Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Psychics and Mystics in 1850s Wisconsin

Spirits Lead a Woman to Fortune

Psychics and Mystics in 1850s Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeA seance robe worn by Louise Parke during her work as a Spiritualist in Wisconsin.

Spiritualist's Séance Robe, ca. 1900

A seance robe worn by Louise Parke during her work as a Spiritualist in Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 102757

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 manifestations of the spirit world. Wisconsin was not immune to this spiritualist fervor. One of the movement's most famous advocates was Morris Pratt (1820-1902) of Rock County.

Spiritualist Colonies

Born in 1820 in New York, he emigrated to Milton as a young man and built up a successful farm. In the 1850s, as séances, 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. Morris Pratt could always be found at their meetings.

Mary Hayes Chynoweth

Around 1884, Pratt 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 Wisconsin 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.

Pratt's Folly

EnlargeA view of the facade and side of the Morris Pratt Institute. The roof line has an ornate iron railing running around its perimeter and the railings on the porch and balcony are elaborately decorated.

Morris Pratt Institute, ca. 1889.

A view of the facade and side of the Morris Pratt Institute. The roof line has an ornate iron railing running around its perimeter and the railings on the porch and balcony are elaborately decorated. View the original source document: WHI 79802

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 séances. The school still exists today, relocated in West Allis, and students can enroll there to study clairvoyance, telepathy, mediumship, psychic surgery and 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.

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See more about Morris Pratt.