top of page
  • Peter McGuire

Mormons, Adventists and Ghosts, Oh My! The Burned Over District Part 4 of 4

Table of Contents:

The Alternate Dimension - The Fox Sisters, Andrew Jackson Davis, and Spiritualism

Who You Gonna Call? - Ghosts, New Age, and Dan Aykroyd

Honorable Mentions - Other eccentric spiritualists I disovered

The American Witch Queen - L Frank Baum and the Burned-Over District in living memory

Part 1 covers initial European settlement in North America; the origin of puritans, Pennsylvania, and quakers; the Longhouse religion of Handsome Lake; and the socio-economic conditions that allowed the burned-over district to flourish.

Part 2 covers the first crop of eccentric New York spiritualists: The first trans American, the Public Universal Friend; celibate communists known as Shakers; and William Miller's apocalyptic visions that created Adventism.

Part 3 covers the flowering of eccentric spiritualist movements in upstate New York: the Mormons, a non-trinitarian polygamist church that was chased out of the United States, Robert Matthews, Sojourner Truth, and the masculist patriarchy of New Zion, and John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida commune that practiced complex marriage and eugenics.

This section explores the explosion of Spiritualism. The belief in ghosts and a fundamentally similar life after death gripped nearly every mind in New York and became the default belief system of the non-Christian American: New Age (and its related beliefs). This episode also includes honorable mentions for weird mystic cults and a trip to meet the greatest New York cult leader of them all: the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.

The Alternate Dimension

Spiritualism is commonly said to have begun on March 31st, 1848 in Hydesville, a hamlet outside of Rochester. Joseph Smith was dead, William Miller’s apocalypse had failed, and New York was ripe for a new obsession.

The Fox household had allegedly experienced mysterious noises for quite some time, but on March 31st, they made first contact with a spirit. This was not an angel or a great luminary speaking from heaven. This was a mundane deceased person. When asked questions, the spirit knocked deliberate responses, yes or no. Playing 20 questions with the phantom rapper, they soon learned he was the spirit of a man who had long ago been murdered in the house and buried there. The following day, April 1st, the entire town caught ghost fever and a frenzied search of the property eventually found bones of various kinds.

In just two years, New York proved itself to be absolutely riddled with ghosts.

Wherever the Fox sisters went, they not only inspired intense fascination in ghosts, they inspired people to become fellow psychics, particularly amongst Quakers and ex-Millerites. First they visited Auburn, then Rochester, and, by 1850, virtually every city and town in New York had mediums by the dozen. Ghost communications most frequently came in the form of knocking noises (called rapping), tables levitating or spinning (called table turning), and automatic writing (a process of channeling ghost writing that is indistinguishable from writing). In just two years, New York proved itself to be absolutely riddled with ghosts.

How can we explain this explosion in psychic ability amongst New Yorkers?

First, as we’ve discussed at length now, many New Yorkers had already discovered their ability to speak to God and angels. The ability to speak to invisible figures had been well established.

Second, familiarity with the techniques that allow communication from the hereafter had become widespread. Since the beginning of the century, upstate New York experienced a phenomenon called sleeping preaching. Astonished family members noticed that their loved ones, particularly young women, would fall asleep normally and then begin to preach with loud, clear voices vivid sermons complete with biblical quotes to rival the most energetic evangelists.

For five years of her life, starting in 1811, Rachel Baker preached fire and brimstone as wildly as any traveling preacher, complete with quotations, despite her lack of education, but only in her sleep. For some time she suffered fevers, fits, and spasms, and then slipped into a coma. From the point of her recovery, she preached loudly in her sleep.

Doctors were fascinated. The medical profession had only begun to experiment with the mind, slowly moving psychology from a branch of philosophy to a science. She underwent an extensive battery of testing in New York City that produced a 300-page treatise on sleep, dreams, and trance states. By this time, crowds of a hundred or more came to listen to her as she lay flat in bed with her eyes closed.

I have to wonder how much of this was a way to escape gender roles, similar to the Public Universal Friend. Rachel Baker surely would not have been taken seriously as a public speaker if not for this mystical conceit. Women could not obtain state licenses to preach.

By 1816, the treatment given by her doctor involved cold water dousing, dosing her with camphor and castor (both induce cramping and diarrhea) and opium. She was soon cured.

Baker was only the first of many to experience the nighttime trances. Some sang, some chanted, and most spoke with a voice, in a persona, very different from their waking self. By the time mediums began to hold seances mid-century, the techniques of channeling both through trances and through writing (called automatic writing), were well known.

Many New Yorkers had already discovered their ability to speak to God and angels

Third, New York still had many fraudsters practicing illusions for money despite attempts by lawmakers to separate fraud from religion. Most common and widespread was dousing, selling services for finding hidden things using mystical rituals. As mentioned earlier, Joseph Smith had been charged with just this: using his rocks-in-a-hat method for finding buried treasure. Some portion of newly minted mediums were looking for a quick buck.

Fourth, science (and especially the burgeoning science of psychology) had an intense interest in trance states and what we now call parapsychology. In the late 18th Century, Franz Mesmer made a splash in the scientific community with his theories of animal magnetism. By inducing a trance state, then called Mesmerism, now called hypnosis, Mesmer claimed he could manipulate the invisible natural force that possesses all living things for the purposes of healing. In 1784, a committee of the French Academy of Science which included Benjamin Franklin, concluded that no such animating force could be detected or manipulated, thereby excluding Mesmer from mainstream science. Regardless, ideas of animating energy that can be manipulated remain at the center of New Age spiritual medicine.

