Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lewis Edson Waterman's unhappy medium

Biographers of old praised the famous; the inclination of our time is to cut them down to size. When I started looking into Lewis Edson Waterman's family life -- in particular, his split from his wife and his relationships with his children -- the fact that all details had been so thoroughly expunged from his official biographies primed me to assume the worst. As more information came in, however, I began to question my initial assumptions. The story still has many gaps, but Waterman now comes across as more victim than villain.

Waterman married Sarah Ann Roberts on June 29, 1858 in Pittsfield, Illinois. He was 20, she was 21. We know nothing about how they met, and next to nothing about her family background. By the time Waterman moved to Boston in 1864 to work for the Aetna Life Insurance Company, there were two daughters: Lou Ella, 4; and Fay Elma, 2. The following year Sarah Ann Waterman gave birth to twins, of whom only one, Rose Anne, survived. And with that, our story truly begins.

As noted in my addendum to Lewis Edson Waterman's long strange trip:
Waterman and his first wife were converted to Spiritualism in the late 1860s. The story is recounted in great detail in Benjamin Coleman, “The Twin Sisters: An Instructive Narrative”, The Spiritual Magazine, vol. 4, Sep 1869, pp. 401-404. Their daughter Rose, born in 1865, had a imaginary playmate who turned out to be her twin sister -- Sarah, called Lily -- who had died at birth. Waterman's wife Sarah Ann turned out to have psychic powers and was recognized by Spiritualist authorities as a medium. . . .
Since that was posted, further digging has dated the Watermans' commission of the "spirit portrait" of Lily to January 1869, and the matching photo of Rose to March 1869. Not only were copies of the images sold, but Sarah Ann Waterman was advertising her services as a "Psychometer, Clairvoyant and Medium" in the Boston-based weekly, The Banner of Light ("the newspaper of record for East Coast US Spiritualism"), from February 6, 1869 (p. 7, col. 1) on. In the June 12, 1869 issue (p. 8, col. 1) there was an enthusiastic article about the Watermans and their management of customers' communications with the departed: "Mr. Waterman, a thorough business man, has reduced the executive part of this correspondence between residents of the two worlds to a perfect system. Each letter sent or received, is numbered, copied and filed away alphabetically." Two more children had arrived by this time: Lewis Edson Junior, 2; and Sarah Amanda, 1.
Sarah Amanda died the following summer. "Effusion of Brain" was the cause listed on the death certificate. The obituary above was published on August 6, 1870 in The Banner of Light (p. 4, col. 4). Waterman's biographers state that his health broke in 1870 under the stress of work, obliging him to give up his position as Aetna's main Boston agent for less demanding freelance work. I had previously speculated that this might be associated with the disappearance of the partnership of Waterman & Chester as Aetna's Boston agency in the fall of 1869, but whatever the pressures of work, the heaviest blows turn out to have landed a year later. Within a few months after Sarah Amanda's death, the Watermans had left Boston for New York: on November 19, 1870, under "Movements of Lecturers and Mediums" (p. 5, col. 1), The Banner of Light reported "Mrs. S. A. Waterman, the psychometrical reader, was in town [Boston] last week, and was warmly welcomed by her numerous friends. Possibly she may locate in Boston again."

The following week's issue, however, contained the message above, submitted for publication at the same time as Mrs. Waterman's visit (Banner, Nov 26, 1870, p. 5, col. 1; also p. 6, col. 5). It purports to come from Rose's "spirit twin", though its diction seems more  backwoods Illinois than plane ethereal. And though it does not tell us exactly why L. E. Waterman had left his wife, it does tell us that he had been told "a great many wicked things". What those "things" were may best be inferred through subsequent events.

