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. 36 WALSER ON THE SIDE OF THE FENCE THE GHOST IS ON
Mary White is rather rude with Elmina, yet there is some truth in what she says about Elmina in sulting the Spiritualists. Elmina uses very good language, but nevertheless she denies, and denying the claims of Spiritualists is evidently making out that all mediums are frauds, and the rest dupes. Every one who does not believe that the writing is done by spirits must necessarily believe that all mediums are frauds, some of their adherents with them, and the balance all fools;–and right here let me tell you I am one of the disbelievers. Take my expressions for what they are worth, from a scientific point of view. The frauds are not all intentionally dishonest; some of them may have quite justifiable reasons for giving assent to the delusion; but inasmuch as they admit as facts what they know not, or don’t positively know to be; they may properly be called frauds. For about 20 years I have seen about all the Spiritual goblins offered to the reading public, and the more I read of it the more disgusted I became with it.
In my opinion, any man or woman that says writing is done on slate or paper, without being effected by a human being (one that never died,) is either a willful and impudent liar, or a fit subject for the asylum; and I am ready to back my opinion any time with a hundred dollars. If I were rich I would say $10000. I wish the town of Liberal and the paper success. I retire with no ill feeling except of disappointment. I had formed a very high opinion of the place and of the paper, especially of Mr. Walser, who, I really expected would soon put an end to the farce, but to my disappointment it did not so turn out. He must have been placed between two great evils to have chosen this as least of the two. It is useless to tell me he believes in the nonsense. He must have been pressed into circumstances where he could not refuse to harbor it. At first he sat on the fence and so he could not stand the fire, aimed at him from both sides, he had to come down; and for some reasons that he probably knows best, he alighted on the side the ghost is on. He had a right to do as he pleased. I write just as I think, I don’t like to give offense, but I can conceal my thoughts no longer. Good bye! CHAS. LAPERCHE
This little book would hardly be complete without a word or two from some of my partners behind the scenes. I am permitted to make the following extract from the private journal of one of the ghosts, who describes the inside workings of one of our most interesting circles:
[NOTE FROM PUBLISHERS:–Page 35 is numbered 32–blame proof reader.]
Pg. 37 A GHOST STORY BY BIG THUNDER
It was a dark night. No moon was shining. We approached the house with our usual caution. The friends of Bouton were having a surprise party within. The assembly was large and comprised of Spiritualists. They had not notified him of their intended visit, but he had “caught on” and we were there for the entertainment of the company and ourselves. After placing our pickets out as usual we went to the kitchen door, our place of entrance, and unlocking it, found to our surprise that it was bolted from the inside. We were puzzled. It was the first time this had happened. There was the circle already formed in the parlor, and they were singing the “Sweet Bye and Bye” with all the solemnity of a Methodist meeting. Bouton was anxiously waiting for the signal from his attending spooks. Now it must be a failure, all that company disappointed, and Bouton nonplussed and chagrined. But, no! a happy thought seized me. As the singing ceased I approached the north window of the room allotted to the ghosts and listened. Soon Bouton’s usual inquiry was made: “Are there any friends present? If so, please make it known?”
I rapped the answer, “Yes,” from the outside of the window.
“Will you show yourselves to us tonight,” asked Bouton.
I promptly rapped out, “don’t know”–and I didn’t.
This surprised him; for he expected yes as an answer. Then he asked: “Will you write for us then?” I answered promptly, “don’t know?”
Bouton, suspecting something was wrong, asked, “Are the conditions such as suit you?” “No,” I responded. “Do you want more light?” No. “Do you want it darker?” No. “Do you want more music?” No! “I can’t imagine what is the matter. Sing something; perhaps that will mollify them, said Bouton. They sang “Over There” until it seemed to me that the journey could have been made by an energetic ghost “over there” and back again several times. But Bouton at last caught on and asked: “Shall I sit in your room tonight?” Yes, I responded. He did and as soon as he got into the darkened spook room, he quietly slipped into the kitchen, unbolted the door, and then returned. Conditions were now so much better that he soon joined the circle. Three ghosts now entered the kitchen. One, the slate-writer, went into the pantry and lighted a lamp–the other two into the spook room to raise ghosts. Old Snag gathered up the slates and albums scattered over the bed and table and took them to the slate-writer, whose light (so necessary to creditable work) was concealed from the view of others by the pantry where it had been placed for his use.
