Abraham Lincoln, Harry Houdini, and a Spiritualist Lie

Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? Harry Houdini, the famed magician, did not think so, and he took great efforts to prove it. In 1925, Houdini even had a brief correspondence with Robert T. Lincoln on the subject. Three of Houdini’s letters, plus one response from the 81-year-old Robert (written by his secretary), are in the collections at Hildene, Robert’s Vermont home (now a private historic site).

Houdini and eagle “Abe Lincoln” courtesy Library of Congress

Houdini called Abraham Lincoln “my hero of heroes” and he was a lifelong collector of books, manuscripts, and items related to Lincoln, according to Houdini biographers. (Houdini even named his pet eagle after the Civil War president.) Houdini was also a fervent critic and active debunker of Spiritualism and spiritualist mediums. As he wrote in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, he dabbled as a medium in his younger years, considering it a “lark.” As he got older, and after his beloved mother died, he realized “the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed.” It was then that Houdini, the world-famous magician and escape artist, also took on the role of debunker.

For decades, spiritualists had claimed that the great Civil War president, Abraham Lincoln, was one of their own; that Lincoln held seances in the White House and took military and political advice from the beyond. This belief blossomed into public discussion with the 1891 publication of the book Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? by Nettie Colburn Maynard — a fascinating book that is generally accepted by scholars as the most authentic of all the supposed spiritualists in Lincoln’s life who wrote memoirs. Stories, anecdotes, and reminiscences about Lincoln as a spiritualist appeared everywhere. In 1893, former Minister to Great Britain Robert T. Lincoln, who rarely imposed himself on public debate about his father, even issued a statement flatly denying his father was a spiritualist. In 1894, John G. Nicolay, President Lincoln’s White House secretary, also denied the claim, saying it was “almost too absurd to be contradicted.”

While the issue continued to be discussed — particularly after the death toll of World War I caused a massive increase in Spiritualism believers and the holding of seances to contact dead relatives — in the mid-1920s it came back again with spiritualists using the 1872 spirit photo of Mary Lincoln as their proof. In the photo, taken by William Mumler in Boston, the ghosts of Abraham and Tad Lincoln are visible behind a seated Mary. Spirit photographers then started creating all sorts of spirit photos in which Abraham Lincoln was a frequent presence.

Harry Houdini letter to Mary Edwards Lincoln Brown. Courtesy Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

Houdini, with his great love for Lincoln and his great disdain for spiritualism, immediately fought back. In 1924, he wrote to Mary Edwards Lincoln Brown, Mary Lincoln’s grand-niece, enclosing a photograph of himself and Abraham Lincoln’s spirit. “Although the Theomonistic Society in Washington, D.C. claim that it is a genuine spirit photograph, as I made this one, you have my word for it, that it is only a trick effect,” he wrote.

In February 1925, Houdini wrote to Robert Lincoln to ask about the Mary Lincoln spirit photo. “I am a member of the committee of the Scientific American who are investigating psychic phenomena and so far every medium that I have examined for them I have pronounced as fraud. They are frequently using this photograph as a genuine test, and as I have reason to believe that it is not genuine, their using it as propaganda ought to be stopped,” Houdini wrote.

At this stage of his long life, the 81-year-old Lincoln no longer answered his mail personally – and often his wife kept many letters from him so as not to aggravate his nervous disposition – but the top corner of Houdini’s letter has a handwritten note by Lincoln’s personal secretary, Frederic Towers, which states, “Answered: Mr. L says picture a fraud, but does not want to enter into any controversy on subject.” In subsequent correspondence with Houdini, Lincoln emphatically denied that his father had any such belief in the subject and “was never known to express any belief in so-called psychic phenomena or ‘spirit life’.”

Mary Lincoln spirit photo. Courtesy Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection

Houdini responded by stating, “Under no circumstance would I think of drawing you into the controversy. My object is to have the facts so that in case sometime in the future for historical records, when you are no longer in this world, someone will come on and say your most illustrious father may have been a believer and that fact alone would cause a great many people to believe in the possibility of the communication with the dead. I have met a number of mediums who claim they are in touch with the president, but they all wobble and stagger when I ask them point blank questions.”

The accepted historical verdict is that Abraham Lincoln did not believe in Spiritualism, but rather his participation in séances during the White House years (which did occur) were done for his wife, who was a believer, to keep her safe from charlatans and to amuse himself during the troubling days of the Civil War, similar to his love of attending the theater.

For an excellent examination of Abraham Lincoln and spiritualism, see Jay Monaghan’s 1941 article, “Was Abraham Lincoln Really a Spiritualist?” in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.


