Mrs. Stanford and the Netherworld

Photo: Courtesy Stanford Archives

Was Stanford University conceived during a séance? That's what Victorian busybodies wanted to know when the new institution first opened. Founder Leland Stanford had long maintained that the idea for the University came to him in a dream as he mourned the death of his only child, 15-year-old Leland Jr., in the spring of 1884. But now, in the fall of 1891, the well-known medium Maud Lord Drake was telling the newspapers she had been "the guiding intermediary" in Jane and Leland Stanford's bold decision.

Gossips had prattled about undue spiritualist influence on the family for years, but with this latest round of tabloid speculation, the Stanfords decided to set the record straight. They dictated a statement debunking Mrs. Drake's claim and asked University President David Starr Jordan to place it on permanent record.

It was no secret that the couple had attended séances in Paris after the death of their son. And yes, they had encountered Mrs. Drake at a séance in New York City with their friends, former President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia. But that meeting did not take place until the fall of 1884—months after Leland Jr. had died and the Stanfords had made provisions in their wills for the creation of the University. "No spiritualist influence affected the decision," they insisted in their 1891 statement. Mrs. Drake was a fraud who had "no more to do with it than a child unborn."

Stanford's ghostly genesis aside, it's clear that the founders, especially Jane, experimented with spiritualism during the waning years of the 19th century—and in this they were hardly alone. The quasi-religious movement, which promised to connect believers with the netherworld, had captivated America in the years leading up to the Civil War, and by the 1890s it claimed millions of followers. Leland Sr.'s own brother, Thomas Welton Stanford, was a leading spiritualist proponent in Australia and a driving force in Jane's otherworldly pursuits. "It is true," President Jordan claimed years later in his memoirs, "that both Mr. and Mrs. Stanford were for some time deeply interested in certain phases of spiritualism," particularly during the terrible months that followed their son's sudden death from typhoid. The spiritualist movement, Jordan mused, "seemed perhaps to give them the basis for a demonstrable belief in immortality, a faith in which they found great consolation."

How could a cultish fad involving Ouija boards and levitating tables have entranced the Stanfords and Grants, not to mention Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Victor Hugo and a host of other 19th-century notables? Spiritualism had its eerie beginning in Hydesville, N.Y., around the same time Leland Stanford and Jane Lathrop became engaged in Albany, about 120 miles to the east. America was in the midst of a popular evangelical revolution known as the Second Great Awakening, and upstate New York was a hotbed of revivalist zeal. The frenzy took a supernatural twist one night in March 1848 when two Methodist girls, Maggie and Kate Fox, reportedly heard mysterious "rappings" in the bedroom of their Hydesville farmhouse. The sisters, ages 11 and 15, interpreted the sounds as coded messages from the spirit of a peddler who, they claimed, was trying to tell them he had been murdered and buried in the cellar. Before long, hundreds of curiosity-seekers were flocking to Hydesville in the hope of contacting their own departed loved ones via this spiritual "telegraph." From there, the Fox sisters took their show on the road, first to Rochester and then to Albany, where, in February 1850, they engaged the most luxurious suite in the elegant Delevan Hotel and rented a public hall for demonstrations and lectures. Their fees: $1 per person for the public séances, $5 for private ones.

That fall, Jane married Leland and left Albany to join him in Port Washington, Wis., where he had been building his law practice. Even there, the hullabaloo over spiritualism could hardly have escaped their notice. Just three years after the Albany demonstrations, thousands of mediums, mostly women, were channeling ghostly messages for fun and profit in heavily curtained parlors throughout the nation. Weekly newspapers, such as the Spiritual Telegraph and Banner of Light, popped up like weeds in a graveyard. By 1854, more than 15,000 believers were petitioning Congress (unsuccessfully) to fund a scientific study of spiritualist phenomena.

Medical societies, academics and traditional church groups huffed in protest, insisting it was all a hoax. The Fox sisters, they said, made the rapping sounds by cracking the joints of their knees and toes. But it was no use. "Rap-o-mania," as critics dubbed it, spread even to the Lincoln White House (First Lady Mary Todd was said to be a believer) and to Europe, where séance candles flickered in the gilded drawing rooms of Queen Victoria, Napoleon III and Czar Alexander II.

Part of spiritualism's draw, of course, was its entertainment value. The séances and on-stage demonstrations resembled magic shows, "and they appealed to people for much the same reasons," says Stephen Andrews, MA '97, a Stanford doctoral candidate studying spiritualism in American culture. For many believers, however, there was also a deeper lure. In an era when new technologies such as telegraphy and photography emerged—and when sudden, early death remained a constant threat—spiritualism billed itself as a "scientific" religion offering proof of afterlife and the solace of a lasting connection with the dead. Followers weren't asked to take anything on faith. "You didn't just have to believe in life after death or supernatural powers—spiritualism put them on display," Andrews explains. "The séance room became a kind of laboratory where you could test religious hypotheses the same way you would test scientific hypotheses."

