Hamlin, Missouri - Sunday, August 7, 1898
We found General Custer in the Tenderloin, near the railroad station. He was dying, and by the look of things, he had been doing so for years. People passed him by on the sidewalk, hardly sparing him a glance. He was old news. Still, I found myself moved as I beheld the great man, pierced by multiple arrows, breathing his last. Here he had made his last stand, and now he died amongst his men, their corpses littering the ground, while a lone Sioux brave looked on in awe.
Mort, however, was not similarly moved. Indeed, he seemed to take pleasure in pointing out the shoddiness of the whole affair: the wheezing and grinding of some clockwork machinery hidden beneath the store-front window display, a bellows of some kind inflating and deflating the chest of the wax-works figure. Mort noted the dust and cobwebs, the fading of the general’s uniform from years in the Missouri sun, and how the Sioux warrior, standing with mouth agape, appeared to have been stricken thus for at least a decade, judging by the dust coating his black hair and crumbling face-paint. “The Dying Custer” had seen better days. We had, however, achieved our aim. We had found the infamous Eden Musée, a dime museum.
After a week that seemed an eternity, we had been released from the asylum. We would have to return, of course, but for now, curfew was far from our thoughts. Like sailors on leave in a new port of call, we were free at last to explore the nearby town of Hamlin. I’m afraid we had slept through the better portion of our day off. As assistant physicians, we put in twelve hour days, with Sundays off. Under-staffing was apparently worse than we’d been led to expect. The eager young pups who had arrived bushy-tailed and excited to begin the Great Work soon came to realize the magnitude of their folly. Innocent young pups we were, a week ago.
Suffice to say, Mort and I were ripe for adventure, to rejoin, if only for the evening, the sane world beyond the asylum walls, to finally get a look at the town from which the asylum derived its name. The Tenderloin was where our new colleagues went on their off-hours. It seems the town was in a bit of an uproar due to a recent women’s movement convention. Then again, it may have been New Thought. Possibly both. Freddy Baker, whom I “shadowed” on rounds, said that he had received word that there was to be an arrest tonight at the Musée.
“It’s called ‘The Wonderful Child.’ Get there early,” Freddy had advised. “I think you’ll find it worth your time.” He had seemed reluctant to say more, so I let it go. Perhaps events would bring clarity. He had certainly aroused my curiosity.
I had felt a great weight lift from me the moment we exited through the gate crowned with the words “State Lunatic Asylum No. 3” arching overhead in letters of black iron. What a thing to see upon arrival. It might as well have said “Forsake Hope All Ye Who Enter.” Twilight breezes felt blessedly cool after the heat of the day. We passed well-kept farms whose fallow fields seemed impossibly flat, the soil rich and loamy, so unlike the rocky hillsides of New England. Soon we were among the neat grid of paved streets. Everything seemed newly built, which I suspected was due to the nearby presence of the asylum, erected by the state of Missouri a dozen years before. Hamlin was a boom town, plopped down in the middle of the vast prairie, miles from anywhere. If you didn’t know about the hundred-acre asylum compound just down the road, you’d wonder why anyone would build a shiny new town with a respectable railway station in such a desolate place.
A block removed from the town center with its bright brick and freshly minted granite structures stood the grand homes of Hamlin’s prominent citizens. Among them, Mort spotted an establishment we’d heard talk of, the Hopewell Institute of Magnetic Healing. The proprietor, a Professor Leonard Hopewell, had, according to rumor, arrived mysteriously in town only a few years before, and his “institute”—an enlarged Victorian manse and outbuildings that occupied an entire block—was one of the premier establishments in town. Freddy Baker had heard that Professor Hopewell was a defrocked Baptist preacher (were there such things?), a quack practicing a home-grown mélange of Mesmerism, New Thought, and Swedenborgism. Hopewell’s various business schemes had made him perhaps the most powerful man in town. Thinking back to the grand estates of the Boston Brahmin along Massachusetts Avenue, I found it hard to imagine that the architectural abortion before us housed Hamlin’s nexus of power.
Suddenly, the street lamps came on, all at once, for the town was electrified. Another oddity of Hamlin. While most of the Middle-West still relied upon kerosene, far-flung Hamlin, being on the rail line, boasted electric lighting.
Our destination was close. The grand turret of the railroad station loomed just beyond the main street, its roof-lines accented with clear bulbs too bright to look at. And that, of course, is where we found Custer.
