‘A Favorite Southern Institution’: The Spirits Battle Slavery On Unobscured

Workers picking cotton, Louisiana, 19th Century

Workers picking cotton, Louisiana, 19th Century

On the history podcast Unobscured, host Aaron Mahnke has been chronicling the journey of American spiritualists, their religious movement where mediums could communicate with the spirits of the dead through séances, and how their movement and its principles often aligned them with anti-slavery abolition. Spiritualism was commented on by some of the top thinkers of the day, including poets like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, and counted amongst its believers historic American icons like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. In this episode, Aaron takes us into 1860, when spiritualism was getting hit hard in the press, abolitionists were being barred from speaking in Southern towns, and the country took its first steps towards a civil war.

Sojourner Truth, among others, was a “circuit preacher,” a traveling preacher who would set up camps outside of towns to speak to whoever attended. This could be a dangerous job; Aaron describes so-called “Rowdies,” who would arrive with torches and pitchforks – and shovels and rope – to break up their meetings. But Sojourner was never one to back down. “In one meeting held by anti-slavery speakers, a minister stood up and shouted that he hadn't heard anything convincing, just a lot of noise, in his words, 'from women and jackasses,'” Aaron recounts. Sojourner stood up and told the Biblical story of a prophet and his donkey, where a minister beats his donkey for stopping on the road because he can’t see that there’s an angel in the path. “She tells the story,” historian Margaret Washington relates, “and she says, ‘So, I just want to remind the man and the audience that it was the ass, and not the minister, who saw the angel.’ And the crowd just went wild.” 

But, as Aaron points out, there was only “one Sojourner Truth to go around,” so as powerful as her speaking was, she and other anti-slavery preachers were aided by the printing presses that “could send out spiritualist and abolitionist papers by the thousands, and it was their work in producing the public argument for abolition…that fanned the flames that she lit against the horrors of slavery,” Aaron says. “Who would get burned, though, was still up for grabs.” It was, obviously, a contentious argument, and the country was starting to crack around it.

But the need for a platform on which to shape debate was being felt worldwide, as historian Mary Gabriel points out: “It was really fascinating, and it wasn't just in the United States. It was in Europe as well. Every organization, every political party, every group, the farmers groups, the coal groups, coal miners, everyone had a periodical.” In many ways it parallels social media today, providing “the ability to form non-geographic communities, communities of like-minded people who did not see each other face-to-face,” another historian, Ann Braude, explains. “You could subscribe to a periodical published in Chicago, or Milwaukee, or Boston, no matter where you lived, and you would receive it through the mail, and you would see on it the names of other subscribers in your small town or in your state.” Frederick Douglass was particularly compelled by “what was possible with a printing press and a message.”

Engraving man and child working at printing press 1882

Engraving man and child working at printing press 1882

Both sides used the written word to either defame or admire spiritualists and abolitionists, until the cracks started to deepen. “When southern states started seceding, they also started rejecting shipments of spiritualist newspapers, because they considered them abolitionist publications,” Aaron says. One spiritualist, Emma Harding, took a southern séance tour and was met with violence and intimidation; “The Memphis Inquirer published an editorial calling Emma an ‘outside agitator who threatened a favorite southern institution.’ No one was confused about what that meant. She had flown south on the winds of abolition," Aaron points out. "Emma's last lecture in Memphis was ultimately canceled when a group of Rowdies threatened to lynch her and anyone who came to hear her speak.” Perhaps it isn’t so surprising, then, Emma’s visions became bleak: “Under the guidance of the spirits, Emma foresaw the conflict between the north and the south coming to fruition,” Aaron tells us. “What she meant by that was simple enough: war.”

Learn more about what led the country into civil war, the capture and execution of the abolitionist John Brown, and a floating séance that was foiled by free food, on this episode of Unobscured.

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