Psychics, Mediums, and the Death of Abraham Lincoln

The Davenport Brothers were music hall performers of a magic act based on Spiritualism.

Abe often accompanied his wife to séances or private meetings with mediums.

Just when I think I have heard all of the weird facets connected with the Lincoln Assassination, I get a whiff of something else.  This time, it involves the huge wave of spiritualism that gripped the country from the time of the Civil War, into the early part of the next century.

Mary Todd Lincoln had an attraction to the spiritualism movement.   After the sad death of the Lincolns’ son, Willie—taken by typhoid fever at age eleven—she was ripe for the picking.  In February of 1862, the Lincolns’ grief was so unbearable that Abraham had walled himself up in the Green Room and Mary stayed in her bed. 

Spiritualism is what got them both up and moving again.  Mary had been encouraged by friends and family members to let spiritual ministers help her with the grief.  Maybe she could again communicate with their precious Willie, who had been swept away to the Great Beyond. 

Abe was skeptical but he wanted to support Mary—whatever it took—so he often accompanied her to séances or private meetings with mediums.  He once even accompanied his wife to see the witches of Georgetown, Margaret Laurie and Belle Miller a mother-daughter team of mediums who claimed to be able to levitate large pieces of furniture. 

There were several mystical people floating about in the area, but one, in particular, seemed to claim his right as the Lincolns’ official grief counselor and Charles Colchester was his name.  He was an Englishman and a skilled con man, but that was not evident for quite some time.  He worked long and hard at gaining Mary’s trust.

Meanwhile, as John Wilkes Booth made the rounds of his Washington social circles, often living in hotels, he had been developing a keen interest in the spiritualism movement, himself.  His interest was also due to the death of a close family member—his sister-in-law.  Like the Lincolns, he surely knew the most prominent mystics about town.  They may have known several of them in common.  Grieving people always have the hope that they can talk to a loved one again, even if it requires a medium.

In the early 1860s, Booth’s original obsession about Lincoln had been to kidnap him.  In the years that his Lincoln obsession was festering under his skin, he developed a friendship with Charles Colchester.  In fact, they sometimes lived in the same hotel.  Colchester was one of his main drinking companions.  Colchester often seemed to be short of cash. 

Was Booth milking him for information about the Lincolns—maybe as a trade for picking up Colchester’s drink tabs?    Was Colchester simply a blabby drunk?  Maybe Booth was paying him cash for information.  Maybe none of that was true at all but it seems highly possible.  One thing that drew Booth to the man was Colchester’s claim that he could predict the future.

Abe Lincoln was no fool.  He knew he was a marked man.  Many disgruntled people wished to be rid of him, but he would not allow this to keep him from mingling with the people.  Once when a concerned friend urged Lincoln to be cautious with his safety, he replied, “Colchester has been telling me the same thing.”

This seems to indicate that Colchester knew something of Booth’s plots to do some harm to Abraham Lincoln.  How much did he know?  Did the drinking buddies forget what all they had blabbed to each other on the mornings after their imbibing?  Or was Booth allowing Colchester to know some or all of his plans?  Could Colchester have been considered a conspirator?

When a military policeman went to the hotel to check Booth’s room after the assassination, he was alerted to the fact that Colchester—also staying in the hotel—was a confidant of Booth’s.  When the building was searched, Colchester had disappeared, it seems.

John Wilkes Booth was also fast friends with the Davenport Brothers.  Although they had nothing to do with the Lincoln Conspiracy, these brothers are a story all to themselves.  They were magicians and spiritual mediums that toured the East Coast and Europe with tantalizing performances. 

In their most famous illusion, they were both trussed with ropes inside wooden cabinets.  The cabinet doors were opened and the audience could see them secured tightly by the ropes, with a few musical instruments plainly visible.  The cabinet doors were then shut and after a moment beautiful tunes were heard coming from inside the cabinet. 

The doors were then opened swiftly and the two men were still trussed and the musical instruments had not moved from their spots.  Arthur Conan Doyle had made the comment that the Davenport Brothers were “probably the greatest mediums of their kind the world has ever seen.”

Booth was drawn to Ira and William Davenport.  Maybe it was a common bond among show people.  It is not known if Abe and Mary Lincoln knew them personally, but they probably had attended some of their performances. They were quite the rage.

What happened to the thick connection between Mary and the medium, Colchester?  Their association went kaput when Colchester tried to blackmail Mary with some private information he had learned about her.  He wanted her to supply him with free railroad passes from the War Department and used the threat of blackmail as persuasion. 

Mary became frightened and told Noah Brooks about the incident.  Mr. Books, a member of Abe’s inner circle, got rid of Colchester by using a sleight of hand of his own during a séance.  Colchester was exposed as a swindler and fled.  He was located in upstate New York in the fall of 1865 and convicted of practicing jugglery (sleight of hand) without a license.  The Englishman died in Iowa a few years later.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of It Rises from the Pee Dee. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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