The Rise and Fall of Spiritualism in Mansfield

Spiritualism’s popularity grew wildly in the second half of the 19th century, in large part, due to the loss during the Civil War.  Loved ones felt a need to know that their relatives were at peace and those claiming to have the ability to contact them prayed heavily on that need.  Spiritualism is the belief that the spirits of the dead not only exist, but also feel a need to communicate with the living.  Most scholars agree that the movement started in 1848, with the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York.  The young sisters claimed they were communicating with a spirit through a series of knocks, asking it to count or answer yes or no questions.  They determined this was the spirit of a murdered peddler.  The sisters would tour the country claiming to be able to communicate with the dead.  Spiritualist Emma Hardinge estimated there were 8 million converts to the religion by the 1880s, but a damning blow was delivered in 1888 when one of the Fox sisters, Maggie, denounced the religion and called their part in it a “horrible deception.”  Despite this, Spiritualism remained popular and Mansfield, like other cities across the country, couldn’t resist its charm.[1]

May 2, 1860, p. 3, The Richland Shield and Banner

Inspired by the Fox Sisters, Ruban Buckman Claflin began advertising two of his daughters as mediums in 1852: Tennessee Claflin and her sister, Victoria.  Ruban, or “Buck” as he was called, was an abusive father and in 1853 Victoria married Dr. Canning Woodhull.  Victoria C. Woodhull became an early follower of Spiritualism and a women’s rights activist, running for president in 1872.  She too denounced Spiritualism in 1875.  Her sister would continue to tour the midwest and made an appearance in Mansfield in May of 1860.  A number of other spiritualists, mind readers, fortune tellers, and clairvoyants, like the ones shown below, would make appearances in Mansfield through the 19th century and early 20th century.

One Mansfield man, named Charles Adams, claimed to be skilled in these areas and, in 1895, traveled to Detroit and gave a spiritualist exhibition in front of 5,000 people.  It was reported his skills were so impressive that the manager of the hall where he performed offered him a $75 cash guarantee to do another show.  Adams declined and returned home.  The next month here in Mansfield, Adams took the stage name The Boy Demon and held a show at the Memorial Opera House showcasing his skills in mind reading, second sight, and legerdemain, better known as sleight of hand.

May 15, 1895, p. 8. The Mansfield News

In time these fortune-tellers and clairvoyants began setting up permanent locations in Mansfield. The News reported that there was “hardly a street in the city that does not have a palmist or fortune teller’s sign somewhere.”  Many of these were located along Fourth Street.  One incident, in particular, seemed to spark outrage in the community in March of 1905.  A group of nine girls, “some of whom [were] barely out of high school and all of whom belong[ed] to respectable families”, entered the establishment of Madame Ventley on Fourth Street a few doors down from The News building.  The first girl paid one dollar and went behind a curtain to have her fortune told. She was wearing a large engagement ring and Madame Ventley told her about the wonderful life she was about to have with her new husband.  When she left she passed the ring to the second girl, who in turn heard a similar story.  The second girl, having not really been engaged, told the other seven it was a scam and not to waste their money.  It’s unclear what happened next, but the police were called either when Ventley demanded money from the other seven or the two girls demanded their two dollars back.  The madame was promptly asked to leave town. [2]

March 15, 1905, p. 5, The Mansfield News

Despite this, there was enough interest in Mansfield to start a church and, around 1915, the Progressive Psychic Spiritualist Church began holding services.  The church was run for a number of years by a local woman, Mrs. Clara A. Conley, who had gained some notoriety in 1915 when she used her “gift,” as she called it, to describe the murderer of a wealthy Lima man named John Hauenstein.  She claimed he was 5’ 10” tall, well dressed, and had the first name Henry.  The murder was never solved.  The church met regularly above Hebler’s Bakery and later in Mrs. Conley’s home at 65 South Willis St., approximately where Shiloh Baptist Church is located today. 

  2. The Mansfield News, 15 March 1895, p. 5.

2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Spiritualism in Mansfield

  1. Pingback: The Dead — Where Are They? 3 The Spiritualist’s Answer | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

  2. Half of the story was left out.

    Most everyone who reviews Spiritualism say!!!s it started with the Fox Sisters and was dealt a serious blow when one of the Fox sisters confessed (in 1888?) to it being a hoax—BUT—

    One year BEFORE the Fox sisters, in 1847, ANDREW JACKSON DAVIS (look him up) wrote: The Principles of Nature. It was the new “Bible” of modern Spiritualism. In 1850, Davis came out with THE GREAT HARMONIA (all about Spiritualist philosophy) and the Spiritualism mania was on! It was popular. However, by 1884 (before the Fox sisters confession), Davis would have been divorced 3 times! This was much more of a moral outrage in his time, than now, Very likely, spiritualism was dealt a serious blow, by this. Then in 1888, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky would write a 2 volume “Ancient Wisdom Bible of the Occult” called: . In 1891ecret Doctrine and this was her magnum opus of her group: THEOSOPHY (search this) and Theosophy was growing and Spiritualism…well…it still survived as in 1891 The Ouija board was invented. Why rely on Davis when you can get spirit-messages yourself? Meanwhile, Spiritualism would grow more in England, and again in the USA after World War 1 and the deaths of many loved ones. So…there is more than just the Fox sisters.


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