption the highest judicial station, whatever may be his faults, no one can justly accuse him of a lack of ability, industry, honesty, or fearlessness. No one can doubt his general saneness, or can believe for a moment that the ordinary operations of his mind are not as rapid, accurate, and reliable as ever.”
Edmonds knew what to expect. “I knew full well what I should draw down upon myself by speaking out. I could not mistake all I saw around me: one universal shout of ridicule and condemnation of all who professed to believe, nay! even of those who went into the investigation at all, unless they came out of it fiery red in their denunciation of it as an ‘atrocious imposture.’ I knew full well that truth was ever born with many a bitter pang, and most to him who gave it birth. And I had no right to expect, nor did I expect, to escape this common and apparently inevitable fate. But I confess that at first I shrank at the prospect before me.”
He continued: “I was early aware that the world at large looked upon the subject as exceedingly trivial and inconsiderable. I was not surprised at this, because I saw that what reached the general ear through the common newspapers of the day was almost always unimportant, and frequently absurd and ridiculous. There were good reasons for this. The conductors of those journals desired to insert only what would amuse their readers, and were unwilling, and often refused, to open their columns to the graver and more important matters that flowed from the same source. And then they who received those more serious communications did not often feel themselves called upon to court the scoffs and sneers and persecution of the world, merely for the purpose of giving to that world that which aimed only at the general good.”
Putnam’s Monthly was another exception to the general media reaction. “The publication of a book on spiritualism by a person so distinguished as Judge Edmonds, of our Supreme Court, is an event in literature demanding more than a passing notice,” read an editorial in the December 1853 edition of the publication. “The subject and the author alike arrest the public attention. An attempt to prove the reality on an intercourse between departed spirits and men on this side of the grave, by an eminent judicial functionary, is a fact that has much significance.”
The editorial went on to say that a large number of people of different ages and conditions in the United States, England, France, Austria, Central America, and India had reported curious phenomena, such as rappings, table-turnings, bell-ringings, poundings, and writings in recent years and that there was much similarity in the reports. “The reputation of such an endorser as Judge Edmonds – a lawyer of great sagacity, accustomed to weighing evidence, and a man of the most exemplary integrity, whose words on a matter of fact cannot be doubted – ought to commend the subject to an impartial investigation, or at least shield it from flippant commentaries on the lower order of journalism.”