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When the U. S. Senate Jested Over Spirits

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When the U. S. Senate Jested Over Spirits

Posted on 05 December 2022, 8:53

In April 1854, a petition by some 15,000 people calling themselves “memorialists”  requested the United States Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives to appoint a scientific commission to conduct an investigation into the strange “occult force” that had been witnessed by so many of them and others in recent years. The petition was spearheaded by Nathaniel P. Tallmadge, who had served the State of New York in the U.S. Senate for 10 years and then the Territory of Wisconsin as its governor before his retirement from public office.

Tallmadge             tallmadge.jpg.f0ec411e16ba6234de663d0cc54bc7e3.jpg

As Tallmadge saw it, the petition involved the most serious subject facing humans – whether or not consciousness survives death in a larger reality. What can me more serious a subject than that? Not even the question of God’s existence can be more serious, as a God without that “larger reality” adds little to life’s meaning.  And, yet, the United States Senate rejected the petition with vainglorious jest.

The occult force was, according to the petition, “exhibited in sliding, raising, arresting, holding, suspending, and otherwise disturbing numerous ponderable bodies, apparently in direct opposition to the acknowledged laws of matter, and altogether transcending the accredited powers of the human mind.”  It had been “manifested to thousands of intelligent and discriminating persons, while the human senses have hitherto failed to detect, to the satisfaction of the public, either the primary or proximate causes of these phenomena.”

The petition further mentioned a variety of sounds, including mysterious rappings which appear to indicate the presence of an invisible intelligence, along with harmonic sounds, as of human voices, but more frequently resembling the tones of various musical instruments, and other strange phenomena.

The petitioners admitted that there were two schools of thought among them relative to the phenomena. “The one ascribes them to the power and intelligence of departed spirits, operating on and through the subtle and imponderable elements which pervade and permeate all material forms; and this, it should be observed, accords with the ostensible claims and pretensions of the manifestations themselves.” Other petitioners rejected this hypothesis and “entertain the opinion that the acknowledged principles of physics and metaphysics will enable scientific inquirers to account for all the facts in a rational and satisfactory manner.” 

In spite of the disagreement relative to cause, both sides concurred in the opinion that “the alleged phenomena do really occur, and that their mysterious origin, peculiar nature and important bearing on the interests of mankind, demand from them a patient, thorough, and scientific investigation.”

Tallmadge was clearly among those subscribing to the spirit hypothesis. He had become interested in the subject after hearing Judge John Edmonds’s report of his investigations of various phenomena. Soon thereafter, his 13-year-old daughter began displaying mediumistic abilities, including playing the piano like an experienced pianist. “She knows nothing of notes or music, and never played the piano before in her life,” he wrote in a letter to Edmonds, whom he had known during his political career. “The first time she played was Beethoven’s Grand Waltz, and then several others with which we were familiar.  After that, she played many we had never heard before, and improvised words suited to the airs, beautiful, and of the highest tone of religious and moral sentiment.”

Beginning sometime in 1852, Tallmadge sat with a number of mediums.  “I have seen rapping mediums, writing mediums, and speaking mediums, and have received communications through all of them,” he wrote.  “I have witnessed physical manifestations, such as the movement of tables, without any visible agency.  These physical manifestations are more satisfactory to the mass of mankind, because they appeal directly to the senses.  I am better pleased myself with the moral, if I may so call them, than the physical manifestations.”

Tallmadge concluded that the “intelligence” behind the phenomena did not come from the objects involved but from a spiritual source.  “I have frequently received such communications of an elevated character, and far above the capacity of the medium,” he further reported. “I conclude, therefore, they do not come from the medium, nor from the mind of the interrogator.”

Tallmadge claimed hearing from several distinguished friends in the spirit world, including John C. Calhoun, (below) former Vice-President of the United States, Daniel Webster, a former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and Henry Clay, a former U. S. Senator from Kentucky, all of whom he had known while serving in the Senate. “These communications, too, are perfectly characteristic of the individuals from whom they purport to come,” he stated, mentioning that the style and language of the communication purportedly coming from Webster was “perfectly ‘Websterian,’ from the pure Saxon English which runs throughout the whole of it.”

Calhoun        calhoun.jpg.899323b19cf6f2572437bade5007e8fa.jpg

In a letter dated September 12, 1852, Tallmadge informed Edmonds of communication coming from Calhoun, who had died March 31, 1850, through a medium referred to as “Mrs. S.”  Calhoun informed the circle that because of his inexperience on that side of the veil, he was limited in his ability to communicate.  “I deeply feel the barrenness of my soul, the lack of wisdom, the dread of ridicule, the loss of friends, the thought of enemies which debarred me from participating, from being experienced, from a want of knowledge of this holy privilege,” Calhoun communicated, going on to say, “How very dim life on earth seems to me now!  I look upon it as a troubled dream, wherein were indeed some bright spots, some kind feelings shed around my path to make it brighter.  I was but the germ placed in a casket of clay, whose inner unfoldings, whose heaven-sent aspirations, should have begun to develop themselves sooner while placed there.”