Practitioners of mesmerism were called magnetizers. The study of electromagnetism was in its infancy and many established scientists suggested a connection between magnetism and manipulating other invisible fields. The process of Mesmerizing often involved holding magnets to influence the animating energy. Despite Mesmer’s fall from grace in the medical community, magnetizing became a widely-practiced medical treatment. Given that mainstream medicine of this time treated more-or-less everything with the ingestion of toxic compounds, holding magnets until the problem goes away may have been a better treatment and was certainly a less dangerous option.

George Washinton invested in home magnetizers, rods of brass and iron, but Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin disapproved. German scientists became fascinated with the case of Frederica Hauffe, who after an illness and coma (sound familiar?), spoke in strange languages, produced cosmic diagrams, conferred messages from the dead, and diagnosed illnesses while in a mesmeric state. Although research of this kind was largely shunned by the scientific community, it influenced concepts of the subconscious elaborated upon by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

In the 1830s, animal magnetism experienced a revival in folk healing. By now a venerated alternative medicine, magnetists frequently induced trances as public exhibitions. Mesmerized patients seemed to draw knowledge from impossible sources. Often, magnetists would pair up with talented clairvoyants to showcase the full range of magnetism’s power. The most powerful magnetists could dispense with the equipment altogether and simply exert their animal magnetism with their mind, even from miles away. This provided a nice revenue stream for mail-order magnetists of the time.

Fifth and finally, Spiritualism had a philosopher who fit ghosts and spirits into a remarkably beautiful and accessible vision of the world. His name was Andrew Jackson Davis and, at age 13, he heard a melodious voice tell him to travel to Poughkeepsie and somehow managed to convince his father to make the move. This earned him the nickname The Poughkeepsie Seer.

In 1843, at age 17, Davis first demonstrated his powers. After the town had hosted a lecture on the wonders of mesmerism, Davis demonstrated to the owner of a tailor shop, William Levingston, that he could see things behind his head while in a trance state. One remarkable demonstration included reading a newspaper behind him with his eyes closed. This aroused great interest and he and the owner soon turned the demonstrations into profit by selling medical prescriptions devised by Davis and manufactured by the tailor. Before long, a Universalist minister, Gibson Smith, got in on the action as well. Soon they had a well-polished system. Smith preached Universalism, Davis demonstrated his abilities and prescribed cures, and Levingston created and sold the medicine. The resulting performance strongly resembled the shows that faith healing televangelists performed in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Davis must have tired of these daily performances quickly, because on March 6th, 1844, he was transported forty miles in his sleep. He spent most of the hike back in a trance and came upon a graveyard inhabited by two spirits, the Roman physician Galen and the Christian mystic Swedenborg. Galen handed Davis a magical staff that opened up like an umbrella to reveal boxes around a central pole. Each box had the name of a disease in an unknown language and inside was the cure. Unfortunately for Davis and the rest of us, as he was exiting the graveyard he got stuck on a post. He handed the staff back to Galen as he unstuck himself, and when he asked for it back, Galen refused, telling him “In a due season thou shalt return, and then it shall be thine.”

The incident closely mirrors Joseph Smith’s experience trying to collect the golden plates. It’s easy to see the power that comes from being the only person who can interact with the secret source of truth. When he returned from this experience to Levingston’s house, he announced that he would no longer give clairvoyant demonstrations, for he had a higher calling.

Now fully capable of mesmerising himself, Davis became a renowned faith healer. Most cures were standard herbal recipes but some were wildly eccentric. For example, to a deaf person he recommended catching 32 weasels and boiling their hind legs to extract an oil which should be dropped into the ear twice a day.

Unfortunately for Davis and the rest of us, as he was exiting the graveyard, he got stuck on a post

Also during this time he developed a broader philosophy based on the visions he experienced in trances, heavily based on the writings of Swedenborg, the other spirit he met in the graveyard. Emanuel Swedenborg was a Christian mystic of the late 17th century who influenced many of the ideas we’ve discussed in this episode. This Swedish noble experienced a spiritual awakening that allowed him to see the kingdom of heaven as well as the pits of hell and converse with angels, demons, and other supernatural figures. He described apocalyptic visions and added greatly to the Christian mystical canon with his vivid descriptions and cryptic messages.

Davis now combined Swedenborg’s complex afterlife and knack for description to Universalist concepts and other ideas of his own. Universalism was a new concept that proved popular with Quakers and other progressive Christian sects. It solved the problem of evil and eased the horror at the center of Christianity by proposing that no person is doomed to hell. Rather, we continue our moral journey after death. There were many ideas of how this process could take place, but the general concept involves souls becoming progressively purified, eventually becoming holy enough to be accepted into heaven. Ironically this was more-or-less the same idea as purgatory and one of the major complaints of Protestantism was that Catholics had invented purgatory without any scriptural precedent. That said, Universalists would argue that hell itself is without scriptural basis. These approaches tried to deal with the anxiety and inconsistency of a loving God who might sentence you or your loved ones to an eternity of torture.

With all this in mind, I will let Davis explain his vision of the world because it is truly beautiful. This is how he saw his patients with his clairvoyant sight:

The whole body was transparent as a sheet of glass! It was invested with a strange, rich, spiritual beauty. It looked illuminated as a city. Every separate organ had several centres of light, besides being enveloped by a general sphere peculiar to itself. And I did not see the physical organ only, but its form, aspect, and color also, simply by observing the peculiar emanations surrounding it. For example: I saw the heart—surrounded by one general combination of living colors—with special points of illumination interspersed. The auricles and ventricles, together with their orifices, gave out distinct flames of light; and the pericardium was a garment of magnetic life, surrounding and protecting the heart while in the performance of its functions. The pulmonary or respitorial [sic] department was also illuminated with beautiful flames, but of different magnitude and color. The various air-chambers seemed like so many chemical laboratories.