Fast forward ten years. On June 5, an enumerator for the 1880 census* finds the former Mrs. Waterman living at 300 West 43rd Street, New York City. Five other households live at this address. Mrs. Waterman is now Mrs. Lindsley (the enumerator spells it "Linsley" -- a common misspelling), living with her four children: Fay Elma Waterman, 18, dressmaker; Rose Waterman, 15, at home; Lewis E. Waterman, 13, at school; and Frances Lindsley, 7, born in New Jersey. Mrs. Lindsley states that she is a widow, occupation dressmaker. Other evidence suggests that she is no longer able to support herself as a "Psychometer, Clairvoyant and Medium". Once celebrated by the believers of Boston, she has by now been thoroughly pilloried by the New York Spiritualist establishment, publicly denounced as a fraud and a charlatan. The account below was published in the Religio-Philosophical Journal, Feb 19, 1876 (p. 385, col. 5), but appears to have been published earlier in the New York Sun. It was also referenced in a book published in 1881, Epidemic Delusions, by Amos Norton Craft (p. 246). Another denunciation had been reported in the Syracuse Daily Courier of August 26, 1875, col. 1.
Performing in the Dark Again -- Materialized Flowers of Cloth and Wire.
Mrs. S A Lindsley, who was recently accused by Dr Newbury and several other members of the New York Spiritualists Protective Committee of practicing deception and producing simulated manifestations, held a seance last evening at 209 West Thirty second street. The performance was attended by about thirty men and women, who formed a circle by clasping hands. The gas was turned low, making the room totally dark. A hymn was sung. Then there was a fluttering of wings, and a noise as of small articles falling on the floor. The gas was turned on, and the light disclosed a profusion of natural flowers scattered on the floor. A white dove, alive, was perched on the back of a chair. The medium said that the flowers and doves were brought into the room by the spirits. Somebody asked, "are they produced by the Spiritualistic materializing process?" The reply, "Oh, no, they were fetched here by the spirits from a hot-house. The dove was caught and brought to the seance room by the spirits." The flowers were tied together with common thread, as though by mortal hands. During the proceedings in the dark a noise was heard as of some person walking behind the backs of the persons who were sitting in the circle.

The Spiritualists' Protective Committee, which has been in existence about six months, includes in its membership many of the best-known believers in New York and Brooklyn. Its avowed object is to detect and expose mediums who deceived the public. The chairman says Mrs. Lindsley was denounced because she was detected in trying to make the committee believe that flowers, which she produced, were of supernatural origin, and they proved to be artificial flowers made of cloth and wire.
By all evidence, L. E. Waterman had sincerely believed in the Spiritualist creed. How would one expect him to have reacted upon discovering his wife's deceit? It can be no coincidence that when he left his wife, he left Spiritualism as well. When Waterman threw himself into the study of phrenology upon moving to New York, it may best be understood as an embrace of science and a rejection of wishful faith (we may tend to lump phrenology and Spiritualism together as parallel manifestations of Victorian credulity, but the phrenological establishment took a decidedly skeptical view of the Spiritualists -- e.g. Key to Ghostism, an attack on Spiritualism published by Fowler and Wells, reviewed in The Phrenological Journal, Feb 1880, p. 114).  The one thing that remains unclear is the extent of Mrs. Waterman's deceit. As we shall we, other details of her history suggest that her deceptions were not limited to parlor tricks and legerdemain.

Two weeks after the publication of Lily's letter, The Banner of Light (Dec 10, 1870, p. 4, col. 4) reported that "Mrs. S. A. R. Waterman, the psychometer and medium, now resides at Kankakee, Ill." The following April, the Banner reported that she was lecturing in various places across Illinois (Apr 15, 1871, p. 5, col. 2; Apr 22, p. 4, col. 5). On July 1, however, her return to Boston was noted (p. 5, col. 2), with her plying her trade at 46 Beach Street -- the address of a Mrs. Weston, who advertised "SPIRITUALISTS' HOME. ROOMS TO LET, by the day or week" (e.g., Sep 16, 1871, p. 7, col. 2). Further announcements of Mrs. S. A. R. Waterman's sessions appeared up through the August 5 Banner (p. 5, col. 2), after which there is a hiatus until the December 23 issue, where we find the following ad (p. 5, col. 3): "Mrs. S. A. R. Waterman, No. 67 Mulbery street, Newark, N.J., Psychometer and Medium, will answer letters (sealed or otherwise) on business, to spirit friends, for tests, delineations of character, etc. Terms $2 to $5 and three-cent stamp."

