Spiritualism in Marin

By Robert L. Harrison

“The heaven that Sir Oliver and Sir Arthur report is the heaven imagined by fat-headed old women who love the dark and two dollars” circa 1918. Artist: Wright, George Hand, 1872–1951. Cabinet of American illustration (Library of Congress).

Alternatives to traditional Western religions have been and continue to be popular in Marin County. A survey conducted in 2000 by San Francisco’s Institute of Jewish and Community Research (IJCR) found, in contrast to the rest of the country, a far higher percentage of people in Marin County embrace alternative religions or no religion at all.

In Marin, 23 percent reported “other” as their religious preference, a larger number than those identifying as Roman Catholics or Jewish, and just behind the 27 percent identifying themselves as Protestants. Of those surveyed, 15 percent said they had no religious preference, compared with 6 percent in the nationwide Gallup poll.

The IJCR study concludes that many people in Marin are not members of traditional religions but identify themselves as “spiritual seekers.” According to the survey, some Marin residents express no affiliation with a traditional congregation but do follow alternative spiritual practices. Spiritualism is just one of the religious alternatives followed in Marin.

Two of the three Fox sisters, Margaret and Katie. From: The Death-Blow to Spiritualism: Being the True Story of the Fox sisters, as Revealed by Authority of Margaret Fox Kane and Catherine Fox Jencken (1888).

Modern Spiritualism was born in 1848 when Leah, Margaret and Kate Fox claimed they had devised a means of communicating with the dead. Soon after moving into the new family home in Hydesville, New York they began to hear rapping noises. The Fox sisters claimed they could elicit responses from these noises by clapping their hands and snapping their fingers. A pattern of communication was established between them and the invisible spirit that apparently resided in their home. They had, it seemed, stumbled on proof of life after death.

“There is one here with a message for John. Is there a John present” circa 1920. Illustration by Frederick Coffay Yohn. Cabinet of American illustration (Library of Congress).

The story of the Fox sisters led to an explosion in spiritualist activity. Some 40 years later, the sisters admitted they had created both the rapping noises and the system of communication with the supposed spirit. Yet the revelation had little impact on the growth of Spiritualism.

The 1859 weekly journal Spiritual Telegraph connected the new electric mode of communication with Spiritualism. The Fox sisters claimed their ability to communicate with the dead was boosted by the miracle of near instant communication that now existed across great distances using the Morse code on a telegraph machine. At the time the ability to communicate with someone many miles away was such a wonder that some believed other unknown modes of communication would prove possible. In 1854 a group of spiritualists petitioned Congress to use the telegraph to open a line between Heaven and Earth.

Marconi Wireless Station in Marshall, circa 1920. Jim Staley Postcard Collection, Anne T. Kent California Room.

In Marin a linkage of the telegraph with spiritualism was described by Erin Johnson in the October 20, 2014 edition of Invisible Culture. The Marconi Wireless Stations, first established in West Marin in 1914 to communicate with ships crossing the Pacific Ocean, were officially taken off the air in 1999 and replaced in recent years by modern communication systems. Since then the station in the Point Reyes National Seashore has been partially restored.

The Historic RCA Coast Station KPH. National Park Service photograph.

Johnson wrote: “In 2009, the operators re-opened their doors to the closed station and started sending out messages, but this time there were few or no listeners to receive them. When asked why they continued, even when no ships were calling in, one operator observed, ‘Even if there were no ships out there, we’d be keeping the faith.’”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, San Francisco Call, May 15, 1910.

Spiritualism attracted several high profile adherents. Perhaps Sir Authur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes was the best known. As readers know Holmes was a character of supreme rationalism. Doyle apparently saw no contradiction between his embrace of a controversial belief system and the key characteristic of his fictional figure.

For the thirteen years prior to his death in 1930 Doyle gave speeches on Spiritualism which he described as “the most important thing in the world.” In May 1923 he, with his wife and children, made the trip up Mount Tamalpais. He included the Bay Area on a lecture tour of America that he described as a raid on American skepticism, claiming: “I propose to raid church and laity alike.” He once said he wished to present the facts of the spiritualist message for the betterment of human life and would gladly sacrifice whatever literary reputation he enjoyed if it would bring about a greater acceptance of belief in the spirit realm.

Despite the movement’s growth in popularity during the 19th century, the Marin Journal remained skeptical of Spiritualism. The paper’s views are expressed in a June 24, 1865 article:

“The number of persons practicing clairvoyance, mesmerism, psycology [sic], and spiritualism, in San Francisco is prodigious. They advertise ability to cure all diseases without medicine … to read the future and to bring the living and the dead into communication. All this they will do for money. Neither gods nor men, devils nor angels, will work without the ‘kale-seed’.”

On April 7, 1866 the Journal published a mock commentary: “Spiritualism — ‘Dogberry’ [a comic bumbling policeman in the Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing] writes on this subject: Spiritualism is a very comfortable doctrine. You see you don’t die at all. You merely shell out your carcass and go to the spirit land. There you have nobody to take care of. …”

The Journal offered a piece of dark humor on June 15, 1872: “Spiritualism is hereafter to be treated as a disease. One eminent physician says it can be cured by tincture of iron and strychnine. If given in the right quantities, strychnine will cure the worst case without a drop of iron. These doctors are always mixing their drinks.”

Marin County Courthouse. Lithograph from “San Rafael Illustrated & Described” published by W.W. Elliott & Co., 1884. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection

An article from the Petaluma Courier was reprinted in the Journal on February 16, 1882: “The Marin county safe is locked, and no living man knows the combination … Here is a chance for the spiritualists. If spiritualism is true, the deceased County Treasurer … will give that combination to some medium and save the county safe from being ruined. If the Marin county safe has [to] be broken into with sledge hammer and drill, our faith in spiritualism is gone forever.” The Journal added: “The spirits made no sign. The job had to be done with cold chisels and sledge.”

Palm readers at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

The practice of various forms of Spiritualism continued well into the 20th century. On February 5, 1953, in an article headlined, “Mystics Haunt Corte Madera,” the Mill Valley Record reported an attack of spiritualists: “The vision of a city taken over by fortune tellers, clairvoyants, spiritualists, and other seers was raised for the Corte Madera city council Monday by Frank Nelson, chief of police.” In response, the Corte Madera adopted an ordinance prohibiting all of the forms of mysticism listed by the chief. Similar ordinances also became law (and were later repealed) in Mill Valley, San Rafael and Sausalito.

Tiburon Railroad and Ferry Depot Museum. (Marge Samilson)

In 1997 a nonthreatening spirit was spotted in the Tiburon Railroad and Ferry Depot Museum. Three reputable witnesses reported meeting a ghostly figure in a railroad conductor’s uniform. It was likely the spirit of Elmer Pimm who was killed in 1958 working in the Tiburon freight yard. Pimm worked for 38 years as a conductor on passenger, not freight trains. Unfortunately all passenger service was terminated in 1958, just one month before his demise. He asked for a transfer to the freight yard so he could retire with a pension. As the other yard men wore overalls, Pimm would have been the only laborer in a passenger conductor’s uniform working on freight trains. It seems his spirit has chosen to remain in Tiburon. The sighting followed by more recent reports of Pimm’s presence being heard or felt, has restored for some the possibility of an earthly connection with the spirit world.

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