The Medium in the Family
How to talk to the dead, Wisconsin style
By Tim Gihring
Among the ghosts and the UFOs, the seers and the somnambulists, the Ouija Boards and something called a Spiritoscope, now on view at Mia in the exhibition “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art,” the séance dress of Louise Parke is strikingly personal. Here is a handmade cotton cloak, worn by a woman in Wisconsin. It could be a nightdress or a bathrobe. Instead, it’s for communicating with the dead.
I never thought much about mediums. I had friends in high school who fooled around with Ouija Boards, the way they listened to Pink Floyd backwards, and the next day they went to church with their parents. The Spiritualism of seances and tilting tables seemed like another sepia-toned artifact of the antebellum era, like surgery without anesthetic — a curiosity we’d moved past long ago, never to return. A wave that rose and crested long before my ancestors set foot in America.
But about a year ago, my mother mentioned a small room in the house she grew up in, on the outskirts of Milwaukee. When her family built the house, she said, they created this small room on the second floor, where her grandparents lived, for her grandmother to hold Spiritualist meetings. I assumed she meant Spiritualist in some general sense — a prayer meeting, perhaps. As far as I knew, we were mainline Protestant, all down the line. Besides, the house went up in the 1930s, long after Spiritualism peaked. I filed the thought away, and soon forgot about it.
When “Supernatural America” opened this winter, the thought suddenly returned. As an editor at the museum, working on materials for the show, I was now immersed in Spiritualism: its progressive origins, its ties to abolition, its allure to women as an oasis of agency in a spiritual desert of male authority. I asked my mom: What was the deal with that room?
The Wisconsin Historical Society, which lent Louise Parke’s séance dress for the show, describes her family as “well known for their ability to communicate with the deceased.” Her grandparents converted to Spiritualism shortly after her birth, near Madison, in 1869. Her father, a doctor, practiced magnetism as well as medicine. Parke became a medium and believed her contact in the spirit world to be Black Hawk, the Sauk leader who died in the 1830s. (She was apparently not the only medium to have his ear: Leafy Anderson, an African American woman also from Wisconsin, founded the Spiritual Church Movement in New Orleans with Black Hawk as the church’s primary spirit guide.)
Parke’s family “did not see themselves as crack-pots or quacks,” the historical society notes. They were true believers — and professionals, blending the latest science with an ancient aspiration: to see beyond this world into another and make contact. In the 1870s, a group of Spiritualists built a camp near Wonewoc, a town about 30 miles from the decidedly less spiritual pleasures of Wisconsin Dells. Here, among the pines, Parke put on her long white robe and got to work.
It seems the Spiritualist movement thrived in Wisconsin well past its peak in other parts of the country. Something to do with the state’s progressive politics, perhaps, or its propensity for organization. When much of the movement was autonomous and amorphous, Wisconsin had the camp at Wonewoc and a Spiritualist college. Both are still going. If my great-grandmother was a practicing Spiritualist in the late 1930s, it’s not surprising that she was practicing in Wisconsin.
I never knew her. She had come from Hungary in the 1920s, struggled through the Great Depression, and by the time I wandered that house as a child, she and my great-grandfather were gone — at least from this world. The alcove off the upstairs living room held no great fascination for me then, and neither did they. As a child, you don’t expect to be surprised by your relatives. You don’t know yet what a person can get up to in life; it’s only later, when you’ve experienced something of it, that you wonder if there isn’t more to the story.
I’ve now learned more of my great-grandmother’s story, and it seems she was in fact a medium. She would take people upstairs to the little room and contact their deceased. In an audio tour of “Supernatural America,” the Reverend Marrice Coverson, pastor of the Church of the Spirit in Chicago, suggests that the dress of Louise Parke “was a cloak-like shield for her. … It shielded her from people but also kept the energy inside.” I don’t know how my great-grandmother worked — if she wore a cloak, if she went into a trance, how she contained the energy. But according to a relative, she was with a client once when a couple of grandchildren went to see what was happening. She had a crystal ball, they reported, and suddenly began speaking “in a deep man’s voice that sounded like an old Native American,” whatever that means. Not unlike, perhaps, Louise Parke.
When she died, her family gave her a Lutheran funeral, though she was Catholic and, it would seem, a Spiritualist. It was what they knew and what they thought best. Her daughter, a relative says, “wasn’t going to have any of those Spiritualist people do it.” The séances, for which she charged, had been “a thing to do,” the family decided, not a religious practice.
Whatever it meant to her, I can imagine my great-grandmother sitting across from someone hopeful for good news. Thinking of something helpful to say. Something to fill in the blanks. We all have questions when the ground shifts beneath us, and it’s a great skill to be able to ease that uncertainty in others and repair their confidence — a gift, even.
To imagine a relative in a house I know so well, channeling spirits, ironically demystifies the mystical. But it also makes this world a little more interesting. There are other worlds right inside this one, filled with people we thought we knew, waiting to be discovered.