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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Ghosts in the Machine: Koons' "Spirit Machine"

My research into Jonathan Koons and his family's "spirit room" has brought me down some unexpected avenues, including making some fantastic new friends that just-so-happen to be the direct descendants of Jonathan Koons. Beyond a brief blog post on a curious observation made during some deep research, I've posted surprisingly few accounts of my research work on Koons. I've fallen so far down the well, from formulating a 15,000-word spirit room timeline document, to mapping out the historical boundaries of the Koons farm, to locating Jonathan's fiddle and the precious family photographs of the major personages in the flesh (even handling an original letter written by Nahum!), that it has all just seemed too much to break down into little posts along the way. There'll be a big payoff, for sure, particularly in my spirit communication device book, but for now the file just keeps bigger and bigger, until I'll probably wind assimilating it all in a comprehensive biography or something. We'll see. 

I'd very much like my work to correct the sensational blog posts and seasonal news stories that are great about cherry-picking some of the more exciting (and often exaggerated) bits, but fail to recognize just how important the Koons manifestations were in the birth of a new phase of Spiritualism--one that is at once the dawn of a new era, and at the same time the first knell of the death-bell that will signal Spiritualism's great downfall as a major power some decades later. At the very least, the Koons family is finally beginning to get its due, thanks to the work of some enterprising occult historians who I'm proud to associate with (that's Marc Demarest there, along with Lis Warwood, but we've also got John Buescher and Pat Deveney in the mix here), so here's hoping that a decade from now, the formative influences of Jonathan, Nahum, Abigail, and the rest (and let's not forget their neighbors and collaborators, the Tippie family) get the proper historical recognition they deserve.

But here, if I stick to my roots, I tell myself, and focus on the artifacts that sparked your interest, I'll be OK revealing a little here without opening a too-big can of worms and feeling I have to write a new post for every new discovery, because there's a lot going on, and not all of it ready for the public just yet. But let's do that. Let's talk devices. Let's finally talk Koons' "Spiritual Machine."

Koons' Spiritual Machine, as first illustrated in the November 4, 1854 Cleveland Plain Dealer.
It was November of 1852, just four-and-a-half years removed from earth-shattering events in Hydesville, New York, when Jonathan Koons had the revelation to build the spiritual machine. He'd spent the prior seven months, when not tilling the hard, rocky soil of his Athens County, Ohio farm, contemplating revelations he'd received from a medium that he'd set out to debunk many months prior: that he himself was "the most powerful medium on earth." Table-tipping, automatic writing, and spirit rapping ensued among the family séances, and eventually the message was received that led to the table's construction: length there was a promise extended to me through the mediumship of my eldest son, (aged sixteen years) [MP: Nahum Ward Koons] that if I would construct a table according to a draft drawn by the spirits through my son as the medium, and place it in a private room for their own use, that then I should have incontrovertible evidence of the existence of spirits, to which I immediately acceded, and the same was built and placed in a private room, and furnished with paper and pencils, as requested through medium agency, when the spirits commenced writing without any medium agency whatever, in said room; which fact removed every lingering doubt from my mind, for the room was kept constantly closed against the entrance of my own family, or any other person during the time the writing was performed.
In another credit-where-credit-due moment here, we see it was the "spiritual machine" itself that was instrumental to the manifestations of the spirits on the Koons farm, with their famed spirit room--which gets all the fanfare, really--merely meant to house the artifact. Thanks to the machine--as Emma Hardinge Britten put it--"collecting and focalizing the magnetic aura used in the manifestations," an amazing array of previously unheard-of phenomena took place: dark séances, a cacophony of spiritual music played on a small orchestra of floating instruments, spirit writing, luminous spectres and ghostly appendages glowing in the soft light of phosphorous, and mysterious whispers of the spirit "King" issuing forth from Nahum's tin trumpet. Phenomena all, as my colleague Mr. Demarest recently stated, "at least as important for the subsequent history of the Spiritualist movement as the Fox Sisters."

