The most common approach to making sense of a person's career is biographical. Who was Cora L. V. Hatch? There are no Hatch papers to consult. The two published biographies, one a mere sketch written by her husband when she was still eighteen, and the other an authorized life written by the head of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches when she was past fifty. Neither can be relied upon in any number of crucial areas. Hatch herself wrote extensively, but usually in the voice of one or another Spirit Guide. A good example is Experiences of Judge J. W. Edmonds, in Spirit Life. Newspaper and magazine accounts are useful in recounting public reaction but tell us virtually nothing about Hatch herself. Scholars, like the recent biographers of Hatch imitator Victoria Woodhull, who nonetheless pursue the biographical approach, have to decide which of the extant versions of one or another event they wish to credit. Unfortunately, this is often not clear. Sometimes it may well be that none of the versions we have is even close to the truth. Hatch made up stories about herself as did Woodhull. They were confidence artists, liars of extraordinary talent. Shifting through their accounts, or those of their epigones, is likely to be an exercise in frustration.
There is, however, another set of materials which, although also suspect, shed considerable light on Hatch between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. These are the complaints, answers, and other documents submitted in evidence in the divorce actions Cora and B. F. Hatch filed against each other.
In transcribing the handwritten originals of the court papers I have kept the original spelling and punctuation, except where there was danger of confusing the reader. My changes are indicated by brackets.
The "Hatch Divorce Case" quickly became notorious. The following stories from the New-York Daily Tribune, edited by Horace Greeley, and the New York Herald, edited by his archrival James Gordon Bennett, illustrate the ways the press, at least in New York City, treated the case. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, one of two national circulation weeklies, also commented.
Some initial reflections:
Cora Hatch's complaints about her husband were shocking to her contemporaries in serveral ways. His misrepresentation of his medical practice in New York City -- he was actually the partner of Dr. Harrington, the clairvoyant, and not a well-established physician among the fashionable -- was, if true, distasteful or worse but not shocking. His failure to support her mother and brother, which he admitted albeit with excuses, was also a serious offense but again not shocking. His failure to buy her flannel petticoats was. Contemporaries seized upon this detail. Dr. Hatch went to some lengths to provide an alternative explanation but without much success. No woman would take his suggestion that a flannel blanket would serve as proper material for a petticoat seriously. Nor would any man who asked wife, mother, or sister.
What was so shocking about Dr. Hatch's refusal to buy his wife a flannel petticoat? They both agreed he spent freely on her clothing, including fashionable and very expensive undergarments. The answer may lie precisely in the point that the gowns and lace petticoats were for her public performances. They were part of her public image. The flannel were simply to keep her warm.
Her accusations of his unwillingness to allow her access to the money she earned came at a moment in which women's property rights had begun to win the day. Pennsylvania, in the late 1840s, was the first state to permit women to hold property in their own names. New York and other states had begun to follow suit. Even those opposed to woman's rights generally, such as Harper's New Monthly Magazine, had conceded that women were entitled to property they inherited or earned. The idea that Dr. Hatch was living off his wife was highly discreditable, and he had a difficult time convincing anyone that he was more responsible for her success than she was.
Her account of his sexual misconduct was deeply shocking. He openly consorted with a prostitute and made his wife receive her as a guest. He made sexual demands upon Cora that were a threat to her "delicacy." His response, a blanket denial, did not fit well with his own charges of sexual hijinks among spiritualists generally in Spiritualists' Iniquities Unmasked.
In his pamphlet, as in an earlier letter to the New York Tribune, Dr. Hatch published his correspondence with Judge John Worth Edmonds. Edmonds had been one of the three eminent spiritualists who had attempted to resolve the dispute between the Hatches and had concluded, much to Dr. Hatch's chagrin, that right and justice were entirely on Cora's side. His version of the exchange of letters is not altogether accurate. Here is the letter of Judge Edmonds to the Tribune charging Hatch with misrepresenting him along with Horace Greeley comment. It is clear that Edmonds and his colleagues decided that Dr. Hatch had committed some egregious sexual impropriety.
What was this? That is one mystery surrounding the divorce. A second, perhaps related, is: Why did Cora Hatch allow her petition to lapse? Instead of pursuing the matter, she dropped it, apparently in exchange for the pledge by her husband not to interfer quoted in the New York Atlas editorial. This left him with all the money she had earned through 1858. Two speculations occur.
