July 22, 2022

“I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears”: Spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln's White House with Michelle Hamilton

“I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears”: Spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln's White House with Michelle Hamilton

Joining me today is author and historian Michelle Hamilton to discuss her book "I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears" which sheds light on the Lincoln's interest in Spiritualism and proves that Mary Lincoln may not have been the only Spiritualist in the White House. 

Thank you for listening.

Guest Information:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/people/Michelle-L-Hamilton-Author/100063605468931/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/historywiz1

Blog: https://paranormalhist.blogspot.com/

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Host : Hi, everyone, and welcome back to another episode of Haunted History Chronicles. In today's episode, I'm joined by Michelle Hamilton, who's an author of many books, including the topic of conversation today. I would still be drowned in tears. Spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln's White house. For decades, historians have maintained that President Lincoln only attended a few seances in an attempt to protect his mentally unstable wife. This narrative is incorrect. And using a host of previously neglected primary sources, historian Michelle Hamilton documents the numerous seances President Lincoln attended and the interest he had for the religion. I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears sheds new light onto the Lincoln's interest in spiritualism and proves that Mary Lincoln might not have been the only spiritualist in the White House. So without further ado, let's greet our guest and start discussing this fantastic topic.

Host: Hi, Michelle. Thanks for joining me today.

Michelle Hamilton: Oh, you're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here.

Host: So do you want to start by just kind of telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Michelle Hamilton: Sure. My name is Michelle Hamilton. I am a historian, author, and historian of the paranormal. I live in Virginia and the United States, and I was born in California, where I got my master's in History. And my primary emphasis of study at San Diego State University was to study spiritualism during the American Civil War, and particularly how that related to the lives of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. After I graduated, I was able to move to Virginia, where I am actually the manager of the Mary Washington House in Fregsburg, Virginia. And Mary Washington was the mother of George Washington. So I moved from the Civil War into the Revolutionary War, which I'm just as fascinated by, but also on the site I continue to write on ghost legends of America, and particularly now of Virginia history.

Host: I mean, I just find it incredible that you've got these connections with some incredibly historic buildings like the Washington House. But you've also got connections with the Whaley House, haven't you?

Michelle Hamilton: Yeah, that's where I started my museum career. When I was a teenager, I started as a volunteer, and I volunteered for several years. I was briefly a paid guide, but I started working at the Whaley House, and that's where I always had a fascination with history, but also of the paranormal, and the two kind of blended there. But also I learned how to be a researcher, how to be an historian, how to look for the truths behind some of the legends. And I found I really enjoyed working in museums. And so when I decided that I didn't want to go further into getting my doctorate, that my master's was satisfactory enough, when I moved to Virginia, I decided I wanted to stay working in the museum field.

Host: As I say, I just think that sounds like such a dream job that I am so incredibly envious of. So do you have any personal paranormal experiences from some of these locations that you've had the privilege to work in and to be part of.

Michelle Hamilton: Yes, old houses always have their own nature to them. And particularly when I worked at the Whaley House, I learned to begin to understand how these buildings talk. And we did frequently have events at the Whaley House. I think the Whaley House is one of the few places it really does live up to his reputation as being a very haunted location. And so very frequently when I worked there, you would smell phantom scents. We smelled perfume, cigar smoke. I had an interaction with a ghost dog once. I felt his little cold, wet nose, my ankle. He would hear things. I heard voices speaking in the house. I heard raps and taps, particularly at the Whaley House.

Host: Incredible. Again, just incredibly jealous. I'm sitting here thinking, oh, I wish I could just get on a plane and go and take part in something like that over there, because these are buildings that really do have that reputation of incredible history, but also the connections with the paranormal. And so for anybody that's part of that community, they are locations that people know about. And so, yeah, it's just incredible that you've had the experience of being able to be a tour guide there and to really get your teeth into research about some of these locations and be part of those locations. Very jealous.

Michelle Hamilton: I also say jealousy. You get to visit some of the sites in England I haven't had a chance to visit yet, but that's on my bucket list, to come over and see and trace my family history in England, but also to see some of these magnificent houses.

Host: If you ever come, just send me a message, and I'll be your tour guide. Because there's nothing better, I think, than exploring historical buildings. It's a real love and a real passion of mine. So I'd happily be your tour guide any day.

Michelle Hamilton: Well, thank you.

Host: So we're going to talk today about your book, spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln's White House. Do you want to just start off by kind of talking about death and grief within the White House? Because I think it plays a really significant part in the story of the Lincolns.

