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"Defy All Hell": Rappers in the Maison Rouge

"Defy All Hell": Rappers in the Maison Rouge

By Patricia Dunlavy Valenti
Professor Emerita, Department of English and Theatre
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
The rebuilt version of "The Little Red House" at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA
The rebuilt version of "The Little Red House" at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA (courtesy of Halldor F. Utne)

This paper, presented at the Biennial Conference of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society in North Adams, Massachusetts on June 13th, 2014, contains material from several chapters of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, A Life, Volume II, 1848-1871, to be published in the fall of 2014 by the University of Missouri Press. For more information about this publication and an interview with the author, visit the University of Missouri Press website.

While Sophia Hawthorne was in Lenox living in La Maison Rouge-her grandiose name for a little red shack, as her husband called it-she conducted a contentious correspondence with her sister Elizabeth Peabody. Contention between these sisters was not new, but its current subject was: Elizabeth wanted to bring Rappers to the Red Cottage so that they could put Una Hawthorne, then nearly seven years old, in a trance.

Before you dismiss this as a crackbrained if not shocking request, consider the significance of a phenomenon which began in 1848 with Kate and Margaret Fox, then twelve and fourteen years old respectively. These upstate New York sisters claimed to interpret communications from the dead through otherwise unexplained rapping or knocking noises in their home. After these girls convinced their much older sister, Leah, that they were genuine mediums, Leah assumed a role somewhere between chaperone and manager. When the Fox girls moved to Rochester, they resided with Quakers, whose home was a gathering place for abolitionists. There, Kate and Margaret immediately gained acceptance and credibility. By 1850, they had become a cause cèlébre, attracting the attention of James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, Horace Greeley, William Lloyd Garrison, and Sojourner Truth. The Fox sisters and a fast-growing number of other mediums thus became associated with abolitionism and liberal causes such as women’s rights. i

Like persons who were mesmerized, the so-called "Rappers" or "Knockers" entered into a trance-like state. Mesmerists used magnets, or the magnetic force of their hands, or some other object to place a person--almost always female--in a trance for the purposes of healing her. Spiritualists claimed that "trance mediums"--almost always females--were vehicles through which the spirits of the dead communicated with the living. In 1850, Elizabeth Peabody was among many Americans who were drawn to the Rappers, just as two decades earlier, she had enthusiastically endorsed mesmerism, even claiming that she herself was a "highly magnetized" person who could place others in a healing trance.

But despite Elizabeth’s enthusiasm, her mother "disbelieved" even though her other daughter, Sophia, proclaimed relief from her headaches through mesmerism, though not at Elizabeth’s hands. Sophia was mesmerized by her father’s assistant, Dr. Fiske, and in the days immediately preceding her wedding, she was mesmerized by her friend Connie Park. But Nathaniel was aghast to have Sophia’s "holy name . . . bruited abroad in connection with these magnetic phenomena" which provoked his "invincible repugnance," as he wrote his fiancée. Nathaniel was horrified that "Mrs. Park’s corporeal system" might "contaminate something spiritual and sacred" in Sophia and more horrified still by an "intrusion into thy holy of holies" when "the intruder would not be thy husband." Nathaniel was not technically Sophia’s "husband," not yet, but he claimed what he perceived to be the husband’s right to control what Sophia did with her body. He--and no one else, male or female--dare be that "intruder" into Sophia’s "holy of holies." But as the agent of her own actions, Sophia exercised authority over her body, proceeded to be mesmerized, and defied Nathaniel despite his fears, so insistently presented to her, that his "Dove" might be seen as "crazed," or an "opium" addict or an "imposter," her dovelike, innocent appearance merely façade. And Nathaniel extended his condemnations to those who claimed "any insight into the mysteries of life beyond death by means of this strange science."ii

