The Spirit is Willing! George Washington and seven other Presidents appear: Rochester – January 18, 1852
Glendower – I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur – Why, so can I; or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?
– Shakespeare (Henry IV)
For centuries, philosophers have debated the questions; “What is truth?,” “Is truth provable?,” and “Does perspective alter truth?” Even our renowned 21st Century semantician, Rudy Giuliani, weighed in with the epigram, “Truth isn’t truth.”¹ But for now let’s keep this simple and just say that truth is that which an individual believes.
That being the case, then to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people over the last 167 years — both in Rochester and elsewhere — the truth is that on January 18, 1852 deceased presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison and James K. Polk visited Rochester, albeit only briefly and in non-corporeal form.
But before going further, a few background definitions:
Spiritualism – a system of belief or religious practice based on the conviction that it’s possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead, generally via a medium. Modern Spiritualism is said to date from the activities of the Fox sisters in Upstate New York in 1848.
Medium – a person who claims to be able to contact the spirits of the dead and to act as a communication channel between the dead and the living.
Spirit Writing – writing believed to be produced without conscious thought, usually by a medium in a trance state and under the influence of spirits or other psychic forces said to guide the medium’s hand. Also known as automatic writing.
Rochester and Western New York has long been home to colorful characters and a hot bed of social movements their founders and adherents believed would transform and improve the morals and values of society. Two of the most colorful individuals to live here and undeniably two of the most committed to improving the human condition were Isaac and Amy Kirby Post.
Members of the pacifistic and socially progressive Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, the Posts were fervent abolitionists, supporters and close friends of Frederick Douglass, dedicated advocates of women’s rights, promoters of the temperance movement and apostles of Spiritualism. To reform the social status quo, the Posts taught by example.
Originally from Long Island, Isaac and Amy moved to the booming city of Rochester in 1836 where Isaac established a successful apothecary business. Orthodox Friends thought social activism should be low-key, restricted to working with co-religionists to avoid potential moral contamination from mixing with those “in the world,” i.e. non-believers. However, as members of a radical Quaker sect known as Hicksites, the Posts believed social progress, such as the abolition of slavery, required cooperation with non-Quakers.
Within a few years of settling in Rochester, the Posts founded the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. Their home on 36 Sofia Street (now the location of the Hochstein School on the subsequently re-named North Plymouth Avenue) was Rochester’s discussion and action center for anti-slavery activities and other reform movements.
In addition to hosting meetings with Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth, the home was one of several local stops along the Underground Railroad to Canada.² Eventually, the Posts willingness to work with anyone — Quaker or non-Quaker — to advance their social agenda led to the severing of ties altogether with the Society of Friends.
By 1848, the Posts had convinced Frederick Douglass to move his family to Rochester and publish his newspaper.
In July 1848, along with Douglass, Amy attended the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls: two of the one hundred women and men who signed the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments.
Earlier that year, Isaac and Amy heard stories circulating about Kate and Margaret Fox, two sisters in nearby Hydesville said to talk with the spirits of the dead, receiving responses via knocks and rappings.
Dealing with the loss of three of their young children, Edmund, Matilda and Henry, the Posts asked the Fox sisters to speak to the spirit world on their behalf.³ The Posts already knew the Fox family; Isaac was the landlord for another sister, Leah, at her home on Troup Street in Corn Hill where Kate and Margaret stayed from time-to-time.4
With the sisters ostensibly reaching the Post’s deceased daughter, Matilda, this séance was successful. Finding the Fox sisters credible — and experiencing the emotional benefit of communicating with departed loved ones — the Posts became dedicated converts and proselytizers of Spiritualism.
On November 14, 1849, Isaac and Amy rented Rochester’s Corinthian Hall for the first large scale public presentation of the Fox sisters’ powers. The notoriety of the “Rochester Rappers” spread nationwide, thus making us, if not the birthplace of modern day Spiritualism, arguably its cradle.
