John Edmonds’ Communication with His Dead Wife Sarah

face of a prisoner

John Edmonds, a prominent public figure in mid-nineteenth-century America, grieved deeply at the death of his wife Sarah. She died on November 12, 1850.^ John had been married to her for more than thirty years. While he served on the Executive Committee of the Prison Association, his wife “Mrs. J.W. Edmonds” had served on the Executive Committee of the Female Department.^ After Sarah’s death, John described her as having been “the one most near and dear to me on earth.”^ Edmonds subsequently lived at home without any immediate family members present. For a month or two after his wife’s death:

He {Edmonds} slept very little during the time, it frequently occurring that he would not retire to bed at all during the night.^

Edmonds described his condition in January, 1851, thus:

I was at the time withdrawn from general society; I was labouring under great depression of spirits. I was occupying all my leisure in reading on the subject of death, and man’s existence afterwards.^

The Prison Association that John Edmonds had helped to found and lead was at this time engaged in an extended, frustrating, and unsuccessful battle with state prison inspectors over communication with prisoners. Edmonds’ personal and professional circumstances after his wife’s death were conducive to a mental breakdown.

About that time, Edmonds began to communicate with spirits of the dead. In December, 1850, only about a month after his wife Sarah’s death, Edmonds had an experience that most persons could easily image: “he distinctly heard the voice of his wife, speaking a sentence to him.”^ In the presence of a medium in early 1851, Edmonds experienced sensations like those he had probably experienced for years:

I was touched a number of times, first in my neck, by a gentle push, as with the ends of fingers. This was repeatedly done. I was patted on the head many times as if by a gentle female hand. As I sat by the table, I felt a hand gently laid on my head and moved around, and the last touch was several gentle taps on my arm.^

Across the next year, intimate acquaintances perceived spiritual communion with the dead to have transformed Edmonds’ character:

From being irascible and excitable at times, he has become calm and moderate; from being, occasionally, stern and unyielding, he has become kind and gentle; from being a doubter as to the future, he has become well-grounded in the belief of man’s immortality and his redemption through the mercy of God.^

During 1852, more than a year after Edmonds began spiritual communion with the dead, he was, according to a spiritualist source, “calmly adjudicating in the Court of Appeals, at Albany.”^ Other sources provide a much different picture more consistent with Edmonds’ character and full life. Nonetheless, spiritual communion with the dead probably did help Edmonds to cope with his grief, disappointments, and doubts.

Edmonds’ communication with his dead wife allowed him to experience again her presence. Recognizing Edmond’s deep grief after Sarah’s death, Edmonds’ professional colleagues erected a monument in the Hudson cemetery in her memory. The monument, probably inscribed according to Edmonds’ direction, included on one side “an enumeration of her virtues.” At the monument’s base was an epitaph:

Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux
Et fondez vous en eau,
La moitie de ma vie
A mis l’autre au tombeau.
{Weep, weep, my beloved one
And dissolve yourself with tears,
Half of my life
Has put the other half in the grave.}

John did not remarry after Sarah’s death in 1850. In 1873, sick and expecting his imminent death, Edmonds wrote:

I wish to be buried in Hudson, in the same grave with my wife, not by her side, but in the same grave, that our ashes may mingle, and be one on the earth, as our souls will be one in the spirit world.^

Edmonds could communicate in the style of presenting facts of a case or enumerating virtues. But what he seems to have sought in communicating with his wife Sarah was communion — being together.

Edmonds considered spiritual communion with dead family and friends to be possible for everyone. In 1904, a lawyer and local historian who grew up in Hudson wrote of Edmonds:

He had an affection for relatives that had died that seemed almost abnormal. …It is said that Judge Edmonds was often seen standing beside his wife’s grave conversing with her.^

Edmonds himself did not consider his affections and his actions abnormal. Edmonds argued that spiritual intercourse offered “the restoration of our friends to us from beyond the grave”:

Spiritualism teaches that our dear ones deposited in the grave are not separated from us. They are manifesting their warmest affection for us, and demonstrating that that affection, instead of being quenched by the grave, has been augmented and increased by the spiritual life into which the lost ones have entered.^

Fyodor Dostoevsky, who spent four years in a Siberian prison camp, used death as a major figure for imprisonment in his 1860 fictional chronicle, Notes from the House of the Dead. Edmonds’ concern for communication with prisoners may have contributed to his imagination of spiritual communication with the dead.

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