After paying our respects to the general, we tendered our dimes to the barker at the door and entered the Musée. To the right was a double-door entrance to a room displaying wax replicas meant for scientific edification. These “anatomical museums” were always entertaining, with their cross-sections of the fetus in utero; various organs such as the kidneys, heart, and brain; and so forth. Normally, the displays by the entrance were garish but educational, properly edifying, as befitting a museum. Nothing that would be unsuitable for women and children, in other words. There were cross-sections and skeletons, musculatures and organs, all fine examples of the wax sculptor’s art. But further on, young men were encouraged to visit the Men Only room in the back, where the realistic models of diseased organs of syphilitics, bloated kidneys and shrunken livers, were usually enough to drive any man to buy whatever tonic was on offer, convinced by the “diagnosis” of a “medical consultant” that he was gravely ill. I spotted such a one in a white lab coat, avoided his eye. Mort and I bore to the left, down a short hallway leading to the theater. A sign outside proclaimed: “The Wonderful Child—See and Believe.”
The “child” turned out to be a young woman, dark-complected and pretty in a simple way, adorned plainly in a gingham dress and a kerchief artlessly tied under her chin, nothing more than a country girl on the cusp of womanhood. She would have easily passed for one of the townsfolk, so common was her appearance. Such an obvious ploy put me instantly on my guard.
She was accompanied by a man at least old enough to be her father, and he wore the tired uniform of every Svengali across the land: the dark Van Dyke trimmed to a point, the evening tails. He led the girl—she was perhaps sixteen—to a chair facing the audience. The gaudy velvet-lined theater held a dozen souls here and there among the mostly empty seats. Mort and I sat right down front for an unobstructed view. Now, as the fraud turned to the audience, one arm raised, an expectant hush descended.
“To our honored guests, friends, visitors from afar, I bear greetings. I am Professor Redstone, master of the mesmerist arts. Let me convey my sincere and humble thanks that you have chosen to honor us here this evening with your esteemed presences.” There was more in this vein—Redstone apparently thought he was addressing heads of state, not rubes who had wandered in off the street, but the audience seemed to take it as their due. While he talked on, I glanced around, looking for the tell-tale gleam of a policeman’s badge, but it was beginning to seem Freddy had been mistaken. At last, the “professor” turned his attention to the young lady, and we all sat up, hoping that the show would now commence.
“Behold this young woman.” He stood beside her, his gloved hand extended towards her as though she were an exhibit on display. He asked her to state her name, inquired as to whether she had a beau (to which she demurred prettily, eliciting a titter of knowing laughter from the audience), asked if she knew who the president was, and so forth.
Redstone had received her answers in a patronizing sort of way—wasn’t she a clever girl to know about Mr McKinley—and now he gazed out at the assembly with an air of shared superiority. “As you can see, Miss Clara is quite ordinary in every regard. Her schooling did not extend beyond the third grade. I assure you, she herself possesses no magnetic powers of her own. What you are about to see is the transformative power of the magnetic trance.”
Throughout all of this, Clara had sat with a look of innocent excitement on her face, as though this were all a lark. Now Redstone stood facing her, blocking our view of her. Slowly, he moved his hands inches from Clara’s form, tracing its outline. Back and forth, over and over, he continued the mesmeric passes. At length, he staggered to the side, apparently drained by his efforts. Clara, we now saw, had slumped in her chair, as though asleep. Women gasped, a man cried out. Redstone, after making a show of recovering from his magnetic ministrations, bent to closely examine the now somnambulic Clara. He commanded her to lift her right hand, and it floated up to shoulder level while the rest of her remained inert, the eyes closed.
“As you may observe,” Redstone said, addressing us, “the subject has reached the first level of the mesmeric trance. The organism must yield up the living phantasm which abides within. Thus begins the ultimate phase of the trance.”
After commanding Clara to lower her arm, there was more interminable hand-waving, until at last Redstone withdrew, seeming close to collapse. He was a consummate ham.
“Spirits!” he cried in a rasping voice, arm raised imploringly. “Good spirits, we seek thy counsel! We entreat thee, accept this empty vessel we have prepared for thy temporal use.” He extended both hands towards the limp figure, arms trembling. It seemed we were to imagine that magnetic waves were emanating from his fingertips. Among those seated nearby us in the dark, I sensed a growing anticipation—the excitement was mounting. Redstone possibly had them fooled, but that hardly mattered; he certainly had them entertained. The great faker drew closer to the girl, fingers trembling, his facial contortions signifying immense mental exertions.
And now Clara began to stir. The effect was uncanny. It was as though some animating presence flowed into her, like a hand inserted into a puppet, beginning at the feet and moving all the way up, forcing the head up and the eyes open.
A different intelligence peered out of those eyes.
Redstone stood back, striking a pose meant to indicate Apprehension: the eyes wide, the shoulders and arms drawn back defensively (similar to Fear, which involved raising the palms to shoulder level). His reliance upon stock poses from popular melodramas spoke of time spent treading the boards, not studying medical texts. “Spirit, speak!” he intoned. His voice carried a note of fear, as though he dreaded to behold the spawn of his devilish arts. Beneath the stock poses, though, his eyes showed real fear. I sat forward, watching intently.
