Hello reader! My aim for this blog is to cover elements of all aspects of burials and ‘beyond’… While I have some rather exciting cemetery posts on the backburner, I’ve certainly slacked on starting my most exciting/obsessive series concerning mediumship, Victorian spiritualism and wonderfully (potentially morally questionable) entrepreneurial women avoiding gender boundaries like ghosts in televised ghost hunts.
This week on Burials and Beyond, I’d like to introduce you to Cora L V Scott, one of the most influential mediums in the 19th century spiritualist movement and the most famous Victorian you’ve never heard of.
Cora Lodencia Veronica Scott was born in 1840 near Cuba, New York. At birth, Cora’s face was covered with a caul; a piece of membrane that many cultures believe to give the wearer a ‘sixth sense’ or special abilities (Should you want to read more about beliefs surrounding the caul, read my previous blog post on the magical membranes HERE).
Her parents, who had been dedicated Presbyterians, turned to universalism and joined the Hopedale religious community in 1851. After a time, the Scotts found Hopedale too crowded for their likings and, with the blessings of Hopedale’s founder Adin Ballou, they moved to pastures new. The Scotts founded their own international religious community in Waterloo, Wisconsin in 1852. Sadly, due to the death of Cora’s father in 1853, she left Wisconsin a year later to return to New York. But here is where things get very interesting indeed.
In 1852, when the Waterloo community was in its infancy, Cora began to show the first signs of her (supposed) supernatural/spiritual abilities. Aged 11, while dozing on her schoolwork in the family garden, Cora awoke to find that her writing slates were covered with unfamiliar handwriting. It is said that, excited and bewildered, Cora showed the slates to her mother who was alarmed by their contents and quickly hid the offending script. The writing Cora had presented was said to have been addressed to ‘My Dear Sister’, referring to a long-deceased sister of Cora’s mother. It is in these pubescent years that Cora’s abilities are said to have developed with sudden and unrelenting speed.
Cora’s sudden need for sleep, or ‘trances’ as they became known, began to increase in frequency. As the child fell asleep in the drawing room shortly after the first communicative experience, her hand began to twitch, as though writing. While her mother attempted and failed to rouse her, she soon thought to put slate and pencil into Cora’s hand. Several messages from deceased relations later, each closing with the phrase ‘We Are Not Dead’, this ‘ability’ was clear to make the young girl’s name.
Now, with the blessings of her mother (thanks to the reassurances of deceased relatives), Cora’s periods of trance sleep – now occurring multiple times a week – attracted crowds eagerly awaiting her messages. It is said that she delivered meaningful messages from deceased parties to endless gathered strangers. It was in these early years of her development that Cora was frequently ‘taken over’ by the spirit of a German surgeon – which considering young Cora was neither, was quite a feat.
Her Germanic guide would take over Cora for some several hours a day, healing those who came to her, and visiting those who were too ill to make the trip. She supposedly caused such a stir within her community that both doctors and ministers alike were perturbed by her presence and her mysterious healing abilities. The blog ‘The Unobstructed Universe’describes the clergy within her community as being ‘sycophants’, disgruntled by their empty pews (due to Cora’s proofof life beyond death) with their parishioners ‘doing their own thinking’. Opinions around Cora’s abilities, particularly her work during this German era (much like Bowie) continue to be delivered with much conviction, even today.
Indeed, in one of many apocryphal stories of her youth, she was deemed ‘satanic’ by clergy after successfully operating on Mr Keyes, a carpenter, whose infected finger was causing him great distress. The German spirit surgeon was soon thriving through these small acts of medical intervention. However, it must be reiterated, the surgeon was just that, and Mr Keyes, although free of infection, still lost part of his finger.
Soon, Cora’s small community became a spiritualist stronghold where traditional practises of faith and medicine were surplus to requirements.
Still aged eleven, Cora’s spirit guides commanded it that she be removed from school, as the current teachings of man would do them, and in turn, her mediumistic abilities, no good. Given the idea, I can attest that most eleven year olds would convey the same message, spirit guides or not.
Therefore, after watching the young girl’s abilities, it was decided that Cora would be utilised for public speaking. After reading no specialist textbooks, the young girl showed the ability to speak on a plethora of scientific and esoteric subjects via the intelligence of multiple spirits. As her name and abilities grew, she could speak on any subject given to her by a public audience, all with supernatural accuracy.
After moving to Buffalo, New York aged fourteen, by fifteen, she was commanding large audiences and amazing the masses. Her age, as with many other young successful mediums, certainly played a key part in solidifying the legitimacy of her abilities.
Accounts of mediums early years are, more often than not, fantastical and compelling, but must (understandably) be taken with a pinch of salt. One must remember that however one may believe the authenticity of another’s abilities, personal histories within the 19thcentury were exactly that – written and edited however one wanted, with few means of referencing their paranormal claims.
As with all good Victorian mediums, much of their early years are filled with apocryphal tales of unexplainable abilities and communications from heretofore unknown relatives, where later years, tales of success and fraud are far more equal in their frequency. Did pre-teen Cora speak in fluent German and operate on those who were suffering? While many may see it as unlikely, many others beg to disagree to this day.
Frank Podmore, writing in 1902, said that ‘naughty little girls have for many generations amused themselves and mystified their elders by rapping on the foot of their wooden bedsteads and throwing the less expensive crockery…’ (202)
While rather dismissive in language, Podmore is not untrue in his generalisations. Many successful female mediums required lavish backstories, where mediumistic abilities were developed from a very young age. Some claimed to summon coal from thin air, others talked to deceased relatives while some levitated or solved murders. Dipping your toe into the pool of early mediumship spills forth a veritable flood of mystical childhoods.
