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Abraham Lincoln: An Instance of Alleged ‘Spirit Writing’

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 14.3, September 2004

Although purported communication with the dead is ancient, modern spiritualism began in 1848 at Hydesville, New York, when two schoolgirls, Maggie and Katie Fox, pretended to communicate with a ghost who identified himself as a murdered peddler. Four decades later, the sisters con- fessed their trickery, even publicly demonstrating how they had faked the “spirit rappings,” but in the meantime spiritualism had spread across the United States and beyond. Magicians like Harry Houdini (1874—1926) exposed phony “mediums” who produced “materializations,” “spirit” writing and photography, and other bogus phenomena (Nickell 1988; 2001, 195, 259—260).

Spirit Writing

The alleged spirit writing was of two major kinds. One was “automatic writing,” that is, “scripts produced without the control of the conscious mind”—sometimes called “trance writing.” In such writing, some entity such as an angel or spirit supposedly guides the hand to produce communications.

The other type of spirit writing is known as “slate-writing,” allegedly a “direct” form, in which the entity itself wields the chalk or slate pencil. Typically, according to one authority (Shepard 1984):

The medium and the sitter take their seats at opposite ends of a small table, each grasping a corner of an ordinary school slate, which they thus hold firmly pressed against the underside of the table. A small fragment of slate-pencil is first inclosed between slate and table, for the use of the supposed spirit-writer. Should the seance be successful, a scratching sound, as of someone writing on a slate, is heard at the end of a few moments; three loud raps indicate the conclusion of the message, and on the withdrawal of the slate, it is found to be partly covered with writing—either a general message allegedly from the spirit world, or an answer to some question previously written down by the sitter.

Whereas even proponents of automatic writing admit it has been “the source of innumerable cases of self-delusion,” slate writing has an even more notorious history. The phenomenon of slate writing was claimed to have been discovered by Henry Slade (d. 1905). While the script was created under conditions that supposedly precluded trickery, thereby seeming to prove it was authentically done by spirits, in fact, however, it was easily produced by a variety of magic tricks. Mediums—including Slade himself—were repeatedly caught faking the phenomenon (Shepard 1984; Houdini 1924).

Keeler the “Medium”

I have been able to study some of the various types of writings, drawings, and paintings allegedly produced by spirits (Nickell 2001, 18—27, 259—275). More recently, I have been examining and studying a specimen of slate writing allegedly done by the spirit of Abraham Lincoln through the mediumship of one Pierre Louie Ormand Augustus Keeler (figure 1) who was active, beginning in the late 1870s, for over fifty years (“Keeler” 1938).

Figure 1: P.L.O.A. Keeler under whose mediumship slate writing was produced—allegedly.

Figure 1: P.L.O.A. Keeler under whose mediumship slate writing was produced—allegedly.

Keeler did a variety of feats, including producing physical phenomena while he was behind a curtain and his hands supposedly secured. For example, English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823—1913) reported that “a waistcoat was handed to me over the curtain, which proved to be the medium’s, though his coat was left on and his hands had been held by his companion all the time” (Wallace 1905). Wallace was probably unaware that this stunt (in many versions [e.g., Hull 1915]) is a well-known magicians’ trick. Others were convinced that Keeler was “a clever trickster,” and—in at least one séance—he was “accidentally seen writing on a slate held in his lap under the table.” This occurred at the Lily Dale spiritualist camp in Western New York in 1907, the observer being the noted psychic investigator Hereward Carrington (Shepard 1984). According to The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology (Shepard 1984): “In retrospect, it is difficult to doubt that Keeler’s phenomena, as with so many other exponents of slate-writing, must have been fraudulent.”

Keeler also used a pair of slates in conjunction with other phenomena, such as “pellet reading,” in which messages appeared on a pellet of paper that had been secured between hinged, locked slates, the key to which Keeler placed in his pocket (Shepard 1984). Recorded in his journal at Lily Dale, where Keeler had a summer cottage, is an entry for a séance he held October 7, 1894: “Portrait in oil of Abraham Lincoln given on canvas inside of slates in six minutes” (Keeler 1894, 12). I envision the latter as a swatch of canvas, say 8310 inches or so, its whereabout now unknown.

Magicians have exposed and duplicated numerous slate secrets, such as the construction of trick slates, the use of confederates, the sleight-of-hand switching of paper pellets, etc. (e.g., Houdini 1924, 79—110; Dunninger n.d.)

The “Lincoln” Slate

Keeler’s alleged Lincoln script is exhibited in a display case at the Lily Dale Museum and labeled “THE ‘LINCOLN’ SLATE / Through the mediumship of P.L.O.A. Keeler.” Written with chalk, the message reads (figure 2):

We come to you Sir because we see you are spreading the truth in the right way. I understood this phenomenon while in earth life, and had I lived, should of proclaimed it to the world. Press fo[r]ward My Brother. Never let thy step stray from the path of progress and truth. Your Friend

Abraham Lincoln

The specific conditions under which it was produced are unknown.

Figure 2: Slate with a message purportedly from the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

Figure 2: Slate with a message purportedly from the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

If this was indeed Lincoln writing, his saying that he “understood this phenomenon” would seem to refer to the fact that his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, attended séances, one even held in the White House’s Red Parlor. Lincoln stumbled upon the session, watching with curiosity. On another occasion, he accompanied Mary to a séance at a private home. The president, however, was a skeptic, and one biographer has suggested that his limited involvement in spiritualism was due to a desire “to protect his gullible wife” (Temple 1995, 199; Nickell 2001, 113—114). She had turned to spiritualism in her bereavement over the death of their eleven-year-old son, Willie, in 1862. According to Lloyd Lewis’s Myths after Lincoln (1973, 301), “In these dark hocus-pocuses Mrs. Lincoln found comfort, and Lincoln let them go on for a time, careless of whether the intellectuals of the capital thought him addle-pated or no.”