Pg. 38 “THERE THEY SAT, SILENT AS THE GRAVE”
I, in the meantime, as “Big Thunder,” was playing the agreeable to the circle in the other room, where they were singing, “John Brown’s Body.” As “Big Thunder” approached the door and began to loom up to their vision in all his shadowy magnification, armed cap-a-pie, and with his feathers on, the voices began to tremble and the song lagged. It made me feel like a veritable ghost to hear the tremor of their voices. The song soon ceased and the spirit of John Brown was, for a while, at least, as dead as his body. There they sat, silent as the grave. They were in the presence of a denizen of the other world, therefore it was a solemn moment. I stood motionless in the door a moment, and then to break the spell that bound them I offered to shake hands with the young lady whose voice trembled so much in the last echoes of “John Brown,” but she recoiled in horror. I had just turned and was patting Walser on the cheek, when a hand was laid on my shoulder from behind. I was startled as much as if it had been a real ghost and came near running over the young lady just mentioned to the renewal of her fright; but I quickly remembered that it was “Old Snag” who had just come in from delivering the slates, and was now ready to assist me in getting up a wardance for the occasion. The circle soon got over their fright when they realized that we wouldn’t tomahawk and scalp them, and soon became so familiar as to ask impertinent questions. One asked Old Snag if he wanted whiskey, thus insulting him at once; for he had foreseen that the spirit of Local Option was hovering over Liberal, and that to retain his popularity under the altered circumstances, he must pretend to be a prohibitionist; so he immediately vanished (left the room,) the great disappointment of the young lady with the tremulous voice, who seemed to admire him as much as she abhored me. By this time the slate-writer had finished the messages and turned the slates over to Old Snag to replace where he had found them, came in and materialized in the door. He was at once recognized as D. M. Bennett, an old friend of some of the circle–a “familiar spirit” in fact and very popular. Big Thunder was taken no further notice of, and vanished more disgusted than Old Snag at the mention of whiskey.
I don’t know much about the interview with D. M. Bennett, for I was in the kitchen during that time, dematerializing Big Thunder into a spook that would be more attractive to the young lady,–for even ghosts have sympathies, and my heart went out to her when I heard the pathos and quiver of her voice in “John Brown’s Body” etc. A signal on the outside of the kitchen door next attracted my attention, and I opened the door and admitted three spooks from the outside, who, having found everything safe, desired to come in and help us amuse the circle and enjoy themselves. While they were materializing into “shape” I went
Pg. 39 BIG THUNDER KNOCKS OLD SNAG DOWN
back to try my luck again and thought I heard D. M. Bennett telling the circle that he would publish an account of the seance in the Truth Seeker, edited by him in Summer Land, and he would send them a copy at their next meeting. I am not certain as to the communication, but if I’m right, he was giving them taffy; for he never run a paper, and is not dead yet. I went forward and tried my luck again, and was at once recognized as the young lady’s deceased, although I was dressed as a dude, and had a plug hat on–one borrowed for the occasion. I was more disgusted than ever, and immediately vanished. In going out I run against Old Snag, who was coming in, knocking him over. He swore about it and so did I. Those in the other room heard us, and next day reported all over town that Old Snag come to the seance drunk, and Big Thunder had to knock him down and drag him out of the room. This report made old Snag so mad when he heard it that he swore that he would never attend another seance, and he hasn’t. When we run against each other we were hurt, and, as I said, swore about it. This brought a warning signal from Bouton to be careful, which further provoked us, and we retired to a corner of the cabinet room and kept up a continued rapping and discord for the next half hour, while the others were flitting in and out like Puck’s fairies, and, figuratively speaking, putting donkey heads on half the members of the circle. As it was now getting late Bouton kept repeating his signals for us to vanish; but we had resolved to pay him back for locking us out and wouldn’t vanish. In answer to his signals we responded with a volley of raps from all parts of the room. Bouton grew uneasy and began to ask questions. Each one was answered with a volley of raps as contradictory as they were numerous. This pleased the circle, as we could easily ascertain by the remarks made, and was a further confirmation of the wonderful powers of the wonderful medium. They fancied the dark room was full of the spirits, and one member of the circle shouted, “Hallelujah!”, another, “Praise God!” We were elated as much as Bouton was becoming concerned.
Three of us now went to the kitchen for the prepared faces to exhibit in the final act. Old Snag was with us. He accidentally found on the kitchen table a bottle of wine brought in by some of the visitors and showed his prohibition proclivities and “injun instinct” by taking it out of doors and promptly emptying it. He then went home. We returned with the faces, passed them around, and each one took a patent face in each hand and we arranged ourselves before the circle in the dim light so that fifteen angel faces could be seen at a glance. This electrified the circle, and made them supremely happy; but the scene lasted only a moment. We gave Bouton the signal of our speedy departure, and vanished. The curtain fell and all was over.