And this is his vision of the world at large:

It was very, very beautiful to see everything clothed with an atmosphere! Every little grain of salt or sand; every minute plant, flower, and herb, every tendril of the loftiest trees—their largest and minutest leaves; the weighty mineral and ponderous animal forms, existing in the broad fields before me—each and all were clothed with dark, or brown, or gray, or red, blue, green, yellow, or white atmosphere—divided and subdivided into an almost infinite variety of degrees of intensity, brilliancy, and refinement. And—mark the fact!—in each mineral, vegetable, and animal I SAW SOMETHING OF MAN! In truth, the whole system of creation seemed to me like the fragments of future human beings! In the beaver I saw, in embryo, one faculty of the human mind; in the fox, another; in the wolf, another; in the horse, another; in the lion, another: yea, verily, throughout the vast concentric circles of mineral, vegetable, and animal life, I could discern certain relationships to, and embryological indications of, Man!

In this we get the synthesis of Universalist progressivism, evolution, and Christian perfectionism along with something entirely new. Davis created a visual language for progressive Universalism that also connected mankind with the rest of creation. This idea brings ancient paganism or Asian polytheism into the Christian milieu, imagining all things, animate and inanimate, as having spiritual content that interacts with our own.

Davis later claimed that on March 31st, 1848 he heard a voice say “Brother! The good work has begun—behold, a living demonstration is born.” In fact, the Hydesville phenomenon fit into his work perfectly. Suddenly, there was a way for the wider world to experience the alternate dimension that, until now, only clairvoyants had access to. The rappings represented a huge leap in phenomena from an alternate world that only the gifted could glimpse to the supernatural manifesting itself tangibly. One can only imagine what Mesmer would have thought as medium again and again attested to physical proof of an intelligent, invisible, animating force.

Who You Gonna Call?


Andrew Jackson Davis continued to develop his ideas in his periodical, The Univercoelum. He described the transit of the soul before and after death in grandiose terms. He described six heavens surrounding earth through which the soul passes, slowly shedding its negative elements. The first heaven after death, he described as the “Summer Land,” a pleasant place where souls can shed their material concerns left over from life.

He formulated a credo that heavily informs New Age thinking. Key points include that God is both male and female, all matter and spirit are intertwined, the planet exists to support and evolve into human spirits, death is a purifying process by which the sprit is freed, and “life in the next world is substantially the same as life in our present existence.”

Later in the 1850s, Davis became concerned about the focus on the more obvious parts of Spiritualism, particularly the spooky parlor tricks of seances. He insisted that spirit communication provided proof and a window into the afterlife, but those who seek spirit entertainment were wasting their time. In the 1880s, after a lifetime of practicing his eccentric forms of medicine, he earned an orthodox medical diploma and set up practice in the Boston area as a family doctor.

Davis’ intellectual approach provided a framework for Spiritualists but his disapproval of its performative aspects went largely ignored. New York caught fire with Spiritualism, especially progressive circles. The connection between progressives and ghosts seems to lie in shared roots. The Fox family belonged to a sect of radical Quakers who had been ejected from mainstream Quakerism for advocating forced abolition, as in, invading the south to end slavery. Even as the Civil War approached, most critics of slavery favored gradual emancipation that included compensation for slaveowners. Not so for New York abolitionists.

Davis’ intellectual approach provided a framework for Spiritualists but his disapproval of its performative aspects went largely ignored.

They continued pushing against the tide of national policy as the Civil War approached and more concessions were given to slaveowners on the rights of fugitive slaves. Gerrit Smith, for example, raised money from middle and upper class New Englanders to buy land to give to black New Yorkers with the belief that only property and land ownership could ensure long-term freedom. He donated most of his own extensive land to the cause.

It’s also worth mentioning that Smith’s daughter, Elizabeth Miller, along with her friend, Amelia Bloomer, led the dress reform movement which claimed that Victorian clothing placed impossible demands and excessive costs on women. Instead, they wore short pants similar to the women of the Oneida community, which came to be called Bloomers.

Isaac and Amy Post of Rochester operated one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad where they sheltered fugitive slaves before sending them to Canada and freedom. Their most famous guest, Frederick Douglass, called them “two people of all-abounding benevolence, the truest and best of Long Island… Quakers.” With the support of the Posts, he stayed in Rochester and started his antislavery newspaper, the North Star.

The Posts were equally involved in women’s rights. In July of 1848, Amy attended the women’s rights convention held in nearby Seneca Falls. Frederick Douglass was that convention’s only black member and gave a stirring speech in favor of women’s suffrage. The landmark convention happened just three months after and 25 miles away from the Hydesville rappings. Later that year, the Posts invited the Fox sisters into their Rochester home. It wasn’t the first time. The Posts had rented a space in Rochester to the Fox family before they lived in Hydesville.

The Posts became immediately fascinated with ghost phenomena, in part because of personal tragedy. Isaac had lost his first wife four years into their marriage and his first son at the age of five in a threshing accident, a gory death. Together, Isaac and Amy had lost their only daughter, also at age five. One of the first spirits they contacted was the daughter, Matilda, who assured them she was happy in the spirit world.

Isaac held many seances with the Fox girls and introduced them to magnetism, which only increased their powers. Through magnetism, Leah Fox, who was 20 years older than her sisters and served as their manager, developed powers of her own which allowed her to channel spirits by writing and eventually vocally. The Posts popularized the sisters in exhibitions in Rochester progressive circles and then across New York. The tours quickly became highly profitable.

Isaac also became a medium, in turn. He specialized in automatic writing, putting himself in a trance and writing for his Quaker idols including George Fox and William Penn. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson sometimes chimed in as well. Sometimes, deceased defenders of slavery and southern politicians would seize the pen to explain how sorry they were for their mistakes in life. He collected these teachings in his 1852 Voices from the Spirit World, complete with an introduction by the spirit of Benjamin Franklin. This was apparently the first step in a mental decline because his friend, Lucretia Mott, wrote that he had gone insane from the spirit communications.

