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Entranced: St. Charles’ secret spiritualist history

Published: Friday, Oct. 26, 2012 6:50 p.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 2)

The following is a fact-based account of St. Charles history written by Abby Sheaffer, a resident of St. Charles. In 1871, Mary Todd Lincoln registered at the Howard House Hotel on 123 S. 3rd St. in St. Charles under the alias of “Mrs. May.” It is said she grew close to Mrs. Caroline Howard, the proprietor’s wife. Records indicate that Mrs. Howard was blessed with the gift of clairvoyance. Because of this, Mary Todd frequently visited Mrs. Howard in hopes of contacting her late husband and sons. The following account is written in the style of creative nonfiction.

• • •

She held séances in her parlor many evenings. The glow of her candle would beam from behind the heavy damask curtains that adorned her front window, such that children returning from a day of fishing on the river would stop and pause in wonder, afraid to get too close, while the bravest of the bunch would sneak across the emerald lawn and peek through the window before being shooed away.

It was despondent widows who made pilgrimages to the house on 516 S. 6th Ave. to see Mrs. Caroline Howard. They would sit around the table in her darkened parlor (almost vanishing into the darkness themselves, dressed as they were in obsidian crinoline and lace) and channel their dead husbands through the corpulent old woman with the liquid eyes.

While the Civil War had reached its bloody conclusion in May 1865, an altogether different civil war was staging itself across the collective imagination of the country – the age of Spiritualism, a time marked by séances and mediums that set up “shop” in their parlors or storefronts. While many found the activity fraudulent and erring on lunacy, others were mesmerized. Stories floated around tearooms and taverns of the heartbroken war widow who traveled to St. Charles from Minnesota, anxious to speak to her husband one last time after his sudden death at Picket’s Charge and contacting him again through Mrs. Howard.

As it was, on this dark and unsuspecting night in 1871, a woman swathed in onyx lace made her way across the bridge in a carriage. Her plump white fingers fiddled with the pale pink handkerchief from her debutante days, while she nervously nibbled on her lower lip. The horse’s shoes clip clopped against the cobblestone streets, glossy and slick with rain. A sick feeling occupied her stomach and it rolled around her intestines like a cold, wet fish making her complacent and jittery, such that it frightened her son. This seemingly plain widow, like several other widows, sought the consolation afforded to her by Mrs. Howard. The carriage made its way through the streets of St. Charles to the Howard House Hotel and a feeling of mild relief soared through the widow’s body. Tomorrow she would meet with Mrs. Howard, but tonight she would hopefully find some respite.

It had been the Richards’ Riot of 1849 that had made Mrs. Howard a legend. Dr. George W. Richards, formerly of La Porte, Ind., had taken it upon himself to establish the Franklin Medical College at Main Street and First Avenue in St. Charles, the first of its kind in Illinois. Richards offered a summer program where doctors wishing to hone their craft could work. While the medical college was teeming with ambitious students, none seemed to be  more driven than John Rood. However, it would be his ambition that would not only end his inchoate career, but the career of Dr. Richards as well.

John Rood was not wealthy like the rest of his peers, and while he showed promise and was a favorite of Dr. A.B. DeWolf, he was wanting in the necessary materials to execute an autopsy. It was the desire to become the perfect doctor that led him to the inevitable brink. Desperate for a way to get ahead, Rood turned to his friend, Dr. Everts for information on recent burials in the area. While it took some time to cajole him, Everts finally acquiesced to Rood’s demands and divulged that 17-year-old Marilla Kenyon and a lone German immigrant had been buried in a graveyard in Sycamore. Thanking Everts, Rood planned his exhumation.

April 19 was an especially ominous night. While winter had dissolved, spring was slow to claim the Earth. The sky was an especially jarring shade of black that resembled a naked chalkboard and it was teeming with gray tufts of cumulous clouds that hid the moon. Prior the exhumation, Rood and his companions had stopped at the Lovell Tavern. What Rood didn’t know was that while he and his companions went over their itinerary, the landlord’s daughter overheard them.

Although Marilla Kenyon’s family presided a vigil over her grave, a break allowed the grave robbers sufficient time to steal the body from the coffin. It was said that the distraught George Kenyon sought Caroline Howard’s psychic advice and she lead him to where the mutilated body was hidden.

George Kenyon’s blood was tinged with vitriol and a violent altercation occurred between himself and Dr. Richards. Gathering an army of about 100 angry Sycamore citizens, Kenyon stormed Dr. Richards’ house. The angry mob shot Dr. Richards in the arm and killed John Rood. As a result of these events, the Franklin Medical College was closed down.

