How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

From Abe Lincoln Chia Pets to FDR Baseballs: 11 Products to Celebrate President’s Day

iStock.com/malerapaso
iStock.com/malerapaso

While President’s Day originated in 1885 as a holiday celebrating George Washington, it has now grown to recognize all 44-and-counting chief executives in U.S. history. If you’re feeling truly patriotic, check out these 11 incredible products inspired by some of the most distinguished leaders to hold America's highest office, and feel free to gift them to your favorite future politician.

1. George Washington’s Teeth Magnet

George Washington's illustrious hair may have been totally real, but his teeth certainly weren’t. In fact, Washington had only one real tooth left in his head when he was sworn in as president, and he wore several sets of dentures throughout his life (though none of them were made of wood, as the legend claims). Mount Vernon has one of the last surviving sets—made of human and cow teeth—in its collection, and fans can get a copy of the historic chompers in the form of a fridge magnet.

Buy it from George Washington’s Mount Vernon for $10.

2. John Adams Mouse Pad

A John Adams mousepad
MyHeritageWear, Amazon

Compared to the other Founding Fathers, John Adams doesn't get much love. There's reason to admire the pugnacious leader, though: He may have been the nation’s second-ever president, but he was second to none when it came to dishing out insults. If you’re looking for a subtle way to pay tribute to Adams, this mouse pad will do the trick. After all, who doesn't want a president at their side in the office?

Buy it on Amazon for $10.

3. Founding Fathers Gift Box

If you’re looking for other ways to honor the Founding Fathers, this commemorative gift box includes four hefty Old Fashioned tumblers bearing the likenesses of old-fashioned presidents James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams. The glasses—which are made in America—are the perfect way to toast the country's early leaders. They'd also be a great accessory for your next Drunk History marathon. (As would Fishs Eddy's many other politician-themed kitchenware products, for that matter.)

Buy it from Fishs Eddy for $22.

4. Abraham Lincoln Chia Pet

A Chia Pet Abraham Lincoln
Chia, Amazon

Honest Abe is known for a great many things: leading the United States through the Civil War, abolishing slavery, and—according to Hollywood—maybe being a vampire hunter. However, we rarely celebrate his very lush head of hair. (Though a few strands of it did sell for $25,000 in 2015.) This Chia Pet planter offers a way to spice up your kitchen while honoring the classic elegance of the 16th president's silhouette. The handmade statuette grows a full head of presidential chia-sprout hair in one to two weeks and includes quotes from President Lincoln transcribed on its sides.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

5. Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy

A set of three Edmund Morris books on Theodore Roosevelt
Random House, Amazon

This Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographical trilogy on Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt from Edmund Morris is a must-have for all the TR fans out there. Written over the course of more than 30 years, Morris's opus is considered essential reading for any Roosevelt scholar, and it's well worth the money. As The New York Times wrote in its review of the first volume in 1979, it's a “splendid, galloping narrative of the great galloper. The insights are keen. The pages turn quickly. There are few who will not get from it a more satisfying conception of the man almost everyone thinks he knows … It is one of those rare works that is both definitive for the period it covers and fascinating to read for sheer entertainment.”

Buy it on Amazon for $78.

6. FDR Collectible Baseball

Like many Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an intense love of baseball. He even argued that the national past time was an essential morale booster during World War II, ensuring that the league could continue playing throughout the war. He made eight Opening Day appearances during his presidency, and this collectible baseball is a perfect monument to one of them. The custom ball features a photograph of FDR throwing the ceremonial first pitch for the 1935 Opening Day game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.

7. "Dewey Defeats Truman" Ceramic Tile

The result of the 1948 presidential election between incumbent Democrat Harry S. Truman and Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey was, by all accounts, one of the greatest upsets in history. Nearly every analyst at the time got their predictions wrong, including the Chicago Daily Tribune (now just the Chicago Tribune), which led to the famous photograph that helped cement the election's legacy in American politics—and media history—forever. While history nerds would surely appreciate a copy of the actual newspaper, this option from the National Archives is a joyously clever alternative.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.50

8. JFK for President Mug

For political history buffs and design obsessives alike, this mug is a throwback to the campaign posters made by John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. The mug is emblazoned with JFK's own smiling mug as well as his 'Leadership for the 60's" slogan. (You can see one of the originals at the Library of Congress.)