Spiritualism became popular culture. Songs and dances were composed, such as the 1853 hit “Spirit Rappings.” Occultists and scientists alike dove into testing and examining ghost and psychic phenomena. Mary Todd Lincoln, who already supported mediums to commune with her deceased children, became a major benefactor of spiritualism after her husband’s death. Across the Atlantic, Spiritualism found a powerful supporter in the physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle.

Virtually every progressive of the time made some statement on spiritualism. Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to the Posts to apologize for using the word “atrocious.” He clarified that he meant the frustratingly coy nature of the spirit, not their company. Douglass never warmed to ghosts. Lucretia Mott similarly wrote that “your knockings are probably a humbug.” Susan B. Anthony largely ignored spiritualism but happily spoke at their conventions. She considered anything other than suffrage to be a distraction. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, meanwhile, said he had to believe that “invisible spirits, not of this mundane sphere, performed the phenomena” he’d seen.

Meanwhile, Spiritualism approached a coherent philosophy. The French educator Allan Kardec created a systematic approach to extracting information from mediums and codified the teaching of the spirit world in a series of books. Kardac was in fact an alias given to him by his spirit guide, an entity called Truth. His twist on Spiritualism, called Spiritism, includes the idea that spirits are reincarnated through various forms of life as the soul is purified, closely approaching Hindu ideas of reincarnation.

Kardec wasn’t the only one. Thomas Lake Harris, a universalist minister and admirer of Andrew Jackson Davis, formulated his own methods for interacting with the spirit realm. After some disappointing rejection from Davis, he denounced his fellow medium and formed a community near Poughkeepsie that included around 60 spiritualist converts, five eastern orthodox clergymen, and 20 japanese followers of samurai rank. He taught that through a technique called “open breathing,” one could imbibe spiritual influences with various advantageous effects to one’s physical and spiritual health. He was likely already familiar with the yogic breath control practice of pranayama. He elevated his own technique over Indian practices by warning that over-exposure to the spirit realm led to confusion and polytheism. Harris maintained his belief in the Christian God at the center of this spiritual realm and limited his followers’ access to these spirit realms.

Harris wrote his revelations in long lyric poems sometimes dictated to him by Byron, Keats, Shelly and Coleridge as well as angels, fairies, and hindu gods.

Harris wrote his revelations in long lyric poems sometimes dictated to him by Byron, Keats, Shelly and Coleridge as well as angels, fairies, and hindu gods. As ghost contact became more common, many figures from the past were appropriated by mediums. The movement cast modern society and civilization as a polluting influence for the body and mind. Hence, it was common for these white, middle class Americans to channel Native American spirits, only a few of whom held grudges about the European invasion of their land. Most forgave the white race and gifted the land with an ethereal sense of forgiveness and charity. Little effort was made by Spiritualists to provide restitution for the living descendants of their guides. Often the spirits were said to be from white or even pre-human races that were killed off by invading American Indians in a notable example of cultural projection.

Spiritualism had no center and no end; it lives on today in most of the ideas that form New Age belief. But if there was a center, it would be Lily Dale. On the shores of Cassadaga Lake in Chautauqua county, it grew from a summer resort into a semi-permanent community of Spiritualism and paranormal enthusiasts. It centered around the second major American clairvoyant after Andrew Jackson Davis, a man named Jeremiah Carter. He usually spoke as Dr. Hedges, a deceased physician with great botanical expertise. As an old man in 1895, Carter explained that since Dr. Hedges had inhabited him, his brain had enlarged by two inches.

Lily Dale continued to grow after Carter’s death and now includes the Andrew Jackson Davis Lyceum for children, a hotel, libraries, a healing temple, a maze, a museum, and a fairy trail into the woods. In 1915, the community purchased and transported the Hydesville cottage to the site but it burned down in 1955. To this day, it hosts summer sessions on astrology, sweat lodges, animal communication, crystal healing, and astral travel, amongst other practices.

It sits side by side with a religious community, the Chautauqua Institution. It started as a summer gathering for methodist ministers and became a nationwide adult-education program based on progressive and liberal Christian principles. By the 1920s, there were hundreds of Chautauqua centers worldwide but now only a few remain. The one I’ve visited is Boulder and seems heavily influenced by Spiritualist beliefs.

As Spiritualism transformed into New Age, it focused less on seances and the performative aspects of spirits. In 1851, less than a decade into the ghost mania, a relative of the Fox family alleged that she had helped fake the spirit rappings. Many doctors and scientists who attended seances considered ghost phenomena to be tricks, while others became convinced that the phenomena had material causes. In 1888, the Fox sisters demonstrated how they created the rapping sounds by popping the joints in their feet and ankles. When their feet were under cabinets, they could create the impression of distant or booming knocking. The confession explained an experiment performed on them in 1853, when scientists proved that the sisters could not create the noises if their feet were exposed from under their long dresses or placed on soft surfaces.

Mediums met their match in an unexpected enemy: the professional magician. Around this time, body artists, illusionists, and magicians began professionalizing their art. At the center of the change stood Harry Houdini, the hugely popular Hungarian immigrant showman. Later in his career, he became interested in debunking mediums. Seances and magic rely on many of the same techniques, so magicians often knew how paranormal activity was faked. Some psychics and mediums who had convinced the greatest scientists of the time were exposed by Houdini. More than once he made a fool of Conan Doyle in the press, and he successfully discredited spirit photography, where images of the deceased persons were double exposed on images of the living. Before his death, Houdini promised his wife that he’d contact her within ten years from the afterlife if it was possible. Ten years later, she extinguished the candle she kept beside his photograph, saying “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” The work of debunking continues with magicians like The Amazing Randi, who exposed Uri Gellar live on the Tonight Show, and Penn and Teller, who regularly produce pieces explaining illusions and encouraging skepticism.