Orphaned at just 10 months old, Caroline Howard was all too familiar with the pain that the war widows felt when they knocked on her door. It was the sick feeling of abandonment coupled with the thirst for knowledge that made the grieving widows wild and unhinged, and it was the séances that finally allowed them closure.

Church and government weren’t so pleased with the movement; however, and took to shaming those who took part in Spiritualism. Those with authority criticized clairvoyants calling them fraudulent and lunatics, and as a result, many mediums were locked away in asylums. However, this did not stop the popularity of the movement. In fact, it gained more ground. While Mrs. Howard and the Fox Sisters were part of the generation that ushered in the movement when it was still inchoate, it was Cora L.V. Scott and Paschal Beverly Randolph who added a sensationalist appeal to it.

That Mrs. Howard wasn’t of the population locked away because of her alternate beliefs was likely due in large part to her husband, Leonard Howard. Leonard Howard was a famous mason whose hands laid the bricks of many a building in Chicago and whose name was respected throughout the area.

It can be argued that Leonard Howard loved his wife too much to see her wrongly locked away because the government found fault in her practices. It was the government that said it was legal to keep a person as a slave as well; as far as he saw it, one must keep his or her own moral compass in check rather than follow some popular ideology. Caroline and Leonard Howard had 14 children, but lost five in infancy.

The Howard family ran a hotel at 123 S. 3rd St. in St. Charles. Joel Witherell had built the hotel in the 1840s, but Leonard and David Howard purchased it two years later and expanded the space. The most famous addition to the hotel was the Greek revival balcony whose white pillars added a sense of grandeur that had previously been missing from the building.

The Howards had considerable clout in St. Charles. During the Civil War, they often hosted military balls and holiday parties. To boot, it was far enough away from the chaotic clamor and pollution of Chicago, providing guests with silence and a slight return to nature. It could be for these very reasons that Mary Todd Lincoln took such a liking to it and stayed there, frequently.

News traveled quickly that Mary Todd had rented a room at the Howard House Hotel. Some claimed they saw her on the balcony, enjoying the spring night in the rocking chair outside her room, while others claimed they saw her getting out of the carriage and entering Mrs. Howard’s house on 6th Avenue.

It had been the Great Fire that drove Mary Todd from Chicago. The deviant flames had devoured every surface and mutilated every living thing, and the ominous clouds of black smoke had smeared the cobalt horizon in a haze of charcoal. As of late, she was growing increasingly paranoid.

Death, it seemed, was following her around. Death had stalked her beloved husband, and in one fell swoop, it decided to take her son Willie and then, feeling increasingly spiteful, death had taken her dear son Tad as well. St. Charles would offer her some respite, surely. After Abraham’s death, when she had been out of her mind with grief, the spiritualist community pointed her toward Mrs. Howard.

A bond formed between the two women, and Mary Todd was especially grateful toward Sarah, Caroline Howard’s eldest daughter. Sarah had moved back in with her mother following the death of her own husband. Upon seeing Sarah’s despondency, Caroline taught her how to tap into other realms, and the two women formed a strong relationship and worked together to channel spirits with twice the power they had before.

The séances must have been an especially potent antidote for Mary Todd: not only did she revisit Mrs. Howard’s house frequently, but she also lavished the women with gifts.

On nights when terror seemed to wait outside her window, Mary Todd often sent for Sarah to come stay with her. Sarah offered a sense of serenity for her addled mind, a trait she found wanting in her own son, Robert. As it was, she was falling rapidly into decline.

One night she became so convinced that the hotel was on fire she attempted to leap from her window. Robert was alerted of this instance, and promptly committed her to Bellevue Place sanitarium in Batavia. However, it was Myra Bradwell – a fellow spiritualist – who helped her execute her escape from the asylum.

She was deemed fit enough to live with her sister in Springfield, and even traveled Europe for some time, but she would remain estranged from her son, Robert, for the rest of her life. Caroline Howard died in 1890. Her belongings went to Sarah, who in light of Leonard’s passing in 1884 had provided a sense of companionship.

The house at 516 S. 6th Ave. would go on to belong to three generations of the Howard family, and during renovations myriad historical artifacts – including a shawl belonging to Mary Todd Lincoln – were unearthed. For a time, the house even served as a funeral parlor.

The Howard House Hotel would go through a number of changes including the restoration of the porch, until finally, in 2005, Creative Assistance Development Inc. renovated it and restored it to its historic origins.

The city of St. Charles honored this restoration by giving the hotel landmark status.

• The author of this piece would like to give special thanks to Natalie Gacek, director at the St. Charles Heritage Center, for her invaluable help in regards to the writing of the article. A list of citations can be obtained by emailing editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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