Michelle Hamilton: I will still be drowned in tears. Spiritualism and Abraham Lincoln's White House and is available on Amazon in the United States and then in the UK. It's available worldwide. And we are very kind of say fall removed from death in the White House. The last death in the White House was John F. Candy Grant. He didn't die in the White House, but that was the last president to die in his term. But in the 19th century, with the limits of health care, there were quite a few deaths in the White House of presidents, but also of their family members. One of the first presidents to die in the White House was President harrison, Benjamin Henry Harrison, and he dies within 40 days into his term. He caught pneumonia on his inauguration day. And then we fast forward. There was in the 1850s when the Pierces were moving into the White House, when they were actually traveling to move to Washington, DC. Their last surviving child, Benny, died in a horrific train accident. He was nearly decapitated when the train derailed and a very heavy trunk hit him on the back of the head. And so that devastated the Pierce family. And when they were living in the White House, jane Pierce, the First Lady, actually did very little official duties as the White House, at the White House as First Lady because she was in such mourning. And that's the first time spiritualism comes to the White House in the 1850s, when the Fox sisters, they're the founders of spiritualism here in the United States. Spiritualism starts in the US. I know some historians in England like to say that they abandoned it. I'm sorry. I'll have to say, if spiritualism is an American creation no, I agree with you. And also starts in highsville New York in 1848. And very shortly into their career, the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, will come to DC. Washington, DC. To do spiritual seances for powerful people in the government, and Jane Pierce invites them to come to the White House to do with seance. And now, this has been grossly dramatized in a recent Travel Channel program called Demon in the White House, which is actually based on a novel, a horror novel, but they presented it as a factually based documentary when it was not. And so they make it look like that Jane Pierce releases a demon in the White House. That wasn't true. They had seances, yes, but there was no demons being released into the White House. And then we get to the 1860s with American Civil War and the Lincolns move in. And when they are in the White House in February of 1862, their beloved son Willie passes away from typhoid fever. He caught typhoid fever from playing out in the swamps that ran behind the White House. The White House drinking water was highly corrupted and tainted. In fact, the whole Lincoln family had been sick with gastrointestinal issues, and poor Willie got the worst of it, and his immune system could not fight it off. So he passes away in 1862, and this absolutely devastates both Abraham and Mary. And one way that Mary dealt with her grief was that she was introduced into spiritualism. The family had already been aware of. Spiritualism, again, has been around since 1848. The Lincoln family may have attended seances in Springfield in the 1850s. I could not defend. We prove that. But they were definitely aware of it. As mediums did come to Springfield in the 1850s. But we know for sure that the Lincolns are doing their first seances in 1862. They're first doing it at the homes of the mediums themselves. And then as they become more involved in the actual process, mediums are invited into the White House. And from the winter of 1863 to 65 there are a pretty regular stream of seances being conducted in the White House.

Host: One of the things that I think you really captured incredibly well in the book is the profound nature of that sense of grief because I think you hit the nail on the head when you said we can sometimes be detached from what that means and we can read about someone's grief and the experiences that they've had. And it's just a word on a page. But I think what you captured so profoundly and with part of the title I Would Still be Drowned in Tears is the extent of that grief, the heaviness, the sadness that that really did kind of bring about for the Lincolns. And I think the particular section where you were talking about the reception at the White House in 1862 just before their son's passing, when he was very ill at that point, and the references that you were making to primary sources, people who were there at that reception and their reaction. Seeing the president, his face, you can really see the toll that the grief, the trauma, the anxiety that they had around their son. And of course, then, sadly, his passing afterwards. And I think it's really important we don't lose sight of that. These were ordinary people. They were just different because they were President and First Lady. But grief touches them in the same way that it touches the ordinary person. And I think we really do have to hold that and remember that because it does play such an important part of the story. And you did it so beautifully.

Michelle Hamilton: Thank you. Historians are now finally starting to acknowledge the grief of the Lincolns. Before that, they would view Mary's grief as a weakness, as a character flaw, while Lincoln's grief was seen as something that strengthened him. It was always a very weird dichotomy that one person's grief for a beloved child was seen as a weakness and another, it was seen as something that made him an even better president. About a year and a half ago, the Lincoln cottage in Washington, D. C. Which was their summer home, actually did a very beautiful it was something that I knew I couldn't face but did a very beautiful display on grief of women who lost their children. And the basis of that display came when the curator lost a child at birth. And understanding the grief that the Lincolns went through and the very distinct and unique grief of the grief of the loss of a child, especially a minor child.

Host: And I think you kind of just raised something equally just as important. This kind of dichotomy between how the narrative around husband and wife here have been spun in very different directions. President Lincoln very stoic kind of internalizing his grief. Mary, this very outward expression of grief bordering on know, when you read a lot of references and materials around, you know, she's had quite an unjust unfair portrayal, I think, because it is a very profound loss. And the loss of her children were not the only things that she experienced. To lose a husband in the way that she did was terrible. And it's awful when you really do kind of understand the circumstances around that. And so it's really fascinating to see the historical narrative that has been put out around both of these figures and how they're seen very differently or have been seen very differently.

Michelle Hamilton: Yes. One story when I was doing research for the book and this is the source I quoted for I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears is about the religious life of Abraham Lincoln. And on one hand, even in the same paragraph, he would praise Lincoln for being religiously skeptical, for somebody who never followed one church doctrine. He went to several Protestant churches. In fact, after he dies, just about every organized religion in the United States tries to claim that Lincoln was a secret convert to their religion. And at the same time, he's praising Lincoln for being religiously open minded, and at the same time, he condemns Mary for being religiously open minded and for searching out other forms of religious comfort. It's just a very fascinating dichotomy. It's starting to change a little bit here in the United States, especially when now historians are starting to incorporate studies in mental health. And Mary could very possibly have had bipolar depression, and that was very hard to diagnose somebody 100 and 830 years after they died. But she does show signs of possibly bipolar, and Lincoln does too. So it's interesting that they are now starting to study mental health and mental health treatment in understanding historical characters.

