Christmas Eve, 1852, at St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon, Ohio was anything but a silent night when “rapping medium” Abby Warner and her friends came to church that evening.
Abby Warner was an illiterate orphan who had been taken in by a charitable widow in Massillon, Ohio. Her face had been eaten away by the use of the mercury purgative calomel, so she was doubly cursed in the eyes of her neighbors: poor and disfigured. A third curse was to be added by those neighbors after that fatal Christmas Eve: she was publicly revealed as a Spiritualist rapping medium, which some of the faithful equated with being in league with the Devil. Dr. Abel Underhill wrote up the entire affair in an 1852 pamphlet, The Arrest, Trial, and Acquittal of Abby Warner for Spirit Rapping: in St Timothy’s Church, Massillon, Ohio, but as it is a lengthy document, I am using Emma Hardinge Britten’s account from Modern American Spiritualism.
Amongst these [mediums], one of the most remarkable was Abby Warner, a poor orphan girl dependent on public charity for support, and an object of pity from a concatenation of severe physical ailments which rendered her equally helpless and unsightly. And yet it was through the instrumentality of this afflicted and humble agent that the cause of Spiritualism was to receive an irresistible impulse in Ohio, for Abby Warner not only became a most wonderful spirit medium, but, through no volition of her own, brought the phenomena before the world in a manner which human foresight, however keen, could hardly have achieved.
The first marked interest that was excited by the mediumship of this young girl, arose whilst she resided in the house of a good widow, Mrs. Kellog by name, at Massillon. Mrs. Kellog’s compassionate heart had been touched by sympathy for the poor orphan’s afflicted condition, and, out of simple pity, she had invited her to come to her house and assist her in her domestic duties.
Here, for the first time, it was discovered by Mrs. Kellog, who was herself mediumistic, that “the raps” could be readily produced in the presence and about the person of Abby. This discovery greatly interested her patroness, who induced her to sit for circles, at which powerful physical manifestations and most excellent tests of spirit identity were freely given. Abby Warner had lived in such conditions of neglect and ignorance that at the time of this development, though eighteen years of age, she could only read printed characters imperfectly, but neither write herself nor read writing; and yet, in a state of deep trance, this uneducated girl would write correctly with both hands, at the same time, on different subjects, for different spirits, whilst a third would manifest through the rappings, and spell out another and totally different communication simultaneously with the other two. Dr. Abel Underbill, who wrote and published the history of Abby Warner, states upon his own as well as the authority of scores of credible witnesses, whose testimony is rendered upon oath, that Abby Warner often gave at her circles three separate communications at once, one with her right, and another with her left hand, and a third through the rappings; that these were well written and correctly phrased, and contained the most indubitable tests of the communicating spirits’ several identities. The author is furnished with several affidavits to this effect, but their publication would but be a reiteration of testimony already given in Dr. Underbill’s history of the medium. We must add, however, that the answers to questions obtained in this way were frequently mental and given whilst the medium was in a deep trance, hence her case is one of the most singular and exceptional of psychologic as well as mediumistic instances on record.
Abby Warner was also an excellent seeing and trance medium, and as crowds of eager inquirers availed themselves of her wonderful powers, Mrs. Kellog’s residence was often thronged with visitors curious to investigate this marvellous phenomenon. When the reports of these seances began to be widely circulated, Dr. Ackley, a medical practitioner of Cleveland, who had been employed by the poor-house authorities to perform a surgical operation on the suffering girl Abby, being moved with the pious design of saving the world from the awful ravages which Spiritualism was now making in it, visited Mrs. Kellog’s house to procure evidence which would enable him to commence his work of salvation by proving the now-celebrated Abby Warner to be an impostor. Finding this task somewhat harder than he had anticipated, he wisely confined himself to an explanation of the mode in which the obnoxious raps were produced. For this purpose he addressed a letter to the Cleveland papers, in which he boldly asserted that the whole of the girl’s manifestations were the result of “trickery,” and all depended on the action, not even of ankle and toe joints, but of “the respiratory muscles of the chest,” which process he described as being performed in such an ingenious and masterly way that his own admissions showed the ignorant medium to be a better practical surgeon than the redoubtable doctor himself. And because this learned professor declared that, after he had trained them, several of his students could rap with their ankles, respiratory muscles, etc., as well as Abby, he undertook to pronounce Spiritualism, from Rochester to California, “a profound humbug;” solemnly announced that it was “exploded” forthwith; and actually expected somebody else besides himself to credit his assertions. After the fulmination of this medical bull, which doubtless answered the purpose of a very good advertisement for the cause, Spiritualism proceeded with more force and abundance in Cleveland and its vicinity than ever, but the circumstances that connected its progress so publicly with the name of Abby Warner were as follows: Dr. Underhill being in Massillon, and having taken Abby Warner into his family for medical treatment, accompanied her, with his wife and a few friends to St. Timothy’s Church, on Christmas eve, 1851. They went there, as they alleged, chiefly for the purpose of seeing the decorations, which, as was usual at that period, were tastefully arranged throughout the church.
