Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Burned-Over District

One of the fun but sometimes crazy-making aspects of putting together a book is finding the right images and maps. I was fortunate to have worked with expert map-maker Bill Nelson when I did the anthology Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion for Whereabouts Press. So I brought him on board again for The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books) and now, my latest, Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero's Spiritist Manual Introduced and Translated (Dancing Chiva). For the latter, what I needed, apart from a map of Mexico, was one of the so-called Burned-Over District-- of New York State.

To me, one of the strangest things about Spiritism (and there are many) is that its origins, in large part, can be found in upstate New York. Given that Francisco I. Madero, leader of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, was not only an ardent Spiritist but one who saw his political action in spiritual terms, well, we can say then that one of the many roots of the Mexican Revolution lies in the Burned-Over District. Does this sound too fantastic? It did to me-- at first.

Herewith the map:

The Burned-Over District (Roughly, between Albany and Buffalo)
Map by Bill Nelson
From: Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution by C.M. Mayo

EXCERPT From Chapter 1: Roots, Entanglements, Encounters"  Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution:

. . . Once the heartland of the Iroquois nation, this approximately 50-by-500 kilometer swath of verdant Yankee farmland between Albany and Buffalo got its name not from any fire but from the fiery passions of its nineteenth-century religious revival movements. Traveling preachers filled billowing tents with celebrants, and Mitch Horowitz writes in Occult America, “[f]or days afterward, without the prompting of ministers or revivalists, men and women would speak in tongues and writhe in religious ecstasy. Many would report visitations from angels or spirits.” A few outstanding figures in the long list of those who traveled through, settled in, or departed from the Burned-Over District include Jemima Wilkinson, aka “The Publick Universal Friend” who called herself a channel for the Divine Spirit; the utopian Oneida Community; the Millerites, who sold their worldly possessions in expectation of Judgment Day in 1844; Shakers; Quakers; Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who claimed to receive instructions from the Angel Moroni to unearth the golden plates of the Book of Mormon; and, most relevant to the story at-hand, the Fox sisters of Hydesville.
The Foxes, a Methodist farmworker family, the father a blacksmith, moved into their cottage shortly before Christmas 1847. There would have been snow pillowing up to the windowsills, and a pre-electricity sky spectacular with stars. On their straw-stuffed mattresses, the family would have been bundled in blankets and quilts. But through the cruel winter nights of 1848, their sleep suffered with odd noises, crackles, scrapings—as if of moving furniture, bangs, and knocks. By springtime the children had become so frightened by the “spirit raps,” they insisted on sleeping with their parents. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, of Sherlock Holmes fame) recounts in The History of Spiritualism:

Finally, upon the night of March 31 there was a very loud and continued outbreak of inexplicable sounds. It was on this night that one of the great points of psychic evolution was reached, for it was then that young Kate Fox challenged the unseen power to repeat the snaps of her fingers. That rude room, with its earnest, expectant, half-clad occupants with eager upturned faces, its circle of candlelight, and its heavy shadows lurking in the corners, might well be made the subject of a great historical painting. Search all the palaces and chancelleries of 1848, and where will you find a chamber which has made its place in history as secure as this bedroom of a shack? The child’s challenge, though given in flippant words, was instantly answered. Every snap was echoed by a knock. However humble the operator at either end, the spiritual telegraph was at last working.

Kate Fox, eleven, and her sister, Maggie, fourteen, determined that the spirit they called “Mr. Split-foot” was that of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in the house. Conan Doyle, who went so far as to reprint the sworn April 11, 1848, testimony of both parents, was one of many Spiritualists, as they came to call themselves, who considered the events in the so-called “Spook House” of Hydesville “the most important thing that America has given to the commonweal of the world.” And whether one laughingly discards, ardently accepts, or finely sifts and resifts ad infinitum the evidence of the existence of said murdered peddler and any communications from beyond the veil, the fact remains that whatever happened in Hydesville ignited an enthusiasm for “spirit” phenomena evoked in the ritual of the séance—from channeling to table tipping to pencils and chalk stubs writing by themselves, or by communication by means of a planchette; clairvoyance; flashes of light and floating orbs; levitation; ectoplasmic hands, feet and faces oozing out of velvety darkness; and “spirit photography”—throughout the Burned-Over District, north to Canada, out west, south, to England and Ireland and, at full-gallop, across the European continent into Russia. 
The Fox sisters received an avalanche of press, which only increased after P.T. Barnum put them on display in his American Museum on New York City’s Broadway, charging a dollar—then more than a tidy sum—to communicate through them to the ghost of one’s choice. (As science historian Deborah Blum recounts in Ghost Hunters, among those who paid their dollar were the novelist James Fenimore Cooper and Horace Greely, editor of The New York Tribune, both of whom left convinced that they had heard from spirit.) Scores of mediums now emerged, claiming to communicate with spirits as diverse as a drowned child, Egyptian high priests, and “astral” beings; seeking them out in darkened rooms came legions of the bereaved, curiosity-seekers, skeptics on a mission, and quite a few intellectuals.
Among the celebrated mediums in this period were the English Florence Cook; Nettie Colburn, who gave séances for Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House; and Scottish-born American Daniel Dunglas (D.D.) Home, who toured France in the 1850s, which, according to historian John Warne Monroe, “seemed to mark the first step in the spread of this second, metaphysical American Revolution.” According to magic historian Henry Ridgely Evans, “No man since Caglisotro ever created so profound a sensation in the Old World.”
Home’s séances, like his audience itself, attained a new level of glamour, a world apart from the Fox sisters. Attended by royalty, including the Emperor Louis Napoleon and his Empress Eugénie, and high society of all stripes, according to Janet Oppenheim in The Other World, an evening with Home might feature a spine-tingling cornucopia of phenomena:

[F]urniture trembled, swayed, and rose from the floor (often without disturbing objects on its surface); diverse articles soared through the air; the séance room itself might appear to shake with quivering vibrations; raps announced the arrival of the communicating spirits; spirit arms and hands emerged, occasionally to write messages or distribute favors to the sitters; musical instruments, particularly Home’s celebrated accordion, produced their own music; spirit voices uttered their pronouncements; spirit lights twinkled, and cool breezes chilled the sitters. If Home announced his own levitation, as he did from time to time, the sitters might feel their hair ruffled by the soles of his feet.

Let us float down from the ceiling for a moment, back to the grittier question of roots. 

Copyright C.M. Mayo. All rights reserved.

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>Paperback edition of Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution, and Spanish edition, Odisea metafísica hacia la Revolución Mexicana, are forthcoming. have been published.