TALES OF TAKOMA: The spirit tree

First in a series: One image at a time

by DIANA KOHN, featuring NANCY O’DONNELL

Who is this Victorian lady and why the look of mystery? In honor of Halloween, let’s dig a little deeper into this photo from the Historic Takoma archives. The woman is Helen Colburn sitting under her “spirit tree” in the 1890s. View the image in larger size and you’ll see the expansive front yard and ornate house that one stood on the site of today’s Victory Tower on Carroll Ave. The tree was her favorite spot for communing with the spirits.

Like many in the 1890s she was a spiritualist, actively trying to exchange messages to those in the great beyond. This was the age of seances and Ouija boards, and it is likely this house was the scene of many seances. It ran in the family—her father was a renowned spiritualist.

Helen lived here with her brother Arthur, who chose to capture spirits in a different way—with his camera.  A gifted photographer, Arthur took many iconic images of early Takoma Park including this one of his sister.  Those glass negatives form an important collection in the Historic Archives. Neither sibling married, and decades later the house was demolished to make way for the modern world.  But this haunting image remains as a reminder of an earlier time.

The November 1995 Voice ran a feature on the Colburn family and the history of spiritualism. The Historic Takoma archives now has a new home at 7328 Carroll Ave.  Learn more at historictakoma.org.

The article is reprinted below.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

October, 1995 Takoma Voice

Old Takoma Spiritualism

by NANCY O’DONNELL

In the photograph, Miss Colburn sits on a circular bench and leans against a tree. The lawn is strewn with leaves; perhaps it’s late October.

Her feather boa is more for style than warmth. An artist, Miss Colburn loves beautiful things. Her studio is filled with paintings reminiscent of Romney or David.

Behind her is the Colburn residence where she lives with her brother Arthur, a prominent attorney. Neither will marry. The home stands on Carroll Ave. between Westmoreland and Columbia Aves. It will be years before it will be demolished and Takoma Towers will rise on its foundations.

But when this photograph was taken, the neighborhood children have already begun calling the house haunted. The circular bench she sits upon, they call the “spirit bench.” At Halloween, children will not run to the house, but away, looking back over their shoulders. For the Colburns are spiritualists.

In the quiet of their Victorian house, they call out to the dead and listen for a reply ….

Spiritualism

The spiritualist movement was most likely several decades old when the Colburns began their practice. By then, seances, spirit writings, ghost photographs, and traveling mediums were part of the American vernacular. They surely knew of the Fox sisters, whose encounters with ghostly tappings in 1847 whetted the Victorian appetite for the afterlife and created the movement.

To the starched-lace Protestants and Seventh Day Adventists in Takoma Park, the goings on at the Colburn house could only be the work of evil spirits. Some residents began to call them devil worshippers.

Yet early spiritualism was the product of Christian fervor. Surely now the resurrection could be proved. Practitioners believed in a central tenet, “[t]hat the human spirit survives death and can communicate with the living.” The bereaved could take comfort  in knowing their lover or wife or child was not lost to them forever.

Fox sisters

The book Spiritual Summonings chronicles the “fire of religious revivalism and social zeal” that swept over a region of Upstate New York, called the Burned Over District, which led to the creation of the spiritualist movement.

In the early 1800s the state of New York seethed with religious and radical thought. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, met the angel Moroni at the foot of his bed in a Palmyra farmhouse; Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began their feminist revolution in Seneca Falls. But it was the Fox Sisters who take the credit (or blame) for belief in spiritualism.

Margaret, 13, and Kate, 12, lived with their parents on a small rundown peppermint farm in Hydesville, New York. Isolated and uneducated, the young girls were suddenly plagued by ghostly communications from the spirit of a peddler who claimed that he had been killed in their house. Rappings and tappings filled the air. It was once said to be so loud that the “cottage actually shuddered.”

The sisters soon designed a code to communicated with the spirit, and visitors flocked to see the young mediums at work. When an older sister, Leah Fox Fish, joined them she saw that money could be make from their supernatural encounters. She moved her sisters to the larger city of Rochester, where they were soon appearing on stage, and the raps were joined by tinkling bells, martial music, and pounding hammers. Baffled doctors from Buffalo tried to prove fraud, but failed. Eventually Kate and Margaret confessed that the noises were caused by popping their toe joints, but they recanted their confession in later years.

By then the spiritualist movement had outgrown them: “five years later there were no fewer than 30,000 mediums” working around the country.

Strange negatives

There is no record of seances at the Colburn house, although they must have occurred there. Mediums were welcome in Washington, D.C.—even to the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln used their services and her husband, Abraham, was said to have joined a few seances.

But for Miss Colburn and her brother Arthur, there remains only the glass negatives recovered from their attic. Workmen were puzzled by scenes, not of family picnics or holiday festivities, but of odd sloping handwriting on a wall. Another photo depicted a woman, clearly in focus, who its surrounded by disembodied heads.

Colburn spirit photo 1

Colburn spirit writing 1

Other negatives were just as strange, and the frightened workmen quickly carried them to a member of the Takoma Historical Center.

For many years, the Colbrn’s spirit pictures were kept by a member of Historic Takoma who later asked the State Archives in Annapolis to keep them until Takoma Park has a museum.

Today only the haunting photographs remain of the Colburn brother and sister. Some say Miss Colburn wasn’t happy to see her home destroyed and that she often returns to sit on the benches in front of Takoma Towers. But now she stares in the direction of the Metaphysical Chapel [now Still Point] that slopes on the hill at Westmoreland and Carroll Aves.

Special thanks to Ellen Marsh, co-author with Mary Anne O’Boyle of Takoma Park: Portrait of a Victorian Suburb. Archivist Karen Fishman, of Historic Takoma, went beyond the call of duty to help locate the photographs show here. She deserves a special award.

 

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.