Keeler’s “Lincoln” slate text is one of the many examples of skeptics purportedly endorsing spiritualism—posthumously. The most outrageous example is the series of communications supposedly from arch-anti-spiritualist Houdini, having him recant his doubtful ways, although the great magician had personally caught one after another of the mediums at their tricks (Polidoro 2001). I once sat in such a séance, held in a dimly lit radio studio in Toronto in 1969. The medium went into a “trance” in record time, then gave an unconvincing speech allegedly from Houdini who implicitly realized from the Great Beyond the error of his former disbelief.

Textual Analysis

Even apart from the self-serving nature of the “Lincoln” message—which is not only an endorsement of spiritualism but of Keeler himself and his late phenomena—the message does not seem authentically Lincolnesque. First of all, Lincoln typically signed his missives with “A. Lincoln,” reserving the more formal “Abraham Lincoln” for presidential documents, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, military orders, and the like (Hamilton 1996, 14; Lorant 1957).

Several elements of the text are suspicious, including the use of thy in the last sentence: “Never let thy step stray from the path of progress and truth.” Thy, an archaic form of your, is uncharacteristic of Lincoln; he avoided such archaisms even in works in which his language was especially elevated, such as “The Gettysburg Address” and his letters of consolation to relatives of slain soldiers (Nickell 1992). On the other hand, thy is often used by pretentious writers trying to sound poetical or wishing to affect a pseudo-biblical tone, as in this platitudinous—and supposedly otherworldly—advice.

Most significant is the slate writer’s using “should of” for “should have.” That grammatical error is unimaginable for Lincoln.

Handwriting Study

As to the handwriting, if genuine, it should be that of Lincoln, since Keeler’s slate writings were supposedly done by the spirit’s own hand. In fact, a 1938 article on Keeler in the Psychic Observer, is illustrated with “a reproduction of a slate-writing” from a Keeler séance, consisting of thirty-five “signatures” supposedly from the spirit world. They appear under the statement, “We all send glad greetings / We have no special messages.” The spirit signees included a number of now mostly obscure spiritualists along with a noted skeptic, the orator Robert Green Ingersoll (“Keeler” 1938). Lacking the original, however, we must conclude that the “signatures” could have been merely freehand forgeries, as indeed that of Ingersoll appears to be.

In fact, the slate handwriting is clearly not that of Abraham Lincoln. Even at first glance (again, see figure 1), we see that it is done in backhand (i.e., backwardly slanted), which may be symptomatic of affectation, left-handedness, or disguise (Nickell 1996, 14—15). Lincoln’s own script (figure 3)—which I have had many occasions to examine for major clients—is slanted normally.

Figure 3: Authentic handwriting of Abraham Lincoln.

Figure 3: Authentic handwriting of Abraham Lincoln.

Moreover, the specific individual characteristics are not those of Lincoln. For example, he habitually made the initial “A” of his signature in two parts: first, rendering the tented body of the letter with a series of movements, and second, after lifting the pen, producing the crossbar with the beginning stroke of his “L” (figure 3). In contrast, the alleged spirit text’s “A” of the unlikely “Abraham” was written without any lifting of the chalk, resulting in a double-looping configuration that belies Lincoln’s authorship. (Lincoln did sometimes make a continuous A but not for his signature, and in any case, the chalked “A” fails to resemble his in other respects.)

Another marked difference between the questioned “spirit” text and examples of Lincoln’s script lies in the form of the capital S and the initial minuscule s. Those on the slate tend to be the printed form of both, assuming that the large “S” of “Sir” is indeed a capital; the only exception among the six instances is that of “should” which has the more usual cursive s. Lincoln’s own handwriting consistently exhibits cursive forms, one for the capital S, another for the minuscule one.

Yet another difference is in the basic form of the minuscule a’s. Those of the slate text are made in the common way, with the body of the letter an oval made from the top (with or without a connecting stroke). In contrast, Lincoln usually, rather distinctively, began his a’s from the bottom (quite often beginning well below the base line; see, for example, the a of “and” in line 11 of figure 3).

Now these significant differences—and there are many more—demonstrate that the alleged spirit writing on the Keeler slate is not in the handwriting of Abraham Lincoln. But whose script is it? Although it was chalked, scrawled, written backhandedly (possibly disguised), and is only a limited sample of handwriting, the previously mentioned features are also seen in the script in the Keeler journal (figure 4).

Figure 4: Handwriting from Keeler’s 1894 personal journal.

Figure 4: Handwriting from Keeler’s 1894 personal journal.

Conclusions

In brief, the “Lincoln” message is bogus and was probably scrawled by Keeler himself during the séance. Had it been prepared in advance, it would no doubt at least have been done in an imitation of Lincoln’s distinctively rugged script rather than a scrawled, backhanded version of the medium’s.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the Lily Dale Museum, Lily Dale, N.Y.—especially Joyce LaJudice, Ron Nagy, and Beverly Anderson—for access to the “Lincoln” slate, Keeler’s journal, and other historical materials.

I also wish to thank Timothy Binga, Director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries, Vaughn Rees, Project Coordinator, Center for Inquiry—West (Los Angeles, California), for research assistance, and Ranjit Sandhu and Paul Loynes for help with manuscript preparation.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.