So what was the machine responsible for all of this? We are incredibly fortunate that the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and also Spiritual Universe) took the reports seriously enough to feature the machine in their November 4, 1854 edition, which was subsequently reprinted in part in the February 3, 1855 edition of Scientific American. Others documented some of its finer points as well, including the Anglo-American Magazine, so let's look at it piece by piece according to some of these sources and see exactly what's going on in this illustration.

According to the Plain Dealer [PD], which provided the original number-coded illustration, the base of the "queer piece of mechanism" was a six-legged table "about six feet long by two and a half feet high. The table and the wood portion of the machinery is cherry, which is stained and varnished."  The Anglo-American [AA], in an article authored by E.V. Wilson, noted the top was "30 inches wide, supported by six legs, in it are four drawers (GG) which contain nothing save a few dishes of paint, brushes, pencils, charts, &c., for the use of the spirits..."

Resting on the tabletop was a 4-foot high wooden framework (22) supported by an upright post topped with an ornate glass knob (A). This framework consisted of either two or four curved wooden pieces that, as Wilson described, were "somewhat in the shape of the letter f." Attached to the outside of this frame were two important components: drums--a larger bass (C) and a smaller tenor (B)--"firmly secured to the machinery and to the table by wires"[PD]. The spirits would beat mightily on these drums to announce their arrival to the room, or play them "in a masterly manner" [AA] to accompany Jonathan's fiddle playing, and are frequently mentioned in descriptions of the spirits' materializations in the room.

As described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, three rods or bars ran parallel to the tabletop, with various ornamentation of glass knobs, small bells, and wires. On the topside there was a lower "steel bar about half an inch square"(EE) and an upper "bar of wood with three glass knobs attached wound with wire and ending with a scroll"(44) that rested on the lower steel bar. Below the table, there was "an eight-sided wooden bar suspended under the table by copper wires, with a number of wires running the whole length of the bar"(HH). 

The "copper wires wrapped with zinc" are extremely important to the spirit machine's construction, and not just to bind the whole thing together. The wires were "woven into a kind of net work with copper and tin plates," that served as a sort of battery to facilitate the spirits' design of their "electrical machine."  The table, at its core, was exactly that, designed by the spirits "for collecting and retaining electricity" so that through this energy they might manifest in the charged confines of the spirit room.

The alternating tin and copper plates would, in theory, constitute a basic voltaic pile, even if it was missing the electrolyte component. There were several such stacks: "double plates of tin and copper" (33) located close to the table's center where the upper steel and wood bars converged; the much larger "double plates, fastened together, one plate of copper the other of tin" (DD) that seemed to be either hanging from the frame or supported by the steel bar's scrollwork; and the smaller copies nestled at the corners where the framework met the table, described again as "double plates of copper and tin attached to the wires" (FF).

The appearance or configuration of these copper plates are hard to realize in two dimensions. Some clues may come from the “celebrated medium from Nashville, Tennessee,” Mr. H.B. Champion, who described the table after a September 1855 visit to the room:
“The two drums are fastened with copper wires upon wooden supporters at the top of the table. This table is intersected with copper wires wrapped with zinc. On the upper cross wire hang some copper plates, cut in the form of doves, to which are suspended a number of small bells, which the spirits sometimes ring.” [MP: emphasis mine]
This description may explain the strange shape of the "plates" in the Plain Dealer illustration, though there they were described as "leg-of-mutton tin and copper plates," so that inconsistency is puzzling, given that the latter description hints the plates took the form of simple oval, raised-rim dinner plates, even if the illustration does not depict them as such, and appear more dove-like in shape.

The fully annotated illustration of Koons' "Spiritual Machine" from the more clear Scientific American illustration.
The complicated voltaic plates, copper wires, bells, glass knobs, and wooden framework where not all that littered an already busy table: "by the side of the machinery, lies a violin, an accordeon, a triangle, two drumsticks for the large and two for the small drum. There is also on the table a common sized dinner bell, an harmonica, a tambourine, and a tin trumpet about two feet in length."

