The Spiritualism Movement and Timothy Brown’s Spirit House

In early 19th Century America, where it had been the custom among large numbers of families to keep the bodies of deceased loved ones in the family home for several days after death, taking that time to work out feelings, to come to grips with the reality of the fact of the death, to make peace with the deceased, to say final goodbyes, and more, science and medicine were rapidly advancing and the effect of that was the realization of the dangers of decomposing and diseased corpses positioned in such close proximity to living people, people conversing, breathing, eating, drinking and even sleeping. As a result of such scientific developments, new laws were enacted across the land relating to the handling and burial of bodies, to sanitation and to medical science. The end result was the
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requirement that once someone had died, their body must be properly, safely and sanitarily handled, by professionals whose first order of business was to remove the body to the proper facility, for prompt care, which increasingly meant embalming, and burial within a reasonable time.

In this same time period, undertaking emerged as a growing profession and the practice of embalming became more and more common, especially during and after the Civil War, when the need to take care of the vast number of casualties of the War became a serious issue. The
discovery of formaldehyde in 1867 was a revelation to the growing industry, and it became the foundation of modern methods of embalming.

All of this led to religious and spiritual issues with people who lost close family members and friends. Untold numbers of survivors felt an immediate and greater than usual loss when the body of their loved one was so quick taken away, when for centuries the custom had been a gradual process of acceptance and separation. Out of this grew the American Spiritualism movement, a movement that has been defined as “the talking to the dead”. And this meant one thing of major significance - the existence of ghosts.

This was a real, defined movement, and estimates have been made that by the late 19th Century the movement included perhaps as many as 11 million members. Organizations sprang up in as many as 800 cities across the county and they provided lectures and
publications to their members and to those who might become members.

The movement was driven by more and more individuals portraying themselves as “spiritual mediums”, people who could directly speak with the dead and who, generally for a fee, either include the deceased’s loved ones in the conversation, or provide a narrative of what the ghost had to say including answering the questions the survivors needed answered. In the late 19th century, records show over one hundred such “spiritual mediums” doing business in New York City, and another 50 in Philadelphia. A side business also thrived where these people
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made contact, for a price, with the ghosts of famous and important people, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, and others.

“Spiritual mediums” became adapt with such trappings of the profession as table rapping, moving inanimate objects around the room, and automatic writing.

Contrary to some popular thought, Spiritualism was neither a belief of the very religious or in fact a religion itself. It was, rather, just the opposite, with its followers believing in neither good nor evil, but rather in an ongoing existence, an afterlife, where the dead were at peace. Ghosts were not in a purgatory, struggling to make amends and enter a heaven, or be sentenced to an eternal damnation in hell. There was no judgmental diety or orthodox religious trappings to be adhered to. There was death of the body and then a ghost who remained, and there were “spiritual mediums” who provided contact with their survivors.

As part of all this, Spiritualism had a profound effect on American society in general. While traditionally religious leaders were men, to the Spiritualists, they became less and less important, and it was a striking reality that the vast majority of “spiritual mediums” were in fact women. This was also a time where men involved in medicine and with the sciences felt an overpowering need to investigate and
treat women who, in their view, were suffering from what they broadly categorized as womens’ “psychiatric diseases”, generally those female conditions that men could never then comprehend but which related to female menstrual cycles and the societal heresy of women expressing sexual desires and activity. It seems that the symptoms of these “disorders” were the key traits needed to be a good “spiritual medium”.

As successful “spiritual mediums”, more and more women gained access to and became
participants in public gathering and community meeting, and ultimately, government. It has been shown that early suffrage meetings were populated by large numbers of Spiritualists, and they became an intrigue part of the burgeoning women’ suffrage movement of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. In fact it has been theorized that a major element in the early 20th Century demise of the American Spiritualism movement is due to the fact that women gained the vote and began to enter mainstream American business and politics as they gained a great measure of equality throughout society.

Another reason for the demise of Spiritualism was the exposure of so many of these “spiritual mediums” and other leaders of the movement as nothing more than opportunist frauds, and that leads us back in time to the mid-19th Century, to Timothy Brown and his
Spirit House in Georgetown, New York.

In the late 1860s, Georgetown, NY resident Timothy Brown, who according to some legends had no experience in construction, carpentry, or likely any such manual labor, and perhaps or perhaps not already a Spiritualist, had a vision of his dead sister. She came to him in this vision and told him that if he were to build a house, a very special house, that the spirits would guide his every move - that if he held his chisel at the wrong angle, he would not have the power to use his mallet to strike the chisel, but if he then corrected the
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angle of the chisel, he could freely strike the proper blows of the mallet.

So, Timothy Brown built his house, a unique house unlike any others in the town, one with not one, not two, but with three overhangs, a house with scalloped wooden fringe hanging from its eaves, a house with wooden lace that seems to drip down as if the house were melting, a house designed to attract ghosts and to give them a safe place to live and to commune with the living. He built a windowless
room from which spirits could be summoned and he designed closets as safe havens for spirits to inhabit as their places of “rest and meditation” and permitted no humans to enter.

Alternatively called the Spirit House, Brown’s Temple, Brown’s Free Hall, Ghost House and the Mystery House, the building was not just home to the Brown family, but became widely used as a meeting hall and “seance” center for any and all Spiritualists in the area, all of whom were more than welcome to stay at the home and to speak about their beliefs and exploits.

For years, Timothy Brown’s Spirt House was a meeting place and a location for seances. But as the years went by and as new societal influences worked against the beliefs, and honesty, of those in the Spiritualism movement, an event occurred at the Spirit House that speeded up its demise as a mecca for the communing with ghosts. Following an event at the home conducted
by one of the most popular “spiritual mediums” in the area, and possibly a person that also taught others about the tenants of their beliefs, a maid found a notebook that was in fact a crib sheet containing information about the town’s recently deceased persons, News of this quickly spread and people just as quickly came to believe that the whole seance events were in actuality hoaxes, and while the home was later used for town meeting and even dances, never again was a seance held in Timothy Brown’s Spirit House.

Brown died in 1885, and his wife in 1908. The Spirt House is still standing, but even though there is an active Spirit House Society in Georgetown, the present owners want nothing to do with Spiritualism or the house’s past, and they unfortunately have allowed the structure to fall into disrepair.

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