In Richard Matheson’s classic novel from the 1970s, Hell House, a team of investigators are sent to spend a week in a haunted house to provide definitive proof of life after death. Almost immediately, a conflict breaks out between the scientist, who while not doubting the existence of the supernatural, or as he puts it, the supernormal, believes all phenomenon is mindless energy, and the spiritualist mediums, who believe that same energy is the conscious survival of personality from beyond the grave.
To read Matheson’s book today is instructive, for in the short thirty odd years since its publication, both points of view have been increasingly rolled into one, much as the characters in the novel eventually came to realize. Today the medium is as likely to have scientific and electronic tools in their kit bag as candles and a black shawl.
And yet, for all the scientific trappings that spiritualists drape their practices in today, we are no closer to have the definitive proof that the team sought when they entered the Belasco House in 1971.
Spiritualism burst upon the American stage of consciousness on March 31, 1848, when Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York, made the extraordinary claim that they had contacted the spirit of a murdered peddler. Initially, the word of their accomplishments spread through reform-minded Quaker communities. The Spiritualist community was progressive minded – often advocating the abolishment of slavery and women’s rights. Women in particular were drawn to spiritualism, as they were able to play a major part in this new religion, both as lecturers and mediums.
And make no mistake, Spiritualism was a religion, expressing a belief in one god, but without many of the conventional trappings and restrictions of other organized religions. Priests and the clergy became unnecessary, as through direct communication with the dead, and as some claimed, the ability to go straight to God, meant that churches and their leaders were no longer necessary to achieve communion with the almighty.
Stony Brook, New York, on the north shore of Long Island, is one of the Three Villages, which include Old Field, Poquott and the Setaukets, and has long had a reputation for the historical and the macabre. Ralph and Mary Hall of Setauket were tried for witchcraft after the death of George Wood in 1665. The trial, at the court of Assizes in New York, acquitted Ralph. Mary, however, was placed on probation for three years. The spirits of massacred native americans, shipwrecked mariners and countless others have been reported in the area, from early in the history of the settlement to the present day.
The Setaukets and the area of Strong’s Neck played a vital role in the American revolution, with the Tallmadge spy ring playing a vital role in keeping George Washington abreast of British troop movements on Long Island and beyond. And in a roundabout way, it was in thanks to this service that our story begins.
Jonas Hawkins built his store, post office and ordinary on the outskirts of Stony Brook in 1757. The house served also as tavern, hotel and post office, and saw quite a bit of traffic during Hawkin’s tenture, which conveniently allowed him to carry on through the bustle as one of the messengers for the Setauket spy ring.
It was also during this time, that Freemasonry was achieving great popularity in the early colonial settlements. Combining the mysteries of the East, along with western religion and scientific thought, Freemasonry is often considered the descendent of the hermetic traditions of the alchemists, and it’s members drew from the ranks of the middle and upper classes. In addition the freemasons popularized the concept of artists and artisans of “hermetic philosophers,” as David Morgan and Sally M. Promey puts it in their book The Visual Culture of American Religions. According to Morgan and Promey, modern Freemasonry “drew analogies between Masonry’s building secrets and the Divine Architect’s Masonic principles for shaping the geometric and luminous order of the universe.”
And the new American nation’s most prominent freemason was none other than George Washington, who made no secret of his connection to the organization. Following the revolution, Washington took a triumphant tour of Long Island, perhaps less to show appreciation to a population, the majority of which had remained loyal to the king during the revolution, than to thank the few who had supported his cause and to thumb his nose at those who doubted the cause.
Jonas Hawkins is believed to have been a freemason as well, as his public house was the regular meeting house of the Suffolk County Lodge of Freemasons, and according to local tradition, this was one of the stops General Washington made on his tour. Whether this was because of the freemasonry connection or to thank Hawkins for his service as a major in the Continental Army isn’t known.
