19th Century Seance in Urbana

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, spiritualism, the belief that the dead could communicate with the living, especially through a medium, gained popularity and renown. It was a movement that garnered ardent enthusiasm from its followers, including author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and psychologist William James, among others; and was lambasted by its detractors, such as novelist Mark Twain and magician Harry Houdini.

Internet Archive Book Image of the Davenport Bros. Trumpet Seance

In January 1898, Urbana was visited by Harry F. Coates, a farmer by trade, and self-proclaimed spiritual medium from Mattoon, Illinois. During his visit, he held numerous well-attended séances. The Urbana Weekly Courier describes one event that took place at the home of Chief of Police Jackson Caldwell and his wife, Sarah in an article published on January 7, 1898:

“Voices were heard speaking through [the medium’s] trumpets, some of them being […] deceased relatives of many of the persons present […] Faint lights of peculiar form and color floated through the air […] All this time two persons were holding the medium’s hands.”

Coates offered at least two more sittings in town (and charged participants 50 cents apiece). But it seems Coates quickly overplayed his hand and out-stayed his welcome. He was accosted at his hotel by Louis A. Wahl, a saloonkeeper whose wife had died the previous September. Coates purported to be in communication with Elizabeth Wahl during one of his séances, and the Courier reports that “Wahl sought out Coates and knocked him out of his chair and piled him up under a table.” The assault was “almost unanimously endorsed by the citizens of Urbana,” and Coates was driven out of town, boarding a southbound train that night back to Mattoon. His bad luck continued on the road, however: within a week he was arrested with an accomplice for hucksterism in Greencastle, Indiana.

For more information on the rise of American Spiritualism, check out Barbara Weisberg’s Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism (HarperCollins, 2004); and Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (Penguin Press, 2006).

-Sarah L.



"A Spiritualistic Seance." Urbana Weekly Courier, January 7, 1898.

"Harry F. Coates, The Spiritualistic Medium, in Jail at Greencastle." Urbana Weekly Courier, January 14, 1898.

"The Davenport bros." Photograph Courtesy of The Library of Congress. https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14783244005/in/p..., accessed October 22, 2017.