It was 1862, and the Civil War was raging with no end in sight. A troubled President, Abraham Lincoln, was left to ponder and pace the White House halls in hopes of finding a solution of peace. Seeking comfort and consultation, Honest Abe decided to follow his wife’s lead, and turn to the spirit world. Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the 16th president, was known to openly dabble in the popular movement of the day called Spiritualism.

The Spirit World’s Comforting Trance

Rooted in the 1840s, Spiritualism was the belief that those who have passed on have the ability to communicate to the ones they left behind. The movement continued to grow well into the new century, with the Civil War being the height of its popularity in 1897. Historians place the phenomenal growth of Spiritualism with middle and upper-class families, desperate for word on their sons’ whereabouts during the years of fighting the Civil War. These mothers and families turned to the comforting trance mediums provided in speaking to the spirit world.

Mary Todd’s draw to Spiritualism came following the loss of Abe and Mary’s second son, Willie. Born from the sudden onset of typhoid fever, Mary was so broken up by the boy’s passing, she spent nearly a month in bed. With the encouragement of close friends, she began visiting those who dabbled in the ways of Spiritualism. Within weeks, Mary was proclaiming to friends and family that their son, Willie, was indeed visiting her on a regular basis. Word of Mary’s experiences burned across the war-torn country like wildfire.  Families desperate for any information about missing soldiers began following Mary Todd’s lead and turned to the spirit world for answers, as well.

Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln

President Lincoln’s First Séance

In April of 1863, President Lincoln hosted a séance in the red room of the White House. Included in the séance were Mary Todd, two cabinet members, a medium named Charles E. Shockle, and Boston Gazette reporter, Prior Melton.  Throughout the session, Lincoln called upon the spirits to help guide him in political matters. Afterward, Melton reported the proceedings to the people of Boston and the world.

Questions about the séance’s validity began circulating almost immediately. Modern-day historians confirm that no medium by the name of Charles E. Shockle appeared in any of the leading Spiritualism publications of the day, leading many to speculate that the Gazette made up a good portion of the story. However, the White House, to this day, does not deny that the séance occurred. As a result, historians hypothesize that perhaps the séance was a publicity stunt to show the president in a more “everyday man” light.

While this particular séance was more than likely presented to the public as a mere show, Mary Todd would go on to hire medium Nettie Colburn Maynard to sit and talk with the President in December of 1862. Maynard spent over an hour with the troubled President, as he asked the spirits whether or not he should sign and enact the Emancipation Proclamation.

Seeking Comfort in Spirit Photography

Spiritualism soon became a lifelong following for Mary Todd. Several years after Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Todd visited infamous spirit photographer, William Mumler. Mumler was well known for capturing “spirits” floating around loved ones on film. He found much success in Boston, and later in New York, until he was arrested, and later prosecuted, on fraud charges based on the “photographs” he was producing.  Despite her full knowledge of the charges, Mary Todd continued to visit the charlatan in disguise, of course.  So, it was in full surprise for Todd when the photo presented to her by Mumler, showed her deceased husband, keeping a watchful eye over his distraught spouse.

Mary Todd Lincoln Spirit Photographer

Mary Todd Lincoln with the “ghost” of her husband, in an image taken by spirit photographer William H. Mumler. Mumler’s photos are now considered hoaxes.

As years passed Robert Lincoln, firstborn to Abe and Mary, became increasingly concerned about his mother’s behavior. So much so that, in 1875, Robert committed his mother to an asylum against her wishes. His concern was less over her mental well-being and more for the amount of the family’s fortune she had squandered visiting Spiritualists.

Most historians doubt that Lincoln himself actually followed the Spiritualism movement to any great degree. Many believed it was a way for him to avoid placating not only a distraught spouse but a mourning nation, as well. The President is quoted as saying “A simple faith in God is good enough for me, and beyond that, I do not concern myself very much…”

By Jesse Gormley, contributor for 


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