Hawkins had a daughter, Julia, who was married to an innkeeper, Thomas Mount, descended from some of the earliest and most prominent settlers in Long Island. Between the time they were married in 1802 and his death in 1814, the couple produced eight children. Following Thomas’ death, Julia brought her brood to live with her father, Jonas, including a young son, William Sidney Mount.
This generation of Mounts proved to be extraordinarily artistic. The eldest son, Henry Smith Mount became a successful sign painter in New York, a trade which likely brought him considerable business from Freemasons. The second eldest, Shepard Alonzo Mount was a noted painter himself, having over 100 works listed in the National Academy of Design Exhibitions between 1833 and 1860. Ironically and perhaps one of the worst instances of bad luck imaginable, his son moved to Mississippi for his health just prior to the outbreak of the civil war, was drafted into the confederate army and handed a gun. He attempted to make his way to the union lines, was successful in that but found that his confederate uniform earned him a muddy spot in a prisoner of war camp. Shepherd, who was in Washington at the time, told of his son’s misfortune to a fellow painter, who happened to be painting a portrait of Lincoln, who then during a sitting told the president of the young Mount’s misfortune. Lincoln immediately secured the unfortunate Mount’s release.
The third son was Robert Nelson Mount, an itinerant musician and dancing teacher, who possibly became the inspiration of William Sidney, the fourth son, and his love for music. William Sidney Mount had a great love for the music of the people – the barn dances and particularly the fiddle which he was said to be especially skilled at. In fact, William S. invented a specially constructed fiddle, which could be heard much easier than a traditional violin during barn dances, when the crowd was notoriously louder than they might be in a more genteel concert setting.
William Sidney Mount was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1833 at the age of 25, and was already a rising star in the growing American art scene. A genre painter, in other words a painter of every day life, Mount’s fame spread along the eastern seaboard and was one of the first American painters to become prominent in European artistic circles, due to the newly popular color lithographic printing process, despite never venturing further from home than up the Hudson River, which at the time was still often called by it’s Dutch moniker, the North River. His paintings of African Americans were some of the first that allowed them to be seen as dignified, despite his own beliefs in segregation, state’s rights to decide the issue of slavery, and that the Civil War should never have been fought. Mount was in fact, a Presbyterian, and wrote in his diaries that at least in part, the war was brought on in part by the meddling of Catholic priests intent on stirring up the population.
The Grave of William Sidney Mount, Setauket Presbyterian Church, East Setauket, New York.
Mount never became a Freemason himself, though I guess we’ll never really know with the Freemason’s tendency towards secrecy and all, but his works display a remarkable working knowledge of hermetic traditions. In addition, his diary entires show a thought process which certainly fit in with Freemasonry and hermetic traditions, as well as painting techniques and concepts which stretched back to the ancient Egyptians, which of course figure in closely with masonic traditions.
A few years after the Fox sisters burst upon the scene, spiritualism had made its way to Stony Brook. It’s hard to understand the preoccupation with death in the 19th century, as in today’s world the process is much more sterile, distant and clean. Following a death, bodies were frequently laid out in the deceased’s home for instance, and I’m guessing it would be difficult to ignore grandma, grandpa or even little brother or sister stretched out in their coffin in the living room. The smell of the corpse, especially in the summertime, might also explain casket lids with a window for viewing the face, which were popular at the time, as well as the practice of surrounding the casket with scented flowers. It’s certainly true that the practice was done to show tribute to the deceased, and dates back to Roman times at least, but it’s equally true that it served a dual purpose of masking the effects of decomposition. As did the seemingly innocuous nosegay, carried by bridesmaids and prom dates throughout the country today. They were originally held just under the nose at funerals, the Old Bailey – the public courthouse in London, and any place where the more genteel ladies (and sometimes men) might find themselves in the presence of the great unwashed masses.
Death came more swiftly, from more directions and more frequently in the 19th century than today. It was partially in response to the astronomical number of casualties from the Civil War and World War One which led to the rise in Spiritualism, particularly the attempt to communicate with the dead. Some estimates for the War Between the States put the number of casualties at close to 700,000, which means that no matter how you look at it, there were a lot of victims of violent death during the years of 1861-65.
