It’s the 19th century. The suffrage movement is sweeping the streets, abolitionism is becoming increasingly pervasive, and labor reform is in full swing. People are pushing for social change, and many of them are asking the spirits for help.
In John Benedict Buescher’s new book, The President’s Medium: John Conklin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation, Buescher explores the prominence of spiritualism during the 19th century and Abraham Lincoln’s involvement with the medium John Conklin.
Published this year through Hamilton College’s Couper Press, the book slightly diverges from Couper Press’ focus on communal societies, though director and curator of Special Collections Christian Goodwillie said that spiritualism “ties directly into communal societies on many levels” as “There were spiritualists in intentional communities.” The piece generally fits in well with Special Collections’ developing interest in spiritualism and helps expand the breadth of Special Collections projects.
The President’s Medium includes Conklin’s autobiography, which Buescher had to piece together and had never previously been published in a book, and Buescher’s own commentary on the autobiography. The work shows that Lincoln likely consulted Conklin prior to his presidency and features Conklin’s claim that spirits had communicated the need to end slavery and Conklin’s consequent decision to advise Lincoln in favor of abolition.
In an interview, Buescher explained that historians tend to dismiss spiritualist studies, particularly in the case of Lincoln whose wife had a strained relationship with death and the afterlife. However, Buescher said that spiritualism “… was a big deal in the 19th century and a lot of smart people thought there was something to it and were open to it.”
He described how politicians and actors alike would seek out guidance from the dead and how attempting to speak with the dead did not have the same “cartoonish” connotation as it does today. In fact, he noted that some even perceived it as “very progressive and democratic,” as average men and women could practice spiritualism.
Buescher said that his discoveries about Lincoln’s relationship with spiritualism subverted his expectations. He said, “I really did begin the book rather skeptical about the claims that Lincoln was open to this, and it was only after really sifting through as much material as I could find, that I concluded that yes, he was to a degree, open to it, and the claims of this guy to have given séances to the President were almost certainly true.” It was only after thorough research that he felt convinced of Lincoln’s involvement.
Buescher has written several other books on spiritualism and has been continually working with a research group to put together The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (IAPSOP), an online archive of spiritual and occult materials.
Goodwillie, having encountered a first draft of The President’s Medium on IAPSOP, reached out to Buescher about publishing with Couper Press. The two had met before at a conference and Goodwillie had already been familiar with several of Buescher’s works on spiritualism. Working with an established scholar like Buescher would help augment Special Collections’ new focus on spiritualism.
In addition to developing IAPSOP, Buescher is currently working on a book project that examines American Vaudeville and sideshow magicians and mentalists that appeared on commercial radio from about 1925 to 1935.
Couper Press, meanwhile, has about nine books in progress, including a book by former curator at Brown University Rob Emlen. Special Collections is also more broadly advancing its communal society collection, bringing in materials about groups like the Amana societies and the House of David.
Couper Press was established in 2006 by Randall Ericson in honor of Richard W. Couper ’44, who served as Hamilton trustee and benefactor of the Burke Library.