Host: And I think history is always something that deserves people continually looking at something and looking again and continually examining those same questions to see what else we can uncover or bring to light or add a new kind of nuance to the understanding of something. And I think, again, your book was incredible in that because you really were the first historian to look with fresh eyes at Lincoln's involvement within spiritualism that kind of intrigue and interest that he had. And I suppose a question that I have is what really inspired you to want to examine those primary sources again and to look at that role and to dig deeper and dive deeper into that question about his involvement.

Michelle Hamilton: Well, as an historian, I was always taught to go for the primary sources. The primary sources will tell you everything that you need to know to a certain degree. There's always things you'll never fully know. That's always frustrating. But primary sources are always the place to start versus biographies, which are secondary sources. So I was trained very young to go for primary sources, especially with my research on the whaley family. Go for the primary sources, go for what people actually said. And my fascination with the spiritual aspect was I was looking for something to do for a master's thesis. My initial idea had been rejected by my professor as not being broad enough. And I actually had to do a paper for American history and religion. And I was looking for something different that involved the Lincolns. And I remember and again, I had a couple of summers before that had read a fascinating biography on the Fox sisters. And I always had an interest in the actual history of the paranormal. And I thought and then I got a light bulb went off in my head one day and said, hey, why don't I marry the two together? My interest in the Lincolns and the interest of spiritualism and talk about the true story and of know what you think the paper is going to be about when you get into the actual research, it turns out to be completely different. And what I didn't expect to find was how involved Abraham Lincoln was involved. I knew Mary Lincoln was involved. Historians always said that Lincoln, her husband, was an unwilling participant, that he did just to humor her. That is the pop culture way it was portrayed even in movies about the Lincolns, that it was her interest, he had no interest in it. But then I started actually reading the memoirs and the primary sources of people who were involved and the spiritualist mediums who were involved and found out that he was much more involved than traditional biographers wanted to put out. In fact, ten years after tears came out, either nine to ten years that it came out, there is now finally another Lincoln historian who's actually written a brand new book on spiritualism in the Lincolns and involving even the Booth family. And I'm reading right now. It's fascinating. It's called in the houses of their dead. And that is the first, beside mine, this serious treatment of the Lincolns and spiritualism.

Host: So why do you think there was so much effort to discredit his role in these events, to paint him as someone who was merely placating his grieving, possibly crazy wife? That narrative. Why do you think historians went to such an extent to do that?

Michelle Hamilton: For historians who are primarily not very religious or don't want to wear the religion on their sleeve and also because it involves aspects of the paranormal. How would you like to say that? America's greatest president right up there with Washington. Lately, historians have been ranking Washington as the best president of Lincoln as usually either two or three. It's very difficult to say here in the United States. And I actually was saying the same thing in know your greatest world leader went to spiritual assances and talked to ghosts. That is something that in the modern purview that is something that is frowned upon. I mean, there are still historians who don't want to or kind of look at as a novelty nancy Reagan, who was Ronald Reagan's husband, she was involved in astrology and was involved in interest in UFOs. And that is something that is still very carefully tiptoed around depending on if you're a pro Nancy historian or an anti Nancy. It's just something that people don't mind talking about. And it was controversial even in the 1860s. Spiritualism was one of the fastest growing religious movements. It was never organized, though. There is the Spiritualist Church of America and in Britain it's very loosely knitted together and even in the middle of the Civil War and it was controversial then. The idea that a person may be receiving political advice from spirits, that is just something that the tabloids, even back then, the newspapers, would have an absolute field day. And in fact, I quote, and I will still be drowned in tears in 1864. How it became a political issue and that there were books written that were anti Abraham Lincoln, anti Republican Party, anti Civil War that were using the spiritualist issue as a reason why Lincoln should be voted out of office.

Host: And that kind of answer really resonates for me because when we look at similar historical figures within British history, winston Churchill, for example, we see a similar narrative where we know he had interests in the metaphysical. He wrote about them, he talked about them, we know he had involvement with people like Crowley. And yet this narrative kind of gets whitewashed. It's not really very well known, it's not put out there as credible sources, but yet we know of this involvement and yet somehow this very stoic figure, very much central to the Second World War, very much kind of associated with England's success in the war. Great military mind can't possibly think of these types of things, can't have beliefs in these types of things and certainly can't have approached spiritualists or mediums to ascertain information with regards to military questions and strategies and things that might be happening as part of the war. That's a big no no. And so it's very much discredited around his character and it's a shame because it is part of who they were. It's a facet of them as individuals. And if we're really going to do justice to them as people, not just as a political figure, then we have to really kind of understand them as human beings, too, and the things that motivated them and interested them. Because they are just ordinary people and so therefore they're going to have the same kinds of questions and interests as other people around them, I think.