But there is nothing so tragic as the death of a child, and our story takes place prior to the Civil War. The author of the book “William Sidney Mount,” appropriately enough, one Alfred Frankenstein, writes that “There is a pronounced necrophiliac streak through all the popular arts of America in the nineteenth century; Spiritualism, in its finest aspect was an effort to spiritualize it.” One such practice common during William Sidney Mount’s day, was to commission portraits of the recently deceased’s corpse. While not exactly a coveted job, artists found it to be a lucrative practice, and Mount was no exception. He did write of the difficulty, both technical and psychically inherent in the work, which led him to charge double his normal price for a portrait of the dead, instead of a living sitter. Perhaps one of his strangest requests came fron John M. Moubray, who asked to commission a portrait from Mount of his deceased, ten year old daughter, whom he had lost two months previously. The work was to be done from a daguerreotype. In his letter to Mount, he also noted that “I shall remove her from the vaulted grave in which she now rests to a family vault that we shall build as soon as the spring opens … and then she can be seen if it will assist any in the painting of it as her coffin is so fixed that she can be looked at without exposing her to the air.” Mount accepted the commission, and upon completion of the painting noted dryly in his diary, “I don’t believe in vaults.”
The Joseph Smith Hawkins house in Stony Brook was built by a close relative of Jonas Hawkins, and reportedly has its own ghost as well, according to Ghosts of Long Island II, by Kerriann Flanagan Brosky.
Which Mount might have believed more firmly than the short diary entry reveals. He frequently writes that the dead do not rest within their graves, but rather their spirits are everywhere, as they make the journey through the various spheres of heaven (and one would assume hell as well). This concept is echoed in Mount’s belief in the deity. He believed that God was everywhere, and thus church was not necessary for him to hear a person’s prayers. For if the only place that God could hear your prayers was church, it stood to reason that God only existed in church, and he found too much evidence for his existence in nature for that to be true.
The news of the Fox sisters had reached Setauket as well. As Mount passed through the village in March of 1854 he chanced an encounter with an old woman, with whom he struck up a conversation. She had heard of the Fox sisters and the knockings but nothing more, so Mount whipped a book from his coat and began to educate her. She stopped him saying “it was nothing new to her, and as the tears ran down her cheeks, she related that she had heard her son John, who was dead distinctly speak to her, and she had often felt his head against her cheek. She felt the impression of his presence and she believed that the spirits of our departed friends are around us.”
In Stony Brook, Mount met with a group of like-minded individuals, and together they formed curiously spelled Miricle Circle. The main medium of the group appeared to be a Mr. Stewart, and the circle seemed to include several other residents of Stony Brook as well, including Mssrs. Isherwood, Bridgeman and Shepard. Seances were held at the home of Thomas Hadaway, a short walk from Mount’s home and studio, which was the former home of his grandfather, Jonas Hawkins. Old Jonas’ spirit, according to one of the spirits communicating to Mount at a seance at Hadaway’s house, was “in New Zealand. He wanders as a Tourist, whose expenses are paid, and whose curiosity about the sublime and beautiful conquers every other feeling.” Also during this sitting, according to Mount’s diary “raps and scratching were heard, and we felt touches about our legs and feet, by spirit hands.”
The Hadaway House, now the Country House Restaurant, Stony Brook, New York.
To read Mount’s diary, it is easy to believe that the artist had become obsessed with spiritualism. He attends several conferences, lectures and seances in a variety of locations including New York City, to which he frequently traveled. And the appeal is easy to see, for seldom do you read of horror or terror being conveyed from the other side. Instead, what you hear about is a spiritual progression continuing beyond the end of mortal life, and an increasing communion with the divine. The message preached was one of love and of life, rather than death. A quote from Mount’s notebook by a Judge E. sums it up well, “He saved mankind by living not by dying. Do ye likewise.” Or as Mount himself wrote, “Spiritualism is nature itself. It teaches one to think, and thinking is the road to freedom.”