Although the rappings accompanied Abby wherever she went, there was no reason to anticipate any of sufficient force to disturb the congregation; hence, her friends were not a little surprised to hear them produced on this occasion with such unusual power and number that the attention of the whole assembly was attracted by them, and fixed upon the place where Abby and her party were seated. The church was unusually quiet at the time, and the presence of the well-known and obnoxious “spirit rapper” no doubt fastened observation on the sounds, which they might otherwise have escaped. When, however, they were made in full volume, distinctly, and in excellent time to the singing, there seemed to be no further room to doubt their source.
The officiating minister desired [addressing no one in particular] that “those knockings might cease;” to which the said knockings responded by a single rap of remarkable force and vibratory power, a signal interpreted by the initiated in spirit telegraphy to mean a decided negative to the clergyman’s request; nor did they cease, but rather increased in number and force, until the close of the service and the retirement of Abby and her party. After this, the indignation of the congregation vented itself in sundry intemperate letters, in which the nature and impiety of the outrage put upon a Christian community, and the disturbance created in their worship, was fiercely insisted upon, in the Massillon papers. The result of this storm was the citation of Abby Warner, the “spirit rapper,” before a public tribunal, to answer to the charge of having wilfully and in malice prepense, disturbed a Christian assembly in the solemn act of public worship.
The trial, as recorded in the columns of the Cleveland Plaindealer, is a curious specimen of ignorance, superstition, and malice. The full details are scarcely of sufficient interest to warrant their insertion here, we shall therefore only quote a few extracts from the report, as follows:
“THE TRIAL OF ABBY WARNER.
[” Reported for the Cleveland Plaindealer.]
“A large congregation, it seems, had met at the Episcopal Church, Massillon, on Christmas eve. Soon after the services had commenced, a knocking was heard, which was continued at intervals during the evening, notwithstanding that the minister publicly desired that it might cease. After this, the raps again commenced, so loudly that they could be heard distinctly in every part of the church during the whole sermon. In order to ascertain the locality of the sounds, some gentlemen went into the basement of the church, and declared that the raps proceeded from that part of the building above where Abby Warner, the well-known ‘rapping medium,’ was seated. This, and the fact that Dr. Underhill, under whose charge Abby is now residing, as well as other avowed believers in spiritual manifestations, was in the church, also the rumor that the spirit had directed Abby to go there for the purpose of producing manifestations, induced those opposed to the modern science of pneumatology, to ascribe the raps to the said Abby, as an offence worthy of condign punishment.
“The Spiritualists, it appears, not only claimed that the sounds were made by invisible intelligences, independent of their volition; but, through their peculiar mode of interpreting spirit telegraphy, they inferred that they were decidedly opposed to the doctrines of the preacher. This matter has caused much excitement. In the last number of the town paper, several distinguished members of the Episcopal Church stated their opinion, that it was a scheme of Dr. Underbill’s and his associates to disturb and insult their religious exercises, and they called upon all good citizens to beware of these ‘contaminators of public morals,’ and treat them ‘with the contempt they so justly merited.’ Moreover, on the strength of the statute regarding disturbance of religious meetings, Dr. Reed, M.D., made his affidavit that he did verily believe that one Abby Warner had interrupted the services at St. Timothy’s Church on Christmas eve last, whereupon, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Abby, who was accordingly brought before R. H. Folger, Esq., for examination. . . As this is the first modern instance in which ‘the spirits’ have been arraigned in a court of justice, a particular report of the trial will doubtless be interesting to the public at large.
“The trial commenced on Saturday, December 27, before R. H. Folger, Justice of Peace. The office was so crowded that the constable had great difficulty in preserving the due order and decorum of the court. A. C. Wales appeared for the State, and Messrs. Keith, Underhill, and Pease, for the defendant The defendant pleaded not guilty, and her counsel admitted the fact that strange sounds had been heard in St. Timothy’s Church at the time complained of, and in her presence, but they alleged that these were not produced by any agency of hers, or under any control of her own.
“The examination of witnesses tended to elicit no facts beyond those already referred to, namely, the production of knocks, coming sometimes singly, sometimes in twos and threes , or even in a shower, emphasizing certain passages, beating time to the singing, and occasionally sounding as if two or three persons struck together, and always loud and distinct; but not a single witness could be found, who could swear that they perceived the slightest movement in the accused party; on the contrary, when closely cross-examined, those who professed to have scrutinized the action of the ‘spirit rapper’ narrowly were compelled to admit that they could not detect the least perceptible motion, even of her dress, at the times when the knocks were most numerous and emphatic.
