"She is the intellectual wonder of the age."
"She is an inscrutable rhapsodist."
"What a sequence of metaphysical abstractions!"
"What a horrible attack on religion!"
"What an eloquent exposition of the principles of Christianity!"
"What a sacrilegious assault on the Church!"
"What an unanswerable rebuke to our modern Pharisees!"
These diverse opinions were pronounced in our hearing by as many different voices at the close of one of Cora Hatch's expositions, and every one of these opinions came from persons whose culture, position and character would give weight to their decision on most topics. Where lies the truth?
So began an article on "Miss Cora Hatch, The Eloquent Medium of The Spiritualists," in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 9, 1857. Now almost completely forgotten, Cora L. V. (Scott) Hatch was once one of the most famous women in America. Thousands packed halls up and down the east coast to hear, and to see, her. Leslie's described her appearance in New York City:
The [Broadway] Tabernacle is filled -- and more than once -- with a vast but decorous crowd. The rulers of the state smile to meet the renowned in science among the curious listeners, and the half-believers watch to see how these lights of society will accept what is coming. Dr. [B. F.] Hatch, a man of rough, hardy, practical sense, steps forward, and states the programme. The audience is invited to select a committee who will prepare the questions, and to these the spirits are expected to answer through their medium, the inspired Cora.
There is a busy exchange of scrutinizing glances throughout the assemblage. The general eye and mind fall upon some persons of known reputation, and they are called upon to select difficult and abstruse subjects. One, or two, or three, are named and decided upon by a vote of the audience.
Meanwhile a fair and slender girl, on whose flowing ringlets seventeen summers sit with light and easy grace, is visible in the background. She remains seated with upraised eyes fixed in an expression of intense but confident invocation. As the questions to be discussed are stated, an indescribable change steals over her face. It is a look of rapt entrancement, such as our fancy would depict for the Pythoness or Sybil of classic faith.1 It is a masterpiece of acting -- if acting it is.
She rises, and pours out an eloquent prayer to the "Divine Father of Love and Light;" and then, almost without pause, proceeds with the subject, "Is the soul of man a part of the Deity?" This was the challenge of a reverend gentleman then present; and the audience voted that the medium should then and there discuss this metaphysical abstraction.
A key element in Hatch's "discourses" was their spontaneity. A committee, chosen by the audience, selected the topic. A stenographic reporter took down each talk verbatim. They were then published in unedited form. Were the spirits actually speaking through Mrs. Hatch? The reader, like the auditor at one of her lectures, could judge. The Banner of Light, a spiritualist newspaper published in Boston, quoted N.P. Willis in its October 24, 1857 edition:
"Believe what you will of Mrs. Hatch's source of inspiration," says the editor of the Home Journal "whether she speaks her own thoughts, or those of other spirits -- it is as nearly supernatural eloquence as the most hesitating faith could reasonably require. I am, perhaps, from long study and practice, as good a judge of fitness in the use of language as most men; and, in a full hour of close attention, I could detect no word that could be altered for the better -- none indeed (and this surprised me still more) which was not used with strict fidelity to its derivative meaning. The practiced scholarship which this last point usually requires, and the curiously unhesitating and confident fluency with which the beautiful language was delivered, was critically wonderful. It would have astonished me in an extempore speech by the most accomplished orator in the world."
Most of Hatch's listeners came away impressed, but not all. The very measures she and husband B. F. Hatch, the erstwhile partner of Dr. Harrington, the clairvoyant physician, took to convince skeptics -- the committee chosen by the audience, the willingness to speak on any topic they chose, the offer to debate opponents and to answer questions -- could backfire. Most of the time, however, they did not.
An extended note on the triumphs and disasters of a trance lecturer
N. P. Willis' comments became the standard way of describing Hatch. The Newburyport (MA) Herald commented in November of 1857:
Mrs. Hatch, the Spiritualist, closed her lectures or experiments, on Wednesday evening, and met with complete success. There was no failure in any thing she attempted, no hesitation in answering any question upon any subject, and all answers were satisfactory to the persons submitting the questions. It only remains to know by what means she speaks and acts. To say that she does it of herself, is to invest her with understanding, information, cultivation and taste, possessed by no person that we have ever seen or heard of, while it is obvious to every one that she is not above ordinary intellects, and her years preclude the possibility of her being conversant with all the topics that come before her. First, it is noticeable that her use of language is most perfect. All that N. P. Willis said of her was proved here. The closest observation of the best scholars in town, did not discover the misuse of a single word; and her utterance was as beautiful and perfect as the language.
