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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Mediums Rare

When religion and science first clashed in the 1850s, explosive energy from the collision spun off in weird directions. Some people gave up ancient dogmas with a sigh of relief, while others dug in their heels and insisted on the literal truth of "the old time religion." Some simply lost their faith and spent the rest of their lives searching for it again.

Among these were people who thought that science might help discover the truth about the soul, life after death, and other spiritual questions. At the time, the nation was swept by a wave of spirits who knocked on tables, children who spoke in tongues, psychic healers who cured by laying on hands, mediums who spoke with the dead, and other apparent manifestations of the spirit world. Wisconsin was not immune to this spiritualist fervor, and one of the movement's best-known advocates was Morris Pratt (1820-1902) of Rock County.

Born in 1820 in New York, he emigrated to Milton as a young man and built up a successful farm. In the 1850s, as seances, spirit knockings, mediums, and trances came into vogue, he embraced these new "revelations" enthusiastically, and vowed that if he were ever wealthy he would give his fortune to support the scientific teaching of spiritual truths. Long after the general public had concluded that spiritualism was unsound or uninteresting, small colonies of devotees remained in Whitewater, Lake Mills, Waterloo, and other southern Wisconsin towns, and Morris Pratt could always be found at their meetings.

About 1884, he invested his modest savings with fellow mystic Mary Hayes Chynoweth, a well-known psychic healer. Her guiding spirit had recently instructed her to purchase acreage in the middle of the northern Wisconin forests, many miles from any town or habitation. It turned out to contain some of the richest iron ore in the Gogebic Range, and within a few months Pratt was able to sell his shares for more than $200,000. He had become wealthy almost overnight.

True to his word, in 1888 Pratt began building an $80,000 edifice in downtown Whitewater to house a spiritualist institution. Known locally as "Pratt's Folly," the building was finished but not occupied until after his death in 1902, when the Morris Pratt Institute registered its first students. Its curriculum contained the typical slate of conventional courses, but augmented them with classes in psychic studies, mediumship, and the science of seances. The school still exists today, relocated in West Allis, and one can enroll there to study clairvoyance, telepathy, mediumship, and psychic surgery, among other subjects. Its graduates can go on to serve as clergy in one of the dozens of churches that belong to the National Spiritualist Association.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on April 11, 2006

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