Michelle Hamilton: I also think it's interesting that with innocent Churchill's interest the mediums could have gone to jail. I mean, the British government during World War II did jail mediums. They did against the fortune telling act. And my understanding is it wasn't until the 1970s or 1980s that British mediums could actually do public readings on TV without being fined or having a risk of being put in jail.

Host: Yeah, you're absolutely right.

Michelle Hamilton: Yet at the same time, we have the growth of the British pagan movement, where there's the group of British pagans who are doing their ceremonies to try to block the Nazi invasion of Britain. And at the same time, there is one case where a medium was thrown in jail for correctly telling a woman that her son had died in action before the official telegram had come.

Host: Yeah, no, you're completely right. And it just is part of this kind of real underbelly of history that it's just not spoken about. And I think it's such a shame because I think it deserves to be spoken about and to kind of have that light shone on it, because it's really interesting and it's part of the events and the backdrop of our history. And with regards to these really important people, as I mentioned, it's part of them, it's their makeup. And I think it's really important to see them as whole, complete beings rather than this kind of cardboard, two dimensional, just great military leader or great political figure or whatever else, get to know them as human beings. And again, I think it's something that you were able to do incredibly well with the book, because you really did dive deep into those primary sources and make those connections with the metaphysical that Lincoln had throughout his life. Starting way back in his early childhood.

Michelle Hamilton: Again goes back. That the belief in ghosts and spiritualism and metaphysics witchcraft. These are not new phenomenon historians like to place at. And they always every couple of years, astrology becomes popular, or right now, witchcraft for women becomes popular and everyone always kind of scratches their head and it's because they don't study the roots of it that has always been part of human history and culture. In fact, there is a fantastic new book out about ghosts in ancient Samaria that people have been talking about ghosts from the dawn of time. Now, our ideas of ghosts have changed and how we relate to ghosts, that has changed and that will continue to change. But the idea that we have always been as human beings have been fascinated with the unknown and without understanding that you can't place these people correctly in their time slot. And when you understand how completely challenging life was and people had very short lifespans, and they're going to try to do anything and everything to try to make sure that their family survives until the next harvest, that somehow the horse is going to be cured either. It be through a horse whisperer, which is an early veterinarian who would use a combination of herbs and magic to try to treat animals. The same thing to the wise woman that knew a combination of herbal remedies and metaphysical remedies to try to help people survive.

Host: And again, it's perfectly reasonable that Abraham Lincoln very much was part of this that was very much interwoven with his upbringing. And you really did depict that really well, how it was something that he linked with his religious beliefs, but then also his interest in other things like dreams, omens, all of those things. Do you want to kind of just talk a little bit about that?

Michelle Hamilton: Yeah. Abraham Lincoln was born in 18 nine in Kentucky. Kentucky is very rural, pretty much at the edge as far as in his lifetime. There will be westward expansion. But when he's born, that is pretty out in the HINDERLAND. And so he is raised by family that are Scotch Irish. And Scotch Irish culture is very important. It's very ingrained. And so from a young age, he's raised around the belief in omens and the belief of dreams. And these are things that though Lincoln may not adopt the Baptist faith of his parents, he'll bring the beliefs in omens and dreams and throughout his life, and in fact, even during the Civil War and up to the end of his life, he talks about the dreams that he has in 1864. He talks about seeing a double image of himself in his mirror the day that he is elected president and understanding that that he believes. And he talks with Mary about that, that they believe that he will survive his first term, but something will happen to him in the second term. He talks about this in 1864 when he's going up for reelection. And that story came out in July of 1865, months after Lincoln died. One of his first biographers mentions that he talked about dreams frequently the day that he is shot in his last cabinet meeting. He talks about having a dream that he would only have before momentous events in the Civil War. And he interprets that, that they are going to get words soon from General Sherman that one of the last major armies of the Confederate Army has surrendered and that officially the war would be over. So up until almost the day he dies, he is talking about dreams, his belief in dreams, his belief in omens and how that means a lot to him.

Host: And again, I think there is something about the narrative of history that kind of moved on from those beliefs, those superstitions that somehow enlightenment means. We've crawled out of that swamp of backward, illogical thinking and yet it's just not simply the case. These are things that really were rooted in people's conscious mind and were very much part of communities, part of people's lives, and are very much part of history, are rooted in history. And that sense of magic, superstition, these beliefs are something that have been written out of a lot of history. And again, it shouldn't be. It's something that we really do need to reexamine, I think, to really understand the backdrop, the kind of the climate of the day to see how and why therefore Spiritualism could really take root the way that it did. It's something that really did take root. And I think, again, particularly with the backdrop of civil unrest, the divide between the north and south, you can really see just how important it would have been to the people of the day, how intriguing a subject and kind of thinking it would have been to people suffering real profound grief.

Michelle Hamilton: And it still is. Ghost hunting and people being interested in seeing if their houses were haunted became very popular during the COVID Lockdown here in the United States in 2020. People were home for the first time for hours on end and were using things like their ring doorbell cameras to record what they thought were orbs. Now it could be anything from dust, moisture to bugs. But people were this idea of, again, an uncertainty. We're returning to spiritualist beliefs for comfort, and we're still seeing what people would see as maybe unique beliefs being brought in by immigrations in the United States. A couple years ago, there was a case of Haitian voodoo in Massachusetts where was wrong with the child and they were trying to drive out the evil spirits in the child by doing an exorcism. And the authorities were alerted. So people are still bringing with us, even in the modern era, are still falling back on their folk beliefs. Their folk traditions. When things are at the worst, when things are at the most unsettled, being.

