In A Nutshell
After the death of her son Willie, Mary Todd Lincoln turned to spiritualism, hoping to speak with her deceased child. Her favorite medium was an Englishman named Charles Colchester, a con man who loved his whiskey and wasn’t above a little blackmail. But despite his flaws, Colchester actually warned Lincoln about his upcoming assassination. As it turns out, the psychic might have had some inside information.
The Whole Bushel
When Willie Lincoln died in 1862, his parents were absolutely devastated. While Lincoln struggled with depression, he also had to focus on running a nation and winning a war. His wife didn’t have any such distractions and was stuck in limbo, unable to cope with Willie’s death.
Heartbroken and desperate to see her son again, Mrs. Lincoln turned to spiritualism. Incredibly popular during the 19th century, spiritualists claimed they could communicate with the dead. Hoping to find Willie’s spirit, Mary Lincoln held seances in the White House, and while the president occasionally attended, he wasn’t a believer himself.
Lincoln knew these so-called “spirit ministers” were frauds, but he allowed them to work their magic anyway. According to historian Lloyd Lewis, “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.”
While Mary went through several mediums, her favorite spiritualist was an Englishman named Lord Charles Colchester. Sporting an oversize mustache, Colchester claimed he descended from nobility. Whatever his ancestry, Colchester knew how to work an audience. Hand him a sealed envelope, and he could read the letter inside. Have any dead friends? Give him a few seconds, and he’ll shout out their names. The man was so mystical that words from beyond the grave would appear on his arms, written in blood.
Mary Lincoln was quite impressed, and Colchester became a regular visitor at the White House. But despite his winning ways, Colchester was quite a cad. He had a fondness for the bottle, spent most of his money on alcohol, and enjoyed swindling suckers. But while Colchester held Mrs. Lincoln under his spell, Mr. Lincoln wanted to know how he operated.
The president was particularly interested in a stunt where Colchester produced noises from around the room. Intrigued, Lincoln asked Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, to investigate, but despite his scientific mind, he couldn’t crack the case. It wasn’t until later that Henry discovered Colchester created the sounds with an electronic device hidden under his clothing. Henry had suspected as much, but the Englishman had refused to take off his clothes.
Henry wasn’t the only one of Lincoln’s allies who tried to expose Colchester. Journalist Noah Brooks, a close friend of the president’s, attended a seance where Colchester laid out several instruments on a table and instructed everyone to hold hands. When the lights were out, the room was filled with the sound of ghostly music. That’s when Brooks grabbed at the noise and shouted, “Strike a light!”
When someone lit a match, everyone was shocked to see the reporter holding tight to Colchester who, in turn, was clutching a drum. In fact, he’d bashed the newspaperman over the head with the instrument, giving Brooks a nasty gash. Of course, the whole affair proved most useful a little while later when Colchester attempted to blackmail the first lady.
Knowing Brooks could expose his tricks, Colchester wanted to leave DC and fast. That’s when he threatened to divulge Mary Lincoln’s most personal secrets—secrets she’d shared during their sessions—if she didn’t give him a free War Department railroad pass. Terrified, Mary asked Brooks to assist, and when the journalist confronted the faker, he threatened to have the “humbug” arrested for fraud if he didn’t get out of town.
Now sure, Colchester was a con man, but nevertheless, he did have a conscience. In fact, he actually warned Abraham Lincoln that his life was in danger. We know this because when one of Lincoln’s friends mentioned the president should keep an eye out for assassins, Honest Abe responded, “Colchester has been telling me that.” However, Colchester’s advice probably had less to do with his supposed powers and more to do with his friendship with an actor named John Wilkes Booth.
Surprisingly, Booth and Mary Lincoln shared something in common . . . they were both big believers in spiritualism. Booth’s obsession started when his sister-in-law died in 1863. After attending a seance with his brother, the thespian was totally hooked. He began frequenting mediums like Ira and William Davenport and socializing with psychics like Lottie Fowler, a woman who supposedly predicted the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.
The actor was also incredibly close with Charles Colchester. The two often met at Booth’s hotel and went out on the town. The medium and the assassin were drinking buddies, and considering Colchester’s dire warning to Lincoln, it’s possible Booth informed the Englishman about his plan to kill the president.
After Lincoln was shot on April 14, Colchester hightailed it out of DC, and he was never interrogated. His name pops up again just a few months later at a New York trial where he was accused of practicing sleight of hand without a license. Other than that, his final days remain a mystery. Mary Lincoln’s top medium would move onto the spirit world himself just a little while later. As for Mary, she continued visiting spiritualists up until a few years before she passed away, constantly searching for her lost loved ones.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo via Wikipedia
Smithsonian: The Spiritualist Who Warned Lincoln Was Also Booth’s Drinking Buddy
The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: Paranormal Lincoln
Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, by Terry Alford
The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by Daniel Mark Epstein