That was in 1842. Now, some eight year later, with the Rappers gaining traction, Sophia’s mother called the carnival atmosphere surrounding them "[H]umbuggery", but she did not ignore Elizabeth’s encounters with "Katy Fox," as Mrs. Peabody called her. With Katy as medium, Elizabeth claimed to have twice conversed with the deceased William Ellery Channing. Mrs. Peabody found it "unaccountable" that "Katy Fox should be able to talk or cause her spirits to talk to Elizabeth, a perfect stranger, in the very language of Dr W E Channing." iii What was "unaccountable" to Mrs. Peabody was explicable to Spiritualists who put stock in the youth and innocence of mediums such as Katy and the golden-haired, eleven-year old Laura Ellis. According to the spiritualist publication, Banner of Light, there was "less ability, as well as less desire, to practice trickery and deception in the child than in the adult." If Laura Ellis, why not Una Hawthorne, Elizabeth reasoned. And about Una, Elizabeth wrote to Sophia, the "purity of the medium [Una] would create a fine chance for observation" and proof of the Rappers’ claims. iv

Mrs. Peabody was frankly "astonished" that Elizabeth wanted to subject Una to people who might be frauds or worse, demonic practitioners of the occult, or even worse, sexual predators who ravished young girls and eroded their sexual inhibitions. An 1845 anonymous publication, The Confessions of a Magnetizer, had exposed a sordid relationship between women who were entranced and the men who controlled their emotions, wills, and bodies. "Anonymous" testified to their "ruin" and the "utter destruction of many in the domestic circle," something Nathaniel formerly feared when Sophia had been mesmerized, something he presently feared if Una should become a medium. And mediums, by their sex and age, bore a perilous resemblance to another group in New England’s past. The history of witchcraft in Salem suggested a precedent when young women--hysterical or possessed--became objects of fear and persecution. Given Nathaniel’s family history and his life-long shame over his ancestors’ role in the Salem Witch Trials, he had more reason than some of his contemporaries to be wary of mediums and to abhor his daughter being used as a one. For Nathaniel, as Samuel Chase Coale has astutely observed, mesmerism was "a modern form of witchcraft." v

So the response from Lenox to Elizabeth’s request was emphatic. Sophia wrote to her sister in February of 1851: "Mr. Hawthorne says he never [underscored seven times!] will consent to Una’s being made a medium of communication, & that he will defy all Hell . . . to disprove the testimony of the spirits, if it comes to that." Sophia forbade Elizabeth to visit Lenox with the Rappers; "it would injure Una physically & spiritually to be subjected to such influence." But Sophia was, nevertheless, curious about the circumstances that prompted Elizabeth’s injudicious suggestion. Had Elizabeth volunteered her niece or had the Rappers requested Una? Their discussion of the matter persisted for another month, until Sophia terminated it in March: "Mr. Hawthorne thinks it would destroy Una body & soul to become a medium." vi

Sophia, it should be noted, did not use her own authority to rebuff her sister’s request, which by its insistence had become a demand. Rather, Sophia became, as it were, the medium for her husband by communicating his denunciations of the Rappers. Sophia had endorsed mesmerism and did not now reject Spiritualism. Like other mid-century Americans, she stood on the threshold of a more secular era when comforting beliefs in the afterlife were waning to be replaced by---well, nothing. That void might be filled by those who facilitated communication between the dead and the living. Such was perhaps the emotional source of Horace and Molly Greeley’s belief in the Fox sisters’ messages. The Greeleys frequently invited the girls for séances in their Rochester home, convinced that they thus communicated with the five-year-old son who had recently died. vii

So despite the taint of sexual impropriety that colored spiritualism and its kindred phenomena in the eyes of some, these very phenomena had been happily embraced by others, and become a veritable lingua franca that filtered into the vocabulary of many Americans. Take, for example, Herman Melville’s postscript to a November 17, 1851 letter, nearly manic with an "infinite fraternity of feeling" for his Lenox friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is biggest? A foolish question " they are One." viii Melville’s insinuation about a trance-inducing magnet would have been as abhorrent to Nathaniel as the possibility that he might succumb to its powers. But Sophia could appreciate Melville’s nod to mesmerism, she who dotted her writing metaphors similar to those used by that "incalculable person," as she referred to Melville.

