[Editorial Note: Spiritualism attracted, as the following article from Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper noted, a wide following in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Many of the first mediums, i.e. those "sympathetic" people who communicated with the "spirit world," were young women. Indeed the whole phenomenom began in 1848 when Kate and Margaret Fox claimed that a spirit was sending them messages by means of a series of rapping sounds. Emma Hardinge, a young English actress who arrived in New York in the middle of the 1850s, is perhaps the most notable of these mediums. Certainly she had a great influence in her native country as well as in the U.S.
Hardinge's chief rival as a medium was Cora Linn Victoria (Scott) Hatch, later Cora Dodd, Cora Tappan, and finally Cora Richmond. She was a "trance speaker," someone who spoke directly under the influence of the spirits and, presumably, in their words. Trance speakers were among the earliest women to speak in public before "promiscuous" audiences, i.e., audiences of both men and women. Unlike other mediums, Hatch did not, at least at this point in her career, claim a specific spirit guide. Nor did she convey specific messages to or from specific individuals on "this side." Instead she addressed broad questions of the sort posed in the Leslie's Illustrated article. For excerpts from a discourse from November 1857 on the "immutable will of God and the free agency of man," click here.
The article also described the manner of her presentations, which she called "elucidations." Her husband, Dr. B. F. Hatch, who had married her in 1856 when she was just sixteen and he over fifty, acted as master of ceremonies. He had the audience choose a committee of its members who would, in turn, propound questions. Cora would address herself to whichever of these the whole audience voted she should. The procedure -- followed by other "trance speakers" like Hardinge as well -- was intended to prove to the skeptical that she had not prepared her address in advance since she had no foreknowledge of the question. Her willingness, while in a trance state, to answer questions and engage in debate, made the same point. So too, as the article emphasizes, did her age. As a "girl" of seventeen she was presumably too young to have mastered the metaphysical topics she discussed.*
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 Linn Victoria 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 next, 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. The Discourses contain portraits of both Hatches.]
"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?
It will be scarcely necessary to premise that "Cora the Teacher" is accepted by the "Spiritualists" as an inspired medium. . . .
In every sense the phenomena of spiritualism is worthy of a careful and systematic investigation by the most candid and competent of its cotemporaries [sic], for it is wrong to say that a faith, however delusive, which counts at least half a million believers in the middle of this century of searching sceptical materialism, is too unimportant for investigation. Men of deep and varied science, learned theologians and cautious men of the world -- some of the boldest and clearest thinkers of the day -- have been captivated by this strange belief that the children of earth have direct communication with the spirit world.
The public hear of table-tippings and spirit-rappings and miraculous manifestations in response to very insignificant questions, and when all this marvelous interposition stops at such petty results, the world says half in disappointment, half in contempt, "Is this all?" "Do spirits leave their homes of light to tell us only this?"
The busy world turns away from these insufficient results, and wrapt in more absorbing interests, forgets for a while the spirit world and its mediums. Then comes the singular, the incredible announcement that a young girl, one that was but yesterday an untaught rustic maiden, blooming unnoticed in a country village, has been inspired by voices from the spirit world to become a medium of instruction to the seekers of truth. Then some curious inquirers find a moment to learn how this novel pretender will acquit herself of such daring promises.
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.
Both spoke well; and the divine sustained the affirmative with zeal and acumen, while Cora assumed a modified negative with brilliant success. At least, we give this as the conviction of several persons of distinguished intellect who were present, and who pronounced her argument the most splendid metaphysical effort they had ever encountered. The illustrations drawn from the solar system and other apposite allusions, evinced a breadth and clearness of mental culture really wonderful in a girl of seventeen. Her graceful and surpassing elegance of diction was another fruitful theme. A calm, equally sustained manner; a rich, clear voice, that filled the ear without one overstrained vote, and a modest unconsciousness of display, or an entire absorption in the subject matter, are the characteristics of Mrs. Cora Hatch as a public speaker.
Her theology and her style of argument is strikingly in correspondence with that of the late Dr. [William E.] Channing, and an old friend and warm co-religionist of that eminent preacher is firmly convinced that his spirit speaks through Cora's lips in those descriptions.2 So gentle in words yet so severe in spirit -- of that "school-taught religion of outward forms and observances, which builds magnificent churches, but heeds not the inward divine voice taht strives to teach us, as did Jesus of Nazareth, to love one another." This quotation gives the spirit of her teachings.
These views, and her subtle, far-searching, analytical definitions, are received, as we have stated, even by men of mind and education, in very opposite ways. It requires steady attention and some mental discipline to follow her metaphysical refinements and scientific illustrations; but her high intellectual gifts are not to be disputed. It is her religous dogmas of spiritualism, contra materialism, that is creating an uproar.
Of the same discourse, some . . . say for her that she has drank purest inspiration from the Divine Word and example of that Prince of Peace; and that she speaks only as he taught when she deals with the Scribes and Pharisees of our day, while others of equal position condemn these very sentences as horrible blaphemy.
. . . .
As these learned pundits cannot agree, every one must see, hear, and judge for himself. If they agree in nothing else, they will all admit that "Cora the Teacher" is endowed with rich and rare gifts, well worth an hour of intelligent attention, as the greatest intellectual curiosity of the day.