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. 26 DR. BOUTON YOU DON’T TREAT ME RIGHT–BIG THUNDER
Another slate was then leaned and placed in the closet, and when it came out we found written thereon the following to Mr. Scoville:
MY DEAR SON:–I hope you will not be discouraged. You can do well in future; for Liberal is a little in the future. Be patient and all will be well. Your mother, Margarette.
This was written in a very different hand from that of the preceding message. Again, another slate was placed in the closet. On its removal we read the following, quite blunderingly written and in strong contrast to the foregoing messages in every respect:
“Dr. Bouton:–You don’t treat me right. I want to materialize–show myself to pale faces. i can. big thunder.”
This closed the slate writing phase of the seance and arrangements were made to gratify the wishes of the crude but well-meaning chieftain from the wigwams of the upper world. I cannot at present give any description of this latter phase of the seance. In fact, this phase with Dr. Bouton was new and merely at its commencement, as I understood. At present, however, Learn that the materializing phenomena are very interesting.
Now a word of Dr. Bouton and wife. No one having any acquaintance with them would be willing to risk his reputation for sharpness in judging human character by reporting them as probable frauds. In fact one soon finds himself disarmed of all suspicion of fraud, as do those also who attend their seances under such precautions as I have mentioned, of any necessity for it. If our good and clear-headed Elmina (who does not doubt the honesty of Mr. Walser, but persists in doubting the medium) will go to Liberal and make the acquaintance of Dr. Bouton for her self, keeping clear of all interested parties and especially those who have written a book against all mediums and mediumship, and want to write another, trusting her own judgment and her (more than) common sense, she will leave Liberal a wise woman and, in time, most certainly a happier one. I am well aware that many who have spent their energies in a life time opposition to the claims of the clergy and the demands of the church, would feel humiliated in admitting so much as the continuity of life beyond the grave, even where it is demonstrated to them beyond all reasonable doubt. And further, that there are those who would be loth to make an investigation, fair, manly and thorough, where the probabilities pointed sharply to the overturning of their labors of a life. But Mrs. Slenker does not belong to that class of workers, especially to the last mentioned sub-division of the great body of noble workers for the freedom of the human mind.
Pg. 27 “THE CONTINUITY OF LIFE A GRAND PROBLEM”
But when she learns that nature has builded better than we knew, and that it is all in accord with her own divine arrangement of matters and things that the interior life of man continues, being just as indestructible as any of the other forms of force and a nearer approach to the last analysis–if not itself the ultimatum of all refinement, of all matter and all the various forms of force00it will afford full compensation for any concessions we find ourselves compelled to make. But simple theory will no longer do. We want facts, not fancy nor faith. We demand sensuous demonstrations conducted on scientific principles. The continuity of life is the grand problem of the present. It has its scientific side and is now attracting many of the best minds of the old as well as the new world. See A. R. Wallace’s “Defense of Spiritualism,” Wm. Crookes’ “Researches,” Zollner’s “Trancendental Physics,” Dr. Hare’s “Scientific Investigation,” Butleroff, Flamarion, Kardec, Edmunds, and many others. But a patient, candid, continuous and thorough investigation of the facts and phenomena themselves and for ourselves, is the best of all methods for arriving at truth.
The answer to the letter referred to by Dr. Hovey was merely a shrewd guess founded on very meagre information gained from S. C. Thayer to whom the letter was sent. We use the entire letter for reasons obvious to the reader, although it is lengthy, and a repetition of much contained in other letters. I will now give one from Mary A. White, on the same subject, which is shorter and more pointed:
ANSWER TO SEALED LETTER THROUGH DR. BOUTON
EDITOR. LIBERAL:–That which we see and know we have a right to tell; and I will tell. Soon after my arrival in Kansas, I dreamed that I saw my former husband and he met me with a coldness unknown to his earth life. In thinking it over next day, I wondered if the short space of 17 years had caused him to forget the earnest and deep affection of his former life. Then the idea occurred to me to write to him and see if I could get an answer in Dr. Bouton’s little closet.