One has to do with mesmerism. Dr. Hatch, in his pamphlet, charged that some spiritualists, although certainly not himself, used mesmerism to get women to engage in orgies. Cora, in her initial petition, charged:
15. That about three months after their marriage the defendant boasted to this plaintiff of his infidelity to his former wife, and of an illicit intercourse with others, and he gave her to understand that his power and influence over females was such that he could have illicit intercourse with them, saying that "had he access, no married woman could withstand his powers of seduction."
She did not charge that he ever used "his powers" on her although she did say that he made sexual demands that threatened both her health and her delicacy. Dr. Hatch, in a section of his pamphlet devoted to demonstrating the reality of mesmerism, recounted a story:
Soon after marriage to my present wife, one day she was entranced, in the presence of myself, Dr. Knapp and lady, at that time residents of this city; a ring was placed upon her finger by the [P. 47] entrancing power, accompanied by the pledge that she should not externally know of its existence. She wore the ring for seven days, and while apparently perfectly normal in all other things, she had no abililty to discover the presence of that ring, even when her attention was directed to it; and it was only by the united testimony of her husband and friends, that she was induced to believe that it had ever been in contact with her finger. She would readily, and conscientiously sworn before any magistrate that she never saw said ring. (p. 47)
Despite his use of the passive voice, Dr. Hatch clearly was the "entrancing power." Had Cora charged her husband with using hypnotism to make her engage in immoral acts? Was that the vice "too disgusting" to print, as Dr. Hatch described it?
A second speculation has to do with the fact that the Hatches were childless. And here the evidence is scanty indeed. In his account of the break-up of his marriage, Dr. Hatch wrote:
On the morning of the 23rd of July, 1858, I left Mrs. Hatch in Brooklyn, and started for Chicago, Illinois. The 25th she wrote me the following letter:--
Brooklyn, Sunday, July 25, 1858
My Dear Frank:--Doubtless you will expect a letter from me before this reaches you, but when I say that physical indisposition has prevented me from writing sooner, I think you will consider it sufficient apology. I am still with Mrs. Taylor, who has treated me with the same motherly tenderness that always characterizes her. I missed you more than I can tell during those hours of pain and suffering, but kindly hands and hearts ministered to my every want. This week I shall be busily employed in sewing, but cannot tell when I shall meet you until I receive a letter from you, which shall indicate the probably length of time it will require for you to complete your business. Mr. and Mrs. Ludden called here last evening; he cannot yet decide whether they will be able to go to Niagra or no. Mr. Sollace, his partner, is better than when he left, and hopes to become convalescent very soon. I suppose you will write me concerning my dear mother and her future prospects. She has suffered much and should be repaid with constant love and attention from her children, I suppose you are rusticating in the quiet retreat of Wynnetca [sic]. Please to remember me in all kindness to Dr. and Mrs. Abell. When you call at Mr. Richmond's, present to the family, individually and collectively, my kindest regards. I would like much to see them. 'Tis about one year since we were there, is it not?
I know of nothing that will interest you, not having seen any body or heard any news. I shall probably go to Mr. Ludden's tomorrow and there spend the week; or wait a letter from you to decide upon my future course. I seem to feel the melancholy impression that you will be longer detained than was anticipated. Slow drag the hours away, but I will try and be patient. I shall expect from you a full account of your journey, and hope to get a letter Monday. Write in reply to this if possible. And now, Dear Frank, as I know you abhor lengthy effusions, I will not inflict you with any further remarks. Imagine, my dear, all I would say in conclusion, and believe me as ever, your devoted Cora.
He cited the letter as evidence that Cora was deeply devoted to him as of that date. But was was the nature of her "phsyical indispositon" with its "hours of pain and suffering"? Apparently, whatever it was, it had happened before. Mrs. Taylor treated her "with the same motherly tenderness that always characterizes her." Dr. Hatch was unconcerned enough to leave her in Brooklyn while he went off to Chicago to see about a real estate investment. He continued his narrative:
On my arriving in Brooklyn, the 6th of Aug., she was at dinner, and saw me pass the window, and rushed from the basement to the parlor with all possible speed, and for a moment gave me as warm a greeting as ever a husband received from a wife. But an apparent indifference soon followed, and within ninety minutes from that time she informed me that she "Did not wish any longer to remain my wife." I required the reasons for such a declaration. I will here record the dialogue which followed, which, on her part, was carried on in the same prompt and decisive manner which characterizes her before audiences.