Calhoun continued to communicate with Tallmadge in succeeding months, and then in April of 1853 he asked Calhoun the purpose of the communications.  The question was put to Calhoun mentally so that the medium would not know the question (unless, of course, she could read his mind).  “My friend,” Calhoun replied, “the question is often put to you, ‘What good can result from these manifestations?’  I will answer it:  It is to draw mankind together in harmony, and convince skeptics of the immortality of the soul.”

Tallmadge explained that these communications from Calhoun came through a large, heavy, round table, one at which 10-12 people could sit, by the tilting method (the alphabet recited by the sitters and the table would tilt at the correct letter). He observed the table move as much as three to four feet with nobody near it. During all these movements no person touched it, nor was any one near it,” Tallmadge explained.

In one sitting, Calhoun is said to have taken control of a pencil and wrote, “I’m with you still.”  Tallmadge later showed the paper to a number of Calhoun’s friends, as well as Calhoun’s son, and all found it to be a perfect facsimile of the Calhoun’s writing.  Moreover, they took special note of the contraction “I’m,” which apparently was very unusual at that time, nearly everyone else writing “I am.”  It was pointed out by several of the friends that Calhoun was in the habit of writing “I’m” for “I am.”  (More detail on the communication from Calhoun, Webster, and Clay is offered in my 2011 book, The Afterlife Explorers)

While preferring to avoid public observation, Tallmadge said that he found it necessary to speak out in his defense and in the defense of others who had the moral courage to make their investigations known.  “It seems that when this monomania seizes any of these anti-spiritual denouncers, it is accompanied by a sort of proclivity for slander from which their sanity on other subjects is exempt,” he wrote. “I do not, therefore, incline to hold the gentleman responsible for this retailed slander on Judge Edmonds, or his libelous charge of ‘rank blasphemy’ on me…I can make great allowances for these monomaniacs, and would advise them, in their lucid intervals, to argue this question without denouncing those who investigate it.”

Tallmadge asked Senator James Shields of Illinois to present the petition to the Senate. Shields agreed and began his April 1854 presentation on a serious note; however, he ended it by criticizing it, clearly in self-defense. “I make it a rule to present any petition to the Senate which is respectful in its terms, but, having discharged this duty, I may be permitted to say, that the prevalence of this delusion at this age of the world, among any considerable portion of our citizens, must originate, in my opinion, in a defective system of education, or in a partial derangement of mental faculties, produced by a diseased condition of the physical organization.,” he began his defense. “I cannot, therefore, believe that it prevails to the extent indicated in this petition. Different ages of the world have had their peculiar delusions…” The speech continued with examples from earlier ages and was frequently interrupted by laughter. 

Other senators then asked questions.  Senator Weller asked what Shields proposes to do with the petition. Senator Pettit opined that it should be referred to three-thousand clergymen, to which there was much laughter. Senator Weller then suggested it be referred to the committee on foreign relations, to which there was more laughter. Senator Weller added that it would have to be determined whether the spirits were Americans when they left this world. Senator Mason jested that it would be better handled by the committee on military affairs, of which he was chairman. Clearly, the reception was a waggish one and it was finally moved by Senator Mason that it be tabled, which was agreed to.

Tallmadge was furious and responded with a letter in the National Intelligencer on the 18th of April, writing, in part:  “General Shields has given a very good synopsis of this memorial; and had he stopped there, I should not have felt myself called upon for any remarks. But, contrary to my expectations, the general has attempted to ridicule a subject which appealed to his better judgment, and which, according to my understanding, was to receive a very different treatment at his hands.”  Tallmadge further stated that Shields treated it with great courtesy and initially explained to him and agreed that it was worthy of investigation. Shields responded the following day by saying he was never a believer and that Tallmadge misunderstood him. 

In a lengthy letter of April 20, Tallmadge stressed that the understanding was that Shields would refer it to a select committee as there was no standing committee prepared to consider it. “The honorable gentleman, therefore, must be laboring under some strange hallucination on this subject; more strange, indeed, than the ‘delusion’ under which he, with so much delicacy and self-complacency, supposed these memorialists were laboring, because they had come to a conclusion different from his own on a subject which, from thorough investigation, they were presumed to understand, and which, for want of investigation, he was presumed to know nothing about!”

Now, some 168 years later, nothing has really changed.  How sad!

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

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