Having examined that closet, and having been present and seen clean slates put in it, and read messages written thereon when the same slates were taken out, I know that no human hand did the writing. In proof of this I had while in Liberal, received a message six lines in length in answer to a mental question (untold to any one) as my own clean slate was being put therein. This was at an impromptu seance; there being
Pg. 28 HEARS FROM HER FORMER HUSBAND
none present but the Dr.’s family and the two friends who went with my husband and I. This answer to a mental question could not have been answered by collusion, if there had been any way to get a human hand in the closet–which there was not.
I will say that with reference to the message from my former husband, that I had never attempted to communicate with him through any medium; and yet I asked (in my sealed letter) why he had not sent me some kind of word while I was in Liberal; if he had forgotten or ceased to love me; if Pearl (our daughter) was happy; if she heard me talking to her every day; and if he would give me any advice on business matters.
Each of these questions was answered clearly, explicitly, and emphatically, in the style and language peculiar to my said husband. This answer was returned to me and with my sealed letter unopened. For the benefit of the skeptical, I had placed small strips from the edges of postage stamps across the margin where the envelope adheres, so that it could not have been opened with my known it. Mr. White opened and examined my letter, and said, “It has never been opened or tampered with, though he answered your questions exactly.” This may not penetrate into the mental crust of a determined “know-nothing,” but it is true.—“Glory, glory’ hallelujah! as we go marching on,”
We know there is another home where those we love are gone.
In reference to the independent slate-writing at Dr. Bouton’s, Mr. John G. Mayer (one of the most honorable and upright citizens of the town,) who received the first message, is willing to testify under oath to all the facts connected with the reception of that message. So would Mr. Walser or any one else who has enjoyed that privilege.
Yours for truth, Mary A. White
The answer to the letter, as well as the answer to the mental question referred to, are two of the strange coincidents which happen only occasionally–nothing more. The message at the seance was prepared the morning before. The publication of these letters, and similar ones, strengthened my reputation and puzzled the scoffers not a little to account for the pertinent and satisfactory answers. They couldn’t do it. Neither can I further than has been done in the foregoing.
Among the skeptics abroad who took a deep interest in our circles is Mrs. Elmina Drake Slenker, of Snowville, Virginia. She is a leading Liberal, a Materialist, and for some time edited the children’s corner in “The Liberal” once published here. Up to the time that she begun to oppose any seances, and deny the genuineness of the manifestations, all Liberals in Liberal were her friends; but as soon as her first article appeared
Pg. 29 “CONVINCED AGAINST HER WILL”–“THAT’S WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HANNER!”
in denial, then trouble began, and many indignant letters in reply were sent to “The Liberal” for publication. The fight finally narrowed down to Elmina and Mary A. White, with only an occasional shot from other parties. We give a few of these letters to show the arguments pro and con, and how warmly Spiritualism and I were attacked and defended:
“Will some friends of Truth visit a few of the seances held at Liberal by Dr. Bouton, and write out the experiences for Elmina? Some who are not believers, and who will be allowed to investigate in a careful yet kindly manner–who will be given chances to find out the facts. I am more interested in the ism at Liberal than at any other place. I am not able to go there at present, and I want to be sure before going that I shall see something real. Truly, ELMINA.
Aunt Elmina wishes to obtain the testimony of some “unbelievers in spiritual phenomena,” as evidence regarding the manifestations of spirit power given through the mediumship of Dr. Bouton, which she admits would be more agreeable and convincing proof to her of the genuineness of the phenomena, than is the word of believers, which has time and again been given her in evidence of the fact. [Transcriber’s note: I am uncertain if this paragraph actually belongs to the following letter by Hannah M. Walser. There were no quotes ending the Elmina letter, and no quotes at the beginning of this paragraph. In typeset, the sentences of this paragraph appear to be closer together than the previous letter and the following, which is one reason I believe it is Bouton’s remarks, but this is irregular and not all letters are spaced in this manner.]
