Truth is often stranger than fiction, and historical societies such as The Filson house some unusual tales within the less explored recesses of their collections. Spirits may feature prominently in today’s television programs, books and movies, but Louisville’s 19th century residents had a passion for the paranormal, as well, and participated in a trend that would change the face of death and mourning.
The grim realities of the Civil War popularized a movement that was relatively new but rapidly growing: Spiritualism. Spiritualism promoted establishing contact with the dead. Their spirits were believed to have ascended to higher planes of existence, and were thought to offer enlightenment, advice and useful information to the living. By embracing Spiritualism and seeking contact with their deceased loved ones, the bereaved were able to deny death and its horrors, keeping their dearly departed within the circle of the family.
Louisville had its very own spirit medium, Mrs. Mary Hollis. According to the Occultism and Parapsychology Encyclopedia, Mrs. Hollis was born in Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1837 and went on to become quite famous for her mediumistic talents. She traveled to England to hold séances and demonstrate her powers of manifestation, and befriended and corresponded with many famous Spiritualists of the day, including Madame Helena Blavatsky. Hollis channeled entities named Skiwaukee, also known as “Old Ski” (who was supposedly a Native American spirit), and James Nolan.
Local prominent citizen James Breckinridge Speed had an avid interest in Spiritualism, and patronized the dark circles, or séances, of Mrs. Hollis. Mary Hollis and Old Ski are discussed at length in letters in The Filson’s James Breckinridge Speed Papers. Between February and July of 1875, Speed corresponded with William Vance of Memphis, TN, also a proponent of Spiritualism. They discussed the removal of objects from locked drawers in Speed’s home and their reappearance at séances held by Mrs. Hollis.
There was also a peculiar case in which a lady’s earring was mysteriously removed from her ear and later manifested at a “dark circle.” Mrs. Hollis, Old Ski and Mr. Speed were all mentioned in the book Startling Facts in Modern Spiritualism by Napoleon Bonaparte Wolfe, as well as other books on Spiritualism published during the late nineteenth century.
Traveling mediums and lecturers on Spiritualism were also popular in Louisville, as in other cities. A broadside from our collection announces the appearance of Annie Eva Fay at Macauley’s Theatre, and boasts that all manifestations will be made in full gas light, tables will float in mid-air and a guitar will be played and passed around the room by an invisible force. However, not everyone embraced Spiritualism, and the New York Times reported on March 31, 1872 that a Presbyterian church in Louisville had instituted proceedings against a woman of the congregation who was found to be a believer in Spiritualism and to have consorted with mediums.