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.


St. John’s United Church of Christ

On January 1, 1845, a group of 40 German settlers in Richland County, Ohio signed a constitution founding a German Protestant Evangelical Church in Mansfield, Ohio.  A short time later, they began the construction of a $2,000.00 church at the corner of First and Mulberry.  In the cornerstone was a document, written in German, saying that the cornerstone was laid for the “purpose of building a German – Protestant – Evangelical Church” and that if there were any changes, “such as a need for English services,” a vote of two-thirds of all eligible members would be required.  In 1870 the Rev. F. Lemschau wrote a description of the original building saying: “my church has three windows on each side.  Below is the church basement, low and rather small and also rather damp.  In the basement room are rows of hand-made desks, without backrests, at which six or eight pupils sit.  The church proper is a plain room, but has a gallery in the rear for the choir.  In the middle of the auditorium is a big stove, which gives off an immense amount of heat.”  The church quickly outgrew this modest structure and sold the frame building, which was moved to East Fifth street to become a soap factory.  The new brick building, with a spire, was dedicated on June 25, 1871.  This second church building, minus the spire, and the second parsonage for the church still stand today and are now part of St. Peter’s.  The old parsonage houses the St. Peter’s Montessori School.

The second church served the congregation for 40 years.  In January of 1910, it was announced a new church would be built and, a few months later, the property was sold for $6,000 to the Apostolic Christian Church, who later sold it to St. Peter’s.  A property was selected on the corner of Park Avenue East and Franklin for the new church and the cornerstone was laid on October 30, 1910, forty years to the day after the cornerstone for the old church was laid.  Church services continued and were held in the assembly room of the Mansfield Public Library until the new church was completed and dedicated on May 5, 1912.  The structure cost between $52,000 and $53,000.  The small congregation of 40 settlers led by Rev. A W. L. Begeman in 1845 had grown to over a thousand by 1912.  In September of 1901, the church started to offer English speaking services and voted to eliminate German services at the start of World War II.   The church continued to serve the public and, in 1958 with a merger of the Evangelical Reformed Church and the Congregational-Christian Church, it became St. John’s United Church of Christ.  This is the name it still bears today. 

Mansfield Churches: First Congregational Church

78 years ago a Mansfield landmark burned to the ground.  Only four blackened walls remained of the First Congregational Church.  Hundreds watched as the spire, which rose over 200 feet above Park Avenue West, fell and the building crumbled.  According to the News Journal, the question was often asked – “What if the Congregation Church spire should fall?” The answer: The flame eaten spire toppled and plunged to the ground like a giant lance, impaling itself in the ground 50 feet east of the building.  No one was injured.[i]

Due to disagreements on social issues, church members split from the Presbyterian Church around 1833 and formed a society and obtained a temporary place of worship in an upper room of the warehouse of E. P. & E. Sturges.  The First Congregational Church in Mansfield was organized on April 3, 1835, by Rev. Everton Judson and Rev. Enoch Conger.  “The church advocated opinions on temperance, anti-slavery and other reforms, which caused much opposition both ecclesiastical and social, in the community.”[ii]


The original First Congregational Church

The first structure for the church was built shortly after its organization.  A four-acre site was bought on Park Ave West, then West Market Street, for $750.[iii]  The same site was the home of the church until the 1942 fire.  A brick meeting house was built, “with a basement for lecture and Sabbath school purposes” and later a parsonage was erected on the grounds.  It was said the church could seat about 500 and was one of the finest church edifices in the state at the time.[iv]  In 1855 the church was enlarged, including an “audience room forty-two by seventy-three feet, a ladies parlor twenty-five feet square, and a pastor’s study.”[v]


1856 map showing the location of the First Congregational Church.  Mulberry Street is to the right and West Market is today Park Avenue West.

Disaster struck in August of 1870 when Rev. E. B. Fairfield noticed sparks coming from the roof or the church building.  By the time firemen had arrived, the church was already lost and they focused their efforts on saving the neighboring structures.   The library belonging to the pastor and seats and books in the lecture room and Sabbath school were saved, but a beautiful organ was lost.  Plans had already been made to replace the church the next fall and subscriptions for that purpose had already been made in the amounts of $30,000 or $40,000.[vi]


First Congregational Church and Parsonage around 1896.

