Otherworldly Believers Brom the Past

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Shirley MacLaine may be way out on a limb, but she is not alone. For centuries a host of respectable historical figures have dabbled in mysticism.

Spiritualism, which proclaims that the spirits of the dead survive and can communicate through mediums, did not become the rage in the U.S. until 1848. The originators of the trend were Margaret and Katharine Fox, ages 13 and 11, of Hydesville, N.Y. In 1847 the Fox family had moved to an old Hydesville house that was said to be haunted. After several ghost-free months, they began hearing strange noises at night—raps, knocks and the sound of moving furniture. Curiously the noises were heard only when Maggie and Katie were around. Mrs. Fox became convinced that a spirit was trying to contact her family.

Neighbors, called in to chat with the alien presence, heard raps in response to their questions. The Fox sisters decided that the spirit was a peddler who had been murdered in the house years earlier. When a search for the remains turned up human bones in the Fox basement, it was assumed they belonged to the unfortunate peddler. After that, the family claimed to hear even more distressing noises—a death struggle and the sounds of a body being dragged across the floor. Understandably they moved away.

But the rapping noises continued wherever the Foxes resided, and by now the family was besieged by hundreds of curious visitors. Leah Fish, Maggie and Katie's older sister, arranged for the girls to get paid for their efforts. Their brother, David, decided on a way to enliven communications with the hereafter: Questioners went through the alphabet, and the spirit, summoned through the girls, was instructed to rap at the correct letter, thereby spelling out words. A committee of skeptics was set up to look into the girls' peculiar talents, but nothing suspicious was proved.

Their new home in Rochester became a mecca for spiritualists from across the country, and the girls, managed by the enterprising Leah, took their show on the road. Their talents now included the ability to move tables and contact such historical figures as Benjamin Franklin and John C. Calhoun. At one séance, when a visitor pointed out that Franklin's spirit had a poor command of English, one sister angrily left the room, crying "You know I never understood grammar!"

Eventually doctors tested the Fox girls and concluded that they were making the rapping noises by cracking their knee joints, but that analysis did little to diminish belief in the sisters' powers. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Herald Tribune, endorsed their talents as genuine. Twenty years later, the Rochester Rappings, as they were called, had become legendary, and there were some 11 million practicing spiritualists in the U.S. When, in 1888, Maggie Fox confessed that she and her sister had made the rapping noises by manipulating their toe joints, hardly anyone cared.

The spiritualist movement even reached into Abraham Lincoln's White House, although Lincoln himself appeared more amused than convinced. After the President's son Willie died at age 11, Mary Todd Lincoln persuaded Abe to invite professional mediums into the mansion. The séances never amounted to much, although at one sitting, so the story goes, a jointly written message was received from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon, among others. The message was so muddled and contradictory that Lincoln was said to have quipped, "Their talk and advice sounds a good deal like the talk of my Cabinet."

Lincoln did believe in other kinds of spiritual phenomena. He admitted he was highly superstitious, and he put great stock in his dreams. He is said to have dreamed that he would be assassinated, and he declared he had the same dream—that he was in a boat moving rapidly toward an unclear shore—before every significant event of the Civil War.

Poets especially have always put great emphasis on the mystical. In his Song of Myself, Walt Whitman, who believed he was part of an eternal, cosmic consciousness, proclaimed, "And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,/I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.../(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)" For much of his life the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats belonged to a secret occult society known as the Golden Dawn. He attended seances and performed mystical experiments, once even trying to raise the ghost of a dead flower. At 27 he wrote to a friend that he had decided to make the study of magic "next to my poetry, the more important pursuit of my life."

Though his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, was the very embodiment of rational thought, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer in spiritualism, insisting that even conjurer Harry Houdini accomplished his feats through psychic powers. Conan Doyle, who lost a son in World War I, believed he could still communicate with him. He also had specific ideas about the afterlife. There is no sex "as we understand it" in heaven, he once wrote. Food is most likely "of a very light and delicate order," and golf is probably played.

Henry Ford also believed in reincarnation. "Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience we collect in one life in the next," he once said. A pacifist at the beginning of World War I, Ford attributed his dislike of bloodshed to the fact that he was born on July 30, 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg had occurred at the beginning of that month, he reasoned, so in his previous incarnation he must have been a Civil War soldier felled in battle.

Ford introduced his great friend, Thomas A. Edison, to a parapsychologist who convinced the famed inventor that Edison possessed psychic powers. Edison then tried to re-enact the parapsychologist's experiments by winding electric coils around his own head and the heads of three other willing subjects, but he failed to demonstrate any proof of telepathy.

Edison also believed that human memory is made up of tiny particles of matter that travel through space to settle in people's brains. Some of the particles, Edison said, were from outer space, bringing earthlings knowledge from other worlds. Again, his earnest attempts to prove his theories failed.

For Gen. George Patton, one life on the battlefield was not enough. He believed he had lived other lives, always as a warrior. He had been, he claimed, a Greek soldier, a Roman legionnaire, a Scottish Highlander, a trooper with Napoleon. Once, when visiting a Roman amphitheater, he felt so sure he had been there before that he swore he could "smell the sweat of Caesar's legions."

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