Today, the belief in ghosts mostly lives on in fiction. Pseudoscientific ghost claims saw a resurgence in the 2000s with the A&E show Ghost Hunters, which depicts centuries-old parlor tricks as scientifically verifiable evidence. This led to an explosion of ghost reality shows, TV and movies that present ghosts through a pseudoscientific lens and convince the general public of their existence. In the cultural imagination, probably the greatest effective popularizer of ghosts was the famous spiritualist Dan Akyroyd. Ackyroyd’s great-grandfather was a dentist and mystic, corresponder of Conan Doyle, and member of the Lily Dale society. His grandfather experimented with receiving spirit communications on radios. Following in their footsteps, in the 1980s, Ackyroyd started working on a script to raise interest in parapsychology. He paired his comedic chops with his very real belief in ghosts and produced the massively popular and influential Ghostbusters. The franchise is still going strong; the newest reboot is expected to release in November of 2021.

Honorable Mentions

In my tour of upstate New York, I’ve focused on movements that are still visible today, ones that influenced New Age and American Protestant belief, as well as new religions that live on: Mormonism, Adventism, and Spiritualism. I’d like to take a little time here to shed light on some lesser but equally fascinating figures. These quick sketches fill in the background of our larger picture of this region and time.

Sex and Mirrors

Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875), a mixed-race black man, had a well-respected career as an occultist and sex magician. Although the details of his childhood are obscure, in part because of the many conflicting stories he told, it is clear that Randolph was well-traveled before he settled in Portland, Maine as a barber and dyer (one of the only trades available to him as a black man). After being magnetized by Andrew Jackson Davis, he came to be accepted as a gifted clairvoyant physician and psycho-phrenologist. Randolph conveyed several experiences, often from departed loved ones, and in one notable instance from the Persian icon Zoroaster (Zarathustra), apologizing for praising the Persian gods over the Universal God of Nature.

He began to write about the non-existence of evil and the universality of the God of Nature. He proudly reserved the right to criticize the bible, which he referred to as the “whack Moses'' brand of spiritualism. Randolph became a darling of the New York spiritualist community and traveled the world, becoming a respected orator, expert on the spiritual realm, and occultist. During this time he incorporated perfectly legal drugs into his spiritual practices, including opium (in the form of laudanum) and pills or cocktails of “cannabis sattiva”, a drug he claimed to be especially potent for expanding consciousness.

As his career continued, Randolph accumulated children and debt and eventually denounced spiritualism in favor of born-again Christianity. He went so far as to burn bridges with his abolitionist community in the 1860s by emphasizing his white, slaveholding ancestors. Around this time he popularized certain ideas that became grist for conspiracy theories including that the destruction of a planet between Mars and Jupiter had knocked the Earth off axis and caused the biblical flood. In the future, the sun would melt the polar ice caps, the Earth’s axis would realign, and the new millennium would begin.

Continuing to tour the world, kept on the run by New York debtors, his life came to a sudden end at age 49 due to apparent suicide that could well have been murder. His greatest legacy was his writing on sex, his “Mysteries of Eros”. He, like most of his time, feared masturbation and emphasized the necessity of co-mingling of fluids as the spiritual element of sex. This emphasis on fluids extended to one of his most lucrative businesses, the trade in magic mirrors, crystal balls, and other scrying implements. His most lucrative items were mirrors that Randolph consecrated himself, most likely by including a layer of sexual excretion and hash between the mirror’s layers.

The Living Machine

The Universalist minister John Murray Spear (1804-1884) came under the influence of Andrew Jackson Davis by way of his progressive causes: abolition, temperance, and repeal of the death penalty. He moved to a spiritualist community on the western edge of New York and came in contact with a league of deceased gentlemen known as the “Association of Beneficents,” experts in their various fields that included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and founder of Universalism, John Murray. Two years later, Spear had engaged a group of followers in building a “New Motor'' described by these illustrious spirits to push civilization along.

Unfortunately, no plans or images of the motor survive. The machine was supposed to be a perpetual motion machine and spiritual telegraph in one: the industrial dreams of progressives combined with the animating force of spiritualism. From such engines, mediums could send accurate messages in real time across the country as well as receive divine communications. First, it was brought to life through a “wombonic process” that involved a woman acting out childbirth in its presence. While this supposedly brought parts of the machine to life, a more direct process was required and a sex magician, probably Pashal Beverly Randolph, was brought in to have sex before it. In 1854, the community was invaded by a mob that destroyed the machine.

Three years later, Spear organized a convention in Buffalo and two in Ohio that celebrated free love through the prism of eugenics. He championed the idea that free and loving sexual intercourse would attract higher souls to the children created, who would in turn uplift humanity. The method for achieving these unions involved granting women happiness, health, and free choice, including contraception and pre-marital sex. The next year, the first “harmonial” child was born and Spear shifted his focus to digging a hole. Spirits promised untold treasures hidden by the part-frog antediluvian human ancestors who previously lived in the area. The community bored 150 feet into the earth before the flooding from the water table became impossible for their resources and machinery to overcome. He left New York around the time that the Comstock Laws defined his work as pornographic and made its dissemination illegal in 1872. He retired shortly thereafter.

The Builder

Photo credit: Kaitlin

On an unassuming street, in the small township of Georgetown, stands a unique piece of spiritualist history: the Spirit House. The house that Timothy Brown built has an overwhelming roof: three layers of entablature overhang each other and appear to drip with ornamental carvings that resemble cake icing or Victorian lace. The effect is very much like a tiered wedding cake. This grand roof sits atop a fairly formulaic, colonial-style manor house. The other notable features are the columns along the facade carved with a pattern of identical scallops.