Earliest Known Photo of Abraham Lincoln

The earliest known photo of Abraham Lincoln is well known and commonly seen today, but did you know it was unknown to the public until 1896?
The daguerreotype, attributed to photographer Nicholas H. Shepherd, was taken in 1848 when Lincoln was a 37-year-old frontier lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and a Congressman-elect.
Young Mary Lincoln
Mary Lincoln in 1848This picture — along with an accompanying one of Mary Lincoln from the same year — hung in the Lincolns’ home for decades (from the time oldest son Robert said he could first remember as a child growing up). Whether it was hung in the White House is unknown, but after the assassination Mary Lincoln kept it with her belongings as she traveled the United States and the world. After her death, the photos became the property of Robert Lincoln, the oldest and only surviving Lincoln son.

Interestingly, the existence of this photo was not public knowledge until December 1895, when it was published in McClure’s magazine with the permission of Robert Lincoln. McClure’s obtained the image after Robert had revealed its existence to writer Ida Tarbell when she interviewed him in Chicago early in 1895. Tarbell related in her book, All in the Day’s Work, her meeting with Robert and his offer of the unpublished daguerreotype to her for her article. “I held my breath. If it was true!” she wrote. “I held my breath still longer when the picture was finally in my hands for I realized that this was a Lincoln which shattered the widely accepted tradition of his early shabbiness, rudeness, ungainliness. It was another Lincoln, and one that took me by storm.”

The photo also took the country and the world by storm when it was published. The magazine even did a follow-up article solely on the public reaction to the photo, including quotes from national figures opining on the image.
Two people who may not have been impressed, but even upset, about the publication of the Lincoln daguerreotype were John Hay and John Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln’s White House secretaries and historians in the midst of completing a multi-volume life of Lincoln. The two were also personal friends with Robert Lincoln, and Robert gave them exclusive access to all of his father’s papers and materials for their book.
Robert wrote to Hay in November 1895 explaining how and why he gave the photo of his father to Tarbell to print, and not to Hay and Nicolay:
“It was among a lot of inconsequential things kept packed up by my mother which I examined carefully for the first time, after I returned from England in 1893. This examination was a business that I might have done at any time after her death in 1882 but there was no reason for thinking it of consequence, and I dreaded it.”
Robert added that he decided to give the photo to Tarbell to use “to put her under a little obligation to me,” since he had little trust for reporters or historians, which he said, appears to have worked.
Mary Lincoln Isham, Robert Lincoln’s oldest daughter, presented the original daguerreotypes of Lincoln and Mary to the Library of Congress in October 1937.


Lincoln’s Descendant Disliked Her Famous Heritage

Mary Lincoln “Peggy” Beckwith, Abraham Lincoln’s great-granddaughter, was a liberated woman who refused to conform to the social expectations of her time. She preferred pants and men’s shirts to wearing dresses. She enjoyed pursuits considered then to be more masculine than feminine, such as farming, hunting and fishing, golfing, photography, painting and sculpting, and car collecting. She also was an avid aviator who bought her own plane and built a landing strip on the Hildene grounds. One of Peggy’s friends said of her, “She should have been a man.”
Peggy Beckwith disliked being related to Abraham Lincoln. “I don’t care much about ancestors,” was a statement she often made. “It always provokes me when people stare at me and say, ‘That’s Lincoln’s great-granddaughter.’ For heaven’s sake! It was just luck that A.L. happened to be a relative!” When Peggy commented in 1963 that she disagreed with government-forced desegregation, a reporter asked how her great-grandfather would feel about her position. She replied, “I can’t say. I’m as far away from him as anyone.”
Peggy did at least once attend an event honoring her famous ancestor. On May 14, 1960, the new ballistic-missile, nuclear-powered submarine Abraham Lincoln was launched from Portsmouth, N.H. Mary Lincoln Beckwith, dressed uncharacteristically in a blue and white polka dot dress, white gloves, white hat, and a pearl necklace, broke a bottle of champagne on the bow and christened the ship. How impressed she was by the occasion is found in her diary, in which she recorded that night: “Cloudy a.m. Sun out p.m. Broke bottle on boat. So home to bed.”
Mary Lincoln Beckwith died July 10, 1975 in Rutland, Vt., from colon cancer at the age of seventy-seven. She never married or had any children.

Mary and Tad interviewed by NY World in 1871

When Mary Lincoln and her 17-year-old son Tad returned to American after nearly three years in Europe, they traveled from Liverpool, England to New York City on the steamship “Russia.” They were noticed immediately by the press when the ship docked, and shortly after they checked into their hotel, a female reporter from the NY World called on them for an interview. Not many people know the full interview in Q&A format was printed in the World on May 13, 1871. I have attached pdf scans of the interview. Enjoy!