Clara stood slowly, for all the world as though she suffered from rheumatism. Her eyes lit up as her face rose and she saw us all watching her in the dark.
Redstone took a cautious step. “Dr Forbes? Is it you?”
Clara turned halfway from the waist, as elderly people will do, as it takes less effort than adjusting one’s footing. “Professor Redstone! Well met, my friend. I see you have brought some friends tonight.” She turned back to us and smiled and nodded. Charmingly, in a small voice, she asked Redstone, “Won’t you introduce us, please?” This was not the voice of a young girl.
Something was off, I sensed. Redstone’s confidence was faltering, but then he regathered his poise. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in his stage manager voice. “I give you Doctor Phileas Forbes, M.D.”
At this, the house erupted in applause. I craned my neck and watched them cheering. Obviously, this Forbes was a well-known mediumistic control. It seemed everyone in the hall was showering him with their thanks and blessings. Or her, rather. Redstone stood helplessly next to the girl, who stood basking in glory, smiling shyly. Now there were calls for Forbes to speak. Just as the girl began, though, Redstone stepped quickly in front of her, blocking our view, talking all the while.
“Yes, yes, thank you, thank you, Dr Forbes! We will pay a call on you again later in the show.” And with that, he did something too fast for me to catch, a flip of the wrist in front of her face, and suddenly the life went out of her, the puppet hand now swiftly withdrawn. Clara collapsed into Redstone’s waiting arms, the crowd gasping with concern. He dragged her slight form lightly, upright, a few steps to the chair into which he draped her like an oversized rag doll, limbs akimbo. I heard many anguished and outraged cries from the dark. What had he done to the doctor, they were demanding to know.
Redstone faced the audience, palms up, pleading for peace. “Fear not, good people. Young Clara, our Wonderful Child, is well. I have commanded her to enter the deep trance once again. The spirits are capricious and do not always do as they ought. Clara will attempt to reach out once more to the spirit realm. Let us join together! That’s right . . . let us sing. Now arise, my child.”
She awoke and stood, and he held her by the elbow, guiding her to the front of the stage, reluctant to let go, I saw. Afraid she’d go off the script again. She stood erect, alert, facing us, while Redstone stepped off to the side. Clara slowly closed her eyes and the room held its breath.
A hum began as female voices softly sang. I imagined this was a habit garnered while attending many a séance. Table rappers were known to sit in the dark for hours at a stretch, singing hymns and hoping for a manifestation. The singing helped pass the time, I supposed, though I knew Spiritualists believed it helped attract the spirits of the departed. A way to draw attention to one’s earthly presence. (It also happened to cover up any noises made by the medium’s compatriots as they went about their business in the dark with tin horns and ghostly touches.) The singing continued while Clara stood, eyes shut, chin tilted up, her arms thrown back as though she were inviting the spirits to enter her. Suddenly, her eyes flew open wide, the singing ceased. I checked Redstone. For once, he was not in one of his melodramatic poses, and I felt I was seeing the man behind the act, for there shone unalloyed fear in his eyes.
There wasn’t time to wonder about that: Clara had come to life. She was skipping about the stage, singing a nonsense rhyme from childhood, her voice pitched high, uncannily like a small child’s. It was easy to imagine that this was precisely how her childhood voice had sounded. The audience took this in stride—and like a game of charades, there was fun to be had in guessing. Who could this child be? The ladies in the audience were especially taken with Clara’s antics. This poor lost child-spirit wandering alone in the Summerland tugged at the heart-strings of these stout mothers and sisters.
At last, Clara came to a stop at the front of the stage. She gazed with eyes wide, as though just now noticing the audience.
“Oh, hullo!” she said, giving a little wave. There was a general chorus of greeting and welcome. Redstone smiled appreciatively at the crowd, but he was keeping a watchful eye on Clara. She began to sing “My Grandfather’s Clock” and the audience joined in. So far, none of this was out of the ordinary, and frankly, I was beginning to lose interest. The audience, though, was having a wonderful time, clapping and singing. When the song ended, I glanced at Mort and he elbowed me, motioning towards the stage with his chin. I looked back at Clara to find her transformed—there is no other word for it. Everything about her demeanor—her posture, her gaze, the slow turn of the head—bespoke a presence of gravity.
“Greetings, good citizens of the great State of Missouri!” She spoke in the unmistakable strident tenor of the late president. Respectfully, the crowd quieted, the name Lincoln on everyone’s whispered breath. “Much has changed in the score and a half of years since I last walked this blessed earth. Yet though we have ended slavery, woman remains in chains. The disenfranchisement of fully half the population can no longer be countenanced. How can it be that a negro man may now vote, yet a woman may not?”
