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Atkinson, William Walker (05 December 1862–22 November 1932), New Thought writer and popularizer of Eastern ideas, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of William C. Atkinson and Emma L. Mittnacht. Atkinson is a relatively obscure figure. In particular, little is known of his early life, except that he attended public schools. In 1889, approaching his twenty-seventh birthday, he married Margaret Foster Black. The couple had two children. Following an initial path that was much like those taken by Henry Wood, Charles Brodie Patterson, Ralph Waldo Trine, and other male New Thought contemporaries, Atkinson seemed destined to spend his life as a mainstream professional, first as a businessman and then, beginning in 1895 when he was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar, as a lawyer. Yet also much like Wood and Patterson, he was unable to cope with the mundane pressures of everyday life, and within a few years of becoming a lawyer, he had suffered an emotional breakdown. Atkinson had already dabbled in metaphysical ideas and alternative religious beliefs—his essay “Mental Science Catechism” had been the lead article in the sixth issue of the magazine ...

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Britten, Emma Hardinge (1823–02 October 1899), Spiritualist, trance lecturer, and author, was born Emma Floyd in London, England, the daughter of a sea captain and Anna Sophia (maiden name unknown). Her father’s death during her childhood left the family in poverty, and from an early age Emma supported herself and her mother by teaching music and acting. According to her autobiography, her youthful mediumistic tendencies interrupted a promising musical career and caused her to be “called” into a secret society of London occultists, who used her as a “clairvoyant and magnetic subject.” She later wrote that a man she called a “baffled sensualist” manipulated her, preventing her from obtaining work and forcing her into dependence on him. This experience made her a lifelong enemy of the double standard of morality and of economic discrimination against women. She fled to France with a troupe of British performers, then sailed from Paris to New York in 1855 to pursue a career as an actress. When she arrived in the United States, she was using the name Emma Hardinge, although it is unclear how she acquired it....

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Colby, Luther (12 October 1814–07 October 1894), Spiritualist editor, was born in Amesbury, Massachusetts, the son of Captain William Colby and Mary (maiden name unknown). After a common school education, Colby learned the printing trade as a youth. In 1836 he moved to Boston to work for the ...

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Ira Davenport [left to right] Ira Davenport and Harry Houdini, c. 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-66398).

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Davenport, Ira Erastus (17 September 1839–08 July 1911), and William Henry Harrison Davenport (01 February 1841–01 July 1877), mediums and stage magicians, were born in Buffalo, New York, the sons of Ira Davenport, a police officer, and Virtue Honeysett. Following publicity about ...

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Davis, Andrew Jackson (11 August 1826–13 January 1910), prominent American Spiritualist and author, was born in Blooming Grove, New York, the son of Samuel Davis, an uneducated farmer, weaver, and shoemaker, and his wife (name unknown). Davis grew up in poverty and received little formal education. In 1841 he was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Poughkeepsie. There, after lectures by a phrenologist and mesmerist named Grimes had sparked enthusiasm for hypnotism, he met William Levingston, a local tailor who was interested in trance states. Levingston found that Davis was an extraordinarily adept subject. Davis soon was able to perform clairvoyance and medical diagnosis while in hypnotic trance, reportedly could read newspapers blindfolded, and saw human bodies as transparent, revealing their auras and inner anatomy....

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Davis, Mary Fenn Robinson (17 July 1824–18 July 1886), Spiritualist lecturer and women's rights advocate, Spiritualist lecturer and women’s rights advocate, was born in Clarendon, New York, the daughter of Chauncey Robinson and Damaris Fenn, farmers. She grew up in Randolph, New York, in a Baptist family. In 1846 she married Samuel G. Love, with whom she had two children. Both she and her husband found the Calvanist theology oppressive, however, and the bonds of marriage constricting. Two new movements that appeared during the next few years reflected their views and quickly gained their participation: Spiritualism and women’s rights. Her contributions to Spiritualist periodicals began in 1850 with a poem, “To Our Spirit Guardian,” published under the name “Mrs. S. G. Love” in the ...

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Dods, John Bovee (26 September 1795–21 March 1872), amateur physician and popular author and lecturer on mesmerism and Spiritualism, was born Johannes Dods Bovee in the town of Florida in Montgomery County, New York, the son of Jacob Mathias Bovee, a farmer and merchant, and Jane Dods. After serving in the War of 1812, he took as his surname Dods, probably out of respect for the maternal uncle who cared for him after his father’s untimely death. Little is known about his early education, but his father’s will stipulated that he “be educated in wreading [ ...

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Fox, Catherine (1836?–02 July 1892), Margaret Fox (1833?–08 March 1893), and Ann Leah Fox (1818?–01 November 1890), spirit mediums whose experiences inaugurated modern Spiritualism, were the daughters of John D. Fox and Margaret Rutan, struggling farmers. There is conflicting information about the birth dates of all three, but Leah was probably the oldest and Catherine (“Kate”) the youngest. Kate and Margaret were born following a ten-year separation between their parents caused by John Fox’s alcoholism....