While this was not the only building directly designed by spirits at its time of creation, it is likely the only remaining example of supernatural architecture from the burned over district. Local myth would have you believe that Brown had never picked up a hammer before the spirits gave him intricate instructions on the house’s construction. No such spiritual architects were needed, however. Timothy Brown (1807-1885) was not only a gifted architect, he invented a machine for making cheese hoops and built furniture, walls, and likely his first farmhouse. The scalloping of the Spirit House suggests that he even built a machine to create the precise pattern. He said he received the design fully formed in his head from the spirits, like the Shakers with their art and furniture, and set about constructing it.

A single, large room on the upper floor of this home served as an assembly hall for town meetings, plays, trials, temperance meetings, and, of course, seances. In 1874, Brown added to it by purchasing a disused Presbyterian church, moving the church down the street, and adjoining it to the assembly hall.

Sadly, this piece of history is in need of rescue. A protracted and confusing custody battle has played out over the 20th century and for several decades now the house has been in a derelict condition. Its various stewards have jealously guarded the house but haven’t been able to secure the funds to restore it. In 2011 the house was nearly bought by a historical society but the current owner, Resurreccion Dimaculangan, bought it with a large cash offer at the last moment. The website claimed the house has been vacant since 2018, but when I went, the owner was very much living there. She came out to yell at us for taking pictures of her private property and called us racist for being there. It’s good she still lives there to keep the house in some kind of order, but the exterior is rapidly decaying. The house is covered in writing that argues that the spirits have given her complete control of the property to live in and demands that she personally be given funds to restore it (beyond the $5,000 she has received from the state of New York). My experience was far from unique according to reviews of the house and her book online. She would do well to open the house as a museum instead of chasing off all visitors, but based on the state of the house and her writing, she is not mentally well. Hopefully, some organization can acquire the house and restore it to the museum it should be.

Koresh and the Age of Aquarius

Cyrus Reed Teed (1839-1908) was a proto-flat-earther. He believed that we live inside the hollow earth and that sky and star phenomena are only a reflection. Cyrus was from a rising industrial family but chose to go into medicine instead of business. He was not yet 20 when he declared to his uncle “I am Jesus Christ! I see the whole world. It is opened before me.”

Teed graduated with an M.D. in 1868 and dove into a career of eclectic, natural, and botanical medicine. Around 1869, he began to experience intense visions of the female God. Cousins noticed a halo of light enveloping him and his wife had noticed two cherubim on the wall brackets. At this point his normal medical practice ended as well as his marriage to his consumptive wife. He practiced medicine sporadically on the road as he developed his ideas.

Godwin describes the revelation this way: “Most children are… not engendered deliberately, but [are] the accidents of lustful intercourse. The vileness of the average male, soaked in nicotine and alcohol, passes through the sperm cells to infect the next generation, and woman has every right to protect herself from him.” Teed believed that through celibacy and “male continence” woman would be freed from focusing on the mortal world and metamorphosize herself into psychic energy. He described alchemy of the soul, the transformation from mortal to immortal, which no human had achieved since Jesus Christ.

He developed various societies around his ideas which followed the now-familiar pattern of growing fame and then being run out of town. In 1891, he swapped out his name Cyrus for the Persian original mentioned in the bible: Koresh. He published extensively over the next decade on social, spiritual, and geological matters. He opposed greed and money, supported radical bodily autonomy for women, and knew from his biological studies that the world was in fact a giant cell about a hundred miles thick with seventeen layers representing cosmological, alchemical, and social significance.

In many ways he focused on classical cosmology, the sky as a concave enclosure that intimately interacted with the elements around us. Part of this cosmology involved cycles of eras. His own time straddled the age of Pisces and Aquarius and it would be heralded by the transmutation of the human body into spiritual energy. This initiated a brief romance with the Shakers in the 1890s, who soon rejected him for claiming to be a third manifestation of Jesus Christ (after Ann Lee). He and his remaining followers moved to Naples, Florida where they conducted an extraordinary experiment.

Over several months they erected “the Rectilineator” on the beach. It had twelve-foot posts that projected a perfectly straight line. It began 128 inches above the sand and after four and ⅛ miles, it touched the sea, confirming that the world is concave, not convex. He died in 1908, without achieving immortality and was buried in a mausoleum that washed out to sea in 1921. In 1961, the last four members of the Koreshean society donated the grounds to the state of Florida and it remains the Koreshan State Historic Site to this day.

The New Age

I won’t do a full survey of New Age religion here, but I must mention that by the late 1890s, we had all the ideas present for New Age religion and what is generally meant today when people identify as “spiritual”. From Spiritualism, New Age inherited the idea that souls are free-flowing things that attach and detach from physical reality and continue on. In most conceptions, souls continue to become better after death, whether that be more holy or pure or happy or knowledgeable. Building on Andrew Jackson Davis, New Age holds that the same energy that animates our lives exists in the minerals, stars, and natural life. In many cases it inherits the utopian Protestant belief from the burned over district that adherence to certain ways of living and thinking can not only improve the soul and cure disease, they can remake the world in a new, harmonious way.

“New Age,” although the term is rarely used, permeates the spiritual landscape of America today.

Information about the East had tantalized Victorians and been incorporated and appropriated by various spiritualists. The breathing technique of Thomas Lake Harris echoed yogic breath practice (although he warned that too many spirits could make you polytheistic) and the practice called “male continence” in this context has centuries of history in tantric sex. By the turn of the century, many spiritualists turned to India to inform their worldview and practices and some considered themselves reincarnations of Eastern souls. From this milieu, various Eastern-inspired, American practices developed, including early forms of American yoga.