Yet spiritualists didn't turn away from religious faith. Indeed, for people like Jane Stanford, says Andrews, "spiritualism was not in competition with Christianity; it was a way to take Christianity to a higher plane."

Like many of their friends, Jane and Leland attended church in their youth but never formally aligned themselves with a religious denomination. At various times in their lives, they attended Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and other Protestant churches, depending on what was nearby. And while their faith reflected a firm Protestant belief in biblical revelation and a personal relationship with a very responsive God—"the sweet, simple, honest truthful religion of our Saviour," as Jane once put it—they were unusually open-minded for their time about other religious traditions, including Catholicism and Judaism.

There is no evidence that the Stanfords attended any séances until nearly 40 years after the Hydesville Rappings. But then, in the wrenching months that followed Leland Jr.'s death, their desire to know more about the afterlife and the ultimate fate of their son took on a sudden and pitiful urgency.

It is hard to overstate the depth of the Stanfords' affection for their so-called miracle child—born when Jane was 39, after 18 years of childless marriage. Unlike most children of the Victorian elite, who were seen and not heard, the tall, precocious Leland Jr. was central in his parents' lives and was a lively companion, confidant and protector to his mother during his father's absences. His death in 1884, while he and Jane were on a whirlwind archeological tour through Turkey, Greece and Italy, "was a crushing blow to both his parents, but especially to Jane," says historian and former Stanford archivist Roxanne Nilan, MA '92, PhD '99. "She believed in some way that she was at fault."

As the distraught couple accompanied their son's body home from Europe, well-meaning friends invited them to séances in Paris and New York City. Further sittings were arranged at their Nob Hill mansion under the guidance of the Rev. Dr. John P. Newman, a popular Methodist preacher from New York whom the Stanfords had invited to California to deliver a sermon at their son's funeral.

Thirty years later, Jane Stanford's secretary, Bertha Berner, recalled her own mistrust of this man of the cloth, who brought his wife and stayed on long after the funeral, repeatedly hinting that the Stanfords ought to give him the top pastoral job in their newly conceived institution. "Spiritualism had never been particularly considered by Mr. or Mrs. Stanford, but Doctor Newman endeavored to give them the correct conception of it," Berner dryly observed in her memoirs. "In Mrs. Stanford's sorrowful and sick state it made a deep impression, for Dr. Newman had a powerful command of language and was talking for a purpose."

Unfortunately, the secretary's distant and scattered recollections are the only record of those Nob Hill séances, and her spare prose doesn't tell us exactly what went on or how many sittings took place. Most likely, the sitting room was dark, or lit only by candles. The sickly sweet smell of incense may have hung in the air. Around the table, perhaps six or eight guests—ideally a mix of men and women—would form a chain by holding hands or placing their palms on the table with fingertips touching.

Newman's séances appear to have blended high drama and religious piety. The minister "would offer prayers in a beautiful voice that might have melted rocks," Berner wrote. His wife, who acted as the medium, "would recite long passages from the Psalms, and all the participants joined in singing hymns."

"In a typical parlor séance," explains historian Andrews, "there might be a religious patina of prayers and singing." But unlike traditional services, séances followed no set rules. Some mediums, after a period of quiet concentration, would go into a hypnotic trance and scrawl page after page of messages from the dead, perhaps using a rolling-pencil device called a planchette. Others received unearthly messages on drawing slates or Ouija boards, or summoned proof of the afterlife in the form of thumps, odors or eerie music (favorite props included phosphorescent trumpets, tambourines and bells). Sometimes, evocative objects known as apports—ancient artifacts or personal belongings of the deceased—seemed to appear on the table from nowhere.

But the séances in the Stanford mansion consistently ended in disappointment. After one attempt to contact the spirit world, "Mrs. Newman claimed that she saw luminous clouds forming and that some satisfactory result was probably near at hand," Berner recalled. "They tried to persuade me that I saw this too. It was a fearful and frightful imposition on Mrs. Stanford—to hold out a hope to her at this time that she might hear from and see Leland again, when she was almost dying of the longing."

Leland Sr. was growing more skeptical. The next morning at breakfast, "he was urged to join the circle, as he was a strong man and strength was needed [to contact the spirits]," the secretary wrote. "But he said when there were some results he would come in and see them."

Not long afterward, the Newmans packed their bags and headed back East. "The hope for a spirit manifestation, however, had been given to Mrs. Stanford, and she determined to investigate the subject," Berner observed. "She prayed so earnestly for light, which meant to behold Leland, that it was pitiful. She often attended demonstrations . . . but they were never satisfying to her."

Seeing his wife's torment, Leland advised her against attending further séances. Still, "her preoccupation with the subject lasted for years," Berner wrote. In 1886, Leland Stanford's lawyer felt the need to broach the subject while counseling the senator on his estate. Leland, in response, "acknowledged that during the early period of their bereavement, he and Mrs. Stanford had attended séances but were soon convinced of the utter futility of attempting through such means to obtain communication with the departed," wrote former University librarian George T. Clark in 1937 in the first major biography of Leland Stanford. "[Leland] added that it was remarkable how some people could be so influenced by their emotions on such occasions as to accept, as genuine spiritual manifestations, phenomena readily explainable from natural causes."

