When the 11-year-old Willie Lincoln died in the White House in February of 1862, his parents were inconsolable. Lincoln did no official work for three weeks — a president in the midst of a civil war. Mary was deemed by some to have gone insane. While the president slowly began to accept that his son was gone, Mary become further convinced his spirit was still near. She claimed that his ghost would visit the foot of her bed each night.
Spiritualism was at its height in America and Mary shared in the despair of many wishing to contact lost loved ones. She enlisted spiritualists to hold seances, some in the White House, in an attempt to hear from Willie. It seems that the president was always skeptical of these meetings, though he attended a handful for an amusement.
He mourned in his way, including placing a black ribbon around his trademark top hat in memory of Willie. It was still there when he was killed at Ford’s Theater. It can be seen today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
In 1895, Noah Brooks wrote a book called Washington in Lincoln’s Time in which he recalls these seances.
A seamstress employed in the White House had induced Mrs. Lincoln to listen to the artful tales of a so-called spiritual medium who masqueraded under the name of Colchester, and who pretended to be the illegitimate son of an English duke. The poor lady at that time was well-nigh distraught with grief at the death of her son Willie. By playing on her motherly sorrows, Colchester actually succeeded in inducing Mrs. Lincoln to receive him in the family residence at the Soldiers’ Home, where, in a darkened room, he pretended to produce messages from the dead boy by means of scratches on the wainscoting and taps on the walls and furniture.
Mrs. Lincoln told me of these so-called manifestations, and asked me to be present in the White House when Colchester would give an exhibition of his powers. I declined …
He later attended a commercial one elsewhere in town.
After the company had been seated around the table in the usual approved manner, and the lights were turned out, the silence was broken by the thumping of a drum, the twanging of a banjo, and the ringing of bells, all of which instruments had been laid on the table, ready for use. By some hocus-pocus, it was evident, the operator had freed his hands from the hands of those who sat on each side of him, and was himself making ” music in the air.”
Loosening my hands from my neighbors’, who were un-believers, I rose, and, grasping in the direction of the drum-beat, grabbed a very solid and fleshy hand in which was held a bell that was being thumped on a drum-head. I shouted, “Strike a light!” My friend, after what appeared to be an unconscionable length of time, lighted a match; but meanwhile somebody had dealt me a severe blow with the drum, the edge of which cut a slight wound on my forehead.
When the gas was finally lighted, the singular spectacle was presented of “the son of the duke” firmly grasped by a man whose forehead was covered with blood, while the arrested scion of nobility was glowering at the drum and bells which he still held in his hands. The meeting broke up in the most admired disorder, “Lord Colchester” slipping out of the room in the confusion.
Read more about Colchester in the Smithsonian Magazine here.