Host: Able to see that in the context of that kind of national grief as to what was happening, the unrest, again, just kind of really helps to deepen the understanding of what was happening. And again, why for the Lincolns, but also for the wider country and the people living at that particular time, why it was really quite a significant moment in history that I think helped spark that real interest in Spiritualism.

Michelle Hamilton: According to which historian we talked to, it's either anywhere between 600,000 to 900,000 people died during the Civil War. There has been some recent research with census records. There was an historian who compared the 1860 to 1870 census records and found about 900,000 adult males that were missing from one record to another on both sides of giving a sense of how much the loss was and realized that pretty much every family during the Civil War, I think the closest would be during for the Second World War, for the United States and for Great Britain. Everybody knew somebody that was involved in the war effort and somebody knew somebody that lost somebody. And people were dying in the most horrific way possible. And spiritualism said it's okay. They have passed on to a better world. They are whole, they are well. They're waiting for you. Heaven is like earth, except without pain. And for people that lost their loved ones, that had amputations the idea, it made people. Request traditional theology of the Second Coming about when the Second Coming comes and the bodily resurrection happens of believers, is that a physical resurrection? Is that a spiritual resurrection? If the physical body is not in one piece, does that mean the person is going to come out on a whole? And spiritualism said, no, it's not a physical resurrection, it's a spiritual resurrection and that the body and spirit is whole. And that was tremendously peaceful for families who had lost their loved ones that were in some cases incinerated.

Host: Yeah, again, I think it's a really good book for kind of demonstrating some of those shifts, because you also kind of referenced the kind of the resurgence in Christian beliefs and Christian faiths and know, for Abraham Lincoln, he was really kind of examining those beliefs alongside some of these metaphysical beliefs. Mesmerism spiritualism these things that were coming through and exploring them side by side and meshing these worlds together, if you like. And again, I think that helped portray a really interesting journey, a very believable, very kind of accurate portrait of what happened, but one that makes total sense. You can understand the journey that he was on in asking some of those questions and trying to explore possibly the answers to those questions about what happens after death.

Michelle Hamilton: Yeah. Spiritualism, especially American spiritualism, was in the early days, in particular, was very much married to Protestant Christianity and majority of the early spiritualists called themselves Christians. In fact, nettie colburn. Maynard, Abraham Lincoln's favorite medium, makes repeated references in her memoir and calls herself a Christian spiritualist. And she links herself to Jesus of Nazareth. She tries to argue in her biography now some theologians will have problems with this that she says Jesus of Nazareth was the first medium because he spoke to the dead and made the dead rise again so that she is just following in his footsteps. And much later in the 1880s, 1890s, when Madame Blah Blsky comes around, when spiritualism becomes more tied to Eastern religion and you see the separation and they haven't quite crossed paths again. So you see a lot of that debate today on spiritualism being an outlier religion. But it's very fascinating that in the earliest days of spiritualism, it was seen as an offshoot of the Christian religion. And in fact, many spiritual seances in the early colon spirit circles would start with prayers. They would start with singing of hymns, of Christian hymns. And so that was an interesting part of spiritualism that a lot of people don't really understand. And I know for some people when I would speak about that, that would be the biggest flak that I would get. Like, how could you say this was Christian? This is what the believers were saying. They are saying that they are Christian and this is the reasons why they're arguing that they are Christian, but they're also spiritualist.

Host: So you kind of referenced one of the spiritualist mediums that the Lincolns were involved with there, who were some of the other ones that you know of, that were part of their circle that they would attend Seances with and so on.

Michelle Hamilton: Nevy Colbert. She will later become Maynard. When she married, she was the most prominent of the spiritualists that the Lincolns were involved in. She was Abraham and Mary Lincoln's favorite, so she did the most. But there was also a gentleman named Charles Colchester. He claimed to be British. He claimed to be a lord. He was neither. He was involved. He was more of a sleight of hand medium. He was caught faking some of his activities. He was, for a while, one of Mary's favorites. Lincoln was so fascinated by him that he wanted the head of the Smithsonian Institute to investigate him. And fascinating enough, colchester was also good friends with Lincoln's future assassin, John Milk's. Booth and the story in Bezrin, the new book in the Houses of Our Dead, actually argues that perhaps Colchester tried to warn Lincoln that there were attempts on his life because he knew of Booth's hatred of him. So and so those are some of the main mediums that the Lincolns were involved with.

Host: And we've kind of touched upon how spiritualism was something that the Lincolns were using to understand life after death, maybe to help deal with some of the grief that they'd experienced. But you also reference in the book how it was very much something that Abraham Lincoln would turn to to try and gain advice with regards to the war. Do you want to just talk about that a little bit?

