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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Mary Hayes-Chynoweth, psychic healer


Here's a story for Women's History Month about a Wisconsin woman who was once well-known but is now all-but-forgotten. She embodied New Age spirituality a century before that term was invented. Here are her own words describing how it all began.

"I was crossing the kitchen with a basin of water when, suddenly, some unknown Force pressed me down upon my knees, helpless," Mary Hayes-Chynoweth told her biographer. It was the spring of 1853, when she was a 27-year-old school teacher in Waterloo. "Of my own will I could not move nor see nor speak; but a compelling Power moved my tongue to prayer in language or languages unknown to me or to my father" who was reading the Bible in the same room. The "Force" told her that she would spend the remainder of her life healing others, and for the next half-century she devoted herself to the practice of spiritual medicine.

Spirtualism's Heyday

Hayes-Chynoweth (1825-1905) -- she married Waterloo farmer Anson Hayes in 1854 and, after his death, Madison attorney Thomas Chynoweth -- was one of Wisconsin's best-known mystics during decades when spiritualism swept across the nation. Seances, spirits knocking on tables, communications with the dead, and other supernatural phenomena caught the public interest in the mid-19th century. Hayes-Chynoweth rejected most of these events as hoaxes or distractions, relying instead on the unique powers that she felt were channeled through her by God.

She explained that divine power allowed her to see right through the human body and other material objects as though they were transparent, enabling her to pinpoint the cause of a disease. To heal the ill, she would take the patient's symptoms into her own body, routinely breaking out in their blisters, rashes, or tumors while they themselves recovered. She prescribed a variety of herbs and water-treatments for the sick, and taught that the keys to health were optimism, faith, a diet mostly of vegetables and grains, and total abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea.

Throughout the Civil War era, she criss-crossed southern Wisconsin conducting healing sessions, and patients flocked for treatment to her home. Among those who believed in her skills and came for advice or healing were U.S. Senator William Vilas, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice William Lyon, and Wisconsin Historical Society superintendent Lyman Draper. Except when putting her sons through college as a single mother in the 1870s, she never charged any fees at all for her services but rendered them free to everyone who came to her, patiently enduring in her own body her clients' painful symptoms. In all her work she was guided by prayer and meditation, which allowed the divine force to make what she called "impressions" upon her consciousness. Hayes-Chynoweth took no personal credit for her skills, but merely saw herself as the medium through which a universal power of love and life could be expressed for the benefit of others.

Guided to a Fortune

The "Power," as she called it, manifested itself in other ways than healing the sick. Under its influence she was seen to speak to patients in languages she didn't know, including German, Polish, Danish, and an unspecified Indian language. She could foresee some future events, including visitors en route to her, economic depressions, and market prices, allowing her family to capitalize on its wheat crop in a time of crisis.

In the spring of 1883, Hayes-Chynoweth told her sons, who were starting their legal practice in Ashland, to sell off a forest tract they'd bought as a logging investment and use the profits to buy acreage along the Montreal River. The Power had told her their fortunes lay in mining, and pointed her to a specific location 40 miles from Ashland in the middle of the wilderness. When her sons protested that they knew nothing about mining, she reassured them that they would soon meet someone to help. One of their clients turned out to be the only geologist who had explored the Gogebic Iron Range, and he agreed immediately to show it to them.

When she heard their accounts and saw their maps, the Power told her exactly where to dig, and they sunk shafts each time directly into some of the richest iron ore in the Gogebic Range. The family's Germania and Ashland mines not only made them extraordinarily rich but also created the town of Hurley, for which Hayes-Chynoweth felt personally responsible. When she saw Hurley's tavern owner growing rich by ruining the health of its workers, she established a school where they could learn to read and write. Many became mine foremen or engineers and six went to college, all at her personal expense. She also advised friends and patients to invest in the mines, and one of them, Morris Pratt, used his profits to establish an institute for spiritualism that still teaches telepathy and other psychic arts today.

Last Days in California

In 1887 she, her sons, their families, and many of her followers moved to a large estate in San Jose, California, where they constructed a mansion with elaborate gardens that became a colony called "Edenvale." Here she spent most of the next two decades editing and producing a journal called True Life, overseeing the family's business affairs, and receiving admirers and patients. In the early 1890s she treated an average of 3,500 people per year, most of whom doctors had abandoned as incurable. According to eyewitnesses who spoke with her biographer, cancerous tumors moved from patients' bodies to her own, cripples threw away their crutches and danced on the lawn, and the terminally ill went on to live for decades. When the 1888 mansion burned to the ground, she replaced it with a 41,000 square foot, 240-room edifice that is today used as a conference center. Mary Hayes-Chynoweth finally passed away herself, her body worn out but emotionally and spiritually intact, in 1905 at the age of eighty. Her two sons, who had grown up on the Waterloo farm during the Civil War and started the mines that created Hurley, Wisconsin, went on to own and publish the San Jose Mercury-Herald and to represent California in Congress, living until World War Two.

Most of the evidence for the life of Mary Hayes-Chynoweth comes from The Spirit Dominant: a life of Mary Hayes Chynoweth by Louisa Johnson Clay, written by a grateful client from interviews with her and her patients, and published by her sons about 1914.


:: Posted in Odd Lives on March 7, 2013
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