Now, getting back to those appearances by eight deceased presidents.
Influenced by the Fox sisters, Isaac was able to enter into rapport with the passed away. By 1852, Isaac was an accomplished and prolific medium, interacting with the dead through spirit writing, disembodied forces guiding his hand to spell out their messages to the living. Apparently the spirit of his deceased mother was influential, counseling him at one séance:
Isaac my son… a reformation is going on in the spirit world, and these spirits seek the company of honest men like you. It will do them great good and thee no harm. . . .
Sharing the wisdom revealed by the spirits became Isaac’s mission. To that end, he compiled Voices from the Spirit World, Being Communications from Many Spirits, by The Hand of Isaac Post, Medium, arranging for its publication by a Rochester printer.The book contains a record of dozens of messages received by Isaac in 1851 and 1852. In its opening, “To the Reader,” Isaac states:
I have found my pen moved by some power beyond my own, either physical or mental, and believing it to be by the spirits of those who have inhabited bodies and passed from sight, I feel it best to allow those, who desire to read the words of many individuals, as they have written with my hand, the privilege of doing so…
Fittingly enough, the book’s Introduction is written (or “written” depending on one’s viewpoint) by one of America’s greatest men of letters, the late Dr. Benjamin Franklin:
It seems to me, no candid man that sees and hears the words that flow from the enlightened clairvoyant, can come to other conclusions that that he or she is indeed conversing with spirits… (and that) when spirit laws are understood, everyone will rejoice to be governed by them; hence the earnest desire that fills my heart to spread light before the earthly traveler.
But then, in a strange statement coming from America’s leading pre-Edisonian inventor, Franklin admonished:
Let no man claim that he has made great improvements in the arts and sciences, unassisted by spirit friends. The telegraph wires would not now be conveying intelligence from one end of the land to the other but for the assistance of disembodies spirits.
Left unanswered, from whence did spirits get their ideas for inventions?
From July to December 1851 Amy and Isaac played host to such permanently retired dignitaries as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Martha Washington, John C. Calhoun and the ubiquitous Ben Franklin. They and subsequent disembodied guests mostly communicated traditional religious sentiments, aspirations and beliefs, such as the promise of salvation for those who repented the errors of their ways. At the same time, many earth-bound subjects were addressed, albeit from a Protestant Victorian perspective.
Washington, even more than Franklin, was the book’s main attraction and most frequent guest. Not surprisingly, many of Washington’s views mirrored those of the Posts and Quakers in general. Washington condemned war, slavery and his own involvement as a slave holder and a member of the convention which drafted the Constitution
Furthermore, Washington explained how in the afterlife — unlike the world the Posts lived in but very much like the one they wanted to see — earthly honors counted for nothing. All men and women were equal, regardless of prior race, gender or social and economic status:
All honors in the bodily state, fall with the earthly tabernacle….I have left the spirit of war far behind…..I have left the spirit that could make merchandise of my brother far behind…I cannot find words to express my abhorrence of this accursed system of slavery. It not only causes those who are immediately or personally concerned, but its deadly influence is extended widely…. I regret the government was formed with such an element in it.
Talking a shot at churchmen who refused to publicly oppose slavery, Washington said:
… selfish religionists do their utmost to convince those over whom they have influence, that (slavery) is a political subject with which they must not meddle, for it will disturb the sect.” On the subject of how to end slavery, he warned that, “unless it is done with the consent of the oppressor, it must be accomplished against it…I can no longer counsel harmony, if at the expense of liberty.
Washington discussed matters with slaveholders John C. Calhoun, James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson now repenting of their sins: protecting the “Peculiar Institution” and promoting its expansion into new territories. In subsequent appearances, all three confirmed Washington’s appraisal of their change of heart.
Later, Thomas Jefferson — displaying a kind of pre-Gandhian non-violence philosophy very familiar to Quakers — conversed with Isaac. Jefferson differentiates between peaceful reformers…who would rather suffer violence than inflict it, and reformers that have resorted to force.