At this point the story takes a bizarre turn, with the publication on December 30, 1871 of the obituary reproduced above (Banner, p. 7, col. 1). It is for Rose Waterman -- the same Rose who would be recorded alive and well nine years later in the 1880 census. Perhaps Rose, then six years old going on seven, was proving insufficiently tractable when it came to talking about her invisible playmate. Away from Boston, Rose could be quietly disappeared into the spirit world, while images of her and her sister continued to be advertised to the faithful (e.g., Banner, Mar 9, 1872, p. 7, col. 1). The Banner makes no mention of a funeral service, though one would expect some ceremony for such a Spiritualist celebrity, and no official death record can be found in either Massachusetts or New Jersey.

Mrs. Waterman reappeared as Mrs. Lindsley at some point in 1872. A pro-Spiritualist letter to the editor dated November 22, 1872, published in the Waverly, New York Advocate (Nov 29, 1872, col. 5), mentions the visit of "Mrs. Lindsley, a test medium" to that town. According to the 1880 census, she gave birth to a daughter, Frances Lindsley, at some time between June 1872 and June 1873. Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to identify any likely Mr. Lindsley in either New Jersey or New York, using available birth, marriage, and death records, as well as census and city directory listings. While skepticism about the claimed remarriage and subsequent widowhood is not unwarranted, the records are too incomplete for any firm conclusions.

Mrs. Lindsley's activity as a medium appears to have gone through a hiatus around 1873-74, with mentions and advertisements reappearing from late 1874 on (e.g., regular ads in The Banner of Light from Nov 21, 1874; Mary Dana Shindler, A Southerner Among the Spirits, 1877, pp. 84, 88-89, recounting visits in 1875; a believer's letter dated 1876, in American Spiritual Magazine, Jan 1877, p. 230, in which Mrs. Lindsley is explicitly identified as "formerly Mrs. Waterman"). Perhaps the most interesting of these references is in an account from 1891 regarding the revealing of a lost inheritance in a session with Mrs. Lindsley several years before (Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Dec 1918, p. 745):
Q. How long ago did you receive the first statement of the facts?
Ans. 1874.
Q. Is Mrs. Lindsley a professional medium, and does she still receive sitters?
Ans. Yes, she was, but is not now. Her power left her and she received property which enables her to live without labour. Her address is 1776 Lexington Ave., N. Y.
By 1891, of course, L. E. Waterman was wealthy and respectable. He had remarried in October 1872, but would have no children with his second wife, also named Sarah. Connecting the dots, it isn't hard to guess the source of the property that enabled his ex-wife to "live without labour" -- and without further scandal.

According to Jacobus and Waterman (The Waterman Family, vol. 2, 1942, p. 46), Sarah A. Roberts, the former Mrs. Waterman, died on April 29, 1895. A different date appears in the only notice of her passing that I have been able to find, this brief entry in the New York World of April 22, 1895 ( p. 5, col. 6):
LINDSLEY. -- April 20, at her residence, Seventy-seventh street, after a thirteen months' illness, SARAH A. LINDSLEY, in her 59th year. Notice of funeral hereafter.


Jon Veley said...

Excellent work!

anonimo said...

Great work! There was also some issue regarding one Waterman that should have inherited the company but his father was angry with him. Just by heart, he lived almost from charity and became a millionaire when his father died. Do you remember something in the like?

David said...

You are thinking of Elisha Waterman, Frank D. Waterman's son.

Sarah Tyler said...

My grandfather...