Pg. 40 A PREMATURE EXPOSURE
As already stated, we had concluded to ease the seances down during the Spring and Summer, giving a finish in October or November. Toward the close we expected to give one or two special circles to the Spiritualists to revive their interest, then admit all who desired to come, charge an admission to remunerate us for time and money expended in preparing for, and giving spiritualistic seances, and keep this up as long as the interest justified it, giving a full expose, and finally publishing it. We were anticipated by fate, however, for my house caught fire and a portion of the roof over the little closet was consumed, revealing the secret. I quote the following from the LIBERAL:
“On last Thursday the house was discovered to be on fire from the roof, having caught from a defective flue. In a short time men, buckets, and water were in full service. With the aid of axe the shingles were cut away and the flames subdued, revealing the fact that in the top of the closet was a neatly fitting trap door, lined on the edges with cloth so as to be opened without noise, with a strap attached to raise it by. This was fastened down by adjustable braces from above, so completely keeping the trap door in place that it was impossible to detect the fraud from below. In what seemed to be the solid partition between the kitchen attic and top of the seance room was found an adjustable door.”
This sufficiently explains the closet business, further than this, the closet itself had not been used for slate-writing purposes for at least the last half of our work. After the first six months most of the writing had been done in the kitchen, the slates being taken in there for that purpose. The spooks had written a few messages on the table placed in front of the circle in full view; but as this was deemed unsafe, it was done only on a few occasions.
I now quote from the LIBERAL Mr. Walser’s last remarks in regard to my seances, made immediately after the fire:
“For near two years we have been giving to the world from time to time the wonderful spiritualist manifestations through the mediumship of Dr. J. B. Bouton, an old resident of Liberal, who was universally looked upon as a quiet, unassuming and unpretentious man. He has been holding seances at his house, producing wonderful independent slate-writing. * * * But the slate-writing seances were not at all. There were materializations more natural than life. These would occur in an adjourning room while the Doctor sat with the spectators in another room. There were two doors to that room, we all knew that the Dr. was perfectly reliable and would not degrade himself by any false demonstrations. We knew too that no citizen of Liberal would be mean enough to attempt a fraud on the credit of the dead. This is where we were fooled again.”
Pg. 41 CONCLUSION
The exposure mentioned on the preceding page had the effect of a lightning stroke on the Spiritualists here–it paralyzed them. To them I now was the reverse of the description given of me by Walser, who said, “The air about him seemed to come fresh from the ambrosial fields where gods are wont to revel and sip sweet nectar from perennial flowers.” “Many sought the opportunity of gaining from this heavenly, favored good man a smile; others the priviledge of touching his sacred garments.” It was poor consolation for them to say, “Ten thousand mediums caught does not prove all mediums frauds.” The Spiritualistic Association never held another meeting. The lesser mediums in town, who had shone by light borrowed from me, now waxed dim. They argued no longer on the street corners with their opponents. No smile radiated their countenances. Their faith had been sorely wounded, but not entirely destroyed–they were like the Southerners after the war who said, “We were whipped but not conquered.” The unbelievers were triumphant, and with look so knowing, and expression so provoking, and leer so aggravating would say, “I told you so.”
The question may be asked, “Do your work and exposure do any good?” Not long since a disciple of mine, a steadfast Spiritualist, who hung up in his room a message received from his father “over there,” regretted the fact that the children of Liberal were all growing up Materialists. I did it. No new converts to the faith have been made, nor will there be, until the memory of my circles has ceased. No medium, however proved, or great his fame, can now come to Liberal and deceive a single person, except the “faithful.” The people will profit by the lesson given.
Strange as it may seem to the general reader, and strange as it is to me, even now I am regarded as a good medium by many of the Spiritualists in town. They say: “He used some deception, but we know it was not all fraud; for we know our departed friends when we see them, and we did see them at Bouton’s seances.” Some will slip in now of evenings and insist on a circle being held for their benefit. I occasionally accede to their wishes and give them a slate-writing; for it is easily done with “believers,” and they go home happy, and think I am as good a medium as ever. And I claim that if faith is strong in my circles, and conditions favorable, I am now, as ever, as good and genuine a medium as there is in the world.
Dr. J. B. BOUTON
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NOTES: Well, Bouton was wrong on spiritualism having about run its course. As it was in 1889 that the Spiritual Science Association was formed at Liberal, and a meeting hall built for it. The last of the spiritualist camp meetings, which brought people from around the nation, wasn’t until 1899.
I’m at a loss for words as to providing any commentary on the ghost journal of one of Bouton’s helpers. Seems like it would have gotten pretty noisy, that level of buffoonery in that small a space, and impossible for people to not notice these were Three Stooges theatricals staged by humans rather than spirits.