Construction began immediately and nearly three years later on June 8, 1873, the church was dedicated. The church was nearly destroyed by fire the month before its dedication.  Mrs. Proctor, who lived near the church, noticed a light inside on the night of May 10, 1873 and raised alarm.   The fire, caused by the spontaneous combustion of debris and rags left by painters, was quickly extinguished and minimal damage was done.[vii]  The organ installed in the church in March of 1873 was said to be one of the largest in the state at the time.  The manufacturer, Samuel S. Hamill, was on hand for its installation.  The case was of black walnut and the organ measured 16 feet in width, 29 in height and about 12feet from front to rear.[viii]

Library Document Station_2

Inside the church from the Memorial Manuel of the Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio, 1882

The church stood for 69 years until the early morning hours of February 17, 1942.  According to Virgil Stanfield, in his article in the News Journal in 1970, “Tippy Tin”, the pet bulldog of Raymond Bauer of 105 West Luther Place, first noticed the fire and awakened his master, who promptly sounded the alarm.  Even though the church was lost, Tippy Tin was rewarded with a hamburger at the Max Diner.  In addition to the church, the library and a painting of “Aunty” Bradford were also destroyed.   Bradford, a former slave, left most of her $2,000 estate to the library of The First Congregational Church and the Sunday school library was named after her.  After the fire, the church sold the property for $75,000.[ix]

Also after the fire, church services were held for a few weeks in the auditorium of John Simpson Junior High School and later in the Park Avenue Baptist Church until July of 1950.  In March of 1951, services began at the new Congregation Church on Marion Avenue at Millsboro Road and the church was officially dedicated June 24 – July 1, 1951.[x]


[i] Flames Reduce Stately Edifice to Smoky Ruins. Mansfield News Journal. Mansfield, Ohio. 17 FB 1942, pp. 1
[ii] First Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio.  Seventh Manual, 1912, pp. 6-7
[iii] Flames Reduce Stately Edifice to Smoky Ruins. Mansfield News Journal. Mansfield, Ohio. 17 FB 1942, pp. 1
[iv] Memorial Manuel of the Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio, 1882. pp. 188
[v] First Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio.  Seventh Manual, 1912, pp. 7
[vi] Burning of the Congregation Church.  Mansfield Herald. Mansfield, Ohio. 25 AUG 1870, pp. 3.
[vii] Richland Shield and Banner, Mansfield, Ohio. 17 May 1873, pp. 3
[viii] The New Organ, Mansfield Herald, Mansfield, Ohio. 06 MAR 1873, pp. 3
[ix] The Mansfield That Was.  Mansfield News Journal. Mansfield, Ohio. 22 FEB 1970, pp. 5D
[x] Dedication – First Congregational Church. 1951.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Mansfield

“If a man doesn’t have something he will die for he isn’t fit to live.  He dies who fails to stand up for the truth”

These words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his first visit to Mansfield on September 23, 1962.  Dr. King was here to speak at the dedication of Mt. Hermon Baptist Church’s new building at 292 Charles St. where his uncle, Rev. Joel L. King, Sr., served.  Rev. Joel King was the youngest of 10 children and, after the death of his parents, was raised by Dr. King‘s father, Martin Luther King, Sr.  Dr. King spoke to more than 2,000 listeners, who sat in the aisles and stood outside within hearing distance at the 1,000 seat sanctuary, about the end to segregation in America saying “we stand on the boarder of the promised land of integration.  Old Man Segregation is on his deathbed.”  Dr. King emphasized the church‘s role in this process saying “the role of the church is to stand up to meet the challenge of change.”  A little over six months later, Dr. King would be jailed in Alabama during the Birmingham Campaign and write Letter from Birmingham Jail where he defends the strategy of non-violent resistance stating “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


Dr. King’s second visit to Mansfield would come on October 10, 1965, almost a year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  3,000 people jammed into Mt. Hermon Baptist Church to hear the famed speaker.  The occasion was to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his uncle at Mt. Hermon Church.  Other King family members were present, including Dr. Kings brother, Rev. A. D. William King of Louisville, Ky.  Dr. King stated he was glad to be back in Mansfield and had watched the churches growth and development.  He again spoke on segregation telling the crowd “if America is to be great we must get rid of segregation in all dimensions, not because of riots in Los Angeles, but because it is morally wrong.”  King also spoke of the danger of the white supremacy movement and the Ku Klux Klan and seemed disturbed by recent meeting of these groups in Ohio, saying “these meetings reveal that the Klan-type movement is not sectional of southern but that there are groups in many places who would block Democratic principles and American ideals.”  He continued, “We must be eternally vigilant, or we will wake up and find large memberships capable of as much violence and terror as the Klan has perpetrated in the South.”  The following day, Dr. King spoke at a rally at Crawfordville, Georgia where African-American students were protesting the continued school segregation.


Dr. King never returned to Mansfield.  On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, by James Earl Ray, as he stood on the Lorraine Motel’s second-floor balcony.  He was 39 years old.


Hilliard, Loretta. A History of Notable African-Americans Richland Coutny, Ohio. (2008)
The Mansfield News-Journal. 24 SEP 1962, P. 1 and 11 OCT 1965, P. 1.