Is there life after death? Can the spirits of our loved ones communicate with us from the great beyond?
Spiritualism, the belief that the dead are able and willing to communicate with the living, was all the rage in 19th century America. Channeling, séances, and other purported methods of communicating with the dead were even quite popular in rural Michigan. Three separate collections in the MSU Archives contain spirit communications.
The first comes from the Miller family papers. The patriarch of the family, Arnold W. Miller (1823-1911), was a farmer in Brady Township, Saginaw County, Michigan (http://goo.gl/MuYhvh). There are several letters from his brother, Jasper Miller, who corresponded with Arnold from the spirit world via his niece, Carrie Rooney, who was a medium. The letters, dated 1902 through 1906, were written using a “magic pencil,” according to a note kept with the materials. Likely, Ms. Rooney held this magic pencil and the spirits controlled what she wrote. The letters describe the “Spirit World” and explain how happy its residents are. In one undated letter, Jasper Miller writes:
“How foolish and out of reason theology is how I wish all the earth knew of this blessed truth that spirits can and do commune with mortals. We are laboring to enlighten all we can hoping to ere long help all to see the beauty of it the [times?] you wondered if we knew each other here how I wanted to tell you how much more natural this life is than earth life. Yes dear brother we know each one here better than when on earth for here we can read the souls and know every man for no one can hide anything at first though one would not like that that all ones thoughts were known but when the soul has been purified you will have nothing to hide there is to such wonderful and beautiful places of learning there is always a desire to learn no matter how old one is you know and the more one learns the greater is the desire to learn more.”
Another example is a Spirit Communication notebook in the Samuel Johnson papers. The provenance of the notebook is not clear. It was, at some point, placed in the collection, but the names mentioned are not found elsewhere in Samuel Johnson’s papers. Most of the letters are written to Andrew and Jaime from various spirits, including King, and Jaime Peabody (both of whom seem to be some type of guardian), Charles (Pa), Mother, Grandma Lemon, and Jim. A medium, Mrs. Denslow, is responsible for most of the writings, although Andrew was being taught how to channel. The first few entries explain the importance of keeping Mrs. Denslow around because the spirits and mortals will be able to accomplish much through her. Clearly, their pleas were heeded, as Mrs. Denslow remained with the family from November 8, 1891 to April 23, 1892.
Mrs. Denslow used a technique called slate writing to commune with the spirit world. Two slates would be fastened together with the writing surfaces facing inward and a pencil would be placed between the slates. The medium and one of the family members would hold the slates while the spirit wrote its message. Once finished, the spirit would move the pencil out from between the slates. Jane B. Johnson then transcribed the messages, typically along with the date, time, and people present, into her Spirit Communication notebook.
Occasionally, Jane also noted how long the writing took or other details, such as what the handwriting looked like. In one entry, Jane notes “The slate was found on the book case in the parlor the eve of Ap. 15th 1892 with the above message on it. Where or when written no mortal knows. Later King says Pa wrote it while Mrs. Denslow was playing on the piano and I looking over some music just before supper.”
Despite Andrew’s training as a medium, once Mrs. Denslow left the household the spirit writings ceased.
Both collections are open to researchers at the MSU Archives, along with stories of murder, mayhem, and betrayal.
Arnold W. Miller papers (00008). Finding aid: http://archives.msu.edu/findaid/008.html
Samuel Johnson papers (UA 17.120). Finding aid: http://archives.msu.edu/findaid/ua17-120.html