When Halley’s comet, that star with the quetzal’s tail, flared across Mexican skies in 1910, it heralded not only the centennial of Independence, but a deeply transformative episode, the Revolution launched by Francisco I. Madero on November 20, what Javier Garciadiego calls “the true beginning of a process, the birth of the modern Mexican state.” The great chorus of Mexican historians agree. And yet, almost unknown and curious as it may sound, a vital taproot of this revolution lies in the Burned-Over District of New York State.
As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I have learned to appreciate that fact can be stranger than anything one might imagine. Before returning to the Burned-Over District, a word about Francisco I. Madero and how I came upon his Manual espírita, this until now obscure and yet profoundly illuminating book – at the very least for understanding Madero himself, why and how he led Mexico’s 1910 Revolution, and the seething contempt of those behind the overthrow of his government and his assassination.
Madero was a Coahuilan rancher and businessman without whose daring and passion the Revolution might not have begun when it did, and without whom modern Mexico might not have been able to rightly call itself a republic. Francisco I. Madero was none other than Mexico’s “Apostle of Democracy,” who rejected a stolen election and took up arms to bring down Porfirio Díaz, the military strongman who had ruled Mexico directly and indirectly for more than three decades. When Díaz fled to Paris in 1911, Madero did not seat himself upon the presidential throne; with an interim government in place, he once again campaigned throughout the country to become Mexico’s democratically elected President, and only after unequivocally winning that election did he take office later that year. In 1913, but fifteen months into his term, Madero was overthrown in a coup d’état engineered by a cabal of conservatives (and the influence of a meddling U.S. ambassador) and then, with shocking casualness, executed. The Mexican Revolution then exploded into a new and more violent phase, churning on until 1920 with Alvaro Obregón’s presidency or, as some historians argue, the end of the Cristero Rebellion in 1929.
Popular imagery of the Mexican Revolution usually features rustic characters in bandoliers and washtub-sized sombreros, such as smoldering-eyed Emiliano Zapata, with his handlebar mustache and skin-tight trousers, or Pancho Villa, who always seems to wear the smirk of having just quaffed a beer (though he was a teetotaler; more likely it was a strawberry soda). Less often are we shown Don Francisco, handsomely-dressed scion of one of Mexico’s wealthiest families – usually bareheaded, occasionally in a top hat – for he was and remains a confounding figure. He was a Spiritist, and what the devil is that? I had no idea. And until 2008, it had not occurred to me to wonder.
I had just finished writing The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, a novel based on several years of original archival research into an episode during Mexico’s French Intervention of the 1860s, the so-called Second Empire under Maximilian von Habsburg. I mean to say, spending an afternoon delving into an archive, I am happier than a cat after mice. At that time, my husband was in Mexico’s Ministry of Finance, which has a number of archives, among them, Francisco I. Madero’s. His archive is available to the public, but thanks to my husband’s invitation, I had the immense privilege of viewing it in private with the curator, Martha López Castillo.
When we arrived, she had arranged a selection of the most outstanding items on a table that spanned nearly the width of the room: Madero’s masonic regalia; photographs; documents. We went down the table, as she explained the importance of each piece.
Years earlier, on a tour of the National Palace, in one of its parade of ornately decorated rooms (I couldn’t have told you which) I had seen the bureau that still bore the bullet hole from the shoot-out between General Victoriano Huerta’s men and the presidential guard that ended with President Madero and Vice President, Pino Suárez, taken prisoner. If I knew anything about Madero it was because I had been living in Mexico on and off for two decades, and in Mexico, Madero has a stature comparable to Abraham Lincoln’s – in the political-historical sense, not the physical, for Madero was short, with a balding pate and a neatly trimmed triangle of a beard. In portraits, Madero appears kindly yet dignified – one can easily imagine him managing a prosperous complex of farms and factories (as he did). The few moving pictures of him reveal a theatrical, embracing energy. Madero was also distantly related to my husband’s family: a paternal uncle had married a great niece of Madero. In sum, what I knew then about Madero amounted to little more than the barest gloss over the story Mexican schoolchildren learn, but certainly I was vividly aware of his transcendent and deeply respected role in Mexican history.
Not halfway through this presentation, my gaze fell on a little book, Manual espírita by “Bhîma.”
“Who was Bhîma?” I asked.
“Madero himself,” the curator answered.
I had picked it up and was already leafing through it… Los invisibles, Chrishná, Mosés, La doctrina secreta… it seemed a farrago of the Bible, Madame Blavatsky, and Hindu whatnot.
“Really?” I said. “Bhîma was Francisco Madero?”
I knew, instantly and absolutely, that I had to translate this book into English. Had it been translated?
