The Truth of the Johnson Seance

This Daily Times article from January 17th, 1907 is remarkable. Not just about Ed Johnson–though that is interesting–but because it gives such good insight into how a spiritualist seance ran.

So, the medium was Raymond Harkins, who seemed to be well-known in Chattanooga for having seances. Interestingly, he had help from Bob Pease, a police officer who also appears to have done some mediumship. They had a music box that played to start things off and the two mediums “talk in the mysterious language supposed to be effectual in reaching ears that are not ears.”

Now, normally, then, Harkins’ familiar spirit, Dr. Baker, who had some kind of distinctive voice everyone recognized, would show up and guide the session. But, in this case, Baker doesn’t show up. Instead, after Harkins moans and groans and says he’s feeling the pain he feels when “the spirits ‘draw’ on him,” the spirit trumpet flies around the room and knocks against the light fixtures and the radiator and then against the people sitting around the table.

And then a police officer shows up wanting to talk to Judge Shepherd and then Johnson shows up and says his piece to Judge Shepherd. And just as they’re getting ready to ask him for more details that would confirm it was him and confirm the crime, Baker shows up and drives the “black spirit” away and then he, too, leaves.

And the seance is considered some kind of failure. The headline is “Night Off for Spirits.”

3 thoughts on “The Truth of the Johnson Seance

  1. Why did this seance make the paper — did the Daily Times regularly report on seances, or was it only the Ed Johnson “appearance” that made it newsworthy? Because, if it’s the former, that’s … odd. And, if it’s the latter, that means that despite your idea that the seance was considered a failure, someone took the trouble to make sure that (unlike most seances) it was reported on anyway. Which sounds like a success to me, in the sense of doing what the people running the seance wanted.

  2. Did they invite the reporter as a witness to the seance or is he reporting hearsay? (See also what nm said…was this held to get it in the paper or was it something that they thought they would do privately that wound up in the paper?) Do you know why/if the participants thought it was a failure? Because the spirit of a lynched black man inconveniently disrupted the normal seance routine? Or because they couldn’t get enough evidence from the spirit of the lynched black man to feel sure that the lynching was only expedited justice (and not a miscarriage), despite the superficial admission of guilt? This whole thing is extremely odd, INCLUDING the dead police officer dropping by to have a talk with the Judge when another police officer was serving as Harkins’ assistant.

  3. nm, it seems, from the way the article was written, that both Harkins and “Dr. Baker” were well-known to readers of the Daily Times. This suggests that the Daily Times was more religiously diverse in 1907 than The Tennessean is today, since I can’t think of a single medium who gets regular coverage in The Tennessean. So, that’s a little depressing.

    Anyway, it reads to me like the reporter was definitely there (I suspect the same reporter wrote the story for the Nashville American, just because it seems unlikely that a Nashville paper would have sent a reporter and neither story mentions other reporters being there). But it seems as if the evening was supposed to center around the West Virginians who were present, though I have no idea who these West Virginians were. But it seems likely that they were there visiting the lawyers, possibly because of U.S. v. Shipp, which had national attention.

    The story says, “There were visitors in town form out of the state, and, to afford them a night’s amusement, the mediums were called into requisition.” They’re identified in a later paragraph as being from West Virginia.

    So, I think it was considered a failure because Dr. Baker was supposed to show up and wow the West Virginians with his usual routine and, instead of a fun, creepy night of entertainment, they got this weird kind of confession that was cut off before it could provide them incontrovertible evidence. And then Baker shut down the seance.

    But hell yes! The police spirit wanting to talk to the judge with a police medium present?! It’s bizarre.

    I’m having a great time with this, but I really hope some historian who really knows what s/he’s looking at will go back and reexamine this seance.

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