New Age inherited tarot from occult traditions. Tarot decks themselves represent a fascination and fetishism for foreign religion. Tarot decks and playing cards started as the same thing and became differentiated by Europeans over time. Mediterranean traders picked up the card game from the Islamic world, most likely from Egyptian traders, and it contained imagery from Persian and Sufi mystical traditions. By the 1750s, tarot decks had differentiated from playing cards and, by the end of the century, decks used for cartomancy increasingly featured Egyptian-style designs, spurred by an occult fascination with ancient Egyptian mysticism and the associations between tarot reading and Romani people (then called Gypsies because of their supposed Egyptian origin). Cartomancy came into late Spiritualism as one of the many ways to know the supernatural and, in turn, became an important tool for New Age believers.

“New Age,” although the term is rarely used, permeates the spiritual landscape of America today. It includes, in Godwin’s words, “holistic healing, yoga, meditation, astrology, tarot, interest in Native American and non-European religions, vegetarianism, deep ecology, self-improvement, animal communication, Tai Chi, body work, etc.” This constellation of beliefs has become, for the non-Christian American, as well accepted today as Spiritualism was in the 19th Century. We can still see the fingerprints of Spiritualism on the spirituality of Americans today.

Boomer Mecca

If the world does have ley lines and psychic hotspots (as New Age suggests), the American hotspot drifted from New York to Chicago and then California as the 20th century progressed. However, one last notable spiritual event shook upstate New York in 1969. Starting in the late 1930s, a community grew up around the Bishop William H.F. Brothers. A bishop of various Catholic and Orthodox churches, Brothers never found a permanent spiritual home and preached a combination of progressive social ideology and Universalist Christianity. Throughout the 50s and 60s, he proved himself a friend not only to rural workers but progressive upstate vacationers. As cultural tides turned, he became a supporter and patron saint of New York hippies. His religious services, while deeply formal and traditional, if eclectic, became a meeting place for progressives young and old. This community attracted the attention of the 60s counterculture movement. In 1969, in a field outside his parish of Woodstock, a music festival seemed to unite the social and spiritual concerns of a new generation.

That festival has been elaborated upon elsewhere. And while Woodstock would be a good end point for a discussion of spiritualism and New Age, there is a far more fitting location to end for our tour of the burned over district.

The American Witch Queen

I’d like to tell you one last story. In some ways, this story is more fantastical than the others in this series but in other ways it is much more believable. See if you can spot the ways it merges the events we’ve been discussing. You might be quite familiar with it.

Once upon a time, a little girl of 6 woke up in a strange land to discover that she had freed a race of enslaved people by killing the local tyrant completely by accident. She is immediately proclaimed to be the most powerful Sorceress in the world. She, however, only wants to go home. A witch instructs her to find the only person more powerful than she: an enigmatic leader they all love and look up to.

Along the way she picks up three followers: three men who consider themselves deeply flawed. The first is an agricultural worker, an absolute country bumpkin, who is ashamed of how dumb he is. He has serious imposter syndrome and thinks of himself as a stuffed shirt, a strawman. The second is a woodsman and a craftsman, a member of the booming industrial class. He was intimidated to stop pursuing the woman of his dreams and now he fears he has become heartless. He overcompensates by being over-sentimental at all times. Third is a guy with no self-confidence. He’s a petit tyrant and we first meet him bullying someone half his size in an attempt to look big. He thinks he should be terrifying but he’s just a big scaredy-cat.

When our gang finally reaches the capital city, they see everything as beautiful, bright, and gleaming. They manage to meet the enigmatic leader. He shows them wild visions of their greatest fears before demanding that they destroy his greatest enemy. Only then will he make them whole. Somehow, the girl defeats this second tyrant, and the four return to demand their prizes. After being ignored and shrugged off with excuses, they force their way into the leader’s hall.

The girl discovers that he is nothing but smoke and mirrors. When they finally see his true face, he’s just a sad, old man who is just as afraid of them as he is of everyone else. He’s not the great wizard he’s made out to be. In fact, he’s from Omaha. It turns out that his power rested upon parlor tricks all along.

But stranger still, we learn that he never intended to be a charlatan. He’d been forced into this role. Just like Dorothy, Oz arrived from the skies and was mistaken for greatness. Nevertheless, the gang insists he keeps his promise, so he gets a pile of straw to give the Scarecrow for brains, crafts a small velvet heart for the Tin Man, and gives the Cowardly Lion some bad-tasting medicine he says will give him courage. When he’s finished, Oz feels ashamed. “How can I help being a humbug when all these people make me do things they know can’t be done. It was easy to make the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Woodman happy, because they imagined I could do anything. But it will take more than imagination to carry Dorothy back to Kansas, and I’m sure I don’t know how it can be done.”

In fact, he isn’t able to do it. Even in this final hope, men can’t be trusted to help Dorothy. The pompous buffoon flies off in his balloon without her. It’s only at this point that they take off their emerald spectacles and discover that his capital city itself is ordinary. It was just the lenses he gave them that made it sparkle. Dorothy now must turn to a woman, and a witch, no less, to achieve her wish and return to her loving family back home.

Lyman Frank Baum was born in a town outside of Syracuse in 1856 and lived through the later stages of upstate New York spirituality. He lived in New York until the age of 32 and married Made Gage, a daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage (a forefront feminist). Baum’s magical world was steeped in progressive and feminist causes and reflects the wild spirituality of rural New York with its eccentric leaders and easily-led population. It features abolition (When Dorothy first lands, she is told by the Munchkins “We are so grateful to you for having killed the wicked Witch of the East, and for setting our people free from bondage.”) and a disclaimer noting that witches can be good, no doubt inspired by the feminist Gages who considered witch-burnings to be a tool of sexist oppression. But even when they’re not enslaved by one of the wicked witches, the people of Oz demand to be ruled by a flim-flam man. I guess that some things never change.

It’s fitting that Oz lives on in stage and screen because Baum’s first career was performing, writing, and producing plays. After his theater burned down during the production of his play Matches, the Baums moved to South Dakota and then Chicago, where he found success publishing articles and magazines about storefront design and painting. Now 35, Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to instant success. It remained the best-selling children’s book for 2 years. He ultimately wrote 13 stories in Oz.