“Are you sure?” This, too, seemed too extraordinary.
“I assure you, it has never been translated.”
Within the week, I had received a xerox copy of this strange little book, and I began my self-appointed task—which turned out to be a Mount Everest more than I imagined.
Why had I leapt at it? Apart from an intuition, as a translator of poetry and literary short fiction, I knew how little Mexican writing appears in English, and translating Madero’s relatively simple vocabulary and syntax, in a work barely big enough to merit a spine, seemed a lark of a project. Oh, maybe a couple of weekends? Yet not three pages in, I was dumbfounded. I had no context for such ideas. Frankly, it gave me the creeps. So instead of translating, I started reading—four years’ worth of reading. And this, for the moment, brings us back to the Burned-Over District of New York State.
Once the heartland of the Iroquois nation, this approximately 50-by-500 kilometer swath of verdant farmland between Albany and Buffalo got its name not from any fire but from the fiery passions of its nineteenth-century religious revival movements. Traveling preachers filled billowing tents with celebrants, and Mitch Horowitz writes in Occult America, “[f]or days afterward, without the prompting of ministers or revivalists, men and women would speak in tongues and writhe in religious ecstasy. Many would report visitations from angels or spirits.” A few outstanding figures in the long list of those who traveled through, settled in, or departed from the Burned-Over District include Jemima Wilkinson, aka “The Publick Universal Friend” who called herself a channel for the Divine Spirit; the utopian Oneida Community; the Millerites, who sold their worldly possessions in expectation of Judgment Day in 1844; Shakers; Quakers; Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who claimed to receive instructions from the Angel Moroni to unearth the golden plates of the Book of Mormon; and, most relevant to the story at-hand, the Fox sisters of Hydesville.
The Foxes, a Methodist farmworker family, the father a blacksmith, moved into their cottage shortly before Christmas 1847. There would have been snow pillowing up to the windowsills, and a pre-electricity sky spectacular with stars. On their straw-stuffed mattresses, the family would have been bundled in blankets and quilts. But through the cruel winter nights of 1848, their sleep suffered with odd noises, crackles, scrapings – as if of moving furniture, bangs, and knocks. By springtime the children had become so frightened by the “spirit raps,” they insisted on sleeping with their parents. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, of Sherlock Holmes fame) recounts in The History of Spiritualism:
Finally, upon the night of March 31 there was a very loud and continued outbreak of inexplicable sounds. It was on this night that one of the great points of psychic evolution was reached, for it was then that young Kate Fox challenged the unseen power to repeat the snaps of her fingers. That rude room, with its earnest, expectant, half-clad occupants with eager upturned faces, its circle of candlelight, and its heavy shadows lurking in the corners, might well be made the subject of a great historical painting. Search all the palaces and chancelleries of 1848, and where will you find a chamber which has made its place in history as secure as this bedroom of a shack? The child’s challenge, though given in flippant words, was instantly answered. Every snap was echoed by a knock. However humble the operator at either end, the spiritual telegraph was at last working.
Kate Fox, eleven, and her sister, Maggie, fourteen, determined that the spirit they called “Mr. Split-foot” was that of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in the house. Conan Doyle, who went so far as to reprint the sworn April 11, 1848, testimony of both parents, was one of many Spiritualists, as they came to call themselves, who considered the events in the so-called “Spook House” of Hydesville “the most important thing that America has given to the commonweal of the world.” And whether one laughingly discards, ardently accepts, or finely sifts and resifts ad infinitum the evidence of the existence of said murdered peddler and any communications from beyond the veil, the fact remains that whatever happened in Hydesville ignited an enthusiasm for “spirit” phenomena evoked in the ritual of the séance—from channeling to table tipping to pencils and chalk stubs writing by themselves, or by communication by means of a planchette; clairvoyance; flashes of light and floating orbs; levitation; ectoplasmic hands, feet and faces oozing out of velvety darkness; and “spirit photography”—throughout the Burned-Over District, north to Canada, out west, south, to England and Ireland and, at full-gallop, across the European continent into Russia.
The Fox sisters received an avalanche of press, which only increased after P.T. Barnum put them on display in his American Museum on New York City’s Broadway, charging a dollar—then more than a tidy sum—to communicate through them to the ghost of one’s choice. (As science historian Deborah Blum recounts in Ghost Hunters, among those who paid their dollar were the novelist James Fenimore Cooper and Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, both of whom left convinced that they had heard from spirit.) Scores of mediums now emerged, claiming to communicate with spirits as diverse as a drowned child, Egyptian high priests, and “astral” beings; seeking them out in darkened rooms came legions of the bereaved, curiosity-seekers, skeptics on a mission, and quite a few intellectuals.