“Consistency, thou art a jewel,” but thy name is not Elmina. Who would be considered the most reliable witness in a court of justice in proof of an individual’s handwriting (one phase of spirit identity)–a novice in the art of chirography, or an expert? Who the better judge of spiritual manifestations (all things considered,) the person who has carefully and impartially investigated the phenomena in all its varied phases, witnessing these manifestations under the most strict test conditions, noting observations and deliberating for a period of twenty years or more before making a verdict, or the individual who witnesses a few seances with a single medium and gives his decision of spirit power,–or rather his ignorance in a limited degree. “Convince a woman against her will, she’s of the same opinion still.” We are inclined to think friend Elmina fears that the “court is against her,” or she would not resort to the last extreme of defeated argument, that of calling an incompetent witness as testimony in the case, in the vain endeavor to explain away a fact so well authenticated by persons who in any other case she would not hesitate to accept as reliable witnesses, and proof positive of this great truth and whose veracity is unimpeachable.
Spirits tell us their time is too valuable to fritter away in the useless endeavor of giving convincing tests to those who refuse to believe their bona fide word, as to their existence. Life to them is of too much importance; and in the wide extended field of action beyond mortal jurisdiction or dictation, time is of too great moment to spend in vainly trying to impart a truth which in a short time will of necessity be positively proven to each and all who live, and who willingly or unwillingly will be forced to acknowledge the fact.
Man lives to die, and dies to live again. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally.”
HANNAH M. WALSER
Pg. 30 ELMINA OF THE SAME OPINION STILL
I wrote my note for “The Liberal” in all honesty and sincerity, and with a full desire for truth. I don’t think I said the evidence of unbelievers would be more “agreeable” to me than that of believers. I left out the agreeableness altogether, for I wanted facts; and to get at facts one must hear the evidence fro all sides; for and against.
I have had pretty full descriptions of several seances held at Bouton’s, but all from believers. Is it a wonder that I now ask some one who does not believe to go there and give me his impressions? It takes a deal of testimony to convince me of what seems incredible. If Mr. Slenker should tell me there was a cow in the kitchen, I should think it strange, but should not doubt that the cow was there; but if he told me that a ghost was there and said it was his mother’s, I should say he was deceived. I have no idea how much evidence it would take to make me believe it. But I should not disbelieve he really saw, at least mentally, what he believed was his mother.
I don’t see where the “inconsistency” comes in when I keep in the same line of inquiry all the while. Would you take the evidence of a Catholic who would say that he had seen the Virgin Mary? Yet we have the testimony of hundreds of them that they have seen her and miraculous cures have been wrought by her for them.
La Roy Sunderland could make people believe and do almost as he chose, while they were under his influence psychologically. He could throw them into cataleptic sleeps. He could tell them he could pull teeth and cut out tumors without pain; and if they believed it, no pain was felt. How do I know but “youens” see spirits through psychological influence? I do not deny that you do see, hear and feel them just as you say, nor believe it all a trick; but ask some outsider who is there on the spot to go and investigate for me, because I am not there. No doubt you are as candid and honest as myself, but I doubt the honesty of your medium. He may be a medium, but I do not believe all he does is honestly done; yet may be mistaken. I have no way of telling; and is it wrong in me to want some one to investigate what I cannot?
Methodists, like Roy Sunderland, used to throw great numbers of their congregations into cataleptic trances during revival meetings. They would tell marvelous tales of heaven after coming out of the trance but never described the “Summer Land” of Spiritualism because they had not heard of it. These spells were called “the influence of God’s Holy Spirit.” You can easily see that this was a delusion, and why censure me for thinking that this phenomenon reported by you also depends upon mental and physical conditions? If Bennett lives, he can surely write me a letter in his old time hand and style, and one that I should be compelled to accept as his work. He could write hundreds of things that only he and I know; yet I have had five communications purporting to be from him, and not in a single one of them could I see a trace of the noble, true, and generous man whom I loved so well. Dear friends, if Bennett is there, if he is anywhere, he knows how my heart goes out to him and he will respond. Affectionately yours for frank discussion and a kindly exchange of opinions. ELMINA D. SLENKER, Snowville, Va., Jan. 26th, ’86.
–to be continued–
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NOTES: I’m unable to peg down her Mary A. White might have been.
Elmina Slenker, a.k.a. Elizabeth Drake, was an outspoken freethoughter and proponent of Dianism, writing on sexual subjects for publication. She was imprisoned for a year for obscenity in private correspondence among a group of associates carrying on sexual discussion, her letters intercepted by postal officials. Charges were dropped against her in 1887 and she was released.