Freethought Liberal turned to spiritualism, much aided by the ministries of the mediumship of Dr. J. B. Bouton. Then in 1887-88 there was a fire at Bouton’s, a trap door was found, and his chicanery was exposed. Mr. W. S. Van Camp and Mr. J. H. Roberts had aided with acting as spirits.
Rather than hide what had happened, the duped people of Liberal put out the word. George H. Walser, the town’s founder, having been himself converted to spiritualism, wrote notifications giving the facts on what had been discovered in Bouton’s home.
In turn, Bouton then wrote his own side of the story, published in 1888. He portrayed himself as a doctor whose ruse was a planned dispensing of bitter medication in order to help the citizens of Liberal get over the “contagious disease” of spiritualism–never mind that it was a plan that played out over nearly four years and involved his concertedly–and with great delight–converting even diehard materialists to spiritualism through his pretenses. And never mind that Bouton did not out himself. His plan to cure the people of Liberal of their belief in spiritualism, which curiously involved convincing non-believers that he was a true medium, appeared to have no end date. It was the fire that brought out the truth.
I located a surviving copy of J. B. Bouton’s book at DeGolyer Library at the Southern Methodist University and they generously sent me a photocopy of it which I will be transcribing here. The book is forty pages long and not divided into chapters.
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Pg. 6 MATERIALIZATION
The next evening I was at the National Hotel kept by S. C. Thayer. He proposed to form a circle in the parlor. We did so. All present except Mr. Thayer, were unbelievers. After sitting at the table a few minutes, Mr. Thayer said: “If there are any spirits friends present, please rap three times on the table.” Three soft, yet distinct raps were heard. Questions were asked by members of the circle, and were answered by raps. About a year previous to this time, the landlady of the house had died, and it was naturally supposed to be her. She was asked if she would materialize. The answer came that she would. Mr. Thayer proposed to form a circle for materialization. There was a small bed room adjoining the parlor, and it was proposed to use this for a cabinet. After the circle had been arranged, I, by request, took a seat in the improvised cabinet, and Mr. Thayer took a seat at the organ. The light was turned down to make proper conditions. The question arose in my mind how to produce a spook. A thought struck me. I sat with my side to the circle, threw my arm out, raised my hand above my head and brought it forward to the door, when one of the party exclaimed: “O, there she is!” It remained but a moment and then disappeared. All thought it the most wonderful sight that they ever saw, and believed it to be the spirit of the deceased landlady. It came and disappeared several times. Finally I took a white handkerchief in my hand and brought it forward. They could then see every feature plainly–one party saw the same dress she wore before she died and even the pleats in the dress. This seance created greater excitement than ever, and the hired girls of the hotel were alarmed and could never be induced to go to that room unattended.
After this I held a secret conference with several of my friends whose opinions of Spiritualism were similar to my own, and we agreed to form a Syndicate for the purpose of extending the experiments begun by myself. All were to be mutually interested in the result. All were to unite in gathering information to be used in manufacturing messages, and each was to carefully guard the secret and warn the others if in danger; and neither of us should “give it away” or publish it without the consent of the whole body, or take into our confidence any one unless first submitted to all. All agreed that I should continue to act as medium, while they would assist me in every way possible. We had a strong combination, and one little dreamed of by the people of Liberal not in the secret of it.
It now became necessary to prepare for business. My house was se-
Pg. 7 ALL ABOUT THE CABINET
lected as the place for work, because it was so constructed that we believed a safe and convenient place could be arranged over a small closet which was built in one corner of the dining room. The top of the closet was made of matched flooring. By making an opening in the top large enough for a man to pass through, we found that there was sufficient room for a man to sit or stand and work very comfortably. A trap door was made, just wide enough to answer the purpose, by using the boards full length (sixteen inches) and reaching from side to side, so as to show no sign of a joint more than any other part of the closet roof. This door was hung on a hinge, and was lifted by a strap; and to prevent unnecessary noise in opening or closing the edges were lined with cloth. At first there was no way of fastening down the trap door after the operator came from his office–the loft above the closet–and to guard against the possibility of discovery, some means had to be provided for access to the office besides the trap door. Between the dining room and kitchen was a board partition which was once the gable end of the house before the kitchen was built in it. Below the ceiling it was lathed and plastered. Near the partition, over the head in the kitchen, was a scuttle hole, through which to enter the loft in case of necessity. Through the partition, above the scuttle hole, we arranged a snug fitting little door, through which a man could pass to the top of the closet, and when his work was done, he could fasten the trap door from above so that it would be impossible for any curious person to raise it from below.