Among the celebrated mediums in this period were the English Florence Cook; Nettie Colburn, who gave séances for Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House; and Scottish-born American Daniel Dunglas (D.D.) Home, who toured France in the 1850s, which, according to historian John Warne Monroe, “seemed to mark the first step in the spread of this second, metaphysical American Revolution.” According to magic historian Henry Ridgely Evans, “No man since Caglisotro ever created so profound a sensation in the Old World.”
Home’s séances, like his audience itself, attained a new level of glamour, a world apart from the Fox sisters. Attended by royalty, including the Emperor Louis Napoleon and his Empress Eugénie, and high society of all stripes, according to Janet Oppenheim in The Other World, an evening with Home might feature a spine-tingling cornucopia of phenomena:
“[F]urniture trembled, swayed, and rose from the floor (often without disturbing objects on its surface); diverse articles soared through the air; the séance room itself might appear to shake with quivering vibrations; raps announced the arrival of the communicating spirits; spirit arms and hands emerged, occasionally to write messages or distribute favors to the sitters; musical instruments, particularly Home’s celebrated accordion, produced their own music; spirit voices uttered their pronouncements; spirit lights twinkled, and cool breezes chilled the sitters. If Home announced his own levitation, as he did from time to time, the sitters might feel their hair ruffled by the soles of his feet.”
Let us float down from the ceiling for a moment, back to the grittier question of roots.
The Seer of Poughkeepsie
This sudden fashion for communicating with spirits, and the congruent appearance of the movement that came to be called Spiritualism, had meshes of roots, many also entangled with Occultism, and from Greek, Egyptian, Arab, and Jewish philosophies and concepts filtered through the Renaissance (in particular, the Corpus Hermeticum, writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus / Thoth, and the Qabalah, a tradition of Jewish mystical teachings developed in the twelfth and thirteen centuries); Gnostic Christianity and mystic Catholicism (the latter notably familiar with visions, apports, and levitation); alchemy; the “angel conversations,” held in daylight with a crystal ball, of polymath and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, Dr. John Dee; English and Celtic magic and other European folk traditions including those of the German Hexenmeisters; Mesmerism (forerunner of hypnotism, introduced by Viennese doctor Franz Anton Mesmer and brought to United States by French enthusiasts, among them the Marquis de Lafayette); and a New World grab-bag of African and indigenous American influences. But if Spiritualism as it emerged in the Burned-Over District in 1848 had a prophet, it could be said to be Andrew Jackson Davis, the “John the Baptist of Spiritualism,” or “Seer of Poughkeepsie,” Poughkeepsie being a town a short sail up the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Born in 1826 to working-class parents, Davis received boyhood training in tailoring from a Mesmerist who recognized his psychic talents. Soon Davis was well-known in the region for his clairaudience (psychic hearing) and clairvoyance (psychic sight), which he used for making medical diagnoses. One day in 1844, he claimed he fell into a trance and woke to find himself in the Catskill Mountains, some 65 kilometers northwest of Poughkeepsie, where he conversed with the spirits the Greco-Roman physician and philosopher Galen and the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who had died more than 70 years before. Subsequently, over a period of little more than a year, by entering a trance and allegedly channeling the words from spirits, Davis wrote a book. Published in 1847 when he was twenty one years old, his nearly 800-page opus, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations and a Voice to Mankind, foresaw the explosion of Spiritualism in the following year. The famous quote:
“It is a truth that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres. . . and this truth will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration. And the world will hail with delight the ushering-in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communion will be established such as is now being enjoyed by the inhabitants of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.”
Davis’ Principles of Nature was a best-seller of its day – according to historian Mitch Horowitz, it sold nearly a thousand copies in its first week. For many readers the “proof of the pudding” that this was genuine communication from beyond the veil was that its author was not only so young but unschooled. Davis himself claimed he’d read almost nothing in his entire life. A professor of Hebrew at New York University, one George Bush, assured the New York Tribune that he had heard the entranced Davis quote Hebrew correctly and “display a knowledge of geology which would have been astonishing in a person of his age, even if he had devoted years to the study.”
It did not go unremarked, and Davis readily acknowledged, that his Principles of Nature echoed much that was in Swedenborg’s works. And here we must dig a little further and examine one more root of roots: Swedenborgianism, which had arrived on American shores in the late eighteenth-century, when an Englishman brought Swedenborg’s books and their stunning revelations to Philadelphia.
This has been an excerpt from C.M. Mayo’s book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual (Dancing Chiva, 2014). The book is a winner of the National Indie Excellence Award for History. You can learn more about the book at the author’s webpage.
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The essay first appeared on the New York History Blog on Oct. 27, 2015.