. . . we are satisfied, and we believe that nine in ten at least of all who heard her were satisfied, that she was not in a natural state. We are driven to this conclusion, or we must admit, what appears to be more questionable, that mentally she is superior to any other person. If not in a normal condition, then by what influence does she speak? She claims it is a spiritual power. If she is not right, by what power is it? If we deny her affirmation, we feel bound to give some other explanation more rational, and that explanation we have not. . . . the facts are as we have stated, and five hundred persons each evening were witnesses thereto, but by what influence they were so, we leave to each person to say for himself.
Hatch was the talk of the town. Walt Whitman, for example, devoted much of a letter written in 1857 to recounting an evening devoted to discussing Hatch and rival Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis.
How are we to account for this fascination with Cora Hatch? And, a closely related question, what does this fascination tell us about American culture in the middle of the nineteenth century?
Cora Hatch is relatively unknown today. One reason is that, despite her enormous celebrity, there are virtually no biographical records to work with. There are no Hatch papers to consult. There are two published biographies: one is 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, an organization she helped found, 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. Similar problems have not inhibited several recent biographers of Victoria Woodhull, Hatch's most famous imitator. The biographies are, however, no more reliable than the sources.
There is a set of materials which, although also suspect, shed considerable light on Cora L. V. Hatch between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, the years of her greatest celebrity. These are the complaints, answers, and other documents submitted in evidence in the divorce actions Cora and B. F. Hatch filed against each other. Divorces were rare at the time and correspondingly notorious. The Hatch Divorce attracted much attention. Newspapers detailed her charges and his denials. Further, his subsequent charges against the evils of spiritualism contained sensational charges of free love, orgies, and other titillating matters. There were also several mysteries associated with the divorce. The first is why it did NOT occur. She filed in 1858. He replied. Then she let the suit lapse. He agreed to leave his wife alone. In 1863 he filed. She then filed, but in a different court. Her suit was granted but then revoked on the grounds that the initial suit was still pending. That court denied B. F. Hatch's petition for divorce. Why she did not countersue when B. F.'s case was before the court is, so far, unknown.
A second mystery has to do with the efforts of a group of leading spiritualists, including former New York State Supreme Court Justice John Worth Edmonds, to adjudicate the dispute in the fall of 1858. The was originally B. F. Hatch's idea, a scheme -- he wrote in his 1859 pamphlet exposing the "iniquities" of the spiritualists -- to regain "control" over his wife. Much to his dismay and surprise, the eminents decided in Cora's favor. He cried betrayal and attacked Judge Edmonds in the press, publishing what he claimed was a letter Edmonds had written him. Edmonds responded with a public letter of his own in which he charged Hatch had suppressed a key paragraph. He left it to the editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, to decide whether or not to publish it. Bennett agreed that it should not be made public but editorialized that, if true, that one accusation more than justified the decision against Dr. Hatch. What was this charge which no one would state in public but which all agreed was so serious? Is it somehow related to her decision not to pursue her initial action for divorce?
A second approach is to contextualize Cora Hatch's public life by looking to other female icons of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike the Fox sisters, the original "Rochester Rappers," whose claims that the raps sounded in their presence came from the Spirit World, Hatch never appeared under the management of P. T. Barnum. Nonetheless she was, like Jenny Lind or Lavinia Warren, the "Little Queen of Beauty" whose marriage in 1863 to "Gen'l" Tom Thumb drove the Civil War off the headlines for a full week, a "wonder" of the age. Barnum promoted Lind and Warren. This means that he sought to create a public image of each. Other "wonders," i. e., models of female excellence were even more purely products of one or more male imaginations. One such is sculptor Hiram Powers' enormously popular statue, "The Greek Slave." Tens of thousands flocked to see the piece, almost as many as turned out to see the "Swedish Nightingale" a few years later. A fourth icon, Flora M'Flimsey, is a negative reference point. She was the spoiled society maid who had "Nothing to Wear" in the 1857 poem of that name. Its popularity was so great that both Harper's Weekly and Harper's Monthly published it. It inspired one of Horatio Alger's earliest works, the derivative Nothing to Do. It was still inspiring the popular imagination years later when a portrait of Flora won a national art contest.
