Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
It’s easy to get sidetracked when you’re doing historical research. Mary Todd Lincoln makes an appearance in my next mystery and I wondered: Did President Lincoln attend the séances his wife convened in the White House? While looking for an answer, I encountered an irresistible distraction: Cora Lodencia Veronica Scott.
Cora was born in 1840, at a time when the Spiritualist Movement was sweeping the country and people became interested in communicating with the dead. As always, where there’s a demand, somebody will step up to supply it. A number of “spirit mediums” heard opportunity rapping. There was money to be made by anyone who could conjure up the spirits of the departed and translate their rappings for the living.
When Cora was twelve years old, her parents noticed that she had a habit of falling into trances and saying strange things, as if she were impersonating other people. The Scotts were naïve, but not without enterprise. They began taking Cora around the country to exhibit her unusual, not to say freakish, abilities. She would stand on stage, eyes upraised in an attitude of intense invocation, and utter eloquent profundities that no unschooled girl of her tender years could possibly know. She discoursed spontaneously and at great length on any topic the audience suggested. In addition to her supernatural gifts, she was blessed with a slender figure, delicate features, a musical voice, and an angelic smile. Men loved her.
At sixteen, Cora married Benjamin Hatch, a professional mesmerist more than three times her age, and thereafter he arranged her performances and managed the act to maximize revenue. Her modus operandi was to enter a trance and allow the spirits to “borrow” her voice. Thousands flocked to listen to “the intellectual wonder of the age.” Her lectures were esoteric and rhapsodic and attracted prominent literary and reform leaders. She inspired the poet Walt Whitman to delve into spiritualism in order to enhance his imagination. She helped Longfellow bring “The Song of Hiawatha” to completion. Henry James based a character in his novel The Bostonians on Cora.
Eventually she and Benjamin divorced, each accusing the other of scandalous sexual infidelities. Cora continued to tour and lecture, but she no longer merely channeled disembodied spirits. She claimed that her physical being had been taken over and possessed by the spirit of a deceased abolitionist named Theodore Parker. She declared herself actually to be Parker. This confiscation of Parker’s spirit confused and upset some of his friends, but Cora went on as Parker incarnate.
During the Civil War mediumship flourished as the carnage increased and legions of bereaved widows and mothers ached to get in touch with their lost loved ones. Mediums abounded, but none could match Cora’s roster of important contacts on The Other Side, or her A-list of influential believers. In 1865, she married Nathan Daniels and started holding private séances in Washington D.C. for senators and congressmen. After Lincoln’s assassination, the air was abuzz with rumors of conspiracies, military coups, and the possible impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor. As luck would have it, Lincoln’s departed spirit chose to reveal his posthumous opinions and policy recommendations through Cora, and members of both houses of Congress visited her for updates on an almost daily basis. Johnson’s enemies rejoiced when “Parker” piped up to confirm their suspicion that Johnson was complicit in Lincoln’s murder.
Nathan kept a detailed diary of the messages his entranced “darling” conveyed from Lincoln, Parker, and other defunct worthies. He observed how reliant the legislators were upon these revelations, and how gullible. “[They] questioned the speaker closely & upon every answer were satisfied of its truth.”
After Nathan’s death, Cora remarried and adopted the name of her new husband, Samuel Tappan. Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in 1869 and throughout his first term, he sought Mrs. Tappan’s guidance and advice. He even awarded her a Resolution of Gratitude for her service. Unfortunately, Cora’s marriage to Tappan didn’t work out. They divorced and she moved to England, leaving President Grant on his own vis-à-vis the departed. Eventually, she returned to the States and married William Richmond. In 1883, President James Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881, delivered a major address to the nation through the person of Mrs. Cora Richmond. In 1892, she officiated at the funeral of her close friend Nettie Maynard who had been Mary Lincoln’s most trusted medium.
Mediums advised Mary about her dead children, as well as matters of state, and she passed along their admonitions to her husband. Did Lincoln himself consult the spirits? Maybe, once or twice. No one knows for sure. Anyway, being sidetracked by Cora was totally worth my while. Her shenanigans have made me less depressed about the craziness of our current national politics. The country has survived spookier times.