IMAGE: Takoma Park spiritualist 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.
BY DIANA KOHN
Imaginations run wild every Halloween as rational grownups transform themselves into zombies and boys and girls dress up as their favorite superhero or Disney princess in search of sweet treats.
In the 1880s, however, the obsession was not about costumes but trying to communicate with spirits in the great beyond. It all began in the 1840s with sister Maggie and Katie Fox, whose tales of seances spread across the country.
Even the fledging suburb of Takoma Park had its own spiritualist – Helen Colburn, following in the footsteps of her father. Her story, an article by Nancy O’Donnell, is below reprinted from the October 1995 Takoma Voice,
Holding a seance was complicated, and it was difficult and time consuming for the spirits to convey messages one letter at a time. Enter Charles Kennard who sought a patent for a simple board inscribed with alphabet and a handy device to point to the letters. In 1891 he received a patent for his “Ouija Board” after the spirits successfully He called it a Ouija Board. He never explained how the board worked, but according to Smithsonian Magazine he received a patent anyway after the spirits successfully sent a message giving the chief patent officer’s name.
Sales took off and it has been a popular parlor game that allowed for all questions to be answered as long as the spirit was willing.
So this Halloween consider digging up a Ouija board rather than risk meeting up with a zombie or an X-man.
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 ….
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.
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.
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.
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.