Yet even after the University opened, Jane's spiritualism was enough to compel President Jordan to do some investigating and approach her with his findings, Berner claimed. "Knowing of Mrs. Stanford's interest," the secretary wrote, "Dr. Jordan visited Hermann the Magician, an expert in sleight-of-hand performances, and was shown how the slate writing was done as well as many other so-called spirit manifestations. Jordan passed on what he had learned."

After that meeting, wrote Berner, "Mrs. Stanford did not attend séances as before," although she continued to read extensively on the subject. For many years, "without our solicitation and to our astonishment, books and pamphlets on spiritualism from all over the world were sent to her," the secretary observed.

Much of this reading material came from Thomas Welton Stanford, her husband's youngest and favorite brother, who had moved to California with his siblings back in the 1850s. Welton (as he was called) initially made his living as a shopkeeper, peddling supplies to the gold prospectors who were rushing into the state. Then, in 1859, he set sail for Australia, where he prospered by selling Singer sewing machines. Nine years later, he married a Canadian woman, Minnie Watt, who died quite suddenly less than a year after the wedding. Welton became obsessed with trying to communicate with her through spiritualist circles at his home.

A vocal proponent of spiritualism in Australia, Welton helped found the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists, publisher of the newspaper Harbinger of Light, in 1870. In later years, he strongly encouraged Jane's efforts to reconnect with her son. Welton and his estate also provided many works on spiritualism to his brother's new University library, including transcripts from séances at his house and the so-called Welton apports—objects that reportedly materialized during those séances and today rank among the strangest items in the Stanford University archives.

It's just after 10 a.m. on a February morning, and University archivist Maggie Kimball, '80, is running at full throttle. She's busy moving the special collections department into its new home at Green Library, and the idea of a magazine article that might draw curiosity-seekers to the Welton apports clearly gives her pause. Nevertheless, she grabs her keys and heads for the room where the mysterious objects are stored.

"People think, 'Oh my God, this is weird,'" Kimball says. "But most archivists deal with oddities, whether it's somebody's false teeth, locks of hair or just bizarre things that you find in their papers." Typically, she gets one call a year from someone asking to see the Welton apports. Once it was a student doing a project for a history class. A couple of years ago, it was a group of modern-day spiritualists who placed their hands over the objects, apparently trying to get a sense of their auras. Most recently, it was a TV film crew.

Kimball unlocks the storage room and goes to a book trolley loaded with 26 gray archival boxes, each tied with pink string. She pulls one out, opens it and gingerly extracts an empty tortoise shell about the size of a tea saucer. "The story is that when this materialized, the tortoise was still in it," Kimball says. "It lived out the rest of its days in Thomas Welton's garden."

Other items in the boxes: a coconut husk adorned with seashells, children's slates with barely legible chalk scribblings, and pieces of Egyptian papyrus with faint hieroglyphics. A handwritten note on one identifies it as a message from the priests of Osiris, calling for sacrifice "unto the exalted of the Sun, Rameses."

Before leaving on the trip, Jane expressed disappointment over the years of failed attempts to contact the spirit world. As Berner recalled it, "she said to me at the time, with a sad expression and in a very mournful tone: 'Unfortunately, so far, we have met with only charlatans, but perhaps we may yet see an honest demonstration.'"

When the two women disembarked in Melbourne, they were shocked to discover that Welton had become a shaggy-bearded recluse, almost completely preoccupied with psychic research. At dinner that night, "the coming of the medium was the main topic of conversation," Berner recalled. Then, the long-awaited séance began. "A Mr. Bailey arrived and we retired to a room used for sittings," Berner wrote. "In it were a small organ and some chairs. A woman played and we sang. The room was quite dark, and after a long silence—broken only by an occasional request that we have patience—the man Bailey declared that the conditions were unfavorable and that there would be no manifestations."

Jane returned to her hotel in a dejected mood. Soon afterward, the secretary recalled, "she took occasion to talk very earnestly and seriously to [Welton] about this matter that had occupied both of their thoughts for so long."

On the voyage home, Jane again spoke with Berner about her long and fruitless search for proof of an afterlife and a reconnection with her son. "We discussed the subject—from the time the Rev. Dr. Newman began to bring it up before the stricken parents in 1884, through all the years of investigation—and Mrs. Stanford stated that she had not met with any evidence to induce her to believe that the departed returned to earth," the secretary wrote. "Then she took my hand and said most earnestly, 'Remember this.'"

After that, according to Berner, Jane wrote to David Starr Jordan, proclaiming that her belief in a hereafter was based entirely on biblical teachings. Disillusioned but holding onto religious faith, she would never again look to the supernatural for solace.

Theresa Johnston, '83, is a Palo Alto writer and a frequent contributor to Stanford.