Cora first married aged sixteen. Her husband, some thirty years her senior, was the professional mesmerist Benjamin Franklin Hatch. He subsequently became Cora’s manager, moving her into performance circles she had previously been unable to permeate as a young, unmarried woman. For better or worse, he equipped Cora with a showmanship lacking in many of her contemporaries.
Her marriage with Hatch was fraught with problems, her divorce proceedings (still recorded in newspaper archives) even more so. With back and forth claims of abuse and affairs on both sides, they were divorced in 1863. Twenty-three year old Cora was not on her own for long, but managed to get three more marriages under her belt before her death in 1923.
Despite her troubled personal life, Cora’s large public lectures were a huge source of income and notoriety for much of her professional life. Unlike many mediums who preferred to conduct one to one readings or slate writings in a large arena, acting as background artists to their phenomena, Cora was at its forefront. She delivered lectures on a wide range of topics from spiritual and esoteric matters for mathematics, physics and the abolition of slavery.
There are multiple testimonies of triumphant lectures; stories of moral redemption and scientific astonishment.
Her biographer Harrison Delivan Barrett recounts-
“At Lynn, Massachusetts, in December, 1857, a committee composed of scholarly men anticipated that they would confound Cora’s guides by asking, “Will you please define the Pythagorean proposition?” Speaking through Cora, the guides asked, “Which proposition do you mean – the Moral Code or the so-called Scientific Proposition?” When no answer came from the committee, the guides took up the Moral Code. Following that discourse, a committee member, apparently a scientist, asked, “What is the diameter of a bucket filled to the brim with water?’ The response came through Cora, “The diameter of a bucket of water is probably as great as the diameter of a cranial structure, destitute the grey material denominated ‘brain’ by so-called scientists.”
By 1858, Cora had given some 600 lectures and assurances of her wondrous insight and legitimacy were strewn throughout periodicals and newsletters. Commenting on a lecture Cora delivered aged 18, Dr A. B Childs commented that ‘The lady can address an audience of five thousand people with great ease, and the guides through her give an elaborate discourse upon any subject the audience may choose. There cannot well be a greater test of Spirit power than this.” (Jul 24th1858)
Not only was Cora able to lecture extensively on any subject given to her, but she delivered these talks through the abilities of co-working spirits, some of whom were particularly well known. On 24thFebruary, 1883, Cora delivered a lecture in one of her trances via the spirit of President James A Garfield, who had been assassinated two years prior.
Many transcripts of Cora’s ‘high level trances’ have been preserved for students and believers of Spiritualism, and are held up by many as still possessing unrivalled insight into the spirit world. Those behind Interfarfacing.org and the extensive Cora L V Richmond Archives remark that ‘For future generations they will bring more knowledge and wisdom to students better able to perceive larger portions of the gestalt; universal spiritual quantum physics.’
The lectures Cora so expertly delivered are often recorded as being as successful and thought-provoking as her early spiritualistic work in her small community. However, due to the developments in newspaper and periodical culture, unimpressed attendees’ voices were afforded as much column space as those celebrating the medium’s abilities. Taking newspaper reports and cultural context into account… when lecturing, it seems Cora may have spouted a lot of drivel.
As reported in the Boston Courier on November 21st1857, Cora Scott’s (then, Hatch) appearance and lecture was not received so positively by all attendees.
‘The first evening [Monday], Mrs. Hatch, though professing to be too ill to speak at all, did, nevertheless, talk one hour and a half “against time,” in order that the committee might not have an opportunity to test her claims to scientific attainments…Seven-eights of her time, at least, was consumed in rhapsodies upon points that had notthe most distant connection with the subject given her; and when at last she concluded, she said, that “in consequence of illness and exhaustion of the medium, we shall answer no questions tonight.” This was a downright imposition upon those who had been invited there to test her superhuman powers, and an effort was made to induce her to answer. Her reply was: “The spirts have declined to answer, and that is sufficient.”’
Despite such comments littering newspapers throughout Cora’s professional career, many people continue to praise her as one of life’s great inspirational speakers. A skim through psychic and spiritualist archives will unearth a plethora of contemporary journals who still explore the academic merits of her lectures. Considering Cora was actively speaking, presenting and lecturing at conferences until her death in 1923, there’s a LOT of material to sift through.. and as much as I adore the legacies of female Victorian mediums, I wanted to make this post part of a series, not a thesis!
A medium’s success and the hysteria surrounding so many performances and supposed demonstrations of other-worldly abilities are understandably easy to mock through modern eyes. There are understandably endless technological, cultural and social aspects to consider, but also developments in spiritualism itself; trance mediumship and performance mediumship/mesmerism on such a scale was new to many North American audiences. A growing willingness to speculate on the nature of eternity and a keenness to explore the new field of spirit study and experience the zeitgeist as it toured your doorstep. To put it bluntly, the 19thCentury wasn’t drowning in Psychic Sallys and Derek Acorahs.
After a series of spirit-guided lectures in the UK (to moderate success at most), Cora returned to North America in 1875, becoming a pastor in a Chicago spiritualist church (a position she held until her death), where she finally seemed to lay roots.
While doubts were cast upon her legitimacy as a medium in her lifetime, admirers of, and believers in, her work remain as passionate today as in Cora’s mortal lifetime.
Personally, I admire Cora’s gumption. She was a critic of evolution, four-times married at a time when one divorce would often ruin a woman’s reputation and publically danced about scientific topics through rambling spirit raptures on the nature of existence. She was a businesswoman, a celebrity and a woman with more confidence than anyone should strictly possess.
To me, whether or not she held mediumistic powers is immaterial; she was an international artist and icon, the likes of which we’ll never see again.