Appearing yet again, the ever-practical Franklin says, a mere change from body to spirit does not give either knowledge, wisdom or goodness.
Then came the evening of January 18, 1852.
Describing the beginning of that night’s séance, Isaac wrote:
One evening, while attending a meeting, a friend read a sentiment, purporting to be signed by sixty two spirits, whose names were read. My hand was moved to write that each of those spirits would gladly give a short communication, to which I assented , and found them each waiting his time in regular order. 5
Now came the sixty two spirits — one after another in no particular order — each setting down his message utilizing Isaac’s increasingly wearied hand. Among this ethereal cavalcade, in addition to the aforementioned eight presidents, were John Hancock, Martha Washington, Sam Adams, John Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton, John Paul Jones, James Fenimore Cooper, assorted signers of the Declaration of Independence, Revolutionary War generals, Quaker luminaries such as George Fox and William Penn and some guy from Corsica named Napoleon Bonaparte.
(Author’s Note: not to be a literary critic of the departed, but for such a select group, the sentiments and thoughts they expressed were almost universally tepid, bland, repetitive, uninformative and, under the circumstances, predictable.)
Take our late presidents:
George Washington – I am satisfied that there is no way to better the condition of man so readily, as to convince him of the love and presence of departed spirits…
John Adams – Oh, how mistaken I was while clothed with my body. My religion was erroneous…
Thomas Jefferson – praised Isaac’s status as a spectral amanuensis by proclaiming, Yours is a position never occupied by man before. Was there anything like it since man was first created?” The author of the Declaration of Independence must have then been channeling Franklin’s Poor Richard that evening for he ended with the cliché, Honesty is the best policy”
James Madison – It affords me more enjoyment to do this, than all the honors that were bestowed upon me while embodied….John Quincy Adams – (Note: The afterlife must have tough standards when even the most anti-slavery antebellum president was moved to write that …) I will only say, that by submitting to slaveholders, I gained earthly honor, but I lost my freedom…which, in the last part of my life, I endeavored to make amends for, but did not fully atone for my early folly.
Andrew Jackson – I was wrong in almost everything…instead of encouraging peace and good will … I encouraged wars, and bloodshed…
William Henry Harrison – …mine was a horrible life, trained to lay waste the labors of man…
James K. Polk – Oh! That I could raise my voice, and warn all of the sin they are committing by enslaving men.
Presidents James Monroe and Zachary Taylor — although also dead and also slave-holders with doubtless much to atone for — apparently had business elsewhere that night or somehow failed to get the call. Taylor was only dead for a year and a half; he may still have been in the admissions process to wherever he was. And Monroe, the last of the Virginia Dynasty — 4 of our first 5 presidents were Virginians — was always a bit of a social clam and may simply had nothing to say. Or perhaps Isaac simply forgot about them.
So, returning to the opening discussion of truth, let me ask this question. Did eight dead presidents, to say nothing of a hoard of other deceased luminaries, visit Rochester on the night of January 18, 1852?
What do YOU believe?
Given the esoteric and dated nature of Voices from the Spirit World, I was surprised to learn that reprints are currently available on Amazon. That notwithstanding, when I requested a copy from Rundel Library, I was pleasantly surprised to be handed a first edition of the work.
On April 1, 1868 (the date an interesting coincidence) the Union and Advertiser newspaper ran a lengthy article about a 20th anniversary observance of the spiritualist rappings of 1848, held the previous day in Rochester. According to the article, Isaac Post read a statement of the wonderful things he had seen in a spiritual way and Amy Post read a lengthy narrative of the Fox sisters about the scorn and threats of violence to which they had been subjected during their 1849 appearance at Corinthian Hall. The Union and Advertiser disputed the allegations.
