First Ladies and the Occult
While it’s possible some Ladies were good at concealing their practices, five in particular—Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln, Edith Wilson, Florence Harding, and Nancy Reagan hold moderate-to-strong interests in the occult, according to Pat Krider, the executive director of the National First Ladies’ Library. That list could also include Grace Coolidge, Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Jackie Kennedy, all of whom claimed to have seen Lincoln’s ghost or felt his presence during their years in the White House, though they weren’t bringing in astrologers or using mediums as others did. As to how these Ladies formed a fascination with the occult, Krider told Broadly: “People who are desperate for help, for answers, sometimes go to extreme measures.”
The assertion that many of the former presidents’ wives were “desperate for help” is easily argued. Pierce, the first-known First Lady occultist, came to bear the nickname “the shadow in the White House” and lived in a permanently depressed state after her last surviving child, her son Benny, died in a tragic train accident at 11 years old. Weighed down with extreme guilt and anxiety, she initially attempted to beckon his spirit by addressing an emotional letter to him, asking him to return to her so she could repent her motherly shortcomings.
“God help me now to correct in bitterness my errors when oh! It is too late for you to have the sweet benefit of it—and now this Sabbath evening you will come in fancy before me and I sit close by you, with your hand in mine perhaps, or you will lean against me on the sofa, or as sometimes you did on Sunday evening sit on my lap a little while…”
Determined to reconnect with her son, Pierce invited the Fox sisters, key figures in the Modern Spiritualism movement from upstate New York, into the White House to hold seances. Supposedly, the sessions provided Pierce some respite, though it wasn’t lasting. According to her page on the White House website, at the conclusion of her husband’s presidency, the couple “made a prolonged trip abroad in search of health for her – she carried Benny’s Bible throughout the journey. The quest was unsuccessful, so the couple came home to New Hampshire to be near family and friends until Jane’s death in 1863. She was buried near Benny’s grave.”
After the Pierces vacated the White House, life-long bachelor James Buchanan moved in for four years—so no witchy First Lady—but the next spiritualist to live in the White House moved in just after Buchanan’s term: Mary Lincoln. Like Pierce, Lincoln lived through the deaths of her sons (one before Abe’s term, one during, and one after), and her occult process of choice was also seances. Even the purportedly Honest husband himself attended a seance, according to historian Carl Anthony, that the Mrs. held in the White House Red Room. Apparently, she reached both her dead sons, Willie and Eddie, whose ghosts she claimed visited her in her White House bedroom.
“Willie comes to me every night and stands at the foot of my bed with the same, sweet adorable smile he has always had,” Lincoln told her sister, according to The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. “He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.” After her husband’s assassination, reports claimed she attended a “spiritualist commune,” and seven years after his death, she asked the infamous spiritualist photographer William M. Mumler to take a couple’s picture of her and her husband’s ghost.
As for whether First Ladies disproportionately dabble in the occult, Krider thinks there’s no significant difference. In mid-19th century New York, the Fox sisters’ public seances popularized Spiritualism, right around the time that Pierce and Lincoln were trying to reach their dead sons.
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