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Spiritualist's Séance Robe

Séance robe worn by Louise Parke during her work as a Spiritualist in Wisconsin, 1895-1905.
(Museum object #1958.650)

Louise (Kingsley) Parke was a member of a Madison family well known for their ability to communicate with the deceased. Her father, George P. Kingsley, had been a prominent doctor and clairvoyant known for his healing skills until his death in 1917. Louise, described as "ever a close companion of her father," inherited his "clairvoyant and spiritual powers." The Kingsley family did not see themselves as crack-pots or quacks, but rather as practicing members of the Spiritualist faith that promoted a belief that human souls survive death as spirits who can speak to the living through "sensitives" or "mediums." Louise, who considered herself a medium and believed her spirit contact to be the American Indian Black Hawk, wore this homemade white cotton robe and hood, which bear an unfortunate resemblance to a Ku Klux Klan outfit, while holding her séances.

Shortly after her birth at Springfield (Dane County), Wisconsin in 1869, Louise's grandparents, Saxton and Harriet Kingsley, converted to Spiritualism. Her father also became a believer and during Louise's late teens went to J.B. Campbell's Vitapathic School in Cincinnati, Ohio to study medicine and Spiritualism. After graduating in 1888 he returned to Madison, where the rest of his family had moved a few years earlier, and began his practice. An undated newspaper clipping noted that Dr. Kingsley's "magnetic power is great and he uses it to alleviate the pain and distress of others." On January 25, 1892 Louise married Harry Parke, a purchasing agent for the Gisholt Company and an active Unitarian. In the decade or so before his death in 1931, Harry converted and "became a strong spiritualist" acquiring a "full faith in the spirit life of man."

We will probably never know any more about Louise Parke or why she felt a need to wear a robe and hood while holding her séances, but we do know that she was part of an important national trend that affected life in Wisconsin and has left lasting institutions in the state.

Spiritualism's heyday began in the 1850s and lasted through the 1870s. Not really considered a religion, it was more of a belief system that attempted to combine science and Christianity. With increased interest and belief in the rationality of science during the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a growing skepticism in Christianity because of its reliance on faith. Spiritualism worked in the interstices of the two providing an alternative both "to the unquestioning faith demanded by traditional religions" and "to the belief in a totally materialist world which was seemingly demanded by science." Spiritualists believed that science would prove that spirits of the dead could talk to the living and that there was life after death. Not surprisingly, clergy roundly denounced Spiritualism from the pulpit and in the press.

By the late nineteenth century when George Kingsley and his daughter Louise became involved in the movement, Spiritualism was in its decline. The general public had lost interest in it, primarily because many Protestant sects began to incorporate science into their beliefs. At the same time many Spiritualist mediums had been discredited and shown to be fakes. Those who did continue to believe in Spiritualism finally began to organize in the 1880s and 1890s, something they had resisted earlier because of their antipathy towards organized religions. Nonetheless, the National Spiritualist Association (NSA) formed in 1893 and headquartered itself in Washington, DC. By the turn of the century there were about 35,000 practicing Spiritualists, but only a handful of Spiritualist churches.

The NSA began by defining Spiritualism, settling on "the Science, Philosophy and Religion of continuous life based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World." Furthermore, they defined a medium as someone "whose organism is sensitive to vibrations from the spirit world."

Wisconsin had been a fertile ground for Spiritualism, especially in three major areas: Milwaukee, the Fox Valley, and the Lake Mills-Whitewater-Madison corridor. Mary Hayes Chynoweth, who was a Spiritualist leader in the latter area and may have influenced Dr. Kingsley and Louise, helped mining investor Morris Pratt make his fortune by advising him where to invest his money. In return he had the Morris Pratt Institute built in Whitewater, Wisconsin, which was and remains the only Spiritualist college in the United States. Mediums and sensitives who graduated from Morris Pratt were presumed not to be fakes.

A small group of Spiritualists also settled in Wonewoc, Wisconsin located at the southern end of Juneau County. In 1874 they formed the Joint Stock Spiritualist Association and in 1902 organized the Western Wisconsin Camp Association. The Wisconsin State Spiritualist Association (formed in 1900) described the camp as "a spot of ideal beauty and inspiration" where visitors can "enjoy the blessings of Mother Nature under guidance of spiritual studies and interesting séances." This Spiritualist camp still exists in its original location.

[SOURCES: Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Bednarowski, Mary Farrell. "Spiritualism in Wisconsin in the Nineteenth Century," Wisconsin Magazine of History (Vol. 59, No. 1), pp. 3-19; Cleveland, Dr. William. The Religion of Modern Spiritualism and Its Phenomena, Compared with the Christian Religion and Its Miracles (Cincinnati: The Light of Truth Publishing Co., 1896); Burgess, C.A., compiler. Pictorial Spiritualism (Chicago: Illinois State Spiritualist Association, 1922); Gregory, John G. Southwestern Wisconsin, vol. 4 (Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1932).]


Posted on October 26, 2006

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