Michelle Hamilton: I know one of his Lincoln's friends said that this is a man that never asked for advice. He may not have asked for advice, but he was very open to listening to what people had to think. And so he called them his weekly baths, his weekly public baths, and that as a politician, he should bathe regularly would be his joke. He was fascinated in what average people thought. And again, spiritualism was a way for him to talk to others, to get their opinion. And it's fascinating. So spiritualism allowed women and women who cannot vote to be able to perhaps get political opinions across, because it's not their personal opinions, it's what the spirits are saying. So they can always couch back and say, well, if you don't like what I'm offering, it's not from me personally. It's not my personal belief. It's what the spirits are telling me. And so Lincoln did and listen to what the mediums had to say. In fact, in Lincoln's first meeting with Nettie Colburn, she tells him, because it's the winter of 62, 63, and Lincoln is in the process of going to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which will change the goals of the American Civil War from putting down a rebellion to putting down a rebellion and ending slavery. And there were people within his own party that was telling him, do not change the war effort. Do not sign this. This will cause more problems. This will force the border states that have slavery to join into the Confederacy. And Nettie Colburn tells them, no, sign this. This will be what you will be known for. This will go down in history is one of the greatest things ever done. And so, in part with his own moral fortitude, but also listening to the advice of others, lincoln does go forward and signs the Emancipation Proclamation, which totally changes the war goals and also keeps European involvement from joining on.

Host: The side of again, you know, it's a really important part of history to realize just kind of how powerful a movement the spiritualist movement was in terms of shaping some of these moments in history, but also enabling women. And to give them a certain kind of power that they were denied in other ways very empowering and again, sometimes often overlooked, just to see how important it was as part of history on both sides of the kind of the pond. Because for over here in Britain, it was very much part of the suffragettes, the suffragists, the movement to women's voting rights. The two started merging later in that century and again, not often talked about it's often a whitewashed part of history, which is a shame.

Michelle Hamilton: Yeah. In the United States, original starts in 1848. So that's during the abolitionist movement and so the majority of spiritualist mediums were from the north and women were the desired mediums, especially women who were not married because they were seen as being spiritually pure vessels. And so they are pure. So they are only going to attract pure spirits, good spirits. And so they become major voices in the abolitionist movement. They will become women's rights activists, anti death penalty activists, the activists for the improved treatment of the mentally ill because only in very certain areas of the American South to spiritualism become popular, particularly New Orleans, which already had a rich tradition in metaphysics, in voodoo and Catholicism and spiritual side of Catholicism. But there were very few southern mediums. And it'd be fascinating that they used primarily the issue of slavery as one of their places to talk about that. They would try to counter the arguments of the abolitionist mediums by trying to say, oh, no, slavery is a good thing, and by trying to use the testimony of deceased, enslaved workers to try to argue their point, but it never caught on. And it was seen as a Northern thing, a Yankee thing. And then there's newspaper articles in the south absolutely ripping spiritualism to shreds because of the progressive politics that the mediums endorsed.

Host: So when you were kind of doing the research for this book and kind of diving into these primary sources, was there anything that really surprised you that kind of really stood out as, gosh, that really is enlightening? I really didn't think this would kind of come up or it would be.

Michelle Hamilton: This important that Lincoln attended a saying one time that the piano actually levitated and he sat on the piano to try to figure out how it was levitating.

Host: That was my favorite moment in the I think it makes him very know. You can just picture it can't be trying to disprove or try and figure out what was going on or whatever.

Michelle Hamilton: Well, Lincoln was a very technical person, a very smart person. He is the only us. President to hold a patent for an invention. It never got made, but he is the only president so far that held a patent. And he loved to try to figure out how things worked. And much to the annoyance of his children, he would take their toys apart to try to figure out how they worked. And so when he saw that this piano was levitating, his natural inclination was to see how it worked. Well, let me sit on it and let's see if it still levitates. And according to the testimony, it still levitated when he is sitting on this piano. And that was the skill of that particular medium was that she could play the piano and the piano would levitate.

Host: Yeah, as I say, that was kind of my favorite moment because it was just so human and you could really just picture that scene. I think we would all want to do it right? We would all want to go and see what happened.

Michelle Hamilton: I want to go back in time, see cell phone video of Lincoln trying.

Host: To sit on the piano again. It was just little moments like that, you realize just how much part of both of their lives it know, they were really intrigued. It was kind of an investigation. It was something that they were interested in. It was something that they were open to. And I think that's the key thing here. They were open to it because they were inquisitive, they weren't closed minded. And I just think it was really fascinating to kind of be able to see that so clearly portrayed, rather than some of it being hushed up and kind of overlooked. It was a really profound read. So you have a new book that's just come out, haven't you, about haunted Virginia. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Michelle Hamilton: Yes. It's called Virginia's Haunted History. It was just published on June 14 from Haunted Road Media. So it is available as an ebook and as a paperback on Amazon and is available in the US and in the UK. And that is a collection of newspaper articles from the antebellum period to 1899 detailing the amount of ghosts that were spotted in Virginia. Virginia is the oldest state in the United States. It was our first colony here, founded in 16, seven, and basically from the beginning of newspaper recordings, when newspapers started becoming very popular in the 1840s, people are seeing tremendous amounts of ghosts here in Virginia. And again, it's my argument to show people that the interest in the paranormal, the interest in ghosts is not a recent phenomenon. People have been seeing ghosts here in Virginia, been talking about seeing ghosts. And what really is fascinating is how soon after the American civil war, people are talking about their paranormal experiences during the war and after the war and how it ties into that conflict.

