Remembering John W. Edmonds

face of a prisoner

At his death in 1874, John W. Edmonds was honored as an eminent public figure. Edmonds’ funeral, held in New York City, was a major public event:

A large gathering of our leading citizens, and a number of persons from abroad, viewed the remains, and followed them to the tomb. The floral decorations on and around the casket were profuse and elegant, and among them was a magnificent cross and crown, inscribed, “The Gazette’s Tribute to John W. Edmonds, its First Editor.” The procession that the followed the remains to the grave was one of the largest ever seen in this city.^

Edmonds had been a prominent public supporter of spiritualism since 1853. Surely among the leading citizens at Edmonds’ funeral were some who considered spiritualism to be utter nonsense. They probably came because they had long been among Edmonds’ friends.

How Edmonds’ life was remembered depended on the field of communication. Upon Edmonds’ death, a New York lawyer recorded in his diary:

Died, John W. Edmonds, father of “Spiritualism.” I think he was foolish and sincere. According to his own pneumatology, he must be drumming under Miss Fox’s dinner table^

Such text would not be appropriate as an obituary in a newspaper or a biography in a book. Those genres provide a publicly relevant record of a person’s life. Edmonds had a distinguished career of public service that culminated in his service as a judge on New York State’s highest court. He subsequently was widely attacked and ridiculed in print for his spiritualist beliefs.

Edmonds’ spiritual activities challenged writers of obituaries and biographies. Was Edmonds’ communication with the dead a religious belief, such as those that had a well-recognized position in public life? Edmonds described spiritual communication in terms of empirical science and a trial court. That wasn’t the typical style of religious expression. Describing Edmonds as having gone insane with grief over the death of his wife in 1850 contradicted the experiences of those who knew him and the documentary evidence of his subsequent legal writings. Communication with the dead in ways that did not advance knowledge claims was widely accepted. Yet communication with the dead that produced knowledge claims seemed counter to public welfare. The combination of its referents, style, and publicity made Edmonds’ spiritual communication with the dead extraordinary and incongruous.

Writers of Edmonds’ obituaries obscured the peculiar form of his spiritualist claims. Edmonds died at age seventy-five in 1874. The New York Times, which had ridiculed Edmonds’ spiritual claims, allocated about 9% of the words in Edmonds’ obituary to his spiritual activities. It associated his spiritual claims with doctrine and belief:

In his latter years Judge Edmonds was generally known for his advocacy of what is called “spiritualism,” having made a public avowal of his belief in that doctrine in 1853. In support of his belief he wrote several works, the most elaborate of which was a work entitled Spiritualism, issued in 1853.^

The Albany Law Journal’s obituary included these two sentences verbatim as its description of Edmonds’ spiritual activities. However, because the Albany Law Journal described more expansively Edmonds’ public and legal service, the word share devoted to Edmonds’ spiritualist activities in its obituary fell to about 5%.^ The Central Law Journal, which acknowledged the notoriety of Edmonds’ spiritual beliefs, gave them a word share of 24%. This obituary emphasized professional respect for Edmonds:

Judge Edmonds’ name is doubtless familiar to most of the lawyers throughout the country, not only from the fact of his acknowledged ability and purity as a judge, but also from the fact that his name has been frequently brought before the public in connection with his peculiar religious belief. He was a firm believer in spiritualism, and, as he supposed, held constant communication with departed friends. So far as we are aware, there never was any complaint that these vagaries, if such we may be privileged to call them, influenced in any way his professional conduct.

While Edmonds did retain considerable professional respect, his published spiritualist writings emphasized communication with dead authorities, not departed (personal) friends. In addition, Edmonds and the New York Times vigorously disputed whether Edmonds’ spiritual communication with Francis Bacon had affected one of his judicial decisions.^

Biographical reference works changed over time to diminish the importance of Edmonds’ spiritual beliefs. Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography (1887) allocated about 33% of the words in Edmonds’ biography to Edmonds’ spiritual beliefs:

Judge Edmonds became a convert to the doctrines of spiritualism in 1851, and in 1853 openly avowed and defended them, believing himself to be in almost constant communication with departed spirits. His peculiar views were sustained with the greatest courage and persistence, and it was said that they cost him his place on the bench of the supreme court. He was a jurist of unquestioned ability, and the honesty of his convictions was never doubted. Besides his contributions to periodicals in favor of his belief, he published “Spiritualism” in connection with George T. Dexter, M.D. (2 vols., New York, 1853-‘5);…and “Letters and Tracts on Spiritualism” (London, 1874).

The National Cyclopædia of American Biography (1900) gave Edmonds’ spiritual activities a smaller word share (13%), but accurately indicated that Edmonds understood spiritualism as empirical science:

After making many experiments, with Dr. George T. Dexter as the chief medium, he became convinced that the living could communicate with the dead. He openly avowed his belief, and in 1853-55 he and Dr. Dexter published a volume entitled “Spiritualism.” This work evoked much criticism, but no one questioned the honesty of Judge Edmonds’s convictions or the correctness of his record of the happenings at his spiritualistic sittings.

This text’s rather charitable third sentence might best be interpreted to describe Edmond’s convictions and records in terms of his subjective experience. The Dictionary of American Biography (1931) reduced Edmonds’ spiritual activities to an 8% word share with an adaptation of the previous text:

He had for some years conducted investigations in the subject of spiritualism. In 1853, becoming convinced that the living could communicate with the dead, he openly announced his belief, and, in collaboration with Dr. Dexter, published Spiritualism, a work which provoked much comment, though the honesty of his convictions was never impugned.

This adaptation de-emphasized empirical facts and analysis: the word “experiments” became “investigations,” “criticism” became “comment,” and the second sentence omitted an ending phrase that asserted that no one questioned “the correctness of his record of the happenings at his spiritualistic sittings.” Perhaps indicating biographical difficulty, Dictionary of American Biography (1931) tracked much more closely the prior biographic treatment of Edmonds’ spiritualism than it did any other aspect of Edmonds’ biography.

John W. Edmonds is now a largely forgotten figure in American history. American National Biography (1999), the most current reference source for American biography, does not include John W. Edmonds. It does, however, include Edmonds’ brother, the artist Francis William Edmonds. In the nineteenth century, John Edmonds was much more prominent than Francis William Edmonds. The public difficulty with John W. Edmonds’ biography indicates failure of critical self-consciousness in public deliberation.

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