Mediums in Montana
Spiritualism in The Old West
by Ramona Mead
Not all the stories in Bozeman’s past are those of triumph and positivity. There have been scandals, murders, and unsolved mysteries. This is the side of history often swept under the rug, but there is a group in town, comprised of history enthusiasts and scholars, who work to tell stories from that dark side of history, along with the rest.
The Extreme History Project, whose tagline is “History isn’t pretty”, is a non-profit organization of like-minded individuals who have come together with the goal of making the humanities more fun and accessible to the masses. From their website, “The Project hopes to encompass a variety of events and activities intended to enhance the public’s understanding of how history has shaped our present, and how understanding that legacy can affect the way we behave towards one another.”
Marsha Fulton is a marketing professional turned history professor and a member of The Extreme History Project. Her upcoming lecture entitiled Summoning the Dead in the West: Spiritualism in 19th Century Montana will take place at the Museum of the Rockies later this month. She and I spoke about what she’ll cover in her lecture and about some historical tid-bits to go with our Halloween themed issue.
In order to understand Spiritualism in 19th Century Montana one must differentiate between spiritualism and spirituality. Spiritualism is the belief that spirits of the dead can send messages to the living. Spirituality also has to do with the spirit, but not as in ghosts, instead as in the essence of being human, your soul. Being spiritual is not necessarily associated with religion, while spiritualism was a religion of its own.
Spiritualism began in the 1840’s in Rochester, New York. A family with the last name of Fox moved into a home and the daughters began hearing strange noises in the house, rapping and tapping sounds. The sisters soon realized that the sounds would respond to noises and actions they made, such as snapping ones fingers, and they began to communicate with the entity. According to Fulton, this is where the Ouija board has its origins. The sisters made a board printed with letters and numbers which they would point at, and the spirit would make sounds at specific letters to communicate a message. The entity told the Fox sisters the story of his past, including his death, which indicated that he had been buried in the home’s basement. Eventually, excavation was done in the basement and human remains were found, although there was never any proof they actually belonged to the alleged spirit who communicated with the sisters.
The Fox sisters are credited with founding the Spiritualist movement. This came at a time when the entire United States was mourning deaths from the Civil War, along with losses from disease and industrial accidents. The desire to contact deceased loved ones was incredibly strong and Americans latched on to the belief that it was possible. Fulton doesn’t believe Spiritualism could have reached the peak it did during any other point in time.
A significant foundation of Spiritualism is that the spirits attempting to communicate with the living are best aided by an individual who is a medium. Mediums possess the ability to communicate with the dead along with psychic abilities, although not all psychics are mediums.
Spiritualism was a particularly big step for the women’s movement because until this point, women were not permitted to speak in public. However if a woman was a medium, and especially if she was channeling a male spirit, she became a public figure. According to Fulton, Spiritualism served as a method for spreading messages of reform throughout the country. Spiritualism played a huge role in preparing women for a public role in American life. Many of the people involved in the Spiritualism movement were involved in abolition and children’s rights as well.
As Spiritualism spread to The West, there were several women in Montana who claimed to be mediums. Bozeman itself had two particularly well known mediums, Emma Mounts and Belle Chamberlain. Emma Mounts made a name for herself by channeling the spirit of a Dr. Kellogg and using his medical knowledge to provide healing services to members of the community. She never charged any fees. In the mid 1870’s, Emma proved her validity by predicting (with guidance from Dr. Kellogg) the exact time and method by which a pin that her son had accidentally swallowed would exit his body. This incident was documented in The Bozeman Times and solidified Emma’s reputation as a legitimate medium.
Mediums not only channeled messages from the dead, they also gave lectures in front of large groups. When they did so, they were said to be in a trance, and so some “trance speakers” became hugely successful on the lecture circuit, traveling throughout the United States. Belle Chamberlain traveled to Bozeman from California in the 1870’s as a trance speaker. She toured the country tirelessly spreading her message and eventually settled down in Bozeman and married Judge Joe Davis. Belle became a prominent Bozeman resident, she coached the high school debate team, and continued to speak publically.
Spiritualism hit its prime in Montana in the mid to late 1870’s. Its popularity began to dwindle in the late 1880’s when prominent mediums elsewhere in the country were exposed to be frauds. The most noted controversy was that of Katie King, a spirit said to have materialized several times during separate séances by mediums Florence Cook and Jennie and Nelson Holmes. In the late 1870’s, a lawyer by the name of William Volckman attended a séance and subsequently published his opinion that the spirit was a masquerade by Cook.
Marsha Fulton describes Spiritualism as a “home grown American religion.” Eventually the movement made its way to England and gradually permeated Europe although it lost favor in The United States. Fulton says Spiritualism “showed up to do its job” in our country by providing a platform to spread messages of reform. She says researching her lecture was fun and turned up even more interesting bits of Bozeman history.
Much of the Bozeman history I discuss here and what Marsha discusses in her lecture, is her own research that has never before been published. She is currently working on a book about Spiritualism in Montana which she hopes to have published next year.
Summoning the Dead in the West: Spiritualism in 19th Century Montana, will take place at the Museum of the Rockies on Thursday October 22nd at 6pm and is free to the public. For more information about The Extreme History Project, visit their website at ExtremeHistoryProject.org or find them on Facebook. Their calendar is full of interesting events! EHP has partnered with Adventure Through Time, which is an organization that provides historic walking tours in downtown Bozeman. Find their schedule through the “Historic Walking Tours” link on EHP’s website.