On a dark and stormy night in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln and his grief-stricken wife, Mary Todd, sat in the Red Room of the White House, the air heavy with anticipation.
The room was dimly lit by flickering candles, casting eerie shadows on the walls. The death of their beloved son, Willie, had driven Mary to seek solace in the mysterious world of Spiritualism, and tonight, they were to consult a renowned medium, Nettie Colburn Maynard, in an attempt to reach their departed child.
As the clock struck midnight, Nettie entered the room, her face hidden by a dark shawl.
She instructed everyone to join hands and concentrate on their deepest emotions. The President reluctantly took his wife’s hand, skeptically observing the proceedings. The room grew colder, and the candles flickered violently as if reacting to an invisible presence.
Nettie’s voice rose, her words forming an incantation as she called upon the spirits. Suddenly, a faint tapping sound echoed through the chamber, sending chills down the spines of all present. The tension in the room intensified as Nettie announced that she felt the presence of the departed son Willie Lincoln.
Mary’s eyes filled with hope and desperation, as Abe’s heart pounded, torn between skepticism and a growing unease. The tapping continued, growing louder and more insistent, and for a moment, the President wondered if he had underestimated the power of the spirits. The room seemed to close in on them, as the boundary between the living and the dead blurred, and the fate of a nation hung in the balance.
Suddenly, Lincoln quipped, “Well, if we can’t summon the spirits, I suppose I’ll just have to set them free,” as he released a loud and unexpected cheek squeak that would go down in history.
The White (Ghost) House?
I can’t say for sure that’s actually how it went down, but the Lincolns did hold a séance in the Red Room of the White House all those years ago. And Mary Todd believed it wasn’t a passing bout of honest wind from Abe, but rather her deceased son, Willie.
As the Civil War raged in 1862, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln succumbed to what was then called “bilious”, or typhoid fever as it’s now named.
Torn by months of deep depression, Mary Todd took to spiritualism as a way to recover from the unthinkable loss of her son.
Spiritualist after spiritualist visited her, including the so-called “witches of Georgetown”, Margaret Ann and Belle Laurie. This duo was famous at the time, known for having the power to levitate pianos, rather than a tune.
Old Abe occasionally sat in on these meetings with his wife and even went to a few of these séances. While she was known for being far more religious than her husband, she had clearly taken an interest in this new possibility of meeting her dead son again.
“He lives. He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same sweet, adorable smile he has always had.”—Mary Todd
With understandably crazy statements like that, it eventually led to the president hosting his very own séance in the Red Room of the White House in April 1863.
There was Mary Todd, a medium named Charles E. Shockle, a couple of cabinet members, and for some reason—a reporter from the Boston Gazette, Prior Melton (no relation). During the session, it’s said Abe asked the ghosts if he should sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
As would be expected, the reporter reported and the séance became famous around the world.
Regardless of who knew about it, Mary Todd was now a true believer.
Until death he did part, Abe was surrounded by visiting spiritualists with a desire to help (read: bilk) his grieving wife. One of these shifty fellows was named Charles Colchester.
Charles liked to drink.
So did John Wilkes Booth.
And a short while before Abe’s last day, Charles gave a premonition: “Watch out for assassination attempts!” or something along those lines. But Abe was as stubborn as he was honest, and paid no heed to a warning he had heard countless times before.
After Abe’s passing, Mary Todd only became more embedded in her new beliefs.
Years later in 1869 or 1870, she visited an infamous spirit photographer named William H. Mumler. The rub? She visited him under an assumed name—Mrs. Lindall—in a probably-not-so-elaborate disguise.
And of course, the fraudster William promptly produced a not-yet-famous image of Abe lovingly gracing Mary Todd’s shoulders.
Creepy, si? Especially since William claimed to have no idea who the disguised Mary Todd was.
To him, he said, she was just Mrs. Lindall and proclaimed the photograph was actually taken a few years later.
Of course, he lied. She believed. He was later prosecuted (and not convicted in a trial where P.T. Barnum testified against his trickery), and a few short years later in 1975 her last remaining child had her committed to an insane asylum.
After leaving, Mary spent the rest of her years traveling Europe until failing health confined her to her sister’s residence in Illinois, where she passed away in 1882, exactly 11 years after the death of her youngest son.
It is unknown if he visited her on her deathbed.
Written by a spirited J.J. Pryor.
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Bonus Content: A Poem For You
Once upon a midnight dreary, 1863, President Lincoln weary, Sat with Mary, heartbeats racing, in the Red Room of the White House, gory. There the candles flickered, casting, eerie shadows on the wall, While they sought in pain and sorrow, through Spiritualism their hearts to restore. Nettie Colburn Maynard, a medium of repute, entreated them to explore The mysteries of the other side, to reach their son, young Willie, whom they adore. At midnight's call, the room grew colder, and whispers of the spirits soared, As Nettie's incantations rose, and the veil between life and death tore. A tapping, rapping, sent chills down their spines, a presence felt, never before, And Nettie cried, "It's Willie's spirit, of that I'm sure, he's at the chamber door!" But as the tapping grew insistent, a raven flapped its wings and soared, Entering the room, its beady eyes fixed on Lincoln, its caw a deafening roar. In that moment of tension and fear, the raven landed, a rictus grin it wore, And with a wink, it tapped its beak, signaling the President, who'd soon restore The laughter in the room with a quip, as the tension and dread he did ignore, "Well, if we can't summon the spirits, I'll set them free," and with that, he tore. A fart erupted, loud and clear, and the raven cawed, "Nevermore!" And thus, the tale of Lincoln's séance, forever part of legend and lore.”