Dr. Why, Cora! on what do you predicate such a decision?
Cora. Well, I have three reasons.
Dr. I will hear them.
C. 1st, I cannot sustain sexual relations with you without injury to myself.
Dr. However much I may differ with you in opinion, your person shall be held inviolate to the end of any period of time you may designate.
C. That is all I can ask, and that objection becomes removed.
Dr. What is your second reason?
C. You are closer in your money matters than I wish you were.
Dr. Have I not supplied all your wants?
C. Yes, far more prodigally than I would myself.
Dr. Have I not paid my debts?
C. I do not know that you owe a dollar in the world.
Dr. As I have supplied all you wants, and paid all my bills, what more do you ask?
C. Well, it is the general impression that you are penurious.
Dr. You are aware that any such impression has not grown out of any lack of expenditure, but wholly from our having been successful, in our business, and the envy of unimportant parties. But what is your third reason?
C.--You do not take the interest in my mother that I wish you to.
Dr.--Have I not supplied your mother's wants as far as I know them?
C.--Well, you have assisted her, but she requires a home.
Dr.--And for this end I have diligently labored to procure means that we might all have a home together. your mother has positively refused any liberal donations from me, and has freely expressed her desire that I should retrench my expenses, both upon you and in other ways, and save our means to purchase a residence.
[P. 27] C.--Well, there is no use in discussing the matter--my mind is made up.
Dr.--Are these the reasons you have for breaking up you conjugal relation?
Dr.--To me they are small in the extreme. I could have expected it from you, neither do I believe that the world will justify you in your course.
C.--I think that they are sufficient, and I believe that you will find that the world will so regard them.
Here ended the conversation for that time. I saw her sad condition, and my soul was torn asunder with anguish.
The divorce complaint is replete with details of Dr. Hatch's "penuriousness" and of his alleged indifference to the need's of his wife's mother. The first reason is the one that stands out as needing further explanation. Two points emerge. Cora claimed, according to her husband, that she could no longer "sustain sexual relations with you without injury to myself." What injury? Next, Dr. Hatch claimed to have acceded completely to this objection: "However much I may differ with you in opinion, your person shall be held inviolate to the end of any period of time you may designate." Why did he accept her demand so readily? Why did he not ask her what injury she could possibly mean? Had Dr. Hatch journeyed off to Chicago in July of 1858 while his wife remained in Brooklyn to have an abortion? Might this have been one of several? As noted, the evidence is scanty.
Either the use of mesmerism to gain sexual acquiescence or abortion would have qualified as the vice "too disgusting" to print. Public notice of either would ruin her career. So either, while Dr. Hatch's fault, would provide his wife with a good reason to let her suit lapse, provided Dr. Hatch agreed to stay away from her. That, however, does not mean that either was the unnamed vice that convinced the panel of spiritualists to decide in Cora's favor.
For reasons he never adequately explained, B. F. Hatch broke his promise in 1863 by filing for divorce. He charged multiple infidelities. He had only recently learned of them, he stipulated, even though he alleged they went back to the period when he and his wife were living together. Unfortunately for his case he provided names, addresses, and dates but no actual proof. The specifics were unsubstantiated. Cora Hatch denied all. She also sued him for divorce in Brooklyn. Those records have not survived, but it is likely she reiterated the charges she made in 1858. The Brookly court granted her petition but then reversed itself because it held that Dr. Hatch's suit in Manhattan had priority. Cora did not countersue in Manhattan but she did petition that court for recovery of the legal fees she had paid to her attorney. This was granted. The court then dismissed Dr. Hatch's petition. As of 1864 they were still man and wife.
The Referee's Report makes it plain that a William McKinley (not the future president) had put up some of the money paid to Cora Hatch's attornies in her Brooklyn divorce action. Otherwise he would not have been a witness in the dispute. According to B. F. Hatch, McKinley was Cora Hatch's lover. She denied this, along with all of her husband's other allegations. There is no direct evidence either way.
However, among some spiritualists, the "rustic maiden" had become a Siren leading men on to destruction. A full statement of this view of Cora Hatch comes from Thomas Lake Harris.