One of the more spectacular claims made about Mount, is that through seances, he was in contact with the spirit of the Dutch painter, Rembrandt. According to letters attributed in his diary as being passed to him by the dead artist’s spirit, he imparted his thoughts and knowledge to the younger Mount. In truth, he might have simply written the letters himself, and included the story about them being imparted to him from Rembrandt as a literary device. We will probably never know.
But Mount’s interest was short lived. Mount’s spiritualism diary ends in 1855, and there are scant references to Spiritualism in his writings afterwards, though his core belief, in the universality of God continued.
Mount kept a dedicated notebook to all matters involving spiritualism, which he commenced in 1854. “The credulity of dupes is as inexhaustable as the invention of knaves,” Mount wrote in this diary in 1854, and those words must have come back to haunt him as he stepped into the telegraph office one day in April, 1855. Dr. Warner, as well as two others reported that one of the Miricle Circle’s mediums, Mr. Stewart was “writing a book to show spiritualism to be humbug, as he had deceived many prominent individuals interested in spirit manifestations and intended to bring their names before the public.” All this he related to Thomas Hadaway in a letter, also expressing that he hadn’t spoken of it publicly, which leads one to assume that the Miricle Circle must have been at least in part, a private affair.
And that seemed to have ended Mount’s interest in the Spiritualism movement, though perhaps severing his spiritual connections proved more difficult than he thought, for there is some who believe that Mount wanders Stony Brook still.
One intriguing entry in Mount’s spiritual diary hints at a more ghoulish aspect of life after death. On the morning of April 14, 1854, Mount writes “I instantly awoke with a loud scream. I was lying on my back at the time, with my hands across me, my right hand on the top of my left hand, when by a concussion they were pressed suddenly down upon me with a power of fifty pounds, knocking my breath almost out of my body.”
In October of 1998, Newsday wrote of the experience of a family living in the Hawkins-Mount house in the late 1960s, and of the ghost of William Sidney Mount’s sister. A young girl named Elizabeth claimed that a lady in white appeared to her one night, at the foot of the bed. It seems that the girl was unhappy in the house, and the spectral visitor sought to reassure her that she would be happy here, as her name was Elizabeth too, and that she was welcome to stay. Following the visit which her parents doubted the truth of, other odd occurances were reporting, such as faucets turning on by themselves.
According to Bob Willemstyn, owner of the former Thomas Hadaway House, now the Country House restaurant, Mount’s ghost might very well still stop in to his former friend’s house on occasion. He related to me, that on about four occasions over the past thirty years, a cloaked figure has been reported in the restaurant, standing on one occasion near the entrance to the bar from a side dining room, just across from where we spoke. In addition, there are times when things mysteriously break, like wine bottles being thrown from the shelves in the basement while he stood by watching, which he believes might be the dark presence of William Sidney Mount.
That he attributes the poltergeist activities and menacing aspect of the hooded figure to Mount is somewhat curious, as Mount was known to be a man of moderation, easy going and a generally happy cat. But that Mount at least possessed a cloak is evidenced by an entry in his diary – which I might add the man documented absolutely everything, including his various ailments and remedies – in which he describes his attire for visiting his portable studio in the winter time. And besides, you can never discount the feelings of a person who lives and works in an environment shared by spirits, of which the Hadaway House has many. Sometimes a feeling or a hunch can be just as accurate as a piece of hard evidence.
In her book, Ghosts of Long Island II, Kerrian Flanagan Brosky’s ever positive sidekick, Joe Giaquinto weaves an explanation that manages to negate the fact that Mount seems to have abandoned his pursuit of the more macabre and formal elements of spiritualism. In her book, she writes that Joe says “Mr. Mount is frustrated because he wants to get his beliefs across. He knows they’re true now, and he’s upset that he let it all go when he was alive.”