I will now state how I came to use this closet for slate-writing. Those who were not Spiritualists, “dyed in the wool,” were not always satisfied that the spirits did the writing when I held the slate under the table. I could not blame them much–I had no faith in it myself. The next regular circle was held at my house at which time the spirits positively refused to write if I held the slate. They seemed to be offended because none but those of the household of the faithful were willing to believe it to be genuine. We had some difficulty in ascertaining the exact conditions required by our spirit friends. Some feared they had gone back on us entirely. Mrs. Weems came down on them with such a flood of questions that the spirits refused to answer them. Some one suggested that I should talk to them. I then asked them if they would talk to me. There came three loud distinct raps, “yes.” So I began: “Well, friends we are anxious to know what you desire in order to get the necessary conditions. Shall I lay the slate on the table?” “No.” “Shall I lay it under the table?” “No.” “O, they have gone back on us! it is
Pg. 8 SLATE-WRITING EXTRAORDINARY
too bad!” said the little Mrs. Weems. I again inquired: Are there any conditions under which you can and will write for us–I was very sure there were? “Yes.” [To the company.] They say they will, and it remains for us to find out the proper conditions and provide them. I sat as if in a trance about one minute, facing the closet. My friends, I said, I have an impression; let us see if it is correct. I turned to the table and addressed the spirits as follows: If I place a slate and pencil in that closet and lock the door, will our spirit friends write on the slate? “Yes.” Mrs. Weems exclaimed: “My God! will they do it? We can soon find out, I replied. A shelf was soon prepared and a slate placed on it so as to be most convenient to the trap door. The slate was placed there with all due formality and a proper amount of solemnity: then the closet door was locked. Everything being ready (the clerk at his post, the circle arranged in front of the door) I said, let us have some music by singing the “Sweet Bye and Bye”–sing it loud and lively. As much noise as possible was very essential at this particular time so that the secretary could operate the trap door without being heard. After the closet door was locked, I sat with my back and head resting against it so that I could more easily hear the raps. The singing continued about five minutes when the raps were given, and plainly heard by all in the room. A death-like silence prevailed in a moment. Bring a light, I said, and let us see what we have got. The slate was taken from the shelf, and to the unutterable surprise of all present, there was a message covering nearly one side of it, addressed to one of the party who readily recognized the perfect hand-writing of a dead relative. Such a time of rejoicing I do not remember of ever witnessing before–and even at a Methodist revival. The message was such as was calculated to make the recipient happy. It gave a brief description of their beautiful home in summer land. Some of the party seemed to be ready to sell out and go at once. It was some time before order was sufficiently restored to admit of our proceeding to business. At last the circle was again formed, and another slate placed upon the shelf. After a few minutes singing another soul was made happy by receiving a message from some dear one “over there;” then another, and another, until three or four more of the party were about ready to emigrate to the land of shadows. The slates containing the messages were carefully wrapped up, so that the much-prized treasures would not become defaced before they could be covered with glass, which was afterward done by their owners, and the slates hung up in the parlors where friends could see them.
Pg. 9 BELIEVE OR BE DAMNED
Up to this time all seemed satisfied with one meeting per week; now they thought two would be much better. The day following this seance, on every street corner could be seen squads of men discussing the wonderful phenomena. One or two were holding slates, covered with glass and containing messages. Some were swearing that they would not believe a word of it. Others got mad and called them damned fools because they would not believe that spirits wrote the messages. Quite a number of persons came in that day to see the place where the spirits did the writing, and to get permission to attend the next meeting. I agreed to admit a few outsiders, and set a time for a meeting for the accommodation of those who did not belong to the regular circle. When the night came, the house was crowded at an early hour. We formed a circle around the table and were told by raps that the spirits were ready for business. Ever person brought his own slate. One was placed in the closet and the raps soon informed us that the writing was done: the slate was taken from the closet, and contained a message for a party in attendance. Part of those present were skeptical and made a very close examination of the closet, but found no possible chance for deception. All concurred in this declaration and concluded that it must be the work of spirits–these people went home happy in their delusion.
The next day my house was crowded from morning till night. Some came to congratulate me on my successful mediumship and some for a very different purpose–they were hunting for trap doors. I told them to examine until satisfied. They did so and declared it wonderful indeed. Committees of Materialists came again to examine my house for some trap, trick or machine by which the writing was done; but could find no chance for fraud or deception.