Host: Fascinating. And do you have any other plans for other research projects and other books for in the future?

Michelle Hamilton: Yes, earlier this year, I published a collection of ghost stories that I researched called virginia's ghosts and legends volume one. And I do attend that to be a multi volume series. So I'm starting to research on volume two, and I like to continue that. And it's tracing the history of these stories of here's the story, here's the legend, and here is the primary sources to either support it or disprove it. So I talk about there is a famous ghost in colonial willingsburg, the ghost of lady skipworth, and how she supposedly haunts a house called the wyth house in colonial willingsburg. And I document how lady skipworth actually did not pass away in that property. She was a visitor there, but she didn't die there. And so, yes, there are reports of paranormal activity in this house. So I kind of identify it's not lady skip with, but more likely it's the people who actually lived in the house.

Host: So do you have a particular favorite ghost story from your research in those areas that kind of came up that you were just like, gosh, that one's fascinating, or something really kind of unbelievable or funny or something that really kind of stood out?

Michelle Hamilton: My favorite is when it was the earliest ghost story from the area that I live in in fregsburg, Virginia. And it actually happened at a place called hazel hill. Hazel hill no longer exists. It's now an apartment building. But there's a man named John minor, and he was a politician, and he dies suddenly in 1816. And the night that he died, his spirit was actually seen coming home to his family. His family saw him come in from the front door, go up to the stairs, go into his bedroom. They thought the change, and when they went up there, he was no longer there. And within hours, they received news that he had suddenly passed away of a stroke while at a political dinner in Richmond, which was several hours away in 1816 travel time. So there was no way that physically he could have returned, but his crisis apparition returned. And this was a story that was well known in the minor family, and they talked about throughout the 19th century, passing down, in fact, minor spirit that night was seen at two different plantations by two different parts of his family. His brother in law saw him at one plantation and his wife and children saw him at his main plantation in Fregsburg.

Host: Fascinating. And we will have to make sure that we get all of your links and kind of where to get the books so that we can put them up on the website. But also as part of the episode note so anybody listening going to the website can be sign posted to where to find out things about you, but also to access some of these books, because you've written so many and they're incredible, and they are so detailed and very well documented. And the fact that you do really use the primary sources, to the extent that you do and allow people to see them as well as they were in some cases, it means that you really do kind of have. That real sense of what was happening during that time period, down to, in some cases, the detail of the text, how it was written, which is fascinating. So we'll make sure we will get all of that information and put that up so people can easily find you and find more of your books to finish. Given that we've just been talking about ghosts and ghost stories, we have to kind of, I think, finish with do you have a particular favorite ghost story from the White House itself? Because they have a lot of different ghost stories, don't they?

Michelle Hamilton: Yes. And this one involves Sir Winston Churchill, who is also very revered here in the United States. And this story takes place during World War II, during one of Winston's visits to the White House and was visiting with FDR. And according to the story, Winston Churchill is staying in Lincoln bedroom, which is now used as guests, very important visitors. And as was his habit, Winston liked to take his bath and he came out of the bathroom naked. And according to the story, he walks into the Lincoln Bedroom dripping wet, naked, and he saw the ghost of Lincoln standing at the mantelpiece in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Lincoln years was his office. So that is where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. His that was his executive office. The Oval Office addition to the White House had not been created yet. That was a much later period. And also in the Lincoln Bedroom, the bed is the bed that Willie Lincoln passed away in. They call the Prince of Wales bed because that is the bed that the Prince of Wales stayed in in the 1850s. Victoria's son came later. King Albert. King Albert, excuse me, I always get my mixed up there. But he stays in that bed. So it's called the Prince of Wales bed. The room that Willie died in was across the hall. But they will later bring in subsequent remodels of the White House. They bring that bed into that room, which they call the Lincoln Bedroom. So he walks in, he sees Lincoln's ghost standing at the mantle. According to the story. He both said, excuse me, Mr. President, but you have me at a disadvantage. At which the ghost of Lincoln smiled and disappeared. And according to the legend, after that, winston Churchill asked for other places to stay and never stayed in the Lincoln bedroom.

Host: Again, only Winston Churchill would see a ghost naked.

Michelle Hamilton: And I don't know what's more terrifying, the ghosts of Lincoln or naked Churchill. I would go on the naked Churchills being way more terrifying and also part ghost of Lincoln was probably very traumatized.

Host: Absolutely. I agree with you. I think that's one of my favorite stories, ghost stories that come out of the White House. It's something that I've written about mean. It's incredible, isn't mean? You don't want to picture the scene, actually, you just don't. Just the idea of Winston Churchill naked is enough. But it's really very interesting to kind of look at and to kind of see the huge variety of ghost law that surrounds the White House. So many different people, ghosts in different parts of the building. I mean, it's incredible. If anybody doesn't know more about that, it's something I think they definitely find interesting to look into.