But to quote from another supporter of spiritualism, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Doyle was great friends with Harry Houdini, one who had quite a bit of experience in pulling a fast one over the eyes of the public. Houdini devoted a lot of time and effort into exposing the charlatan’s of the Spiritualism movement, which eventually led to a breach in his friendship with Doyle, which they never were able to heal.
Houdini and others, such as Harry Price eventually poked several holes in many of the phenomena that mediums were using at the height of the movement. The most devastating blow came in 1888, when Margaret Fox gave an account of how the two Fox sisters managed to produce the phenomena, by utilizing the darkness of the room, the imagination of the spectators, and the simple popping of their fingers and toes. Margaret wrote ” Like most perplexing things when made clear, it is astonishing how easily it is done. The rapping are simply the result of a perfect control of the muscles of the leg below the knee, which govern the tendons of the foot and allow action of the toe and ankle bones that is not commonly known. Such perfect control is only possible when the child is taken at an early age and carefully and continually taught to practice the muscles, which grow stiffer in later years. … This, then, is the simple explanation of the whole method of the knocks and raps.” She continued, “A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: “I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.” Of course that was pure imagination.”
Skeptics had been noting the possibility of the cracking of joints as the source of the rappings, as early as 1851, well before Mount discovered his interest in seances and mediums. Houdini wrote “As to the delusion of sound. Sound waves are deflected just as light waves are reflected by the intervention of a proper medium and under certain conditions it is a difficult thing to locate their source. Stuart Cumberland told me that an interesting test to prove the inability of a blindfolded person to trace sound to its source. It is exceedingly simple; merely clicking two coins over the head of the blindfolded person.”
Margaret Fox later recanted her confession, but by then the damage had been done, and there was a general opinion perhaps that those who still believed in such phenomena, believed because they wanted to believe. William Sidney Mount died in 1868, twenty years before Margaret Fox’s confession. That he never resumed his interest in Spiritualism is telling to me, for I can’t believe that he abandoned it simply from fear that the public exposure of his interest might have on his career. For after all, at the time of his abandonment of it, the movement was still on the rise. And besides, his private writings he had to assume would remain private.
That he realized he had been duped seems to me a much more logical explanation, and his quest of knowledge would have certainly upon reflection, have given him his own theories on the afterlife. Because after all, the belief which remained constant throughout his life was that it was possible to learn the truth through one’s own quest for knowledge. Just as it wasn’t necessary to be preached the doctrine by priests and proponents of organized religion, it wasn’t necessary to go through mediums and the spirits of the dead to reach insights into the almighty. That was after all, one of the basic tenants of hermeticism and Freemasonry, and was an aspect that one can find clues to not only in his writings throughout his entire life, but also in his work. For Mount, finding God was simple, all he had to do was look at nature.
While it might be comforting for some to believe that Mount haunts today to show that his early beliefs in Spirituality were true, it’s just as easy to believe that he haunts because he knows now that his earlier beliefs were false, and that rather than being on his way to the higher spheres of heaven, instead he’s at least partially trapped in spirit here on this plane. And that to me would be a much more logical explanation of why his spirit, if in fact his spirit is the one responsible for the broken bottles and other poltergeist phenomena at the Hadaway House, is not at peace.
But a more likely explanation is that like the characters in Hell House, none of us know the full truth. We all know bits and pieces of fact, we all have hunches and ideas. Many of us have witnessed phenomenon and what we’ve seen and experienced is what makes us believe. The scientists and mediums in Hell House pursue their theories and beliefs to sometimes grisly ends, and only at the moment before they reach those ends do they learn the full truth, and the error in their hypothesis. The danger in Spiritualism isn’t in believing, or in the trappings of the movement even. It’s the unwavering certainty that you know for certain, the truth that can never be known from this side. In the end the answers all become clear, but we aren’t giving the luxury of knowing the truth and living to tell the tale.