“Two ladies who sat in the same slip with her were carefully examined, and though entirely unfavorable to her belief, acknowledged that she never moved when the knocks were at the loudest, and, whether she stood up or sat down, they did not even suspect that she made the sounds; indeed, they proceeded, as they seemed to think, from points quite distant from her. Others testified that they came from the back, side, ground, or at any rate somewhere near her pew, but in what particular locality, all seemed strangely disagreed.
“The trial, which continued during three days, was removed, on account of the immense throng of spectators, to Welker’s Hall; and, after along and patient investigation, ended in the discharge of the accused. Mr. Folger, after a very elaborate summing up, closed in these words: ‘It is to be regretted that the true source of this disturbance cannot be ascertained, and the offender punished. A church has been disturbed in its devotions to an extent which arrested the attention, not only of the rector, but of every one present. After three days of patient investigation, the guilty party is undiscovered, and, thus far, the investigation has proved fruitless, for which the court can only express its sincere regret. Being unable, in the light of the proof, to find the defendant guilty, she is discharged.'”
And thus ended a trial upon which the law, with all its acumen, was unable to throw any light; a case upon which the church, with all its assumed divine illumination, only cast darkness visible; yet which the plain common sense of millions of less highly gifted authorities has discovered to be distinct emanations from the fountain of all light,—foregleams from the realms of immortality. Modern American Spiritualism, Emma Hardinge Britten, 1870
This wasn’t the end of the matter. Dr. Underhill immediately arranged a set of seances to prove that Abby was not a fraud. And there was another lawsuit:
Spirit Rapping Case.
General Dwight Jarvis, formerly of New York, but now, and for many years, a citizen of Ohio, was recently prosecuted in a civil suit, for a libel, by a believer in Spiritual Knockings. Gen. Jarvis, it seems, is a member of St. Timothy’s Church, Massillon, and a Dr. Underhill procured Abby Warner, a “Spirit Medium,” to go to the church during a service, and exhibit the Spirit Rappings. She did so, accompanied by her fanatical associates, greatly disturbing the solemnity of the religious services of the congregation. There were loud and continuous rappings in the vicinity of Abby and irreverent and significant “winks and blinkings” in the “spiritual circle,” so much so that the Rector was obliged to dismiss the meeting. Gen. Jarvis, in a publication, properly charged this exhibition gotten up by the Doctor and Aby, as a “disturbance to a religious congregation,” and for this he was sued for libel.
The trial was had in Cleveland last week, and the defendant admitted the publication and pleaded and proved the truth therof in justification. The plaintiff’s attorney offered to give the statement of a Committee of Spiritualists, that Abby made the raps involuntarily; –this was objected to by defendant, claiming that the best evidence should be produced, and that until the present sublunary law was revealed by a spiritual code, the present rules of evidence could not be departed from. He insisted that, if the plaintiff wished to prove that Spirits made the rappings, they must obtain a subpoena from the courts, and have the Spirits brought upon the stand, disembodied, and untrammeled by “flesh, blood and stomach,” to testify to their agency in this matter—that this was the best evidence.
The Court sustained the objection, but the Spirits were not subpoenaed. The Court charged the Jury that the defendant had fully proved the truth of his publication—but strange to say, there were found upon this Cleveland jury, men so imbued with the fanatical isms pervading that locality, that a verdict could not be agreed upon. A strange trial this, and a stranger result, for this boasted age of intelligence. Alexandra [VA] Gazette 14 December 1853: p. 2
I’m not sure where Jarvis got the “General” title—he held the title of “Colonel” during his Civil War career–possibly it was a militia title. The newspapers said that this suit was “continued,” but I have not found a further trial or verdict.
Orphans and the sickly often feature prominently in poltergeist cases, where, of course, rappings are a prime manifestation. I have also observed (mostly in poltergeist tales of the last few decades) that bringing in religious authorities or rituals like exorcists, priests, holy water, or praying ministers only intensifies the polt activity. If we accept the theory that polts are an expression of a frustrated or angry young person, the intervention of spiritual authority only makes them angrier and more defiant. I’ve always been amused at that giant rap—seance room code for “no”—in response to the Rector’s request that the knockings cease.
Of course there were also accusations that Mrs. Kellogg, herself also “mediumistic,” simply trained the girl in tricks of the fraudulent medium’s trade. Perhaps Abby just wanted to please the woman who had given her a home or she could, it was suggested, have been a drudge who was forced to comply.
I’ve not found Abby Warner’s death date or a grave. Does anyone have any information about her subsequent career? Rap twice for yes; once for no to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
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Whatever winter holiday you celebrate, I wish you joy and all good things in the coming year.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.