Buy it from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for $15.

9. Lyndon B. Johnson Bobblehead

A Lyndon Johnson bobblehead depicting the president holding a dog
Royal Bobbles, Amazon

Lyndon B. Johnson—who assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963—is best known for his "Great Society" programs and his role in passing laws like the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. This bobblehead in his likeness from Royal Bobbles, however, represents another side of LBJ: his love for dogs. Johnson and his family were often photographed with their beloved beagles, Him and Her, as well as subsequent White House pets Freckles, Edgar, Blanco, and Yuki. (Royal Bobbles doesn't specify which dog this design is based on.) Standing over 8 inches tall, the bobblehead comes with a collector’s box to keep it pristine, because you'll want to display it prominently.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

10. Presidential IQ Trivia Game

The 'Presidential IQ' card game on a table
Presidential IQ, Amazon

If you're like us, you love some good-old-fashioned trivia—and almost 250 years of presidential history has left us with a bevy of facts to mine for questions. Featuring 1200 questions across a number of categories, including famous quotes, foreign affairs, and geography, Presidential IQ is perfect for game night.

Buy it on Amazon for $25.

11. 1000-Piece U.S. Presidents Jigsaw Puzzle

A puzzle with all of the U.S. presidents surrounding a map of the United States
White Mountain Puzzles, Amazon

This puzzle by White Mountain illustrates the entire presidential timeline of the United States with portraits of each of the presidents and a map of notable historical sites relating to the former chief executives. In addition to stimulating your brain, it provides a great opportunity to plan your next presidential road trip.

Buy it on Amazon for $18.

11 Words You Might Not Realize Come From “Love”

iStock.com/PeopleImages
iStock.com/PeopleImages

1. BELIEVE

In Old English, believe was geliefan, which traces back to the Germanic galaubjan, where laub is the root for “dear” (so “believe” is “to hold dear”). Laub goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root for “love,” leubh.

2. FURLOUGH

We got furlough from the Dutch verlof, which traces back to the same Germanic laub root as in believe. It is also related to the sense of leave meaning "allowance" or "permission" (“get leave,” “go on leave”). The “leave” in a furlough is given with pleasure, or approval, which is how it connects back to love.

3. FRIDAY

Old English Frigedæg was named for Frigg, the Germanic goddess of love (and counterpart to the Roman Venus). According to the OED, frīg was also a noun for “strong feminine” love.

4. VENOM

Venom comes from the Latin venenum, which shares a root with the love goddess Venus, and originally referred to a love potion.

5. AMATEUR

The root of amateur is Latin amare, “to love.” An amateur practices a craft simply because they love it.

6. CHARITY

The Latin caritas, which ended up as charity in English, was a different kind of love than amor, implying high esteem and piety, rather than romance and passion. It was used to translate the Ancient Greek agape, the word used in the New Testament to express godly love.

7. PHILOSOPHY

Greek had another word for love, philia, that—in contrast to agape and eros (sexual love)—meant brotherly or friendly love. It’s used in many classical compounds to signify general fondness or predilection for things. Philosophy is the love of sophos, wisdom.

8. PHILANTHROPY

This one means love of anthropos, humanity.

9. PHILADELPHIA

You might know it as the “city of brotherly love,” but you might not know that the tagline is right there in the name. It’s love for adelphos, brother.

10. PHILIP

The name Philip comes from the compound phil- + hippos, love of horses.

11. ACIDOPHILUS

Have you been taking acidophilus probiotic supplements for digestive health? It’s made from acid-loving bacteria, i.e., bacteria that easily take up an acid dye for viewing under the microscope.

This list originally ran in 2015.

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