Lincoln, Booth and the spirits that brought them together

Terry Alford's "In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits," looks at the superstitions, mysticism that effected these families and the people of that time.

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"In the Houses of Their Dead: the Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits" by Terry Alford
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You're talking to yourself again.

That's okay: it helps sort your thoughts, calm your brain, and settle your mind. But you're not just talking to yourself: it may sound funny but it's comforting to have one-sided conversations with people who would've shared their valuable wisdom, if they were still alive. You talk to those who are gone sometimes, and in "In the Houses of Their Dead" by Terry Alford, you'll see how that's a habit that's been around awhile.

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Even for the early 1800s, Edwin Booth grew up in an unconventional household.

His father was an alcoholic actor who was prone to eccentricity, and he forced young Edwin to become his traveling companion and handler when the boy was just 12 years old. Edwin's mother had lost a number of her children to 19th Century diseases. His younger siblings – especially Asia and John Wilkes – were as melodramatic as their father. As you might expect, the family was drawn toward the new mania for spiritualism.

In 1848, after the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have heard the spirit of a dead man in the basement of their home, America became captivated by the idea that the living could communicate with those who had died. Seances became all the rage, complete with spectral knocking, otherworldly messages scratched in a medium's skin, and eerie photographs of loved ones hovering over grieving parents. Fans of spiritualism swore they were talking to the dead when, in actuality, they were being scammed.


But just the idea – the mere chance – that she could speak to her dead sons made Mary Lincoln willing to try spiritualism. Her husband, Abraham, didn't put much faith in such things (though, to be fair, Abraham was unsettled in faith, period), but he followed Mary to seek mediums who could speak to their deceased children.

One of the mediums the Lincolns visited was Charles Colchester, a pseudonymous conman with quite a lengthy client list, including the actor John Wilkes Booth. And when Booth's rants and racism started to alarm Colchester, the medium subtly tried to warn the President.

First, this: If you've come here expecting spooky stories and ghosties, you'll probably be mighty disappointed. "In the Houses of Their Dead" is not that kind of book.

Instead, author Terry Alford offers a long look at a wide arc of weirdly coincidental history that may, at times, feel as though it was being orchestrated in some otherworldly way. Under that arc, we see a seemingly-weary man burdened by familial trouble that's he's almost powerless to fix; we watch as a usually-practical leader grapples with the idea of faith; and we see how his wife, long-rumored to have been mentally ill, became that way.

Even for a skeptic who pooh-poohs spirits and haints, these stories and the peripheral tales that accompany them both lend a strong appeal to this book. Fans of history and of New Age studies will enjoy "In the Houses of Their Dead." It's a book you won't have to work hard to talk yourself into.

Book notes

"In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits" by Terry Alford is available at Barnes & Noble at Apache Mall and the Rochester Public Library and through online book sellers.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3 years old, and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on the prairie in Wisconsin with one man, two dogs and 16,000 books. Look for her at or bookwormsez on Twitter.

Bookworm — Terri Schlichenmeyer column sig

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