Known as the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” Andrew Jackson Davis was one of the best-known practitioners of 19th-century Spiritualism.
Andrew Jackson Davis
When Seeing was Believing
A profile of Andrew Jackson Davis, the 19th-century “Poughkeepsie Seer”
By A. J. Loftin
In the 19th century, New York was home to an active population of ghosts. Maggie and Kate Fox, of upstate Hyndsville, famously talked to the man buried in their basement by using “rapping” sounds. Other ghosts communicated through séances, or by levitating tables, producing automatic writing, or speaking through trumpets. But rarely did spirits speak more eloquently than via the influential Poughkeepsie clairvoyant Andrew Jackson Davis.
Davis (1826-1910), born in the Orange County hamlet of Blooming Grove, became one of America’s best-known practitioners of Spiritualism, a religious movement characterized by the belief that spirits of the dead can be contacted through mediums. Often considered a precursor to the New Age movement, Spiritualism flourished from the mid-1800s until the early 20th century. But Davis broke with the Spiritualists in his later years, maintaining that not all spirits were good spirits, and that not all of his information came from the dead. Davis wrote — or rather dictated, while in a trance — more than 30 books on philosophy, cosmology, health, and the afterlife. He is said to have not only healed hundreds of people, but also accurately predicted future uses for electricity and the discovery of Neptune and Pluto.
Davis also published two dictated autobiographies, the first of which details an impoverished childhood spent in Orange and Dutchess counties. By his own account, Davis was the son of poor, uneducated parents. His father was a hard-drinking itinerant shoemaker, his mother a sickly soul, sensitive and deeply religious. Davis was sent to school only occasionally, getting less than a year’s education altogether. He was a mama’s boy, failing miserably at his father’s craft and other manly pursuits. At 17, while working in Poughkeepsie, he attended some lectures by renowned phrenologist J.S. Grimes. (Adherents to phrenology believed that a person’s character was linked to the shape of his skull.) Davis claims that soon afterward, he was successfully hypnotized (or magnetized, as it was then called) by a tailor and father-figure named William Levingston. Davis proved so adept at clairvoyance that Levingston gave up tailoring and set up a medical practice of sorts with the young man.
In 1843, Davis and Levingston opened a clinic in Bridgeport, Connecticut. During this period, Davis recounts spending most of his time in a trance, diagnosing diseases and prescribing cures such as placing “the warm skins of rats over the back of each ear every night” for deafness. For an infected finger, the patient should “get a live frog, take the skin off, and bind it on the diseased parts. And I was afterward told that the cure was perfect.” No doubt the animal kingdom sighed with relief when Davis turned to lecturing and writing.
In 1844, Davis had a visionary experience that launched his career as a prophet. His autobiography describes a “psychic flight through space” from Poughkeepsie to a remote region of the Catskills, where he met the ancient Greek physician Galen and the 18th-century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
Davis began giving talks in 1845. He delivered 157 lectures in New York City while in a trance. He also held séances, some of which were attended by Edgar Allen Poe. His first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, published in 1847, describes evolution much as Darwin did nine years later in The Origin of Species. Davis’s five-volume opus, The Great Harmonia, “influenced much 19th-century American radical religious, social, educational, and medical thought,” according to a 2002 article by T. Peter Park in the journal The Anomalist. “In opposition to the supernaturalism and salvationism of orthodox Christianity, Davis saw the spiritual realm as continuous with nature and governed by its own natural laws.” Davis believed spirits progressed through six spheres above earth until they reached a heavenly realm he called “the Summerland.”
Meanwhile, back on terra firma, Davis married three times — he met his third wife while studying for a medical degree in New York City at age 60. (Davis claimed a degree from the United States Medical College in 1886; however, according to Polk’s Medical Register of 1914, this “eclectic” institution became “extinct” in 1882.) He lived to the atypically ripe age of 84, dispensing medical advice and herbal remedies from a small bookstore in Boston.
So was Davis a world-class humbug, or did he have special powers?
Nicholas Marshall, an associate professor of history at Marist College, believes Davis was neither humbug nor clairvoyant. Marshall is writing a book about the culture and psychology of 19th-century America. “It’s possible to see the movements of this century — the spiritualists, the temperance movement, the anti-slavery movement — as all tied together by a larger cultural phenomenon, which has to do with the way the average person was processing loss and death,” he says.
Marshall observes that life expectancy actually decreased during this century, as improved methods of transportation helped to spread diseases to larger populations. Families were also broken up by new opportunities to move around, on railroads and steamboats.
“It was a time when people began to feel more anxious,” says Marshall, who doubts whether Davis had any powers of clairvoyance, but also does not see a con artist at work. Rather, “these people really, really wanted it to be true. When you look at any of these characters, you’ll see death and loss in their lives.”
The staggering losses of the Civil War brought death home to all Americans. Even Lincoln was known to attend séances; according to one Civil War document, he met with Davis while in the White House. It’s not hard to imagine the desperation he and wife Mary Todd must have felt after losing three of their four sons.“Society had extraordinary needs at that moment,” Marshall says. Attuned from the earliest age to his mother’s suffering, Davis devoted his adult life to meeting those needs.
Davis’s only biographer to date is John DeSalvo, who wrote Andrew Jackson Davis: The First American Prophet and Clairvoyance. A scientific scholar and director of the Great Pyramid of Giza Research Association, DeSalvo readily agrees that death and loss may have been motivating forces behind Davis’s career.
But “motivation alone doesn’t explain the mechanism” by which Davis acquired such profound knowledge of astronomy, evolution, and medicine, DeSalvo says. Even the best astronomers of the day, he claims, would not have known what Davis knew about, for example, the surface of Venus (first seen by the Pioneer satellite in 1978).
“Did he get help from the spiritual realm? It’s one possibility,” says DeSalvo. “I’m not sold on any one theory. But any way you cut it, the guy was amazing.” DeSalvo gives the Poughkeepsie Seer the last word on his own achievement: “Davis said something like, ‘Don’t expect me to believe today what I believed yesterday, or will believe tomorrow.’ ” To me, that’s wisdom, because the older you get, the more you realize you don’t know anything.”