Two years after the book’s publication, Baum helped create a musical stage version for adults. It changed many parts of the story and Baum had little control, yet it was successful and the comic duo of the Tin Man and Scarecrow found instant fame. We can imagine Baum’s chagrin seeing his dream of the stage fulfilled by this bastard play. He wrote his next Oz book specifically with the stage in mind but could not stage it while the first play continued to run. He continued writing Oz sequels and staging them for the rest of his life with little success.

By my count, including those created by Baum himself, there have been 17 adaptations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 18 direct sequels in film and plays, and 16 reimaginings including 1987 play by the Chicago A.I.D.S. educational theater called “The Wizard of A.I.D.S.” and one of the novels in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

Oz has lived on in the collective memory as well or better than any other story here. Only Mormonism and ghosts come close to the fame of Oz. This can be credited in large part to the 1939 musical film adaptation. This film took inspiration from the illustrations in the original book and defined many of the canonical features of Oz. The two good witches were merged into Glinda, the Tin Woodman's past as a human who chopped off all his limbs was forgotten, the Wicked Witch became green, and her cloak became black instead of white.

Oz gained special significance in the gay community. In Baum’s sequels, Dorothy frequently reminds characters to be accepting of themselves and her other “queer companions.” A major figure, Ozma, lived her childhood as a boy due to a curse to keep her from ruling her kingdom. When the curse is lifted she becomes female but only has memories of being a boy. The film was adopted not long after its release by gay communities as a representation of the journey of coming out. She escapes from drab, grey Kansas to a technicolor land of chosen friends who she teaches to accept themselves rather than change themselves to become who they want to be. The song (Somewhere) Over the Rainbow expresses and experience most young queer people experience and it contributes to the rainbow as a queer symbol. Judy Garland herself became a queer icon and by the 1960s she was playing sold-out shows to gay audiences who identified with her turbulent life and break from possessive managers. A love of Judy Garland became such a touchstone of gay culture it was used by queer people to identify each other in a time where merely outing yourself could result in life-threatening danger. It became such a touchstone that the term “Friend of Dorothy” became slang for gay. Even after her death, Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli, carries on her gay icon status.

Oz continues to see popular revivals. 1978’s The Wiz, screenplay by Joel Schumacher, starred Diana Ross and Michael Jackson as well as Richard Prior in an urban reimagining of the story. There’s a lot to be analyzed in this film but it’s a discussion for another time. I’ll just say that while The Wiz was a commercial and critical failure upon release, it became a cult classic.

In recent years, Wicked, a reimagining/prequel with the Wicked Witch of the West as an antihero named Elphaba, has captured another crop of impressionable young theater kids. The Stephen Schwartz musical is now the second-highest-grossing musical ever (after The Lion King). First produced in 2003, it continues to play on Broadway as of 2021. In this sense, The Wizard of Oz was returned from the sound stages of California to its home in the theaters of New York.

I think in the Wizard of Oz we see what it means to struggle through a landscape of upjumped leaders and credulous followers. Only with a strong sense of skepticism and self-confidence can one navigate this landscape safely. It emphasizes kindness and understanding, even for charlatans, because after all, they fulfill a role demanded by society: the need to believe in someone. I also think it shows how intolerance for bullshit can inoculate you against cult leaders like the ones we’ve discussed.

However, this is just one way of viewing the story. In Upstate Cauldron, Godwin argues that the Oz world features many signs and symbols of occult and theosophy and may represent the Summer Land imagined by Spiritualists for deceased children to roam. All of the original Oz stories have since passed into the public domain and generation after generation of Americans have reinterpreted and reimagined the story, adding layer after layer to Baum’s rich world. And yet, at its heart, it remains a story about the Burned-Over District: a place where Americans took God into their own hands and radically reimagined what Christianity and spirituality were all about.


This ends a 4-Part, six-hour series on the Burned-Over District, and for me, the culmination of years of research. First of all, thank you for listening if you made it this far. I hope you found these stories as weird and illuminating as I did. Thank you Joscelyn Godwin for writing an exhaustively researched and very readable history of this time and place. Upstate Couldron is head and shoulders above anything else on the subject, thank you for writing it. It’s worth reading if you want more info on this or to examine the source of most of my claims. He is very interested in and knowledgeable about the occult so he provides a more informed and, I would say, credulous account of the mysticism and esotericism at play in these stories.

As I mentioned, I was able to road trip around upstate New York some while researching this. If you get the chance, visit the Yates County History Center in Penn Yann. They have most of the remaining artifacts from the Public Universal Friend and were very helpful to my research. It’s also worth visiting the Oneida Community Mansion House in Oneida. It’s a beautiful building with an extensive museum and it operates as a hotel in case you want to stay in a 19th-Century sex cult mansion. I ask that if you live in New York you look into the Spirit House in Georgetown and support preservation efforts. It would be a real shame to lose.

Lastly and mostly I want to thank the parents of my partner, Kaitlin: Susan and Russ. Thanks for putting us up when we came to town, supporting me in research and listening to huge portions of the script, lending me your car for my Shakers day, and most of all for raising such a wonderful daughter. As I worked on this and bounced ideas off her, I realized how much she embodies the optimism and wonder of the burned over district. She is, after all, a child of Delmar. Kaitlin has committed her life to the idea that dedicated, sustained belief and action can fundamentally change society and improve the world. She carries on the progressive belief that hard work and hard discussions can create justice where justice has never existed or been accessible. It takes a special person to build a career and life around that belief so I thank you, Susan and Russ, for raising someone with her optimism and integrity.

489 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Follow on social media:

  • facebook
  • iTunes
  • twitter
  • Instagram
  • linkedin

Support the show:

  • Patreon
bottom of page