Michelle Hamilton: And these stories start very early in the White House history. By the early 19 hundreds, they're talking about the house being haunted. Particularly one of the first ghosts talked about is Willie Lincoln. There was an aide that will write about the ghost of Willie being seen in the White House. And he was a major archer, bull butt or butte. And he was aide for President Taft. And this particular person passed away in the Titanic. But he's one of the first ones to start talking about that is well known in the White House. And the service talk about there's a ghost child, a ghost boy in the White House.

Host: Is Mary Lincoln seen there?

Michelle Hamilton: No.

Host: Is she seen anywhere else? Do you know?

Michelle Hamilton: She has been seen in the house in Springfield. She has been seen in Springfield. Lincoln has been seen in a lot of places. He's been seen in the White House. He's also been seen at Springfield House, their beloved home, the only home they ever owned. He's also been seen where he's buried at Lincoln tomb. Lincoln travels around a lot. Mary's primarily has I haven't really seen a definitive good story of Mary being in the White House, but I've heard good stories of her being a woman being encountered at the Lincoln home.

Host: There's something about Mary Lincoln's story that really intrigues me, because I just think she really did have kind of a rough ride. She wasn't always painted well, and her grief really was incredibly profound. Something that you really see in her later years, the kind of the toll it took on her. And it's really hard to imagine just kind of how horrifying some of the events that she lived through would have been to be with her husband in that moment when he was shot. I mean, just horrific.

Michelle Hamilton: And they were holding hands and cuz her. Her head was on his shoulder when he is shot. She got the echo of that bull blast right in her ear.

Host: And I suppose we can only really liken that event to the assassination of Kennedy, the motorcade. And yet she's not really given that same kind of moment, that same kind of understanding that grief, is she?

Michelle Hamilton: She's not given the dignity to be allowed to every and also when Lincoln was dying, she was kicked out of the room. She was not allowed to be with her husband when he died because she.

Host: Was crying too much.

Michelle Hamilton: Wasn't crying too much. Heaven forbid that a woman just saw her husband's brains blown out and has her blood and his blood on her should be allowed to cry, which is.

Host: Again, just really kind of sad that she really was treated in that way. I mean, it's a real shame. And I think it's a shame that her kind of story, her narrative, her moment in history just became something slightly tinged with something else, with a different kind of bias, which is a shame because like I said, those moments were profound and they really were very telling on her. I mean, I read somewhere recently that didn't she damage her eyes from crying? Something to do with corneal damage.

Michelle Hamilton: She had cornea damaged her cornea from crying so much, I think, because the salt build up in the eyes, because tears are salt and what it did and the crying and scratching. And also she did suffer signs of diabetes, so that didn't help either.

Host: I mean, again, it really does speak to the level of grief that she experienced by losing children, losing her husband in the way that she did, and just really terrible. So, yeah, she kind of has a little bit of a soft spot for me because I think she did get a little bit of a bad narrative, unfortunately. But hopefully that's something that is starting to change, I think, looking at, again, with fresh new eyes, certainly with books like yours, which help to paint a different narrative and a more accurate portrayal of their relationship and their relationship with spiritualism, hopefully we see less of trying to elevate one by discrediting someone else. I think that's unfair. So, yeah, I think you've done an incredible job of helping to do that. So thank you.

Michelle Hamilton: Thank you.

Host: And thank you so much for an incredible chat today. It was amazing. And I hope people come and not only read this book, but look at some of the other books that you've done because you've got some incredible ones about the Civil War. I mean, there's a whole host of different material that they can dive into and digest and kind of really enjoy, I think. So thank you so much for your time, Michelle.

Michelle Hamilton: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

Host: And I'll say goodbye to everyone. Bye, everyone.

Host : If you like this podcast, there's a number of things you can do. Come and join us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Spread the word about us with friends and family. Leave a review on our website or other podcast platforms to support the podcast further. Why not head on over to join us on Patreon, where you can sign up to gain a library of additional material and recordings and in the process know you're helping the podcast continue to put out more content? On a final note, if you haven't read it already, then you can find my piece In Search of the Medieval in volume three of The Feminine Macabre over on Spookeats.com or via Amazon. Links to the book will also be in the episode. Description thank you everyone for your amazing support.

Michelle L. HamiltonProfile Photo

Michelle L. Hamilton


Michelle L. Hamilton earned her MA in history from San Diego State University. Hamilton is the author or editor of several books including “I Would Still Be Drowned in Tears”: Spiritualism in Abraham Lincoln’s White House and Mary Ball Washington: The Mother of George Washington, and Virginia’s Ghosts and Legends: Vol. 1. She has published articles in The Morbid Curious and The Feminine Macabre. Her latest books Civil War Ghosts, Haunted Land, and Virginia’s Haunted History are published by Haunted Road Media. A lifelong student of history, Hamilton has worked as a docent at several museums across the county. She is currently the manager of the Mary Washington House in Fredericksburg, VA. You can follow her at her blog Paranormal History at https://paranormalhist.blogspot.com/