About hearing Nathaniel read aloud to her from his draft of The House of the Seven Gables, Sophia wrote: "[T]he spell of his voice & power of his voice kept me marvelously awake"; with the "strain of grace & witchery through it all," Sophia continued, ". . . I seemed to be in a trance," thus casting her husband in the role of the entrancers he so condemned. The House of the Seven Gables, completed in the Maison Rouge during the early months of 1851, contains an interesting case of art anticipating life with Holgrave writing the legend of Alice Pyncheon and reading it aloud to his "Phoebe." As for this legend, it demonstrates Nathaniel’s paternal preoccupation over the harm spiritualists could inflict upon a daughter, for Alice Pyncheon is a "gentle and proud" girl whose father submits her to a hypnotist or sorcerer (whatever term applies) so that she may reveal the title to the property he covets. Pyncheon convinces himself (as Elizabeth Peabody had convinced herself) that the girl’s "own purity would be her safe-guard" while functioning as a "telescopic medium . . . with the departed personages." Alice does not, however, survive her trance unsullied. She becomes the type of a ruined woman described by "Anonymous" in The Confessions of a Mesmerizer, the object of "ungenerous scorn. . . . [S]o lost from self-control, she would have deemed it sin to marry." ix

Nathaniel had succeeded in keeping the Rappers out of the Maison Rouge, but he would not exclude them from this and his next novel, written the following year. In The Blithedale Romance, the role of writer is assigned to Miles Coverdale, whose relationship with the larger-than life reformer Hollingsworth constitutes an "almost irresistible force" that tugs at his "heart." Coverdale’s description of the thirty-year-old man with his "great shaggy head, his heavy brow, his dark complexion, his abundant beard" might be a verbal portrait of Herman Melville. Coverdale knows, "[h]ad I but touched his hand, Hollingsworth’s magnetism would perhaps have penetrated me with his own conception of all these matters. But I stood aloof." Coverdale withstands Hollingsworth’s magnetism, (as, perhaps, Nathaniel himself had withstood Herman’s) but Coverdale fears that the waif Priscilla cannot.

Originally mistaken for one of Hollingworth’s "guilty patients," Priscilla is child-like, "wan, almost sickly," lame, and insubstantial, yet she appears to possess preternatural abilities. In Priscilla, contemporary readers would have recognized Kate or Maggie Fox or Laura Ellis or any number of contemporary female mediums. Closer to the Hawthorne home, however, Priscilla resembles Una with her "large, brown melancholy eyes" and "brown hair" that fell "not in curls, but with a slight wave." Una’s unruliness and mercurial temperament are also reflected in Priscilla’s pivots between "wildness . . . scrambling up trees like a squirrel" and moments when "animation seemed entirely to desert her." For Priscilla, this transition is associated with "her gift of hearing," as Coverdale calls it, a gift or curse or sorcery controlled first by Moodie, then by Westervelt, and last by Hollingsworth. x

Why Priscilla has been deposited in Blithedale under Zenobia’s reluctant care is revealed in the last third of the novel. A "colorless and torpid" old man called Moodie confides to Coverdale that Priscilla is his second daughter by his second wife, now deceased. During his first marriage, Moodie--then a wealthy man known as Fauntelroy--fathered his first daughter, Zenobia as she is now called, but "he had no just sense of her immortal value. . . . If he loved her, it was because she shone." Then Fauntleroy committed "the sort of crime . . . which society . . . neither could nor ought to pardon. More safely might it pardon murder," and his wife dies, shamed by her "alliance with a being so ignoble." The unspeakable nature of this offense parallels the unspoken sexual status of Zenobia. Married? Single? Virgin? Or had she "given herself away"?xi Worse, had Moodie taken from her that which she alone had the right to give, but never to her father? If so, we have a more perverted version of the liberties the old Pyncheon had taken with his daughter, Alice.

Whatever may blight Zenobia, she has become an independent writer, a proponent of women’s rights, and the heir to her wealthy uncle; she, therefore, appears to possess everything her dependent sister lacks. But these women share more than biological sisterhood; they are both objects of violation as well as agents of transgression. Just as Coverdale becomes an "intruder" in Zenobia’s life though his imagination and spying, so does he indulge his prurient "impulse to take just one peep beneath [Priscilla’s] folded petals." He and so many of his contemporary observers of her trance-like behavior would have doubted that purity really existed beneath her innocent façade. Zenobia, like Leah Fox who acted as chaperone to her much younger sisters, informs Priscilla, " ‘you absolutely need a duenna.’ " Priscilla’s response, ‘ "I am afraid you are angry with me," suggests the burden of perceived transgressions. Nonetheless, Priscilla retains, Coverdale tells us, "a persistency to her own ideas, as stubborn as it was gentle," an attitude reminiscent of Sophia quiet defiance of Nathaniel on the subject of mesmerism.

