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Our Ancestors and The Spiritualist Movement

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Today it is almost impossible to find a channel without a show that revolves around the paranormal. Every time we turn around there’s a new series that shadows a paranormal group as they investigate unexplained sights and sounds under the green glow of an infrared camera. Armed with an assortment of gadgets, the investigators claim to use science and commonsense to prove or debunk believed paranormal activity.

Due to the popularity of these shows, new paranormal groups have popped up everywhere, while thousands flock to attend lectures, conventions, and ghost hunts looking for an experience of their own. It was just ten years ago having a ghost story would be enough to be labeled crazy, where today it seems as though everybody has one. Ghosts and hauntings are no longer stories saved for around a campfire.

However, this isn’t the first time the need or belief in communicating with the dead has been popular. In March 1848, the Spiritualist Movement was born in Hydesville, NY when two sisters claimed to make contact with a peddler who had supposedly been murdered in their home. Kate and Margaret Fox would ask for knocks from the spirit in response to their questions. When unexplained rappings came from the walls, witnesses were left completely baffled.

It didn’t take long for news of the Fox sister’s supernatural talents to spread throughout their town and eventually the country. Shortly after, they began touring as mediums holding public séances and lectures. As the popularity of these events grew, thousands of believers flocked to mediums to attend séances in hopes of contacting their lost loved ones.

The Spiritualist Movement saw two spikes in popularity: following the Civil War and again following World War I. Many believe it is due to the fact our ancestors were being exposed to the harsh reality of war through photography. Although photography was used to document some battles before the Civil War, they weren’t as extensively covered. War was no longer just some romanticized event rendered in an artist’s work. Our ancestors were being bombarded with gruesome pictures from the battlefields and left mourning the tragic loss of their loved ones in large numbers.

Mixed with our age-long curiosity in life after death, Spiritualism gave our ancestors some comfort. It was a movement that was founded on the beliefs that life existed after death, our spirits went on to a better place, and that they could communicate with the living. By going to a medium, there was a sense that their deceased loved ones weren’t really lost. These beliefs appealed to a wide variety of people, even Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln was known to seek the help of mediums following the death of their young son Willie.

Unfortunately, the fame and fortune mediums were receiving began to attract frauds who were looking to take advantage of those who were grieving. Desperate to believe, some were blind to the trickery pulled by those looking to make a quick buck. During this time, many people stepped forward looking to expose the frauds, including Harry Houdini.

Houdini became interested in the Spiritualist Movement following the death of his mother. After attending several séances in hopes of making contact with her, he discovered the mediums were playing basic parlor tricks on their trusting audience. Using his knowledge as a magician, he made it his mission to expose those who were making a living off of deception while hoping to meet a medium he could not debunk.

After years of being scrutinized by skeptics, with a majority of mediums being exposed as frauds, the Spiritualist Movement’s popularity began to dwindle. The final blow came when one of the founders, Margaret Fox, denounced Spiritualism as “an absolute falsehood from beginning to end” where she went on to publicly display how her and her sister played on the imaginations of their audiences. A year later, she tried to recant her confession; however, at that point the damage was already done.

Today, even with all of our technology, I can’t help but wonder if we are really any closer to discovering the truth putting all of our faith, some blindly, into equipment like our ancestors did in the past with mediums. Like Houdini, even though I have become more and more skeptical over the years, there is still something in me that wants to believe. Call it human nature or chalk it up to some of the experiences I have had that I still am trying to wrap my head around. After six years, I am still looking for that one piece of evidence that will no longer leave me questioning.

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A Haunting Reality

Over the years, I have learned many things about life and myself by researching my ancestors. Through interviewing my parents, grandparents and other descendants, making visits to town halls, libraries, vital statistic offices and cemeteries I have discovered several things about my family’s past. Every now and then though, this look back comes with a very unexpected and haunting look forward.

The story of my great grandfather, Robert Henry Williams has always been a mystery. My grandfather was only 13 when his father passed away from a massive heart attack at the age of 39. Being as young as my grandfather was when he became the “man of the house”, he really didn’t know or remember a lot about his father.

Grandpa was able to tell me that Robert was born in Waterville, Maine. He said that he remembered taking trips to Vermont with his parents to visit his father’s family. I also learned that Robert was a WWI veteran who served in France as a wagoner. The only story passed down through the family about his service, had to do with trench warfare and Robert being “gassed”… Tear gas? Chlorine? Mustard, perhaps?

Following the war, Robert became the district manager for Waldorf Café, which had him traveling around New England. He married my great grandmother, Marjorie Washburn and together they had a total of seven children. The family seemed to be living a comfortable life in Lynn, Massachusetts when they were dealt an unexpected and devastating blow.

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On April 19, 1935, Robert was in the middle of a meeting inside a Waldorf Café freezer when he began to feel ill. His co-workers instructed him to lay down on the floor of the freezer while they called for a doctor. By the time the doctor arrived to have a look at Robert, he was feeling better.

Shortly after the doctor left, my great grandfather died of a massive heart attack.

Growing up I had heard many stories about the chaos that followed Robert’s death. His untimely passing changed my grandfather’s family forever. Outside of the obvious emotional and financial problems, he and his siblings watched on as their mother (who was pregnant with her seventh child) was forced to make tough decisions in – what she believed to be – the best interest of her family.

I have often wondered, as I am sure the family did, how different their lives would have been had Robert lived to an old age. It’s no surprise my grandfather and his siblings knew so little about their father, they were so young when they lost him. As they got older, their days were spent going to school and finding odd jobs to help their mother financially. Their focus wouldn’t have been on enjoying their childhood; it would have been focused on survival.

My grandfather’s story has always upset me.

I couldn’t imagine how hard life was for his family and I couldn’t imagine losing my father at the age of 13. It made me realize how fortunate I was; not only did I have an amazing grandfather, he and my grandmother gave me an amazing father.

Listening to my grandfather’s stories, I could tell he wished he knew more about his father. His need to know more motivated me to do some digging… I wanted to know more as well. What kind of man was he? What did he do in the war? What was his childhood like? What was his family like? All of these questions lead me to many places, one of which was Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Burlington, Massachusetts.

There I was… finally standing in front of his headstone for the first time…

My stomached turned, I began to tremble and my eyes welled up with tears… I thought I was going to be sick. Having been so set on learning more about my great grandfather, I wasn’t prepared for the haunting reality that was waiting for me at that headstone.

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“Robert Henry Williams”, it read…

The same name as my brother, my father and my grandfather, who were all alive and well… Three men in my life that meant the world to me… and there was their name, etched in the cold granite staring back at me. I cried uncontrollably while I tore away at the grass and dirt that had begun growing over the ground level stone with my hands.

While the purpose of the visit was to learn more about my great grandfather, I walked away with much more than that. As important as it is to learn about your family’s past, it is just as important to learn how to be present.

Too many of us take our loved ones for granted. We forget (or refuse to acknowledge) that they won’t always be there. We tell ourselves we’ll visit, call or email tomorrow, this weekend or next week. Life gets crazy, we get sidetracked with day-to-day bullshit and we make excuses.

What’s the old saying, “time waits for no man”?

As if my grandfather’s story of loss wasn’t enough, it took seeing the names of my loved ones carved in stone for that message to stick.

Robert Williams Sr

Today’s Advice? Get off your buttocks and reach out to your loved ones. It’s time spent you’ll never regret.