Of course, that last bit there's pretty darned important, too, but more on that later.

There are a few other interesting tidbits to mention as well. Though Jonathan Koons was clearly the spiritual machine's creator, his neighbor and collaborator, John Tippie, had an identical table-machine housed in an identical room, just 3 or so miles away over a rough country road, and many early accounts of visitors show that both rooms were equally popular, with guests frequently swapping back and forth between the rather poor accommodations to experience similar manifestations, music, and messages (indeed, from the same spirits) in the Tippie Rooms that they'd experienced in Koons'. So there were two of these amazing machines.  

Jonathan and Nahum, approximately 1857, as the spirit room came to an end and the family left Ohio. My efforts
have documented many family photographs and tintypes of Jonathan, Nahum, Abigail, and others, and will make
their more proper debut in my upcoming book on spirit communication devices.
I've always found it curious that Koons' device faded into the background. Even among the more sensational blogs and local news outlets that tend to pick up stories of the Koons spirit room around Halloween, there is little to no mention of the device. And that's likely because the cursory research performed to produce such articles skim the surface historical accounts, which themselves often either dismiss the machine or fail to mention it outright, which seems unusual given its creator's belief that the machine was solely responsible for the phenomena, and the room merely to house it. The instruments are there, often in detailed lists. The heavenly music. The glowing hands. The target pistols. The spirit writings. The trumpet messages of King. But so few mention the huge, crazy-intricate machine at the head of the room responsible for making it all happen. It is a curious observation. Why, for instance, does the disarmingly similar (and contemporaneous) New Motive Power table of John Murray Spear garner the focus that it does on the device itself while Koon's machine failed to get much recognition even in period reports? It may be that what was experienced behind that closed door was ultimately more important to visitors than any concerns of the metaphysics of how and why the spirits appeared. Even J. Everett's Communications From Angels mentions the machine only by reprinting Koon's own account of its creation, and gives no further mention of it in its 95 pages of detailed reports on the room's phenomenon. Perhaps its owners simply accepted its role and didn't emphasize its importance to visitors. Maybe it's because the Koons machine actually produced the petitioned phenomena, which in itself was more exciting than a decorated table, while Spear's machine wasn't exactly the New Messiah they'd promised, leaving only its intentions and its hollow, inanimate shell to discuss.

But the efforts of the Koons family did produce entirely new categories of phenomenon, even if "spirit machines" didn't start popping up all over the country the way spirit rooms emulating  Koons' did. Nahum's trumpet mediumship birthed an entirely new mode of mediumship, for instance. All over the country, the lights started going out in séance rooms, signaling the slow decline of the first-generation rappers and heralding the new vanguard of manifesting mediums in the vein of Florence Cook and Eusapia Palladino. New words will eventually spring up to describe the forces responsible: Teleplasm. Ectoplasm. Mumler and others will begin claiming they can capture materialized spirits on film by the early 1860s, and growing rich in the trade of spirit photography. It goes on and on, until mediums trying to satisfying the insatiable need for physical phenomenon first sparked by Koons are getting caught by the glare of smuggled flashlights or manhandled by skeptics prancing around the séance chamber in their muslin robes, signaling an increasing schism within the movement it will not well endure. 

The waterways of Koons' influence snake their way into so many classes of spiritualistic phenomena--many of which are simply so commonplace and "trope-y" in our modern era that we take their origins for granted now--that it can be difficult to trace it all back to the headwaters. But the efforts of that family in podunk Ohio in the early 1850s produced both trickling streams and rising floodwaters, all of which I'm thrilled to navigate.

So, there's our physical examination of the Koons device. In future installments, we'll more properly discuss the phenomena for which the spiritual machine was responsible, follow the breadcrumbs back to Nahum's nascent spirit trumpet mediumship, examine the Koons' lingering effects on the Modern American Spiritualism and their contributions to its decline, and, God-willing, even explore the site itself. Godspeed!

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