Cora Hatch's public image was just as crafted. Clearly her husband had a major role in this, as their argument, in the first divorce proceedings, over clothing. Both agreed her clothes for her public appearances cost large sums, including substantial amounts for flimsy but fashionable and showy undergarments. But, when she asked for simple flannel petticoats, she claimed, he refused. This whole matter of fashion and dress provides another set of clues for contextualizing her career.
Spiritualism reflected a new sentimentality about death, particularly the death of young women, which saturated the popular culture of mid-nineteenth-century America. One can see this in the poetry, songs, stories, and art of the day. Today we are likely to think of Poe's "Lost Lenore" and forget her myriads of sisters. This new sentimentality, which insisted simultaneously upon the unbearable sense of loss on the part of the bereaved and upon the angelic quality of the lost maiden, is a key component is the attraction spiritualism held for contemporaries. A third approach, therefore, is to take a close look at popular images of death and dying. How did Americans imagine these maidens? How closely did Cora Hatch's public image match up with these imaginings?
The same cultural milieu that produced spiritualism also gave rise to various alternative medical treatments. The 1840s and 1850s witnessed an explosion of new therapies. There was the "water cure" and its innumerable variants, homeopathy, Grahamism and other diets, mesmeric healing, and much else. At bottom all shared an intense dissatisfaction with so-called regular practitioners who used "heroic" but ineffectual remedies such as bleeding and purging. Alternative therapies tended to focus upon women and complaints supposedly peculiar to women. Many spiritualists offered themselves as physicians. Cora Hatch, for example, as a twelve and thirteen-year-old treated patients for a variety of ills in the Buffalo area under the guidance of a German-speaking spirit. Later, she would return to medicine and publish several books on magnetic and electric treatments. As a result, still another approach is to take a look at popular notions of women's health. Catharine Beecher is an especially good guide since she was already well established as a dispenser of sage advice and had an intense interest in the subject. Her work is all the more interesting because of her efforts to warn against physicians who used their position to take sexual advantage of their patients. Cora Hatch's husband, Benjamin Franklin Hatch, was, according to her divorce complaint in 1858, such a practitioner, a mesmerist, who allegedly bragged to his wife that no woman could deny him sexual favors. This corresponds to his association with Dr. Harrington, the clairvoyant.
Spiritualism also developed out of specific religious conditions. Scholars have devoted themselves to explaining the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and mystic, in seeking the roots of modern Spiritualism. You can find some of his writings here. His basic notion was the doctrine of "correspondence," that there was a spiritual equivalent to each and every material object. Spiritualist testimony about the life after death almost invariably derives from Swedenborg's meditations. Tracing the origins of these ideas, however, is only part of the challenge we face. We also need to figure out why they became so influential when and where they did. Why should reform-minded Northerners, male and female, have turned to the works of a truly obscure mystic who wrote in Latin? Part of the answer lies in their dissatisfaction with their own religious tradition. What was happening within American Protestantism, and especially within its most "liberal" denomination, Unitarianism, which turned so many of its adherents into spiritual seekers? The works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who became an active spiritualist in the 1850s and who is even more neglected by historians of spiritualism than Cora Hatch), Adin Ballou, and Lucretia Mott provide a far better avenue into the mindset of spiritualists than the collected works of Andrew Jackson Davis and Emanuel Swedenborg.
Cora Hatch had a hold on the imaginations of many. In part it was her highly musical voice and astonishing command of language. Public speaking had an appeal which we no longer can easily appreciate. It was an art which ambitious young men sought proficiency, especially those who wished to win popular influence. Women had begun speaking in public only in the 1830s and only a handful, most of them lecturers for woman's rights and abolition, had become successful. Hatch was, to all appearances, a girl. No one of her youth had ever demonstrated the sort of ability she did.