Until the end, Isaac and Amy Post remained dedicated Spiritualists. Isaac died of pneumonia in 1871. As far as I know, there’s no report that he came back to Rochester for a visit. However, on May 21, 1889, following Amy’s death the preceding January, the Union and Advertiser published:
BACK TO EARTH: The Spirit Forms of Amy Post and Sojourner Truth Appear.
About forty persons assembled in the parlors at the residence of the late Amy Post, last evening, to witness a number of materializations of deceased persons through the mediumistic powers of Mrs. Sawyer…..A Union and Advertiser reporter, who had obtained admission incognito, and several others, made a strict examination and found no evidence of collusion…The spirit of the late Amy Post came, and some of her friends shook hands and conversed with her. The reporter remembered seeing the lifeless form of Mrs. Post lying in the very room then occupied by the medium. Mrs. Post spoke cheeringly to all present admonishing all to live nobly.
Today, Isaac and Amy are resting, assumedly peacefully, in Mount Hope Cemetery. Summing up the benefits of Spiritualism, Amy once wrote, …to me the knowledge…that my departed loved ones can and do come to me is a blessing so great that I cannot describe it. 6
¹ President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Sunday claimed truth isn’t truth when trying to explain why the president should not testify for special counsel Robert Mueller for fear of being trapped into a lie that could lead to a perjury charge.
When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth, Giuliani told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Truth is truth, Todd immediately shot back. No, no, it isn’t truth, Giuliani said. Truth isn’t truth. (POLITICO August 19, 2018)
² Looking back in 1884 on their experiences as conductors on the Underground Railroad, Amy Post wrote:
One Saturday night, after all our household were asleep, there came a tiny tap at the door, and the door was opened to fifteen tired and hungry men and women who were escaping from the land of slavery. They seemed to know that Canada, their home of rest, was near, and they were impatient, but the opportunity to cross the lake compelled their waiting until Monday early in the morning. That being settled, and their hunger satisfied, together with a comfortable and refreshing sleep, they became so elated with their nearness to perfect and lasting freedom that they were forgetful of any danger either to us, or to themselves, so that they were obliged to be constantly watched through the day to keep them from popping their heads out of the windows and otherwise showing themselves. … The welcome Monday morning came… they left the house, with all the stillness and quietness possible, and we soon saw them on board a Canada steamer, which was already lying at the dock; with them on board, it immediately shoved out into the middle of the stream, hoisted the British flag, and we knew that all was safe; we breathed more freely, but when we saw them standing on deck with uncovered heads, shouting their good-byes, thanks and ejaculations, we could not restrain our tears of thankfulness for their happy escape, mixed with deep shame that our own boasted land of liberty offered no shelter of safety for them.
³ Edmund was actually Isaac’s son by his first marriage, to Amy’s sister Hannah who had died after five years of wedlock.
4 The approximate location of the Troup Street home lived in by the Fox sisters is marked by a marble obelisk.
5 One wonders if Isaac was familiar with the works of the Greek historian Thucydides who, in his history of the Peloponnesian War, wrote that with reference to the speeches in this history…my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions.
6 Modern day spiritualism is alive (if that’s the correct term) and well in Western New York. Both at the Plymouth Spiritualist Church, founded in 1906 and now located on Vick Park A in Rochester, and at the Lily Dale Assembly near Fredonia, billed as the “World’s Largest Center for the Religion of Spiritualism.”
I contacted the Plymouth Church to ask what significance Isaac Post’s book still held for Spiritualists, receiving the following gracious response:
Isaac Post’s book “Voices from the Spirit World” is considered by most Spiritualists to be a very important historical work of early Spiritualist writing, and is also considered an example of Mediumship through ‘automatic writing.’ It doesn’t quite have a unique religious significance of a sacred text in Spiritualism as say, the Bible or Quran do in Christianity and Islam, but it’s still considered a special and interesting book. For those of us Spiritualists that live in Rochester, it’s also important as Plymouth Spiritualist Church can trace its history very directly to the Post Family, giving the book an even more important historical significance!