The contagion spread rapidly through the surrounding country, and brought many Spiritualists to Liberal. At this the old members of the faith took courage and general good feeling prevailed among them because of the success and triumph of Spiritualism over every opposition. Spook hunters could not down it in any way, and it grew and prospered. In fact, the excitement became rather alarming. Believers and unbelievers came from all parts of the country. Spies were lying around my house whenever it was known that a circle was being held; but owning to the vigilance of our Syndicate, they were foiled in their efforts; for some of our own little band were always on guard, and often in apparent league with those, who were watching to catch somebody going in or coming out of my home from the back way.
Pg. 10 PROF. WIGFIELD SEES HIS MOTHER
Owing to the intense excitement we often had to stop holding circles for a time, but we kept on with our plans for making my seances more interesting in future. When we resumed we had everything in readiness for both slate-writing and materializations. At our first one in this series, several persons present recognized their dead friends just as plainly as ever they did in life. One Prof. Wigfield, saw and recognized his mother, and was so affected by it that he broke from the circle and with out-stretched arms exclaimed: “My mother! Oh, my dear mother!” But she was like Paddy’s flea, the nearer he got to her, the farther she was off, and the Professor returned to his seat and wept bitterly. The spook that he was so confident was his mother, was a piece of board about the size of a woman’s face, painted white, with a strip of white cloth on the top to represent white hair. This was manipulated by an operator in another room.
Having several assistants, we could carry on materializations and slate writing at the same time, and also have our pickets out to guard against surprise from the outside. We frequently had four bogus spooks behind the scene at one time, and sometimes more when all our assistants could be present. One night we had a room full of them, and if I could reveal their names, a thing which I have not the liberty to do, the people would be surprised at their numbers and their respectability. We had two Indian chiefs as our principal actors or characters; one of them was Old Snag, who ate the tobocco, the other, Big Thunder. The latter proved to be a prominent personage, though no one had ever heard of him before. He gave us a short history of himself on a slate, claiming to be the great grandfather of Pocahontas.
One thing which made my seances so satisfactory to all, was the fact that I always sat in the room where the circle was formed.
There were two front rooms in my house, each fourteen by sixteen feet. One of these rooms was used by my assistants. The other was the seance room. The one occupied by the spooks was made as dark as possible, while the other was made just light enough to see a person standing in the door. I have sat and looked at them myself when they made their appearance in the doorway, and then I did not wonder at others being deceived.
Our investigations were not confined to this kind of work, however. There were no less than fifteen or twenty as good mediums here, in their particular phases, as there are in the world. Circles were being held at all of these different places every week.
(to be continued)
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As can be seen, Bouton went to considerable lengths to enhance his seances and preserve secrecy. Though we know only of two individuals who worked with Bouton, J. H. Roberts and S. W. Van Camp, Bouton states there were more. But it seems difficult to believe that their secret could be kept for several long years if too great a number of people were involved, Liberal not being that large a town. Bouton may have been intentionally seeding suspicion and discord when he remarked that he was not able to divulge the names of those involved but one would be surprised at who they were. Such a remark was scripted so as to make nearly suspect outside those that Bouton explicitly mentions as having been deceived.
A Professor Wigfield is mentioned here and if Bouton concentrates disparagingly on the Methodists in the above text, it is perhaps because this Professor Wigfield was John T. Wigfield who was one of the presidents of Morrisville college of the Southwest Missouri Conference (Methodist). In 1880, he was in the census as a school teacher at Walnut Grove in Greene County, Missouri, born in Virginia in 1837, married to a Mary C. If this is the Wigfield who was present at the seance, the mother he felt he had seen was Ann Nelson who had, according to a page at Ancestry.com, died in 1879.
Salon Thayer was a pioneer of he town.
Did Bouton and his cohorts make any money off the deception? He doesn’t mention receiving any silver, but considering the time invested and the alterations to his home, I find it difficult to imagine there would not have been an attractive financial side to the whole affair. And when one thinks about it, Bouton’s deceptions would have increased the economy of Liberal during those years. Visitors coming in from out of town needed places to sleep and eat and would have essentials they would need to purchase. Liberal later became, indeed, a veritable center for Spiritualism with a Spiritualist camp meeting held once a year that attracted people nationwide.