In fact, Hatch had had years of experience. In 1851 the Fox sisters, of "Rochester rappings" fame, visited her home town of Buffalo. Shortly thereafter, according to Emma Hardinge's Modern American Spiritualism (1870), while still only eleven or twelve, Cora L. V. Scott and Sarah Brooks, who was about the same age, began holding trance seances. While in a trance state, one would speak in a foreign language neither knew when conscious, and the other would translate. Brooks later, as a medium for a spirit who played the piano, enjoyed a career rapping out alphabetically -- in the manner of the Fox sisters -- hundreds of lectures which were published weekly in the early 1850s in The Age of Progress, a Buffalo publication devoted to the spiritualist cause.
Dr. Hatch provided a different version of his "childlike" wife's early years. According to his Introduction to her Discourses (1858), she first became aware of her mediumistic qualities as a ten-year-old when, intending to write a school assignment, she fell into what she thought was a deep sleep. When she awakened she found her slate covered with writing. It was a message from her maternal aunt, dead some fifteen years, to her mother. After this, Cora became a healer as a German-speaking spirit physician used her to diagnose and treat people in her home of Alleghany County, New York. She commenced lecturing at fourteen. Nonetheless, the appearance of youth and innocence counted heavily. It was what made her a "wonder."
Popular fascination with Cora Hatch also arose because of her combination of childlike innocence and adult sexuality. There were the ringlets, the rapt expression, the off-the-shoulder dress (not at all the usual costume for female lecturers) so perfectly out of keeping with the cross hanging from her neck. There was the trance state.
As the reaction to Hiram Powers' "The Greek Slave" suggests, there was a deep fascination throughout the Atlantic world with the idea of a beautiful young woman who was completely helpless. Later this would tie in directly with hypnotism in the story of Tribly and the evil magician Svengali. An earlier and more honored literary treatment is Henry James' The Bostonians. Its heroine, Verena Tarrant, is a beautiful young trance speaker. Her father, Dr. Tarrant, is a villainous mesmerist. And cousins Basil Ransom and Olive Chancellor struggle throughtout the novel for "control" over Verena. This matter of control is very offputting to some literary critics who try to find other ways of reading the book. For our purposes, however, the question of "control" over a beautiful young woman, especially sexual control -- that, after all, is why Basil triumphed over Olive -- is particularly relevant.
Why take these multiple approaches? Why not seek to get at the "truth" of Cora Hatch's life? Why avoid the theology of Andrew Jackson Davis? Most historians of spiritualism make two related assumptions. One is that they should not judge the validity of spiritualist beliefs nor disparage the sincerity of the convictions of individual spiritualists. The second is that spiritualist ideas are as worthy of study as those of any other religious movement. However fairminded, even noble, they may sound, the assumptions cripple historical investigation. Spiritualism began as a hoax. Many people nonetheless sincerely believed in it. This imposes upon the historian the painful task of distinguishing, where possible, between the gullible and the fakes. One cannot avoid that burden by granting a blanket sincerity to all. Cora Hatch was a fake. She might claim, as did P. T. Barnum, that her "humbug" did no real harm, that she devoted her life to bringing spiritual consolation to the naive and trusting, those William James called the "once-born" in his Varieties of Religious Experience. At worst, she made a comfortable living for herself and her mother and brother by giving bereaved relatives the illusion that they were in contact with lost loved ones. This is a pleasing idea but not a persuasive one. She. like many spiritualist mediums, dabbled in medical advice and treatment. Here she likely did a good deal of harm.
Precisely because so many of the leading figures were frauds, the historian cannot approach spiritualist ideas in the same fashion as Calvin's Institutes or Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. The Fox sisters, Cora Hatch, Emma Hardinge, and numerous other influential spiritualists were selling a bill of goods. As a result, instead of seeking to unravel the influence of Swedenborg upon Andrew Jackson Davis, it is necessary to ask what was there about the 1850s that made this particular bill of goods so attractive to so many. Hence the multiple approaches pursued here.