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Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Creationist at the Séance Table: A Young Earther Visits Koons' Spirit Room

Work continues on the big talking tables book. For the last few months, the wheels have been spinning in the sand of 1853. It really is amazing just how much this year changed the entire dialogue of Spiritualism. 1848 will always, of course, get all the credit as Spiritualism's birthday, but it is 1853 when things truly start happening. The Year Ghosts Broke, as it were. 

The tables tournantes phenomenon hits Germany in March, then France by the summer, making tipping tables a bonafide worldwide phenomenon. The bandwagoneer mediums without the talents for rapping start finding mechanical means to circumvent their shortcomings.  For the tech-junkies, it's also the first year we have real cooperative-communication apparatus: Wagner's Psychograph, Hornung's Emanulector, and Pease's Spiritual Telegraph Dial. Dr. Robert Hare starts to make his turn toward Spiritualism. The planchette is born. John Murray Spear tries to spark the Second Coming with his New Motive Power. And, of course, Jonathan Koons and John Tippie construct their spirit rooms, which birthed entirely new species of phenomenon--dark séances, physical manifestation and spirit-speaking through trumpets--as well as their "Spiritual Machines" in the spirit-designed tables used as conduits for John King and his tribe of discarnate entities (King himself being another enduring "first" to be put to use by subsequent generations of mediums. The remaining phenomena were also liberally borrowed by the Davenports).

While trying to figure out a good narrative flow for a smorgasbord of events that all pretty much happen at once, I ran across an interesting snippet from the Ohio Spirit Rooms' waning days. Found in the November 19, 1855 Cleveland Leader, the account provides an interesting paradox, and is particularly fitting given the recent and widely-viewed evolution vs. creationism debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. In this case, the correspondent is only designated as "G," and while in Athens County on private business, sought out the Tippie spirit room to experience the reported phenomenon for himself.

He wasn't impressed. In fact, he found the Tippies wholly unprepared to host his party, being told that "the spirits had left" to the extent that no manifestations would be forthcoming that night. Something did manifest in G's quarters on the Tippie farm that evening, however. Fleas. And bedbugs. Armies of them. So, the following day, after a "breakfast fully in keeping with their lodgings," off to Koons went G, intent on seeing his manifestations at one farm or another.

Koons was able to deliver. But the agitated party of Mr. G. came prepared with skepticism, though he claimed he was not previously "prejudiced toward Spiritualism." After a thorough criticism of Koon's fiddle "hoe down" and the other presented phenomenon--Mr. G. keenly compares the distances most physical manifestations involved, measured against the length of outstretched arms of mediums perched on a centrally-located table in the room's small confines--Mr. G. turned his ire toward the spirit guide John King himself. His skepticism was either voiced in mid-seance or merely palpable: his party was not allowed to touch the manifest spirit-limbs, and one or more may had been hit on the head with a floating tambourine. Once the tin "dinner-horn" began issuing the "sharp, shrill" voice of John King, the spirit informed the party of his usual biography--that he was 14,500 years old--and became somewhat hostile toward the sitters themselves:
Koons: "Why King, you have a band of very mischievous spirits with you tonight, have you not?"

King: "Yes, mischievous spirits for mischievous folks."

Spectator: "That's right! You've hit it, you're some!"

King: "Yes, we're some, and here's at it."
And it's here that the focused retort to King's posturing reveals an interesting Creationist in the midst of the Spiritualists.
Mr. G: "Grave conversation for an individual who professes to have existed 8,500 years before an account given of the creation of the world in an old, attenuated, dilapidated, and superannuated book called the Bible..."

It is striking, I think, in its specificity. By the numbers, Mr. G believes in an Earth only 6,000 years old, putting him firmly in the Earth-Age-Calculation-by-Genesis-Generations camp. Given the current state of American news media, the exposure of such Creationist views these days are fairly well-known. But in 1855, Young Earth theories have largely disappeared with the onslaught of the scientific revolution, which among Protestants largely pushed the theories toward more reasonable Old Earth Creationism that relied on Biblical metaphorical interpretations. We still have around 60 years before George McReady Price's The New Geology shows up on the landscape, 45 years before the early 20th-century rise of Christian Fundamentalism marked by the opening of Riley's Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School, and over 100 years before Morris' current-zeitgeist-shaping The Genesis Flood and subsequent Institute for Creation Research rose to cultivate the current generation of fundamentalists' thinking. 

It isn't that Young Earthers were extinct during the period, or that adherents had yet to evolve toward that belief. But they were exceedingly rare, and Mr. G's appearance there in Ohio is noteworthy and deserves observation. It isn't particularly telling of anything in particular, but it is interesting, at least, and so we put it here, tiny web-based bookmark in place, to let you do with the information as you will.

Stay tuned for much, much more on the Koons and Tippie spirit rooms. I've initiated an ambitious  project to seek out the original locations in order to visit and document the sites, and have been blessed with the kind assistance of two branches of Koons descendants to aid me in the search, with some startling revelations along the way. The dialogue--and the credit that Koons and Tippie deserve--is shifting back to their favor, and I intend to cement it there, the best I can, in the pages of my book. Eyes ever open, dear readers. 


  1. Love it. Somewhere, Koons says that he was a freethinker before his conversion to Spiritualism, so what was that "old, attenuated, dilapidated and superannuated book" to him?

  2. Koons himself states that he went even so far as atheism before finding Spiritualism"

    "So in the first place I shall merely state to you that I had become an advocate in defence of atheistical sentiments, through the perversion of christian orthodoxy, under the instructions of which I had been placed at an early age, and which for a time had taken hold on my mind. But soon finding myself sadly disappointed in my vain expectations of receiving those spiritual gifts and blessings which I anticipated at the mercy of God, through my devoted teachers, I soon became subjected to the title of backslider by those from whom I had departed in faith, and simultaneously heaped their scorn and derision upon mo with such heated fury, until I was racked with fears, and was frequently constrained to cry, Ob Lord, save or I perish. But notwithstanding all my repeated efforts to reconcile myself to their wedded faith; my researches after truth were only instrumental in disclosing new fields of ideas, which would not admit of any corresponding connection with the attributes of an allwise, benevolent and merciful God. Which train of reflections soon brought me into a course of reasoning, which was altogether repugnant to my own wishes, and overbalanced all my former instructions received from clergymen and parents, under the influence of which I became skeptical in regard to all that was termed spiritual, until recently I was instructed and confirmed in the truth of spirituality, under the present supervision of spirits themselves, who are now brought under my own personal, and at
    times optical observance."

    While E.V. Wilson pigeonholes Koons ' evolving beliefs somewhat more clearly (and succinctly):

    "His religious views are at present of the HarmoniaI or Davis school, formerly he was an infidel."