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.

7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

Who Stole My Cheese? Archivists Are Cataloging 200 Years of Criminal Records From the Isle of Ely

Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And you thought your parents were strict. In 16th century England, the same courts that tried murderers were also tasked with getting to the bottom of cheese thefts.

As The Guardian reports, archivists from the University of Cambridge have begun cataloging close to 270 court documents from the Isle of Ely, a historic region of England known for its magnificent, gothic-style cathedral as well as being the home of Oliver Cromwell for more than a decade (Cromwell was appointed governor of the isle in 1643).

Some of the documents, which are dated from 1557 to 1775, relate to matters that may seem macabre—or even ridiculous—in the modern world. But they offer a keen insight into the area's past. "This project enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds ... long dead and forgotten, and for whom there is no other surviving record," archivist Sian Collins told The Guardian.

One such person was yeoman John Webbe, who was charged with defamation by one William Tyler after Tyler's wife, Joan, overheard Webbe tell someone that: "Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascall & a thief for he stole my goodes thefyshely [thievishly] in the night."

Then there was poor William Sturns, whose only crime was a hunger that led him to steal three cheeses; ultimately, he was deemed not guilty. "Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was," Collins told Atlas Obscura. "But cheesemaking was fairly common in the area at the time."

Not all of Ely's court cases were about backtalk and dairy products, though. The university’s website details how in 1577, Margaret Cotte was accused of using witchcraft to kill Martha Johnson, the daughter of a local blacksmith. Margaret was eventually found not guilty, which is part of what makes this project so important.

"Martha and Margaret may not appear in any other records," Collins said. "This is all we know about them."

[h/t The Guardian]

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