The crowd murmured at this. Part of the excitement and titillation of these public séances, I should add, is the novelty of seeing a woman holding forth extemporaneously on stage. Actresses are always suspected of loose morals. A touch of the naughty is certainly part of the appeal. I was shocked not by the words, but the dramatic change in the voice. One moment she sounded like a child; the next, from that same female mouth, issued the voice of Lincoln sounding strong and clear. The effect was so convincing, it was nearly impossible to think the words came from the girl; surely the spirit of Lincoln was here, inhabiting Clara somehow, controlling her speech. On no account could she be held accountable for his words, nor could anyone accuse her of breaking Saint Paul’s taboo against women bearing public witness.
“Good people of Hamlin, I ask you—is woman not the equal of the negro man? This iniquity cannot stand. Yea, for lest I be misunderstood: I, Abraham Lincoln, am a suffragist! Woman must be set free!”
Clara bowed gravely as the audience stood and cheered and clapped, but it was not for her, I saw. It was for Lincoln. They were swept up in a sort of mass hallucination. He had come forth from the Beyond with a message for them. I kept my eye on Clara, who was again transforming, the Great Emancipator replaced by a gypsy dancer, dancing in a tight circle, beating an invisible tambourine with both arms above her head. Her movements were fluid, her head turning quickly this way, then that, peering from lowered brows with a smoldering fire. The segue was so unexpected, the sight so jarring, Lincoln was quickly forgotten. She had the room completely under her spell now. Redstone, well off to the side, continued to watch her nervously, making an effort to appear magisterial, I supposed. He no longer attempted to control her with his hand motions—for now.
Clara’s gypsy was done to a perfection. Her movements were so natural, one could almost see the peasant blouse and the gaily colored scarf around her head, hear the smack of the tambourine’s stretched hide against the heel of her palm. People found their seats, excitedly expectant: the spirits were lively tonight. I looked to see how Mort was taking the performance. It was he who had prior experience with séances and mediums, not I. He seemed barely able to spare me a quick glance; his attention was riveted to Clara. I wouldn’t try to talk now, much as I would’ve loved to know his thoughts.
Now the dancing stopped, and once again Clara faced the audience, breathing hard. Redstone took advantage of the pause and the enthusiastic crowd to sidle over, but just as he approached Clara, his hand outstretched to command her, she spun and faced him, shook the hand: two men greeting on the street, Clara speaking in the patrician Philadelphian tones of an earlier day.
“Redstone!” she boomed, adjusting invisible pince-nez on her nose, hand resting on a nonexistent paunch. “Well met, good fellow.” She sounded altogether different now, from the change in accent to the tenor and range of the voice. It was remarkable and quite inexplicable. The two of them continued to shake hands until at last Redstone, seeming to relent with frustration, forced a smile and introduced this new “spirit”: Benjamin Franklin. Beside me, I heard a groan from Mort. I bent to him.
“What is it?”
He gave me a rather disgusted look. “I’ll tell you after.”
Clara, playing as Franklin, was very convincing, I thought. Uncannily so. But I was fairly sure the words spoken were never uttered by the real Franklin. She had finally released Redstone’s hand and fairly dismissed him, launching directly into her talk, while he wandered back to the side, obviously no longer in control. If he had ever been.
“When I was a twelve-year-old in Boston, just starting out as a printer’s apprentice, there was a bookish lad I was intimately acquainted with, John Collins. We were fond of disputation, and a question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of the propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of the opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words, and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons.”
Clara paused here for a moment, and I took the opportunity to watch Mort’s face. He sat slouched in his seat, a palm covering his mouth while his eyes blazed.
Just then the house lights went up and I turned in my seat to see men—police—moving down the aisles. They’d been in the back of the hall, waiting for the signal—I had forgotten all about the imminent arrest until that moment—and now they stormed the stage, five of them standing together, blocking our view of Clara. A sixth now wrestled with her. I craned my neck to see. The audience was up on its feet, yelling indignantly. And above the din, I could hear the frightened, plaintive voice of Clara herself, pleading for help. One of the five policemen—their leader—called for order. He was ignored, even as he bellowed: “This performance is in violation of civic code and is hereby closed indefinitely. Please exit in an orderly fashion.”
But the audience wasn’t going anywhere. Half were outraged, the other half were having a wonderful time, and neither half was leaving. It was all I could do not to try to rush the stage, hearing Clara’s pitiable cries. Someone had Redstone restrained, though he struggled mightily. As I watched, he broke free and was soon lost in the crowd. Things looked about to turn very ugly, but somehow the police, batons raised, managed to escort Clara up the aisle and out of the theater without serious incident.
Redstone had gotten away.