Friday, February 17, 2012

The Spiritualist Movement in Rochester

In the spring of 1905, the Detroit Free Press informed its readers that spiritualism had taken hold in the village of Rochester and that some of the most prominent citizens of the community were participating in seances and meetings that involved alleged contact with the spirit world.  The Free Press writer thought Rochester was an unlikely place for such proceedings, and introduced his report this way:
Nestling snugly down in a valley among green hills, the little village of Rochester presents such a picture of rural repose and idyllic contentment as would inspire the spring poet with a gush of rhapsody.  But the repose is only external. ... Every night the homes of the most respected citizens are the scenes of hair-raising performances. Tables dance around the rooms or are broken to pieces, windows are smashed, chairs overturned, while strange objects float through space and weird sounds fill the air.
The Free Press story went on to say that a group of Rochester citizens including Commodore George Newberry, village president;  Bert Norton, druggist; Charles S. Chapman and his brother, William C. Chapman; and jeweler and optician Louis E. Palmer, Jr. met regularly to conduct seances in an attempt to invite the presence of the spirits of the departed.  According to the newspaper, Newberry had once been the greatest of skeptics and dismissed any stories of communication with the spirits of the dead as "pure humbug," but having been converted now hosted regular meetings of  what the participants called the "Psychic Research Club" in his home.

The newspaper feature, which was headlined "Spooks Galore," recounted a story told by George Newberry of a meeting of the spiritualists conducted at his home and led by Louis E. Palmer, Jr.  "Louie" Palmer was the son of the prominent Rochester merchant Louis E. Palmer, Sr., who built several buildings on Main Street and conducted a jewelry business there for several decades.  The younger Palmer claimed newly-discovered powers as a medium for the spirit of a man named "Quick," who was supposed to have died in North Branch, Michigan in 1903.

According to the account, young Palmer invoked the spirit of "Quick," who made his presence known to the assembled club members:
Seated around a heavy mahogany table, their hands stretched over its polished surface, the "Research club"  awaited the spooks.
A violent lunge of the table announced an arrival from spiritland.
"Is that you, Quick?" asked Mr. Palmer.
Three slight tippings of the table signified "yes."
Quick's convivial nature is not ignored by his friends in the flesh, so he was asked if he wanted them to smoke. He again answered affirmatively and they all lit their cigars.
So, with the club members lighting up and puffing away on their Havanas, the seance continued:
The ponderous table began to gyrate as lightly as a French ballet girl and the chandelier was bent while Mr. Palmer's body was lifted over the table into the lap of one of his vis-a-vis.
Finally, according to the testimony of all present the medium's body was wafted to the top of a cabinet seven feet high while he cried in a dazed condition for someone to stop his uncomfortable ascent.
Once Mr. Palmer was returned to his seat by his fellow spirit-seekers, the spirit of "Quick" resumed his mischief:
Suddenly there was a loud crash of smashing glass and the helpless body of Palmer was seen sprawling limp on the window sill half through the broken pane, half dangling limply on the inner side.
That was too much for the unfortunate medium, and he has refused to call on "Quick" since.
The Spiritualist Movement in the United States emerged in upstate New York in the 1840s, and was fairly prominent through the 1920s, during which time the Ouija board became a popular method of interpreting perceived contacts from the spirit world.  Ray Henry, a local historian and direct descendant of Louis E. Palmer, Sr., gave me the back story to this interesting tale and explained how spiritualism was likely introduced to the village of Rochester.

It seems that the sons of Louis Palmer, Sr., attended a social event at the Rochester Opera House around 1905, at which they met two daughters of a medium named Sarah Barclay. The Barclay family was newly arrived in the Rochester area at the time, having come from Ontario seeking jobs at the Western Knitting Mills. One of the Barclay daughters, May Smith, eventually married Louie Palmer's brother, William. May's mother, Sarah Barclay, was a Spiritualist minister who conducted seances at the family home in Stoney Creek. It is probable that Louie Palmer was introduced to spiritualism through his connection to the Barclay family.

Ray Henry further relates that Sarah Barclay moved to Cleveland, Ohio around 1910, where she operated a tea room, gave readings and continued her work as a medium. She was also a reader in the Unity Church there. Sarah Barclay is buried at Mount Avon Cemetery in Rochester, next to her daughter, May Palmer; click here to view her photo and biography.

My thanks to Ray Henry for sharing part of his family history with me and filling in some of the background on this story.


  1. Well done. Thanks for posting this interesting story.

    R. Henry