In two novels-one written in the Maison Rouge, the other written shortly after Nathaniel’s departure from it-Nathaniel exposed his horror over what might occur should he (like the fathers Moodie or Pyncheon) permit his own daughter to fall prey to the Rappers, or to his sister-in-law, or even perhaps to his wife, who was, from his perspective, insufficiently resistant to the Spiritualist phenomenon. And his horror derived from seemingly opposing possibilities: that a woman is too weak to survive--chastity intact-- the infiltration of her psyche; that a woman is too strong to submit to male supervision of her sexuality. Such, in fact, were paradoxes that colored perceptions of Kate and Maggie Fox and their cohort, women who appeared demure yet might be unchaste, women whose public position was more conspicuous and more powerful than that of reformers such as Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody. Possessing voices that could not be silenced, the reformer and the medium were truly sisters. xii

One can only guess what Sophia saw reflected in The Blithedale Romance for she was atypically reticent about it. Although she was the first person to read the novel, she leaves no record of her impressions, no hint if she had been entranced by its "spell" or if The Blithedale Romance contained the "strain of grace & witchery" that she had found in The House of the Seven Gables. The writer of fiction--particularly the fictional writer/intruder Miles Coverdale--possesses many of the unsavory characteristics of the mesmerist or sorcerer. He stands apart, penetrates, manipulates, and perhaps violates with his imagination those who are the objects of his observation and display. Just as Coverdale had spied on Zenobia with impunity through the boarding house window, he "never once dreamed of questioning" the propriety of observing her most distraught moments after Hollingsworth tosses her aside. Zenobia recognizes disdainfully that Coverdale "is turning this whole affair into a ballad."xiii Had Sophia looked steadily into the mirror of The Blithedale Romance, she might have drawn the same conclusion.

  1. i  Ann Braude, Radical Spirits, 10-16.

  2. ii  NH to SP, October 18, 1841, 15:589-590

  3. iii  Braude, Radical Spirits, 85; Mrs. P to SPH, December 28, [1850], MS Berg; Ronda, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 247, 248.

  4. iv  Braude, Radical Spirits, 85; EPP to SPH, March 23, 1851, quoted in Ronda, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 248.

  5. v  Coale, Mesmerism and Hawthorne, 4.

  6. vi  Mrs. P., to EPP, January 12, 1851, SPH to EPP, February 3, March 15, 1851, MSS Berg.

  7. vii  Braude, Radical Spirits, 16. According to Barbara Weinberg’s Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, 55.

  8. viii  HM to NH, November [17], 1851, Correspondence, 212, 213.

  9. ix  NH, The Blithedale Romance, 3:77, 78; NH, The House of the Seven Gables, 2: 188, 204, 206, 209.

  10. x  NH, The Blithedale Romance, 3: 27, 73, 59, 60.

  11. xi  NH, The Blithedale Romance, 3: 179, 182, 183, 48.

  12. xii  Others have commented upon the similarities between Zenobia and Priscilla and the paradoxical cultural phenomena they represent. Angela Mills in " 'The Sweet Word,' Sister," sees the novel as a "tale about America reformism-a tale about sisterhood and its overlapping incarnations as personal and political relationship (114). In Culture of Letters, Richard H. Brodhead's analysis of Priscilla may be applied to mediums in general: "Produced as a creature of physical invisibility, the Veiled Lady nevertheless leads a life of pure exhibitionism " (51).

  13. xiii  NH to Whipple, May 2, 1852, 16:536. 1 SPH, January 13, 14, 1851 Diary, MS Berg; NH, The Blithedale Romance, 3: 222, 223.

All quotations from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing are taken from The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 23 Vols. Eds. William Charvat, et al. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1962-1994 and are cited in endnotes by volume and page(s). Manuscript materials housed in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, the New York Public Library, Astor, Tilden, and Lenox Foundations are quoted with the permission of the curator, Dr. Isaac Gewirtz.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12400/

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