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Goldsmith, Joel Sol (10 March 1892–17 June 1964), writer and lecturer on spirituality, was born in New York City, the son of Sol Joel Goldsmith, a prosperous lace importer, and his wife (name not available). Both parents were nonpracticing Jews. As a young man, Goldsmith became interested in Christian Science through his acquaintance with a woman whose father was a Christian Science practitioner. After himself being healed, he believed, of a serious illness through Christian Science, Goldsmith became a practitioner in 1928. About 1930 he married Rose Robb. Increasingly successful in Christian Science, in 1933 he set up an office in Boston across the street from the Mother Church. In 1943 he moved briefly to Florida. His wife died the same year....

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Green, Frances Harriet Whipple ( September 1805–10 June 1878), author, social reformer, and Spiritualist, was born in Smithfield, Rhode Island, the daughter of George Whipple. Her mother’s name is unknown. She was married twice, first in 1842 to the artist Charles C. Green, whom she divorced in 1847, and later in 1861 to William C. McDougall (or McDougal) of California. She had no children. In between marriages, she lived in New York City with S. B. Brittan and contributed to his publications on Spiritualism. In all of these activities she maintained the strong individualist spirit that was so important in many of the antebellum reform movements....

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Jones, Amanda Theodosia (19 October 1835–31 March 1914), inventor, poet, and Spiritualist, was born in East Bloomfield, New York, the daughter of Henry Jones, a master weaver, and Mary Alma Mott, a woman noted for her powers of memory and “splendid intellect.” Her family, though of modest means, considered books “more necessary than daily bread,” and Amanda, like her brothers and sisters, was reading the New Testament by age seven. In 1845 the family moved to Black Rock, New York, near Buffalo, where Amanda attended classes at the East Aurora (N.Y.) Academy (then the Normal School at East Aurora). She graduated by 1850 and at age fifteen began teaching at a country school, attending Buffalo High School during the summers. In 1854, exhausted from her rigorous schedule and encouraged by her father to become a poet, she abandoned teaching when her first poems were accepted by the ...

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Pelley, William Dudley (12 March 1890–01 July 1965), novelist, religious and political leader, was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, the son of William George Apsey Pelley, a Methodist minister and printer, and Grace Goodale. Pelley's family lived in several Massachusetts communities during Dudley's childhood. He dropped out of Springfield Technical High School during his sophomore year at the behest of his father, who needed his son to help him in a toilet paper factory he co-owned....

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Richmond, Cora L. V. Scott Hatch Daniels Tappan (21 April 1840–02 January 1923), spirit medium and trance lecturer, was born near Cuba, in Allegheny County, New York, the daughter of David W. Scott, Jr., a miller and free thinker, and Lodencia Veronica Butterfield, who followed her daughter into mediumship and whose name provided her daughter’s middle initials. The Scotts were reform-minded religious nonconformists. When Cora was ten they moved to the Christian socialist community of Hopedale, Massachusetts, where abolition and women’s rights mixed easily with water cure and spirit-rappings. The following year they moved to Wisconsin to start a new community modeled on Hopedale. When Cora was eleven she began showing the unusual abilities that were interpreted as spirit communication. She would “write in her sleep” on her school slate—her family and neighbors believed her hand was controlled by spirits of dead friends who wished to send them messages. Soon both Cora’s hand and voice were controlled by the spirit of Adin Augustus Ballou, the recently deceased son of Hopedale’s founder, ...

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Shindler, Mary Dana (15 February 1810–08 February 1883), songwriter and advocate of reform, was born Mary Stanley Bunce Palmer in Beaufort, South Carolina, the daughter of Benjamin Morgan Palmer and Mary Stanley Bunce. In 1814 her father, a Princeton graduate, became co-pastor of Charleston’s Independent (Congregational) Church. Mary attended a prestigious school for girls in Charleston and received a lady’s education at seminaries conducted by clergymen in Connecticut and New Jersey. Some of her juvenile poems were published in a periodical that was edited locally. Through family connections she met many of antebellum America’s leading clergymen, foreign and domestic missionaries, and women involved in church work and charities....

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Sprague, Achsa W. (17 November 1827–06 July 1862), spiritualist and reformer, was born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, the daughter of cousins Charles Sprague and Betsy Sprague, farmers. Her formal education was limited, yet Achsa was precocious and began teaching in the village school by the age of twelve. The Sprague family was considered quite intellectual for the small rural town, and their children were immersed in the classics. The Spragues also shared a predisposition to ill health; of the six siblings, three were considered mentally imbalanced. At the age of twenty, Achsa developed a severe case of arthritis that left her bedridden for over seven years. She considered herself healed through “angelic powers” and by 1854 began a career as a traveling lecturer and spiritualist....

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Sunderland, La Roy (22 April 1804–15 May 1885), Methodist abolitionist and mental theorist, was born in Exeter, Rhode Island. Little is known about Sunderland’s parents or early childhood. As a young man Sunderland was apprenticed to a shoemaker in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, but was later enrolled as a student at Day’s Academy in Wrentham, Massachusetts, in 1819....